Month: May 2015
China’s most successful startup?
Ask people in China to name the country’s most successful and innovative new mobile phone brand and most will immediately declare Xiaomi. Ask tech-savvy Americans and Europeans and they will just as quickly suggest OnePlus. Though largely still unknown in China, Shenzhen-headquartered OnePlus, established less than 18 months ago, has achieved more success more quickly in US and European markets than any other Chinese mobile phone company. It is also possibly the China’s most successful startup since Xiaomi was established five years ago.
OnePlus, by my estimate, has now joined the most exclusive club in the technology world, a “unicorn”, meaning technology startups with a valuation of over $1 billion. Other Chinese unicorns besides Xiaomi are China’s Uber, Kuaidi Dache and group buying site Meituan. Unlike those other Chinese companies, OnePlus has not yet raised any money from venture capitalists. OnePlus is also the only truly international Chinese unicorn, since most of its sales and growth are outside China.
With just a tiny amount of seed capital, the company began selling its phones little more than a year ago in late April 2014. Its 2014 full-year revenues were $300mn, well behind Xiaomi’s $12 billion. But, unlike Xiaomi, OnePlus chose to focus its efforts on the US, Western Europe and India. In these places, OnePlus is doing far better than Xiaomi, and is now considered a legitimate competitor to major international Android phone brands like Korea’s Samsung, Taiwan’s HTC, Japan’s Sony and America’s Google Nexus. OnePlus is cheaper than these others, but that doesn’t seem to be the main reason its winning customers as well as enthusiastic reviews from experts. It’s mainly because of the quality of both OnePlus’s hardware and Android software.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the One Plus phone is “exceptional” and it “beats Apple iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S5 in many ways.” The New York Times has called the OnePlus phone “fantastic, about the fastest Android phone you can buy, and its screen is stunning “. Time Magazine chimed in with OnePlus is “exactly how a smartphone should be.” Engadget, the widely-read US technology blog, recently rated the best phones to buy in the US. Oneplus came out on top. That’s certainly a first for a Chinese brand.
In my seven years as an investment banker in China and before that as CEO of a California venture capital firm, I’ve never met quite such a mold-breaking company. OnePlus set out to achieve what no other Chinese company has ever done, to excel not just at making low-cost fast-to-market products but making ones of the highest quality, in engineering and design, hardware and software.
They next did something else no Chinese, and few American companies have done successfully: use social media sites Twitter, Facebook and Youtube to market its products at almost zero cost, and build a brand with a high reputation and a growing band of loyal customers and followers in the US and European markets.
Both Xiaomi and OnePlus say they plan to make most of their money from selling services and software, not from selling phones. Xiaomi has the advantage of much larger scale, with far more users. But, OnePlus may actually do better with this strategy and make more money for the simple reason that in the US and Europe, compared to China, a lot of people are accustomed to paying for mobile software and services.
OnePlus sold over one million phones last year between May and December, mainly in the US and Europe. It spent a total of about $10,000 on advertising worldwide. Samsung, by contrast, spends over $350mn a year in the US advertising its mobile phones. Worldwide, Samsung is spending over $14bn in advertising and its mobile phone market share has been declining since 2013.
On many fundamental levels, OnePlus thinks and acts differently than any other successful startup in China. Start with its two founders, Pete Lau and Carl Pei. They met while working at a Chinese domestic mobile phone and Blu-ray player manufacturer called Oppo. Lau is responsible for OnePlus’s manufacturing and product engineering, including overseeing a network of outsourced suppliers and manufacturers in and around Shenzhen. “We want to tell the world: Chinese products are great,” Lau says.
Pei’s background is more unusual. He is responsible for the company’s international growth and unique marketing strategy. Everything about Pei – his background, his way of thinking and his approach to selling mobile phones successfully in the US and Europe – sets him well apart from all other Chinese tech entrepreneurs I’ve met. He is ethnically Chinese, but before coming to Shenzhen three years ago, had never lived or worked in China and his Chinese language ability, by his own admission, is so-so. Now 25, Pei was raised mainly in Sweden.
To understand Pei’s approach to business, it’s useful to understand something about business and culture in Sweden. It’s a small country, with less than 10 million people and fewer than 17,000 Chinese. Yet, it has arguably produced more innovative, world-changing companies, per capita, than any other country in the world. There’s a long list of them. My five favorites are furniture retailer IKEA, milk packaging company Tetra-Pak, bearing manufacturer SKF, fashion retailer H&M and music streaming company Spotify. In each case, these companies now dominate entire industries, with high-quality products and fair prices. Sweden has no real luxury brands. Instead it has a lot of great companies that have changed the ways a huge mass of people across the world live their lives, from the milk they drink to the beds they sleep on, the clothes they wear and now even the music they pay to listen to.
Sweden’s last attempt at success in mobile phones ended up badly. Ericsson once had a decent business selling basic phones, but the birth of smartphones was the death of Ericsson’s mobile business. OnePlus stands a better chance, in part because it’s a mix of Swedish focus on targeting a mass customer market together with Chinese speed and adaptability. I expect to see more of these “mixed blood” companies emerging in China, as China becomes more globalized and more welcoming to non-natives immigrating to start new businesses.
By basing itself in Shenzhen, OnePlus sits inside the world’s most densely-packed ecosystem of component, chip and contract manufacturing companies. It’s hard to imagine OnePlus could have been built as successfully anywhere else in the world. Foxconn, manufacturer of iPhones, is among the companies with its China base in Shenzhen. Intel has also moved in in force to win business from these small, nimble Chinese electronics companies.
Manufacturing smartphones in Shenzhen is comparatively easy. Far harder is convincing Americans to buy a mobile phone without a subsidy and a service contract from a network provider like Verizon or AT&T. Yet, OnePlus is so far succeeding. One reason: other companies that tried ended up spending millions of dollars on advertising to try to explain to Americans why they should buy a phone directly. It was mainly burned money. OnePlus spent nothing on advertising but used Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and Youtube to build up a group of early adopters, who then went out and evangelized their friends.
OnePlus has 1.1mn “likes” on Facebook, double Xiaomi’s, along with four times as many followers on Twitter. On Youtube, the Oneplus channel has five times more subscribers than Xiaomi. Keep in mind Youtube, Twitter and Facebook are banned in China, where all of OnePlus’s employees are. OnePlus has become an expert at selling and brand-building using websites OnePlus’s own team aren’t supposed to even be looking at.
Ask Carl how he figured out how to do things in the US market that American companies, including hundreds with millions of dollars in VC money, weren’t able to do and he just shrugs, like it was all pretty easy. OnePlus still has no office in the US, no staff there, no repair centers, nothing. In the beginning you could only buy a OnePlus in the US and Europe with an invitation. Even with one, OnePlus only accepted orders from new customers one day a week, on Tuesdays. As OnePlus’s reputation grew, the invitations became themselves valuable commodities. They still sell on eBay for $10-$20 each. OnePlus is now gradually loosening up and letting those without an invitation buy its phones, but again, only one-day-a-week, on Tuesdays.
Selling by invitation only may seem counterproductive. But, it’s proved vital to OnePlus’s success up to now. The reason: making mobile phones is generally a very cash-intensive business, since you need to have huge amounts of working capital to buy parts, build phones, supply to retail channels, and then wait for cash to return. OnePlus had no access to a big pot of working capital. So they have basically built phones to order, after the customer has paid.
One-third of the OnePlus’s 400 staff, including about 50 non-Chinese, are dedicated to customer service, which mainly means answering emails and responding to comments and questions on the company’s website and forums. This is another core thing OnePlus does better than any company I’ve seen in China. It’s establishing a new idea in the US and Europe about what a Chinese company is and does. Not just a source of cheap manufactured goods, but a company with a clear and powerful brand identity, one knows how to communicate well and sell things to college-educated 20-30 year-olds who live in San Francisco, Berlin and London.
Success has come quickly, but Pei, from my discussion over dinner with him, is certainly not complacent. He sees risks everywhere, not only from the obvious examples of Nokia and Blackberry, two once world-conquering mobile phone companies that have all but disappeared from the market. Apple remains very powerful. It and Google also own a lot of the key intellectual property patents for mobile phone signal processing, software and chip design. If either chooses to sue OnePlus, they have far more money to fight a patent lawsuit in a US court. Legal fees could easily top $20mn, money OnePlus does not now have. The US patent law system has been abused before, a big company sues a small but fast-growing one, not because it has a good legal case, but knowing that fighting the lawsuit, paying the legal bills, can put this new competitor out of business.
Pei’s three burning concerns are the OnePlus fails to attract enough talented global executives to join the company, loses its edge in designing hardware and software, or grows too large to maintain its quirky brand image and identity. OnePlus is in the process of opening new offices and moving key people from Shenzhen to Bangalore and Berlin because Pei believes it will be easier to find talented staff there.
Another worry, surprisingly, is how and when to bring in venture capital investors. OnePlus will likely try to raise money from one of the world’s famous Silicon Valley VCs. They have the most experience investing in disruptive businesses, helping startups like OnePlus to grow, especially in the US market, and they also can provide lots of help finding top executives and distribution partners. But, these Silicon Valley VCs have also not seen anything exactly like OnePlus before, a Chinese startup, likely with some core operations in India, and a magical ability to sell to Americans without having any Americans involved. If successful, OnePlus could have one of the largest Series A VC rounds in history, raising perhaps $100mn-$200mn. Will money spoil the company or improve it?
OnePlus’s revenues are on track to more than triple this year to over $1 billion. But, there are lots of places where OnePlus could stumble and fall. Its new model launches and software upgrades could get delayed. Cost pressures could force them to raise prices in the US as they recently had to do in Europe, because of steep fall in the Euro. Also, US and European early-adopters are a fickle bunch. They could start throwing bricks at OnePlus instead of kisses. Case in point, in less than two years, Taiwanese mobile phone company HTC went from the most talked-about and fastest-growing company in the industry to an also-ran.
China’s mobile phone industry, as well as much of the TMT sector, have a reputation for being not much more than a bunch of knock-off artists, with no real innovation worthy of the name. OnePlus and Xiaomi both point the way towards a different and better future for China industry. Yes, OnePlus is good at assembling components cheaply. But, its core strengths as a company are too rarely found in China: an obsessive focus on product design, product quality, branding and customer engagement. These are what determine a company’s value as well as competitive strength. OnePlus is the first Chinese company to gain a large number of buyers and fans in the US and Europe by being simultaneously good at all these.
China’s long-term economic competiveness requires that more companies like OnePlus emerge. But, until it came along, China didn’t have a single one. It’s the most concrete sign that China may transition away from being a source of copy-cat products sold cheap and begin to play in the global big leagues, generating buzz while competing and taking market share from large, rich incumbents like Google and Samsung.
For these two, as well as companies wishing to find a buyer in China, the game now is to learn the new rules of China M&A and then learn to use them to one’s advantage.
Chinese companies mainly pursue M&A for the same reasons others do – to improve margins, gain efficiencies and please investors. The main difference, and it’s a striking one, is that in most cases domestic Chinese corporate buyers, especially the publicly-quoted ones who are most active now trying to do deals, have no money to buy another business.
Outside of China, there are three known ways to pay for an acquisition – with cash, borrowed money, or shares. All three are generally between excruciatingly slow and impossible for publicly-listed Chinese companies. The reason: companies’ retained earnings are just about always insufficient.
Banking and securities rules in China severely restrict the way publicly-traded companies in China can finance acquisitions using debt or by issuing new shares. Deals financed with leverage are basically forbidden. So, Chinese companies have invented two convoluted ways to get M&A done. They display a certain genius. Both involve trying to buy first and pay later.
Method One is for the acquirer to first negotiate a purchase then ask the Chinese stock market to suspend trading in its own shares. The acquirer will announce the deal publicly and if all goes to plan its share price will surge, often by as much as 50 per cent to 75 per cent.
This predictable outcome is the result of the fact almost all shares quoted in China are owned by small retail investors, commonly called Chinese brokers “old grandpas and grandmas”. Most have never cared to look at a company’s financials or studied its competitive position. Instead, they trade in and out of stocks depending mainly on rumor and hype fed to them by brokers or online tip sheets.
In China, an announced M&A deal is now always a market-moving event. The movement tends to be all in one direction. Up.
Once trading in the acquirer’s shares resumes and the price duly jumps up, the acquirer then initiates the laborious process of applying to the Chinese securities regulator, the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC), for permission to do a secondary share offering.
This will then, it’s hoped, yield the cash to complete the acquisition. The approval process will generally take six months or longer. Chinese securities rules are cumbersome and mandate that the new shares be issued at a discount to the share price at the time of application.
The result: the sequence of “announce first, then apply” means the acquirer can raise the cash needed to buy the target on more favorable terms for the acquiring company, lowering the amount of dilution.
Method Two, a close cousin, is to persuade a friendly domestic investment fund to buy the target company then hold onto it for as long as it takes the intended final owner to get the money in place through the secondary offering. In other jurisdictions, this might be deemed a “concert party” and so likely to land everyone in jail. In China, it’s becoming common practice.
In fact, a new form of investment fund has come into being especially to do deals like this. They call themselves “市值管理基金” which you can translate as “market cap management funds”. They exist to help publicly-traded companies do M&A deals that will lift the company’s share price, and not much else.
They make money buying and selling shares, as well as marking up for resale companies they buy on behalf of publicly-traded companies. They are not buyout funds as understood elsewhere, since these market cap management funds are buying on behalf of a specific company and have no particular industry expertise or experience managing an acquired company. They act purely as a temporary custodian.
Most often, the acquirer will contribute a small amount of limited partner capital to the “market cap management fund” as a way to bind the two organisations together. It can take a year or more from when the market cap management fund first buys the target company then sells to the publicly-traded acquirer, and from there, several more years before this acquisition starts to have an impact, if any, on the acquiring company’s earnings. In other words, a very long timetable.
That by itself is not a problem for the acquirer, since it is as eager to give a shot of adrenalin to its own share price and maintain it on this higher plane as it is to get control of the target company and integrate it into its business. Market cap management trumps industrial logic as a reason to pursue M&A.
I’ve yet to see evidence of much skepticism from Chinese stock market investors that an announced M&A deal may not benefit the acquirer. In the US and other more developed capital markets, it’s frequently the opposite. An acquiring company will as often as not see its shares fall when it announces plans for a takeover. That’s because in most cases, as far as hard empirical evidence can determine, the main beneficiaries of any M&A deal are the target company’s shareholders. Too often, for acquirers M&A deals prove to be too expensive and synergies elusive.
We’ve been invited by domestic listed companies in China to help consult on M&A deals where “market cap management” was an explicit purpose. Finding an attractive target is also a consideration, but a somewhat secondary one.
The discussions, in the main, are unlike anywhere else where M&A deals are being planned and executed. They revolve around how to get the money together, when and for how long to halt share trading, and by how much the listed company’s shares will likely go up, and stay up, once the M&A announcement is made.
Where the publicly-listed company has private sector, rather than State-owned enterprise background, the chairman will usually be the largest single shareholder. The chairman’s net worth stands to get the biggest boost if market cap management works as planned.
Opportunities for global buyout funds
The lengthy, roundabout nature of Chinese M&A is creating attractive opportunities for global corporations and buyout firms. They are the only participants in the M&A arena in China both with cash in hand or easily accessed to close deals and the experience to manage a company well once it’s bought.
From the perspective of potential Chinese sellers, both of these are extremely valuable, since they remove much of the uncertainty in agreeing to sell to a domestic acquirer. Global corporates and buyout firms will thus often be buyers of first choice for sellers.
For now, few global corporates and buyout firms are busy closing M&A deals in China. There are a host of reasons, including China’s slowing economic growth, the perception China is becoming more hostile towards foreign investment, the difficulty persuading owners of better Chinese companies to give up majority control. All valid concerns. But, there are larger forces now at work that make it attractive to expand through acquisition in the world’s largest fast-growing market.
First, in almost all industrial and service industries, China is beginning at last a process of rationalisation and consolidation. Costs are rising quickly, especially for labor, energy and debt service. These are applying vice-like pressure on margins. Markets for most products and services in China are no longer growing by +25 per cent a year and suffer from overcapacity.
Scale, efficiency, quality, modern management are the only ways to combat the punishing margin pressure. This plays directly to the strengths of larger global corporations and buyout firms. They know how to do this, how to transform a capable smaller business into a large market-share leader.
It’s something of a well-kept secret, but some of the world’s most successful M&A deals have seen large global corporations buying private sector businesses in China. The successful buyers generally prefer it this way, that few know how well they are doing after buying and upgrading a Chinese domestic company.
Why tip off competitors? For every well-publicized horror story there are at least three quiet successes. Indeed, one can find within a single Fortune 500 company three great examples of how to do domestic M&A well in China, and achieve a big payoff. The company is Swiss food giant Nestle.
They first opened an office in China in 1908. The big transformation began a hundred years later, in 1998, when they decided to buy an 80 per cent ownership in a Chinese powdered bullion company Taitaile. That company is now more than twelve times the size it was when Nestle bought in.
They followed that up with two other large acquisitions of domestic Chinese food and beverage brands, drinks company Yinlu and candy brand Hsu Fu Chi. In all cases, Nestle bought majority control, but not 100 per cent. They kept the founder in place, as CEO and a minority owner.
That has proved a brilliant model for successful M&A in China, and not only at Nestle. When discussing with Chinese business owners the advantages of selling control to a capable global company, we often share details of Nestle’s M&A activity in China, including the fact that the Chinese owner stays but gets to spend Nestle’s money, leverage its resources, to build a giant business. That’s a pretty attractive proposition.
All three acquisitions have thrived under Nestle’s ownership and now enjoy significant market shares. Thanks largely to these acquisitions, China is Nestle’s second-largest market overall. It was number seven just four years ago.
From my discussions with the China M&A team at Nestle, they are frank that it’s not always been smooth sailing. The M&A deals all involved trying to blend one of the world’s most fastidious, slow-moving and more bureaucratic cultures with the free-wheeling, “ready, fire, aim” style common to all Chinese domestic entrepreneurs. Corporate culture gaps could not get any wider. And yet, it’s worked out well, better in fact than Nestle hoped when going in.
Nestle tells us it is hungry to do more acquisitions in China. Chinese still spend half as much on food per capita as Mexicans. That’s where the growth will come from. Market dynamics in China are also moving strongly in Nestle’s favor, as food quality and safety become paramount concerns. Further acquisitions should help Nestle gather in billions more in revenue in China along with higher market shares.
Across multiple industries, the circumstances are similar in China, and so favor smart, bold acquirers. Choose good targets, buy them at a good price, convert great entrepreneurs to great managers and partners, don’t script everything from your far-off global headquarters. Do these right and M&A can work in China. No market cap management required.
(Originally published Financial Times BeyondBrics)
Peter Fuhrman, CEO of China First Capital, explains how the country’s private equity market has struggled with profit returns and the importance of diversified exit strategies. He also predicts the rise of new funds to execute high-yield deals
Date: 05 May 2015
What is China First Capital?
China First Capital is an investment bank and advisory firm with a focus on Greater China. Our business is helping larger Chinese companies, along with a select group of Fortune 500 companies, sustain and enlarge market leadership in the country, by raising capital and advising on strategic M&A. Like our clients, we operate in an opportunity-rich environment. Though realistic about the many challenges China faces as its economy and society evolve, we are as a firm fully convinced there is no better market than China to build businesses of enduring value. China still has so much going for it, with so much more growth and positive change ahead. As someone who first came to China in 1981 as a graduate student, my optimism is perhaps understandable. The positive changes this country has undergone during those years have surpassed by orders of magnitude anything I might have imagined possible.
After a rather long career in the US and Europe, including a stint as CEO of a California venture capital company as well as a venture-backed enterprise software company, I came back to China in 2008 and established China First Capital with a headquarters in Shenzhen, a place I like to think of as the California of China. It has the same mainly immigrant population and, like the Silicon Valley, is home to many leading private sector high-tech companies.
What is happening in China’s private equity (PE) market?
Back in 2008, China’s financial markets, the domestic PE industry, were far less developed. It was, we now can see, a honeymoon period. Hundreds of new PE firms were formed, while the big global players like Blackstone, Carlyle, TPG and KKR all built big new operations in China and raised tons of new money to invest there. From a standing start a decade ago, China PE grew into a colossus, the second-largest PE market in the world. But, it also, almost as quickly, became one of the more troubled. The plans to make quick money investing in Chinese companies right ahead of their planned IPO worked brilliantly for a brief time, then fell apart, as first the US, then Hong Kong and finally China’s own domestic stock exchanges shut the doors to Chinese companies. Things have since improved. IPOs for Chinese companies are back in all three markets. But PE firms are still sitting on thousands of unexited investments. The inevitable result, PE in China has had a disappointing record in the category that ultimately matters most: returning profits to limited partners (LPs).