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It is sometimes said that growing up with less can provide an individual tremendous impulsion to succeed; to elevate him or herself to a higher standing in society. Growing up humble can also imbue into someone the empathy to also pass forward the means to attaining success. After all, one never forgets his or her upbringing.

Chen Danian, CEO and Founder of WiFi Master Key — a crowdsourced WiFi app — is one such individual. Born in a poor rural village in China, Danian first came to know about the Internet as a high school teenager when he moved to Shanghai. In 1996, he applied for commercial access to China’s first Internet provider ChinaNET.

At that time, applying for Internet access was complicated for the average family. You needed “a household register booklet, and a pile of administrative forms and contracts to fill out and sign.” said Danian in an email to e27.

But, that wasn’t the end of Danian’s troubles; Internet access in the mid-90s was not only sluggish but priced at a steep premium. Yet, despite their existing financial burdens, Danian’s parents chose to foot the hefty bills — his father was a fervent believer in giving his children the best educational opportunities —  allowing him to dig deep into this newfangled technology.

And it was because of this opportunity, he was able to recognise the boundless potential of the Internet to transform lives.

In 1998, he wrote an article in ICPCW, China’s leading Internet site, saying: “I have always believed that the societal impact brought by the internet will be no less than the invention of the steam engine, and since we are fortunate to be living in this time, we need to participate and push this revolution courageously”.

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Together with his brother Chen Tianqiao, they founded Shanda Interactive, an online games distributor, in 1999. It eventually evolved into an all-rounded Internet corporation delivering cloud services and Internet literature in addition to online gaming. In 2004 it was listed on NASDAQ, and in 2013 raked a revenue of US$6.5 billion. Not too bad for a farmboy.

His rags-to-riches tale is admirable; yet, at the core of this self-described low-key leader’s passions, is a philanthropic desire to democratise Internet access — or to put it simply, give it away for free — particularly to people in less developed cities so that everyone can realise their dreams.

Bringing the sharing economy to Internet access

Projects to bring universal Internet access are not new. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg sought to deliver free Internet via Free Basics to people in India (and received considerable flak for that) and Microsoft is still testing out its free Internet service, also in India.

Danian’s method is a little more, for the lack of a better term, grassroots. It is dependent on a mobile app and a little kindness from strangers (or friends).

The WiFi Master Key, available on both the iOS and Android, works by tapping on to resources used by WiFi hotspots. It optimises the connection strategy to reduce the number of connection attempts for a more successful connection delivery. For example, the system will automatically select the optimal connection strategy based on factors like the WiFi strength, and the distance between the user and hotspot to help users get connected.

This methodology would undoubtedly spark fears of security risks. Danian, however, emphasises that a number of security features have been put in place. First, no password is given out and users can choose to disable their hotspot anytime they wish.

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In addition, it uses encryption technology and establishes phishing hotspot identification via the cloud to prevent cyber attacks and enforce stronger safety protection. WiFi Master Key also is collaborating with internet security companies to prevent and protect hotspot network security against malicious attacks around the clock.

Recently, it partnered with an insurance company ZhongAn Insurance to provide protection to its users. They can receive up to RMB 100,000 (US$15,000) of compensation in the event of network security issues.

Early this year, the Chinese iOS version implemented a ‘one-touch WiFi connection’. It is also building a ‘hotspot hosts’ edition so owners can manage their shared hotspots with monetary benefits and other value-added features.

Achieving high growth and beyond

Since its launch in 2012, the WiFi Master Key app has been well-received. It claims to have 800 million registered users (update: 900 million registered users as of publishing) with over 520 million monthly active users (MAU) globally. To put it in the context of the Chinese app market, it ranks at number 3, just below messaging app giants QQ and WeChat.

It has also acquired a coveted domain name wifi.com, and in May 2015 established an office in Singapore with the aim expanding into emerging markets in the region. WiFi Master Key is also active in other developing countries globally such as Indonesia, Mexico, Egypt, Brazil and Russia.

According to App Annie, WiFi Master Key is ranked 5th in the world in terms of combined iOS and Android downloads, below WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and Facebook Messenger.

Naturally, the app has caught the fancy of many investors. Early last year, it raised a US$52 million Series A funding from Haitong Kaiyuan Equity Investment and Northern Light Venture Capital at a billion-dollar valuation.

Later in May 2015, WiFi Master Key initiated an equity crowdfunding project on crowdfunding portal choudao.com. The plan was to raise RMB 32.5 million (US$5 million) from 25 investors to buy 0.5 per cent of the company’s stake.

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However, due to overwhelming response, the subscription amount reached RMB 7.714 billion (US$1.2 billion), rendering it oversubscribed by 237 times. WiFi Master Key then sold another 0.5 per cent of its stake, increasing the crowdfunding to RMB 65 million (US$10 million) in total. Currently, the company is undergoing a new round of financing with an expected valuation that multiplies by 3-5 times.

Currently, there are no plans to monetise the app, and it looks to be a purely altruistic venture. Despite his immense success, Danian prefers to be known as a hands-on programmer who stumbled into opportunity.

“I’ve always been grateful of how the Internet changed my destiny and hope to help people find their own happiness, and opportunities, or even, like me, change their own destiny, with the help of the WiFi Master Key app,” Danian said.