Disney+ (NYSE:DIS) just smashed another record.

The five-month-old streaming service now has 50 million members after launching in Europe and India over the last two weeks, up from about 30 million two months ago.  The news delighted investors, sending the stock up 7% after hours, and was the latest sign that the service is "killing" expectations. When it announced the new streaming service last year, Disney had projected that it would have 60 million to 90 million members and be profitable by 2024. The entertainment giant now seems set to finish 2020 in that subscriber range, which should also mean it will turn a profit much sooner than expected. It's a boon to a consumer discretionary company suffering from the closure of its theme parks, a lack of sports to air on ESPN, an inability to produce live-action movies and television, and movie theaters going dark.

However, the most impressive part of Disney+'s blockbuster growth may be that the company has already signed up 8 million subscribers in India, a key growth market, less than a week after its launch.

The Disney+ Hotstar logo.

Image source: Hotstar.

The world's biggest democracy

India has an estimated population of 1.37 billion and will soon pass China as the world's most populous country. As a communist country, China has famously walled itself off to American tech companies, including streamers like Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), and information sources like Facebook and Google. That means that for tech companies, especially those that count on users and subscribers, India's addressable market is by far the world's biggest, four times the size of any other country in the world (the U.S. is the next biggest democracy with about 330 million people).

According to the International Monetary Fund, India is the world's fifth biggest economy by GDP but is growing faster than Western economies.  Some forecasters, including the British bank Standard Chartered, expect India's economy to be larger than the U.S. economy in just ten years, which is why India has become such a sought-after market for American titans like Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Walmart, and Apple.

However, in the streaming battle, Disney appears to have the edge. Netflix, the global streaming leader, does not break out membership by country. But in its Asia-Pacific region, which includes valuable markets like Japan, South Korea, and Australia as well as India, the service had just 16.2 million subscribers, despite launching there in 2016 or earlier.  Out of its four regions, Asia-Pacific has the fewest subscribers, and Netflix appears to have gotten off to a particularly slow start in India, finishing 2019 with an estimated 2 million subscribers, according to industry analyst Media Partners Asia. 

Amazon, whose Prime service offers other benefits, like free two-day delivery as well as streaming, has an estimated 4.4 million subscribers in India, according to IHS Markit. The e-commerce giant has invested more than $5 billion in India so far, making no secret that it sees India as a valuable prize.

A card up its sleeve

Disney scored a bevy of valuable assets in its deal with Fox, including cable channels FX and National Geographic, movie studios including 20th Century, majority control of Hulu, and the entire The Simpsons catalog. However, one of the most overlooked assets may be the Hotstar cable and streaming network in India. The service has 300 million users thanks in part to its rights to stream the popular cricket games from the Indian Premier League. Disney has made Disney+ available by bundling it with Hotstar. An annual Hotstar membership goes for about $13 a year, while Hotstar with Disney+ costs about $20 annually.  

Like Amazon, Disney has adopted a market-penetration strategy, aiming to collect subscribers at an affordable price and worry about making them profitable later. By comparison, Netflix is charging higher prices, in line with those in more developed countries, and has chosen to target the most profitable subscribers first, as streaming is the company's only business.

This appears to be another advantage for Disney. With its ecosystem of theme parks, box office releases, and consumer products like toys, the company can leverage the streaming service as not just a new revenue stream, but also a way to build affinity and demand for its brand as a whole, which will drive business to its other segments. Disney+ subscribers around the world will be more likely to buy Baby Yoda toys, go see the next "Frozen" movie in the theaters, or spend a vacation at one of Disney's parks (when they reopen).

With its ownership of Hotstar and a launch that drew 8 million sign-ups in less than a week, Disney appears to be the clear favorite in what's arguably the world's most important growth market. For the streaming debutante, that's no small feat.