As I wrote previously, China’s digital economy has reached a turning point.
Before, new user growth could offset digital businesses’ strategic and commercial missteps. Double-digit or triple-digit MAU growth could mute criticism of flimsy unit economics, absent strategy, dodgy investments, or lackluster monetization efforts.
Now, internet user saturation within China’s consumer class makes it harder to avoid scrutiny with eye-popping user growth. Companies like Meitu, JD, and Zhihu are facing tough questions: shareholders and investors want to whether these platforms can turn their impressive scale into profits.
Weaker players might have a hard time meeting impatient investors’ demands for return on investment, but China’s digital giants are adapting. They are repositioning themselves to adjust to new market dynamics, developing strategies to take advantage of enduring opportunities as mature businesses.
Previously, China’s internet companies grew by latching onto investment frenzies in a particular product or industry vertical, known as fengkou (literally “a gap where a strong wind blows”) in Chinese startup lingo. These rapid influxes of capital and speculative behavior are so notorious that leading Chinese executives have joked that investors could pump in enough money to make pigs fly.
Investment frenzies have reshaped markets, delivered exponential growth, and minted some of China’s internet success stories. Meituan, Didi, and VIPKID were built off all the back of them. These companies identified white space, shaped user behavior, and benefited from oodles of capital to achieve scale and outlast a slew of competitors to win winner-take-all or winner-take-most positions. However, as the mobile internet’s white space shrinks, these investment frenzies are more volatile and less conducive to value-creation.
The recent struggles of live-streaming, bike sharing, and automated convenience stores illustrate the danger of relying on speculative investment flows. My own analysis estimates 80% of live-streaming players with Series-A funding didn’t last two years. ofo, a bike-sharing firm, has gone from a $2 billion valuation to the verge of bankruptcy. There are now serious doubts that Bingo Box, the automated convenience store darling backed by GGV Capital, can survive long enough (Chinese link) to make a meaningful dent in China’s retail landscape.
Six durable white spaces
China’s digital giants—Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Bytedance, Meituan, Didi, Pinduoduo, and JD—are looking for something more durable than spaghetti-against-the-wall investment flows.
When they first burst onto the scene, today’s digital giants were a thin, interfacing layer between consumers, products, services, and attention. Now, being a thin, interfacing layer isn’t enough. The giants are making themselves thicker in a way that adds new users, gives depth to existing offerings, deepens competitive advantage, and creates new revenue streams.
The giants are pursuing six avenues to growth:
New Tech R&D: China’s digital giants can develop or apply technology to existing or new operations. Leading players, such as Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba are developing leading capabilities in artificial intelligence, big data, and cloud computing.
Industry digital transformation: They can also offer new products and services to industry. Having shaped consumers’ digital behavior, China’s digital giants are lining up to lead the digital transformation of traditional industries such as retail, hospitality, tourism, and agriculture, packaging software and platforms as services.
Overseas expansion: They can seek growth overseas. China’s digital giants consider themselves well-placed to service mobile-first emerging markets, such as India and South-East Asia. These markets also have the growth prospects associated with relatively low existing internet user penetration.
Lower-tier cities: They can develop products, services and experiences for consumers in lower-tier cities. The stunning rise of Pinduoduo, Qutoutiao, and Kuaishou have shown that existing e-commerce, news, and entertainment apps don’t always meet the needs of users in China’s populous third, fourth, and fifth-tier cities.
Local services: They can further penetrate and digitize food, accommodation, shopping, and transportation markets. The size of the local services market and its potential for further digitalisation means the competition between “super-apps” like Meituan, Ele.me, Didi, and Alipay is just getting started.
New mediums: They can also explore new ways to search, connect, shop, and get informed. Innovations in newsfeeds, multimedia messaging, gamified reading and social commerce present opportunities to unseat incumbents in search, social media, and e-commerce.
Who’s playing where
Each of China’s digital giants has restructured in the last two years. That’s no coincidence. China’s digital giants are re-orienting themselves for future growth. If you cross-reference each restructure’s relationship to the above growth directions, you get a pretty good sense of who’s playing where for future growth.
Alibaba and Tencent’s investments, products and proxies will fight for market share across all six growth avenues.
Baidu continues its push to be relevant beyond search through artificial intelligence investments and applications.
Bytedance plans to take its content creation and recommendation products into lower-tier and overseas markets. At the same time, its recent tinkering with e-commerce integration and social messaging shows that it’s thinking about next-generation video commerce and social media.
Meituan hasn’t abandoned its ambition to be a super-app but has doubled down on services to restaurants and retailers on its platforms, with new features like order-management systems.
JD will strengthen its core business through investments in smart logistics, expand its offline retail partnerships and open up its logistics network to third parties.
Didi’s quest to become the world’s largest transport platform in 10 years continues unabated with overseas expansion, investments in developing markets’ ride-hailing services and autonomous driving tests.
Pinduoduo, China’s newest force in e-commerce, will improve merchant quality and test the upper limits of user growth.
As China’s digital economy has reached a turning point, China’s digital giants haven’t stood still. They’re seeking out durable sources of future growth. In so doing, they’ve set the stage for a new wave of intense competition.