In Japan, the mobile messaging app Line is so pervasive that young people swap Line IDs instead of phone numbers. Worldwide, the app has more than 218 million active users a month. Though that leaves it smaller than Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and China’s WeChat, Line has excelled at something that’s arguably tougher than racking up hundreds of millions of users: It has parlayed its app’s popularity into pan-media pop-culture relevance and a powerful business model.
Line’s reported revenue of more than $1 billion in 2015 comes from a range of sources that few rivals can match: It sells games that can be played solo or with other Line users; digital stickers, which can be purchased to express a dizzying array of emotions; marketing deals with brands and celebrities that want to reach its user base; and physical merchandise featuring its popular characters, sold at its own brick-and-mortar shops.
On July 14, 2016, Line debuted on the New York Stock Exchange at $42 per share, making it the biggest tech IPO of the year. Armed with fresh funding, Line will likely add new services, such as mobile payments, that will attract more advertising revenue. Line’s next challenge: expand its success to Western markets.