China’s second-largest private sector company Tencent is aiming a cannon at China’s largest private sector company and new darling of the US stock markets Alibaba. Will Tencent fire? There’s a vast amount of money at stake: these two companies, cumulatively, have market cap of $400 billion, Tencent’s $140bn and Alibaba’s $260bn.
Alibaba, as most now know, currently has China’s e-commerce market in a stranglehold, processing orders worth over $300 billion a year, or about 80% of all Chinese online sales by China’s 300 million online shoppers. Meanwhile, Tencent is no less dominant in online chat and messaging, with over 400mn users for its mobile chat application WeChat, aka “Weixin” (微信).
The two businesses appear worlds apart. And yet, they are now on a collision course. The reason is social selling, that is, using a mobile phone chat app to sell stuff to one’s friends and contacts. It’s based on the simple, indisputable notion it’s more reliable and trustworthy to buy from people you know. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin are all quite keen on social selling in the US. But, nowhere is as fertile a market as China, because nowhere else is the trust level from buying through unknown online merchants as low.
Alibaba has accumulated most of its riches from this low-trust model at Taobao’s huge online bazaar. It is a collection of thirty million small-time individual peddlers that Alibaba can’t directly control. The result, especially in a country with no real enforceable consumer protection laws or litigation, Taobao can be a haven for people selling stuff of dubious quality and authenticity.
Chinese know this, and don’t much care for it. It’s one reason both US-listed JD.com and Amazon China both seem to be gaining some ground on Alibaba. Their strategies are similar: to be the “anti-Taobao”, selling brand-name stuff directly, using their own buying power and inventory, their own delivery people, and a no-questions-asked return policy. Their range of merchandise, however, is far more limited than Taobao’s. Tencent in 2014 bought a significant minority stake in JD.com.
Thanks to Weixin, Tencent now has the capability directly to become Alibaba’s most potent competitor and steal away billions of dollars in transactions. Will it?
As of now, Tencent seems oddly reluctant. Even as millions of Weixin users have started using the app to buy and sell goods directly with their friends, Tencent has countered by making it more difficult. Tencent introduced limits on the number of contacts each Weixin user can add, has made sending money tricky, and has more or less banned users to include price quotes in their mobile messages. For now, Weixin users appear undaunted, and are using various ruses to get around Tencent’s unexplained efforts to limit their profit-making activities. One common one: using the character for “rice” (米） instead of the symbol for the Chinese Renminbi （元）.
This social selling through Weixin is called “Weishang” (微商) in Chinese, literally “commerce on Weixin”. It is without doubt the hottest thing in online selling now in China.
It’s hard to understand why Tencent wouldn’t passionately embrace social selling on Weixin. For now, Weixin looks to be an enormous money sink for Tencent. The Weixin app is free to download and use. What money it earns from it comes mainly from promoting pay-to-play online games. That’s small change compared to the tens of millions of dollars Tencent spends on maintaining the server infrastructure to facilitate and store the hundreds of millions of text, voice, photo and video messages sent daily on the network.
Chinese of all ages are glued to Weixin at all hours of the day. It can be hard for anyone outside China to quite fathom how deeply-woven into daily life Weixin has become in the four years since its launch. Peak Weixin usage can exceed 10mn messages per minute. With only slight exaggeration, Tencent’s founder and chairman Pony Ma explains Weixin has become like a “vital organ” to Chinese.
It’s not just young kids. I took part in a meeting recently with a partner from KKR and the chairman of a large Chinese publicly-traded company At the end of the discussion, they eagerly swapped Weixin accounts to continue their confidential M&A dialogue.
My office is in the building next to Tencent’s headquarters in Shenzhen. I know quite a few of the senior executives. But, no one can or will articulate why Tencent, at least for now, is unwilling to use Weishang take on Alibaba. Some who claim to know say it’s because the Chinese government is holding them back, not wanting to have Tencent steal Alibaba’s spotlight so soon after its most-successful-in-history Chinese IPO in the US.
The two have sparred before. Tencent years ago launched its own copycat version of Taobao, now called Paipai. But it failed to put a dent in Alibaba’s franchise. Alibaba, in turn, launched its own online message system to compete with Weixin. But, it’s sunk from sight as quickly as a heavy stone dropped in a deep pond.
Seen from a seller’s perspective, Weishang is fundamentally more attractive than selling on Taobao. Margins are higher, not only because Tencent charges no fees, but it’s getting much harder and more expensive to get noticed on Taobao. That’s good for Alibaba’s all-important ad revenues, but bad for merchants.
How does Weishang work? A woman, for example, buys twenty sweaters at a wholesale price, then takes a selfie wearing one. She sends this out to her 300 contacts on Weixin. Though the message includes neither the price nor much of a sales pitch, since both may be monitored by Tencent, she will often get back replies asking how to buy and how much. The sales are closed either by phone call, or through voice messaging over Weixin, with payment sent direct to the seller’s bank account.
Tencent knows Weixin is being used more and more like this, but because it’s driven the commerce somewhat underground, Tencent has no idea on the exact scale of Weishang. My guess is aggregate Weishang sales are already in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.
Alibaba has clearly noticed. But, social selling isn’t something its Taobao e-commerce marketplace can do. Its mobile e-commerce strategy amounts to making it easy to scroll through Taobao items on a small screen. Social selling in China is and will remain Tencent’s natural monopoly.
For anyone wondering, Alibaba’s IPO prospectus from a few months ago did not mention Weishang and Weixin, and Tencent gets a single nod as one of many possible competitors. Weishang really began to gain traction only during the second half of 2014, after the main draft of the Alibaba prospectus was completed.
To those outside China especially on Wall Street, Alibaba seems to be on the top of the world, as well as the top of its game. In the last four months, it’s collected $25 billion from the IPO and another $8 billion in a bond offering. Its share price price is up 50% since the IPO. For a lot of us living here in China, the boundless enthusiasm in the US for “Ali” (as the company is universally known here) can sometimes seem a bit unhinged.
When will Tencent make its move? Why is it now so reticent to promote Weishang, or discuss its plans with the investment community? Is it busy next door to me readying a dedicated secure payment system and warranty program for Weishang purchases?
I don’t have the answer, but this being China, I do know where to look for guidance. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, written 2,500 years ago, remains the country’s main strategic handbook, used as often in business as in combat. The pertinent passage, in Chinese, goes “微乎微乎，至于无形；神乎神乎，至于无声；故能为敌之司命.” In English, you can translate it as “be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. “
In other words, don’t let your competitor see or hear you coming until its already too late.