China’s economic growth has slowed to a quarter-century low of 7.4 percent. You wouldn’t know it, though, looking at the gigantic rounds that China-based Internet companies are raising.
Just this week, Apus Group, a six-month-old, Beijing-based Android app development firm, raised a whopping $100 million; Beibei.com, a nine-month-old, mother and baby-focused e-commerce site in Hangzhou, raised $100 million; and Meituan, a four-year-old group discount platform that’s headquartered in Beijing, pulled in $700 million. There was also that little announcement by the Chinese government late last week about the venture capital fund it’s establishing with $6.5 billion to support start-ups in emerging industries.
The word “bubble” invariably comes to mind. But there’s something far different going on, insist those bullish about Chinese tech companies.
Take Glenn Solomon, a managing director at the cross-border investment firm GGV Capital and a frequent visitor to China. Though he acknowledges that “China’s economic growth will inevitably slow as the law of large numbers takes effect,” he says two very different economies in China — old and new — explain the seeming disconnect between that slowing growth and all the money sloshing into tech startups.
In China’s retail industry, for example, overexpansion has hurt large, established brick-and mortar-retailers who are seeing flat or slowing growth and retrenching. Meanwhile, Alibaba and other new e-commerce players are growing extremely rapidly, says Solomon, noting that “on the ground [in China], there are delivery trucks lining the streets.”
That divergence is “pronounced and growing” across other industries, too, says Solomon. “Companies in the Xiaomi ecosystem focused on home automation are rapidly going direct to consumer, while traditional players in this area are seeing a slowdown.”
Travel, mobile commerce, and companies whose apps aim to improve their users’ offline experience — among them the GGV-backed Tujia.com, a site similar to Airbnb that raised $100 million last June, and Didi Dache, a taxi app that closed on $700 million in December — are also trouncing weaker, traditional offline players, he says.
Yet there are other reasons to rationalize those big investment rounds, suggests Michael Feldman, an independent consultant based in Hong Kong who advises on cross-border technology investments from China to Israel.
Feldman notes that unlike, say, Facebook, which only recently began reaching into new businesses, the “tentacles” of China Internet giants like Tencent Holdings and Alibaba stretch into everything from car service apps to their own mobile payment services, including Tencent’s Tenpay, and Alibaba’s Alipay.
That growing reach is a scary prospect to startups and would-be entrepreneurs. “In almost anything you do online, you could potentially be competing with them,” notes Feldman. But in their race to compete with one another, such behemoths have also grown more acquisitive than they used to be — creating once-scant M&A opportunities. “It used to be that they’d either copy your product or pay a team to join their company, then they’d destroy the competing company,” explains Feldman. “Now that they’re kind of globalizing, they’re beginning to behave differently.”
China is also seeing its first generation of battle-tested tech entrepreneurs launch companies, which is emboldening investors to back them with big checks, notes Feldman. “Everyone knows the PayPal Mafia and Google Mafia and Facebook Mafia. China now has its own mafias,” including those to spin out of Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and Xiaomi, among others.
If that development is leading to some froth, Feldman, like Solomon, doesn’t seem terribly concerned. As in the U.S. and elsewhere, he suggests, China’s tech economy isn’t as closely tethered to the country’s broader economy as one might imagine.
“Ultimately, it’s about the adoption of mobile,” Feldman says. “As in most of the world, it’s just totally changing society. At this point, the mobile revolution seems to be an unstoppable force.”
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