Welcome back to our China-based readers; we hope Golden Week panned out well.
China’s dynamic startup scene typically takes a consistent path. New ideas usually follow innovations that have been successful overseas, then quickly morph to serve the unique needs of Chinese consumers; capitalising on the distinct ecosystem of embedded mobile payments, devout smartphone usage and lack of privacy concerns.
Any sniff of success and a slew of others will follow. Close to five million Chinese graduate with science, tech, engineering and mathematics degrees every year, many who are optimistic about becoming the next Jack Ma. Most who launch startups will fizzle, but a select few will get funding, followed by more, and more capital, often from one of the big gorillas Alibaba, Tencent or Baidu – bringing the crucial support and channels to scale up to the next level.
Over the past few years China has been awash with investment capital, and with so much money sloshing around these startups can shower consumers with subsidies, discounts and freebies ensuring they get hooked. What follows is a war of attrition, where startups fiercely compete with incentives, burning through cash with unprofitable business models until the less-resourced competitors fall away or are swallowed up by a better-funded player. Mergers and consolidation always follow with the winner usually taking all.
When just one dominant player remains, the sweeteners lessen. We saw this with Meituan and Dianping in 2015, which provided an estimated ¥58 billion ($9 billion) worth of discounts and subsidies for restaurants and movies in 2015 combined. Since announcing a merger late that year, incentives have dropped off. Similarly within three months of the ride hailing apps Didi-Kuaidi-Uber merger, a typical ride that cost ¥8 climbed to ¥13. If we look across almost every online category in China – much like other places – they are dominated by a single player. Ctrip-Qunar control around 80% of the online travel market, Alibaba accounts for a similar amount of ecommerce, likewise Tencent and social media.
We’re starting to see similar consolidation for the latest hot sectors in China’s tech world. Baidu recently bowed out of the food delivery space selling its Xiaodu subsidy to Ele.me. And on the bike sharing front, where over 30 companies vie for pavement space, riders and critical mass, players are starting to drop off. Market leaders Mobike and Ofo are already said to be in merger talks.
Fortunately China’s tech scene isn’t just evolving to one big network of monopolies. Some areas are still passionately contested driving innovation and deals for consumers. In what would be a surprise to many, Baidu isn’t the leading search tool in China for products. In mature categories such as online travel there are flourishing niche sites that can be better-targeted than the leader. In ecommerce, less price-sensitive and more sophisticated consumers tired of trawling through the expanses of Alibaba’s platforms often swap to niche platforms in areas such as luxury, food and cross border, where Alibaba accounts for just a third of sales. Brands would be wise to consider them.
On the subject of cross border commerce, China Skinny’s Ann Bierbower will be sharing advice about effectively reaching and selling to Chinese consumers at the Reach Global Customers Through Ecommerce seminar in Los Angeles on October 24. More information here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.