Someone asked me the other day why I thought Alibaba was such a huge winner in the China e-Commerce game. I see three reasons.
Trust. For a long time, people in China were wary of e-commerce in China because they were simply afraid of getting ripped off when buying goods sight unseen. We didn’t really face that issue in the US to the same extent, because Sears, Wards, and JC Penney had been selling goods to Americans sight-unseen for over a century. Over that time, we had not only discovered which mail-order brands we could trust to “deliver the goods,” we also compelled the creation of terms, conditions, and practices that formed an (often unspoken) contract between retailer and buyer. When it created Taobao, Alibaba put together a series of terms and conditions that allowed both early adopters and the mass market to trust them enough to send their money into the ether. That trust went deep enough that, with Alipay, Chinese now trust Alibaba with their money.
Experience. Alibaba understood from the outset that it needed to offer a an efficient and enjoyble buying experience, but that it did not need to go crazy. The company understood that it had a low bar. The Chinese retail experience was always miserable, and has improved only a little over the past two decades. Simply by making the experience a bit better than what you get at a typical Chinese retail store, and spending the rest of their effort on reliability and trust, Alibaba won.
Scope. As Jeff Bezos understood, the key to winning in electronic commerce was not to focus on being the best bookstore, or grocery store, or anything store. The key was becoming the go-to place to shop, regardless of what you want to buy. Alibaba used Taobao to build unmatchable scope in a very short period of time. Now the default choices are traditional retail and Taobao, and everyone else has to fight harder for consideration, even as a specialized niche site.
It is difficult to see how anyone might knock that wall down.
Still, Alibaba faces two challenges. First, it has to figure out how it can continue to sustain high growth once it has secured its role of China’s national online department store. That market does not continue growing at double-digits forever, and Alibaba is already hunting for how to grab the next large chunk of users’ wallets – or extend its strengths abroad.
The second challenge is that as e-commerce matures, more companies will figure out how to build their own retail empires, much like Xiaomi – and, to a lesser extent, Apple – has done. Once Taobao and TMall have accustomed people to buying big brand merchandise online, the value for brands of building their own sites begins to grow. Alibaba will be challenged to address the defection danger in the coming 2-3 years.
For now, though, Alibaba sits pretty, all based on an unimpeded view and unmatched understanding of the Chinese consumer.
However, the cost of providing customers with devices and gadgets to gain access to new tech and maintaining them is not a small expenditure for most luxury fashion businesses. What’s more, when a customer is enthusiastic about testing a hi-tech headset in a store, it does not necessarily guarantee that he or she has the desire to purchase a $1,500 handbag.
I confess that when I began my career thirty-odd years ago, I saw the luxury fashion industry as an easy target for ridicule: alien rituals and strange affectations aside, I found it hard to give credence to a group so focused on the capricious whims of the planet’s most pampered posteriors. That perception was both short-sighted and immature.
The opportunity I had to watch China’s luxury market sprout and blossom has given me a different perspective. Luxury consumers are an informal yet exacting standards body. I have found that the more that we can conduct any consumer-oriented business or marketing activity in accordance with the standards of this rarified niche, the better we can serve all consumers.
That’s why I was fascinated by this London panel talking about the use of technology (specifically augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)) to sell more luxury fashion.
One truism I’ve never forgotten about luxury customers: they all want the most fulfilling possible experience delivered with the least possible friction. The gratuitous application of kludgy technology (and, let’s face it, while AR and VR are getting better, neither are ready to fulfill their promise) seems to be a guaranteed way to chase luxury buyers out of your store.
Which leads to a second truism: The well-to-do are not early adopters. They’re the demanding knife-edge of the mainstream user, the guardians of the far side of the chasm twixt “niche product” and “widespread adoption” into which so many promising inventions fall.
If you can tweak a technology or product to the point wherein you can match the exacting standards of the luxury consumer, the big-time awaits. Smartphones went mainstream when the iPhone passed the lux test; satellite radio went wide after Damlier, Toyota, Nissan and BMW were able to make them accessible to finicky upscale buyers; and electronic cars went mainstream when Tesla introduced its luxury roadster and Toyota made the Prius hip with the well-to-do.
China is no exception to this rule. The Chinese luxury consumer often shares as much of her psychographic profile with her counterparts in Europe and North America as she does with her home-girls in Shanghai or Bengbu. Until you can offer her a great experience with the minimum of friction, forget about being first-to-market: go back to the lab.
In 2007, Yahoo agreed to pay millions of dollars to set up a foundation to aid Chinese political dissidents, after the company was accused of turning over information to the Chinese government. A lawsuit filed on Tuesday claims most of the money is gone, and little went to help imprisoned activists.
Yahoo! made billions on its Alibaba investment, and for many years could credit the Alibaba shares in its vaults for much of its market cap. For that reason, a lot of us would mark Yahoo’s efforts in China as a success.
It is probably too early to make that call. The full story of the company’s China experience has yet to be told, and now that Yahoo no longer exists as an independent entity, it will either be told now or buried for a long time.
But some things won’t die, and if this most recent lawsuit actually makes it to a courtroom, we may get to see the details of how successive generations of leaders at Yahoo used China to burn cash, divert the attention of company leadership, and destroy shareholder value.
Sadly, I’m betting this case will settle. Verizon doesn’t need the headache, and it really wants to get focused on turning its collection of Yahoo and AOL leftovers into something profitable. It is a shame: buried in Yahoo’s vaults lies the raw material of a China business “how-not-to” textbook.
Even if LeEco and the rest of Jia Yueting‘s business holdings implode over the next few weeks, those of us who will pick through the wreckage looking for the lessons will surely learn two things very quickly.
The first thing that we will discover will be that anyone who dismisses Jia as a “fool” or an “idiot” will be wrong. Under the bluster, we will find that Jia is an exceptionally smart guy who had a fantastic vision for his company.
The second thing we will find is that the reason for Jia’s failure was not his overall strategy. Let me explain that a bit.
Jia is an implicit subscriber to an ethos that is common among entrepreneurs that I call “conglomeration mystique.” Seeing himself as cut from the same cloth as Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos, Jia sees no reason why he cannot do what they did.
All things being equal, he’s right. Other entrepreneurs, supported by a war chest from a core cash-cow business, have leapt into unrelated fields and surprised their critics. I know of no gift possessed by those people that Mr. Jia might have lacked. So the vision was not wrong.
Jia’s mistake is one that has plagued so many Chinese entrepreneurs: operating in a market that rewards speed and short-termism, he became convinced that he had to do everything right now, or the opportunity would be lost to him.
As the Bloomberg article hints, Jia’s pace of execution outstripped his ability to build the capital to support it. At several points, he likely had the choice to slow down and let the capital catch up. Instead, he chose to risk overextension, to gamble on things working out just right, and in so doing proved Gordon Sullivan’s maxim that “hope is not a method.”
The question this leaves is thus: how do you get an entrepreneur, forged in China’s Make-It-Today-For-Tomorrow-The-Government-Will-Change-the-Rules business environment, to eschew the very thinking that made him money in the first place? I don’t think you can, which means that the kind of grand-scale Hail Mary approach that has tripped LeEco is likely to become a fixture on the China business scene in the coming years.
For some, it will work. And LeEco is down, but it is not out, yet.
In all of the discussion lately about Uber in China, one topic that is not getting a lot of airplay is the way in which the outcome for Uber is being positioned. One person for whom I have a great deal of respect believes that Uber did great, that they wound up with exactly what they wanted in the first place, and that overall the outcome – as junior partner to Didi Chuxing in a combined business – is a victory for Uber.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, to me that seems a bit like spin. First, it is highly unlikely that this is the outcome Uber sought all along. Had it sought a minority stake in Didi, it could have (as Apple did recently) simply written a check, swapped stock, and agreed to work together globally. And it could have been done more quickly, easily, and with less of a drain on company attention and coffers.
Second, all that their efforts won them is a weak role in Didi, just another seat at the table with a group of powerful investors to whom Uber is a very small potato. Had they gone in with an offer early, they may well have saved everyone money and saved Didi from the need to turn to outside investors. Uber may well have ended up with a less diluted position.
Third, they sit with no better odds of a payoff now than before. Didi is a rapidly-growing company with a need for a huge war chest in order to secure its market position. Payback to investors will be some time down the line, and others will decide when and if Uber will ever see a dividend. Even if it does, the question will remain as to whether that dividend was a fair compensation for the price and a fair return to investors on the risk.
Finally, with its new A-List of global investors, Didi may well prove to be a more formidable rival outside of China in the long term than it might have been otherwise, especially if Uber had shown up at the beginning offering a strategic tie-up. Now Didi has international ambitions, and with an 85% market share at home in a much bigger market, will be in a better position to face Uber in other markets.
So did Uber win? Events will tell us, but probably not for some time. And that’s about the most you can say. From a removed perspective today, Uber is salvaging the most it can from a shipwreck, and pretending that it intended to be on the rocks all along won’t do much for the company’s credibility with the Street.
For two years, Jean Liu and Travis Kalanick were mortal adversaries, as their businesses, the world’s two largest ride-sharing companies, fought an increasingly bitter and expensive war. Kalanick, CEO of Uber, the San Francisco-based ride-hailing app, was trying to muscle into China, where Liu is president of Didi Chuxing, Uber’s Chinese equivalent.
Charles Clover at the FT offers this dramatic lede for an article that lays the credit for Uber’s defeat in China at the feet of Didi Chuxing’s Jean Liu.
Ms. Liu and her team at Didi deserve much credit for their victory in China’s shared-ride wars. All of us wish them only the best as they take on what will undoubtedly prove to be the far more formidable adversary: a Chinese government decidedly uncomfortable with leaving in the hands of a privately-owned company an increasingly essential piece of the nation’s transportation infrastructure.
But an honest assessment of the battle must conclude that Ms. Liu was helped at many turns by a series of unforced errors on Uber’s part. I won’t go into them here – take a look at my interview with Jeremy Goldkorn at SupChina, where I lay out Uber’s four most fundamental mistakes in China.
In addition, let’s also remember a few things:
Didi’s financial backers gave the company the war chest it needed to fight a street battle of attrition against one of the planet’s best funded unicorns.
Ms. Liu’s boss, Didi Chairman Cheng Wei, was hardly a figure head in this battle. Not for nothing did Forbes Asia name him 2016 Businessman of the Year.
Didi came to the battle fighting on familiar, home ground, and was in substantial possession of the field already when Uber showed up. Uber was battling an entrenched player as an interloping underdog in a market increasingly unfriendly to outsiders. Uber’s rhetoric and war-chest aside, they were the weaker player.
It was not “Jean vs. Travis.” It was Jean vs. the Uber China team, and as time goes on it will become more clear that Travis and his team were relatively hands-off, allowing the local team to run things. Didi defeated Travis’s partner’s team.
Regulatory changes in the market played a significant role in the driving Uber’s surrender. Unless Didi orchestrated those (not impossible), the government was also a player in the game. And if Didi did orchestrate those, protectionism beat Uber as much as Didi’s executive team.
To the victor goeth the spoils, and Ms. Liu is clearly a capable executive whose career is now pointed toward even bigger and better things. But there is nothing learned by pretending that this was not a far more complex battle than the FT seeks to portray as it graces Ms. Liu with the laurels.
One more interesting point from the article. Ms. Liu and Didi continue to play the outcome as a “win-win” for Didi and Uber. I’ve spent a career in PR in China, and to me that messaging carries a very heavy whiff of spin. I’ll explain why in a later post.
I get to talk to groups of businesspeople and business students on a regular basis, and one of the maxims I include in just about every speech or presentation is this:
Don’t get your China advice, whether generally or on a specific issue, from any single individual. China is too large and complex for you to trust the future of your enterprise in this market to the viewpoint of one source, however knowledgeable he/she/they may seem.
The news this week offers a superb example of why this is the case. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has had one if its periodic regulatory spasms regarding the Internet. One of the specific areas covered by the current policy outburst is the arcane but important area of top-level domains (TLDs).
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN, the international body that, among other things, operates the system that makes it possible for you to type “amazon.com” into your browser and get to a bookstore instead of an error page) has recently presided over an explosion of top-level domains (TLDs), those bits of an site name to the right of the dot, like “.com,” “.net,” and “.org.” Where there was once only a handful (in addition to nation-specific top-level domains,) there are now literally hundreds, if not thousands of these, and we’re all having to adjust to a world that includes “.law,” “.ninja,” “.guru,” and “.me,” and .”porn,” among hundreds of others.
China’s adjustment is coming in the form of a new regulation (“Interpretation (Reading) on Carrying Out the Domain Name Registration Services Market Special Action Policy”, promulgated by the MIIT on May 12) restricting how registries (the companies that own the top level domains and collect fees for domain names that use them) can sell domains to customers in China. This is causing a bit of a panic.
Chang Jian-Chuan, a Ph.D. and a research fellow who covers the field for a local registry, offers this piece in a leading industry publication as something of a palliative, and I agree that panic is unhelpful, but he loses me when he writes:
Nowadays a revision of the regulation is under way to reflect the latest expansion of registry operators. However, except for the new requirement that any foreign registry has to establish a legal entity in China, all the other requirements for the license have maintained unchanged. Therefore, it is fairly safe to conclude that there is no “tightened control” or “new move” against New gTLD registries and registrars.
What we have here is a disagreement (to put it mildly) over terms. While a superficial reading of the regulations may suggest no significant change, if you understand both the challenges faced by the companies affected and the knock-on effects of the law, it is clear that the change doe represent a new move that tightens control of the industry and endangers the business of many foreign registries currently selling into China.
From a business standpoint, the regulations throw the business of many registrars into a spin, if for no other reason than they are required to set up and register a local operation in China with $170,000 in registered capital, with local technicians and customer service personnel. Someone familiar with the global registry sector would know that most registries, including some of the larger ones, are not yet operating in China, and for all of those this represents a costly process and significant ongoing expense. For the vast majority of non-Chinese registries the cost will be prohibitive, in effect shutting them out of China.
When MIIT promulgates these revisions (and barring any last-minute amendments), they will substantially change the status quo for non-Chinese registries in China. While users in China will continue to be able to access websites outside China (subject to passing through the “Great Fire Wall“), in order to promote and serve Chinese customers, a non-Chinese registry will be required to set up a subsidiary registry or entrust a China-based registry to operate its TLDs in China. Failure to do so will likely result in Chinese registrars refusing to sell domain names under the non-Chinese registries TLDs and preventing resolution of any websites that are already registered under those TLDs.
Contrary to Dr. Chang’s fairly offhanded dismissal, a common sense reading of the regulations from the viewpoint of a foreign registry and from an attorney is that this regulation and its knock-on effects represent a new move and tightened control over the field, one that significantly changes the way most companies in an entire industry must operate in China.
While most of us shy from anything that may seem ad hominem, when seeking advice in China you must consider the provenance and possible motives of any advisor. For example, Dr. Chang is a former official with CNNIC working for a local Chinese registry. This would suggest that, far from being a dispassionate observer, Dr. Chang has some skin in the game. It is worth noting that his company, KNET, stands to gain if the new regulations are enforced to the greatest extent possible. It is also worth noting that his publishing an article in an international industry publication praising an MIIT regulation will not hurt his company’s regulations with its regulatory overlords at MIIT, and that it would have been impolitic – if not commercially suicidal – for Dr. Chang to have written a different opinion.
Let me be clear: the goal of this article is neither to impugn Dr. Chang nor his employer. I am sure Dr. Chang is a wonderful person and an academic of great integrity, and that his company is a fine organization operating in a highly competitive and heavily regulated industry.
The point, rather, is that the advice you receive from anyone about China is often influenced on where the individual comes from, where he or she sits, and the pressures under which he or she operates. The only way to get a true picture of the challenges and opportunities your company faces in China is to reach out to a range of advisors, tapping each for their thoughts, questioning each, and forming a picture based on all of the above.
I am caught in the heart of a swirling vortex of work at the moment and getting ready to fly this weekend, which explains my slow posting of late. More announcements on that soon. In the meantime, I’m going to be firing off a series of short posts on things that I have been itching to share.
Arguably the most interesting and revolutionary announcement tha Apple made at its product launch gala this week, Apple Pay promises to finally put the US on the long pathway to doing away with fat wallets, something that has been happening in Hong Kong for nearly two decades and in Australia for almost as long. It is also being touted as the big differentiator for the Apple Watch, and an important one for the iPhone 6.
I have two reservations.
First, I think we all need to take a deep breath and think carefully before entrusting our financial information to any large company. That’s not luddism, that’s wisdom. The recent series of security breaches at major retailers alone should give us pause, and Apple is no exception: a company that has shown itself incapable of protecting Jennifer Lawrence’s photo album has to prove to us that it can be trusted with our wallets.
Second, the high profile of this announcement will surely pique the interest of just about every hacker on the planet, from the kid down my block to certain military units operating from Shanghai suburbs. Even the best systems tend to have hidden vulnerabilities, and those of us who can wait for Apple Pay should do so if only to allow the engineers to discover and addres its most blatant vulnerabilities.
These aren’t deal killers for Apple Pay, but they do suggest that most of us should venture carefully into this new system.
If you have not yet stumbled across Sue Decker’s article in the Harvard Business Review blogs, please read it. Decker, who left Yahoo! in 2009 after being passed over for the CEO post in lieu of former Autodesk CEO Carol Bartz, delivers her view of the investment that effectively saved Yahoo!, and her role in it.
First person accounts are always suspect: one is never certain about how much of the history so presented is objective and how much is subjective. Thus, it was reassuring that the editors of the Harvard Business Review chose to publish it as an interesting curiosity rather than a definitive account or a case study. Still, the article made me a bit uncomfortable, for a few reasons.
The “Everyone Failed” Gambit
First, the author frames an eloquent but ultimately unconvincing defense of Yahoo!’s failures in China (in essence, everything the company did except the investment in Alibaba) that can be summarized in as “yes, we failed badly, but so did everybody else.”
That’s partly true: the list of US Internet companies that tried to make a go of it in China and failed is long and distinguished. But the ledger is not quite as one-sided as Decker implies that it is.
Google had a viable business in China before it chose to stare down the Chinese government. Amazon has a business and is still in the game, despite having to go head-to-head with China’s 900 lb. e-commerce gorilla, Alibaba. Evernote and LinkedIn are making headway with tightly defined value propositions that make sense for China and the rapid refresh cycles that local users demand. And let’s not forget little South African NASPERS, a firm largely unknown to Valleywags that somehow managed to run circles around everyone else, making a brilliant early investment in Tencent that may ultimately outshine even Yahoo!’s windfall on Alibaba.
Decker suggests that the relative success of each of Yahoo!’s moves in China can be explained by the degree of control exercised over the China venture by Sunnyvale. The less control Sunnyvale tried to wield, the more successful that venture became. If that explanation seems a bit too neat and simplistic for you, join the club. I’ll come back to it shortly.
The False Management Paradigm
Second, the author skims over the fact that the joint venture with Alibaba failed to produce anything of value aside from Yahoo’s partial ownership of its partner. The joint venture did not save Yahoo!’s China business: the company’s China operating unit, valued in negotiations at $700 million, sank quietly beneath the waves soon after the agreement that handed operational control to Alibaba was signed. If anything, the Alibaba agreement destroyed Yahoo!’s operating business in China, or, perhaps more generously, sacrificed it in the name of a harmonious relationship between the parties.
Given the outcome, one might be inclined to say that the sacrifice was worth it. Perhaps. But neither we nor Decker should harbor any illusions about what this means for Yahoo!: that the company failed as an operating business three times in China, and that despite her assertions to the contrary, the degree of control exercised by Sunnyvale had no influence on the final outcome. Tight control, loose control, or no control, all three models failed. The one management lesson she tries to deliver in the article is a canard.
The Forgotten Brand Problem
Third, there is no mention in the article about what happened to Yahoo! and its family of brands in China. The brands that Yahoo! owned during Decker’s tenure – including the “Yahoo!” brand itself, each represented a repository of goodwill. The Yahoo! brand in particular initially occupied a position of great respect among Chinese netizens, both because of its success and because of Jerry Yang‘s Chinese heritage. In the process of thrice failing to make a go in China, Yahoo! squandered that goodwill, and thus destroyed the value of its brand in the largest online market in the world.
As a senior finance officer, Decker certainly understands the value of goodwill, as does Yahoo!: much of what they paid for their acquisitions was based on the goodwill and the brand value of the firms acquired. Any reckoning of the net value of Yahoo!’s investments in China must therefore take into account not only the sunk costs and the book value of the assets written off, but also the brand value it destroyed in its largest addressable market.
That this issue remains unmentioned in Decker’s article is, to a marketer like me, a final though perhaps unnecessary indictment of Decker’s narrative. In the end, her piece is not the full account of the deal from the inside promised in the title. It is, rather, an effort both to stake a claim of some credit for Yahoo!’s Alibaba windfall and to exonerate Yahoo!’s leadership – including herself – for the company’s poor operating record in China during her tenure.
Decker richly deserves her share of the credit for the deal: in the end, it saved the company. What she cannot claim for herself or her colleagues any credit for operational success in China. Porter Erisman, a former Alibaba Vice President who recently released a documentary about his time working inside the company called Crocodile in the Yangtze offers this thought on how to assess Decker’s legacy and her account of Yahoo!’s success:
How Yahoo! performed as an operator and how they performed as an investor are two different questions. If we evaluate Yahoo! as an operator (both inside China and outside,) I think we can all agree that their performance was poor. If we evaluate Yahoo! as an investor, we should take into account their entire history of investments and not just cherry-pick one investment that paid off. On the whole, Yahoo! did well as an investor over the years (due to Alibaba) despite some obvious failures. But people investing in Yahoo! didn’t do so because they believed it was a private equity fund. Luckily, the Alibaba investment turned out well and made up for Yahoo!’s failures on an operating level.
Erisman makes a superb point: Yahoo! did brilliantly as a private equity fund and poorly as an operating company. Nowhere was either more true than in China, so I suspect that if we – or Marissa Mayer – are ever to understand what makes Yahoo! tick, we will find the answers in a thorough, unbiased, and balanced account of Yahoo!’s China odyssey.
We will have to wait for someone else to write that account. In the meantime, please read Ms. Decker’s article. If nothing else, it is a valuable contribution to the oral history of American business in China.
In a ten minute speech last month in London at the 50th Meeting of ICANN, Lu Wei, the Minister of China’s Cyberspace Affairs Administration, introduced a set of seven principles under which, according to him, the Internet should be governed. While not much attention was paid Mr. Lu or his speech outside of the confines of the attendees, we can assume that it was an official statement of government policy, and therefore worth understanding, analyzing, and discussing.
His principles, as I heard them, are:
The Internet should benefit all mankind and all of the world’s peoples, rather than cause harm;
The Internet should bring peace and security to all countries, instead of becoming a channel for one country to attack another;
The Internet should be more concerned with the interests of developing countries, because they are more in need of the opportunities it brings;
The internet should place emphasis on the protection of citizens’ legitimate rights instead of becoming a hotbed for lawbreaking and criminal activities, let alone becoming a channel for carrying out violent terrorist attacks;
The internet should be civilized and credible, instead of being full of rumors and fraud;
The Internet should spread positive energy, and inherit and carry forward the outstanding culture of human beings;
The Internet should be conducive to the healthy growth of young people, because that concerns the future of mankind.
There is a lot to grist in these, but what jumped out at me was this catchphrase “credible Internet.”
There is a ring to it that suggests that we are going to be hearing this much more in the coming months, but the aim seems clear. While in the past the boundaries of online expression have been defined by prurient content on the one hand and seditious content on the other, there is now a third piece to that troika: rumors.
This is worrisome: “non-credible” content implies a much wider scope for restriction than the modus vivendi we have enjoyed in the past, and opens to official censure a vast swath of online content. You can avoid posting prurient content rather easily by avoiding adult themes and illustrations. You can dodge seditious content by steering clear of domestic political issues. But “non-credible” content is in the eye of the beholder, and can easily extend to commercial content and company web sites as well as posts on Weibo or WeChat.
Watch this space, as I suspect we are going to learn more about where the authorities are going to be drawing the line. In the meantime, any company or individual producing a content-laden Chinese site or posts on Weibo or WeChat should err on the side of caution. Chinese law is unkind to those whom the authorities accuse of spreading rumors, and demonstrable veracity may not be enough to keep you out of the wrong kind of spotlight.
In the Hutong Doctor, Doctor, Gimme some news 0917 hrs.
In addition to the matter of whether China remains a suitable regional headquarters for international firms, the recent government-imposed internet clotting also points to major changes that are taking place in the global topography of the Internet. Despite the long-treasured hope of Internet Libertarians that the ‘net would remain unified and self-governing, Bill Bishop’s prognostications of an internet fragmenting along national lines is looking increasingly likely.
Earlier this year I moderated a panel on the Cloud in China at the 2012 Roundtable on Intellectual Property Rights Protection convened by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. There were representative of both foreign and Chinese entities on the panel, and while the focus was on the Cloud and its role in either helping or exacerbating the problem of copyright piracy, a few interesting bits came out that are relevant to the recent blockage.
First, the panel understood that there are two Clouds: one for China, and one for everyone else. The reason is not technical, but regulatory: the government has built a policy framework that hampers access to Cloud-based services based offshore to the point where they are not viable alternatives to local storage. You don’t see very many ChromeBooks in China (I haven’t seen even one,) I can’t get workable access to Amazon Prime Videos, and downloading a movie from iTunes takes 16-20 hours – on a good day.
Second, that international firms seeking to offer software as a service (SAAS) in China must either base their offerings onshore or not bother. As the Google affair made clear to all, however, data based onshore remains particularly vulnerable to local compromise. Why do the cops need to bother with hackers when they can just show up at the door of the server farm and demand access?
Third, all of the panel participants noted a growing willingness on the part of Chinese businesses and consumers to pay for SAAS and Cloud services. There is an irony in that for the foreign SAAS providers, but there is an insight as well. Government policies that restrict access to foreign SAAS providers are functionally protecting local Chinese companies who want to get into the game.
What we face, then, is the development of a parallel Cloud sector in China that will mirror the SAAS business outside of the PRC. That sector will likely consist of two elements: local companies (i.e., Baidu, Tencent, Sina, and service-specific start-ups) that will provide Cloud/SAAS offerings; and international firms who find ways to address the challenges of latency and government access restriction, usually by setting up a subsidiary in China with localized offerings (i.e., Evernote.)
For the international providers, this means figuring out how to operate two separate services while still offering the advantages of a global service to customers in China. This adds yet another degree of operational complexity to an already challenging market.
Yet for the local Chinese SAAS/Cloud service companies, it means a doubling of their home court advantage. Not only are they arguably better suited to offer more culturally relevant Cloud services than their foreign counterparts, they will also be playing inside of an electronic fence built for them (inadvertently or or otherwise) by government policy. Long term, though, this will make the effort to compete overseas more difficult.
Whether the meiosis of the Internet continues beyond the split twixt China and the rest of the world is unclear, but for the SAAS industry, the world now has at least two separate internets, and it needs separate clouds to go with it. Long term, the SAAS and cloud companies that succeed will be those who can thrive in an internet with increasingly high walls.
Last week I had a chance to talk with Carlos Tejada at The Wall Street Journal about how Google services have become all-but-inaccessible for users in many parts of China, and how this all seems to have gotten worse over the last several weeks. What is worse, access to virtual private networks (VPNs,) most of which require offshore payment to access and upon which many business are dependent, has been all but severed.
The Hobbled Headquarters
I made the point to Carlos that there are a growing number of businesses who depend on cloud access – not just foreign firms, but organizations based in China who actively collaborate with groups overseas to conduct research and development as well as commerce. To these companies, access constriction is a man-made disaster that is in some aspects worse than a natural one: at least with natural disasters, even one like Superstorm Sandy, there are ways to fix or work around problems of data disruption. With access constriction like this imposed by an unaccountable, unseen human entity, there is no telling when it will end, and the work-arounds are cut off as well.
The longer this goes, the more it will force businesses to re-examine the wisdom of locating headquarters or back-office operations in China:
“If China insists in the medium and long term of creating another Great Firewall between the China cloud and the rest of the world, China will be an increasingly untenable place to do business.”
Anyone who wants to do business in China is well-advised to have a presence here. But China has long made it a goal to get foreign companies to locate their Asia-Pacific headquarters in places like Shanghai and Beijing rather than, say, Hong Kong and Singapore. How many companies are likely to consider that option with a sword of Damocles hovering over their links to data and the outside world?
A Lesson in Chinese Political Economy
There is a wider issue here than just the risk and inconvenience of having to do international business through an increasingly impermeable data force-field. The past two weeks have been a rude reminder that the government and the Party place social stability and continued Party control far above commerce; that they see commerce as serving the interests of the government and the Party rather than the other way around; and that the implicit conflict between the interests of the Party and the interests of business (especially SMBs and foreign-invested businesses) are more fundamental and closer to the surface than we might wish to think.
Let us not kid ourselves, then, and suggest that when you scratch a Chinese official you will find a capitalist not far under his Communist skin. There will ever be opportunists in positions of power, but in the end all business in China remains subject to the whim of the central government’s leadership. Thirty-five years after Deng Xiaoping declared China’s reforming and opening to the outside world, political risk for every company operating in the PRC remains as real and immediate as ever.
And it shouldn’t take an internet outage to remind us of that fact.
Chinese Internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. (TCTZF.PK) is raising some $600 million from a senior note offering this week. Given that in the second quarter they posted $492 million in profit on $1.7 billion in revenue on top of having some $3 billion in cash, the question has to be “why?”
There could be several reasons, one of which could be a desire to buy back the shares of one or more major shareholders. Keep in mind that South Africa’s NASPERS Group is a major shareholder, and in a volatile regulatory environment policy could shift against foreign holdings in Chinese internet companies at any time. A full or partial buyout of foreign shareholders could insulate Tencent from that problem quickly.
What I think is more likely, and what I told Josh at TNW, is that the company will use the money to support expansion in two non-core but highly strategic areas of its business.
Fighting the China E-commerce War
First, the money will go to e-commerce. The company has already made a huge push into the area, and told analysts at the end of Q2 that it was planning on expanding its effort.
As Amazon discovered when it reached a certain point in its growth, to be truly competitive in e-commerce you need to make major investments in logistics infrastructure. That is especially the case here in China. Being an online e-commerce platform with lots of online bells and whistles is not enough: you have to support merchants and customers with a logistics infrastructure.
At the risk of getting too granular, Bill Schereck, who was the driving force behind the founding of Australia’s TV Shopping Network and its expansion across Asia in the 1990s, defined e-commerce logistics as the effort to surmount five challenges:
1. Get the signal to the customer (i.e., get your portal online, and get people to find it.
2. Get the customer to place an order.
3. Get the order to the customer.
4. Take the payment from the customer
5. Be able to take a return in a way that is both convenient for the customer and economical for the firm.
For Tencent, the first challenge is a matter of having a good website, and the second a matter of marketing and the quality of merchandise being sold.
In many parts of the world, the last three are easy. In certain parts of China, like the downtown areas of major coastal cities, this is all relatively simple, especially if scale is modest. But Tencent wants to sell to users in all of China, and it wants to scale to a point that is likely to exceed the capacity of locally-available package couriers. That is going to mean investments well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, especially if they want to match Alibaba‘s Taobao.
Tencent’s leadership also understands that Taobao will not be standing still, and that to pass the market leader they will need to outpace Alibaba’s rate of investment, innovation, and improvements in customer service.
For these reasons, I suspect that if this new war-chest is allocated to capex and not buyouts, this is the largest direction that the allocation will take.
Tencent on the Street
The second direction is mobile. Tencent has made some excellent progress in this area with its Weixin/WeChat messaging service, which in its most recent iteration also incorporates much of the functionality of Instagram.
The challenge with mobile is that nobody has quite figured out how to turn a great mobile experience into revenue. People are using the services, but somehow the industry has yet to figure a way to get someone to pay for it all.
Tencent has the sheer mass of users, and it has them engaged not only in social media and chat, but most of the top online games as well. They need to create a mobile platform that replicates their PC experience, and I would wager that is where they are going to focus their efforts.
A case can be made that the future of mobile involves finding a way to mix three technical capabilities: fourth generation wireless broadband networks (4G); the ability to make web pages to essentially become powerful applications that is implicit in version 5 of HTML; and a new, slick version of rule set that governs how the web operates, IPv6. I know that might sound like a lot of technical hogwash, but together these three technical changes mean that the smart phones of the future may be web-based rather than based on apps running on a computer-like operating system.
If and when that change happens, it will give companies like Tencent a phenomenal degree of control over the experience they can offer on a mobile device, and, by extension, the things that they can do to turn that experience into cash. Tencent understands this, as does search giant Baidu, portal/socials Sina and Sohu, and e-commerce leader Alibaba. Each is investigating how to offer web-based mobile operating systems.
The stakes are immense for Tencent. If it can create an immersive, sticky mobile experience, it can tie that into its e-commerce infrastructure and bring both merchants and advertisers to its half-billion plus users via the mobile phone. This looks tiny now, but it could be what makes the difference between decline (as users shift from desktop to mobile) and dominance of mobile social media, mobile commerce, and mobile advertising in the country with the most mobile users of any in the world.
If that’s not worth taking out a little $600 million loan for, I’m not sure what is.
Update: Peter Schloss, who in over two decades in China has been in the middle of some of the most interesting and complex deals in the media and internet industries, makes an excellent point about why Tencent is doing this deal now. “Tencent was able to tap the markets at a good time for the company, and getting money was cheap,” Schloss noted. “They also wanted to break new ground for Chinese issuers.”
I think Peter offers a reasonable explanation for Tencent’s timing. I do not think the company intends for the money to sit idle, however, hence this post.
As I have noted here and in Euromoney Magazine, we are witnessing the beginning of an important shift for Chinese enterprises and the way they are financed. A growing number of Chinese businesses that have listed overseas, especially mid-sized and growing companies, are quietly de-listing from the NYSE and NASDAQ.
Adam Gefvert offers two more examples of this delisting trend at Seeking Alpha, China Medical Technologies and ZST Digital Networks, and offers a description of how they are doing so by hiring proxies to purchase shares on their behalf.
Leaving aside questions of propriety or legality of this process, it offers an important insight. While the Chinese companies that have listed in the U.S. did so with great fanfare, they will most likely depart quietly, attracting as little attention as possible. I suspect we will wake one morning and find that NYSE and NASDAQ no longer boast a bevy of mid-sized Chinese stocks.
Why is this important? For Chinese companies, it means that they will focus on listing in places where their value is understood by the common punter. For the small investor, participating in China’s economy will become more difficult.
In the course of some debates about China, all you learn is how strong peoples opinions are. Yet in a few cases, the debate itself is a socratic-style graduate seminar not only on the topic but on China. The back-and-forth online around the status and eventual fate of Chinese companies who have listed abroad via a structure called a Variable Interest Entity (VIE) has been just such a debate. The most prominent participants have been:
Digicha, the blog by Bill Bishop, Beijing-based investor, former China online game company executive, co-founder of CBS MarketWatch, and MVP of the China Twitterverse.
China Hearsay, by Beijing-based Stan Abrams, a technology and intellectual property attorney and law professor; and
China Law Blog, Dan Harris’ award-winning forum that chronicles the intersection of Chinese law and global business, among other things.
I had started to see this issue as a matter wherein the rule of law clashes with the political expediency of accommodating elites. But the aforementioned post on China Law Blog convinced me that this is not the case. As with most Chinese legal codes, the statutes are vague, there is huge room for political and administrative interpretation, and there are overlaps and conflicts among the laws that leave in question which agency has the authority to make or enforce a ruling against any or all of the companies involved.
The matter will be decided not on the basis of law, therefore, but on the basis of policy, and probably at the State Council level. Bishop, correctly, notes that no bureaucrat has the political cojones to take on the wall of entrenched interests that protect the VIE-based companies, and suggests that the easiest way to handle the situation would be to issue clarifying regulations about the legality of VIEs and to grandfather all current VIEs.
I agree, and I suspect that is what will happen, but I also suspect that this will not be the end of the matter. Even though no policy maker would be willing to risk his or her career by slamming the door on VIEs, if such structures are considered politically undesirable by China’s leaders, then we still have a problem.
Bringing the Capital Home
As someone quite wise once said to me, “the Chinese government likes to boil its frogs slowly, not all at once.” What this sage meant was that when dealing with any issue that affects a wide range of powerful interests, Chinese policy makers tend to eschew immediate and radical solutions in favor of a gradualist approach. In a system that depends increasingly on tenuous consensus, this is perhaps the only possible approach. Each step taken moves the matter closer toward resolution without causing severe disruptions for any of the interests involved. All that is necessary to understand whether a solution can be considered temporary or permanent is to look for the larger national goal that is driving the change in the first place.
An idea of what might be driving the government’s efforts around VIEs can be found in an article in New Century magazine last week that sums up the current state of play with the VIE issue. The article quotes a situation report provided to attorneys and the industry three weeks ago as saying that in the early days of the development of the internet in China, the local A-share market was inadequate to the capital needs of the industry, thus it was decided that overseas listings of these companies offered more good than harm. The report goes on, however, to suggest that it would be in China’s interest to arrange the earliest possible return of the shares of such “leading enterprises” to China’s own local exchanges in Shanghai and Shenzhen.
If repatriation of share ownership is (or becomes) the goal of the government, that is a more reasonable target than abruptly pulling the plug on VIEs, but it does point to a long-term dissolution of those arrangements by substituting offshore capital with capital from China’s own markets, either via domestic listing, private placements with domestic enterprises or sovereign funds, or all of the above. To give a simple example, were Jack Ma to recover the 40% of Alibaba that Yahoo! currently owns, he could replace the cash thus expended by a domestic share issue in China. Using similar mechanisms, the VIEs could be dissolved in a manner that would harm none of the powerful interests involved, yet would satisfy the government’s policy goals.
None of this would take place quickly, nor should it, and I do not think that regulators have come to an agreement yet on how to proceed, and things may roll out quite differently. The point is that a short-term accommodation with the VIE structure in the name of political expediency neither institutionalizes the structure as a long-term funding option, nor signals a change in the fundamental drivers of policy. It should, rather, be seen as the high-water mark in China’s effort to tap offshore capital to fund the growth of the nation’s leading online enterprises, and perhaps the beginning of the next phase in the maturation of China’s own domestic capital markets.
But it is Bigger than All of This
If you think this is an issue of parochial interest to lawyers and China geeks only, think again. The reason the VIE issue is important goes beyond the effect the recent uncertainty has had on nearly 100 Chinese companies that have listed abroad (and their shareholders.) It is more important to anyone doing business in or with China because of the implications that the issue and its eventual resolution will have on foreign investors and business in the PRC in the coming decade.
A recurring theme of this blog of late has been the apparent shift in attitudes in China toward foreign enterprises and capital. Since the beginning of reforming and opening, foreign participation and foreign investment in the Chinese economy has always been seen as an expedient means to hasten development. What has changed is not the attitude, but China’s perception of itself and the extent to which it still needs the necessary evils of foreign capital and expertise. China still needs both more than either the Party or the people are willing to admit publicly: alongside other considerations, what will slow movement toward a resolution of the VIE issue is disagreement within China’s leadership over how much the door to such structures needs to remain open, and how much local capital is actually available to local high-growth businesses.
But the long-term goal should not be in doubt, and it is that desire for financial self-sufficiency, followed by global financial leadership, that guides the evolution of policy (and law) toward VIEs and all offshore listings.
Update: In what may be the first step in that share repatriation, Shanda Interactive’s founder Chen Tianqiao, his wife Luo Qianqian, and his brother Chen Danian have formed a group to buy the publicly-owned shares of Shanda (NASDAQ: SNDA) that they do not already own. J.P. Morgan is issuing the debt to finance the transaction.