Xiaomi

Google Returns to China, As a Hardware Company — Financial Times

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The end is in sight for Google’s seven wilderness years in China. With none of the theatrics that accompanied its voluntary withdrawal from the country due to web-search censorship in January 2010, Google is now firmly on a path not only to return to China but also to potentially seize a spot alongside Apple as one of the most profitable tech companies there.

This is a likely outcome of Google’s announcement last week that it is entering with full force the global consumer hardware industry. Google Pixel mobile phones, Google Home artificial intelligence-enabled speakers, Google Daydream View virtual reality headsets, these will be the engines of Google’s revival in China. Based on what Google has so far revealed – including pricing – these products may find a large market among Chinese consumers.

The company has made no specific mention of plans to re-enter China. China’s government will not likely strew the ground with rose petals to welcome Google back.

Instead, Google can rely on China’s enormous grey market for electronics hardware to bring its products into China’s on-and-offline retail network. Hong Kong is usually the main transshipment point, not only because prices are lower than in the PRC, but the quality of hardware sold there is considered to be higher.

There is a precedent here. Apple took six years after the iPhone’s launch to ramp up its official sales channels in China by doing a deal with the main carrier, China Mobile. By that point, an estimated 30m to 50m grey market iPhones were already in use in China.

Mobile phones running Google’s Android system already dominate the Chinese market, with about 300m sold this year. Most are sold unlocked without carrier subsidy. None can freely access Google search, storage or maps. The Google Pixel will likely have similar limitations.

But Pixel will have huge advantages no other Android phone can match of closely integrating the operating system and device hardware to optimise the performance of everything else on the phone.

All of China’s many Android brands will be impacted, but none more so than the current market leader, Huawei. It now dominates the high-end Android market in China, even more so with Samsung’s recent woes. The Pixel will be priced to compete directly with Huawei’s flagship models.

It is not only in its home market of China that Huawei may get battered. It has also set great store on becoming the world’s leading Android phone brand in Europe. That will certainly be far harder to achieve now.

As it happens, Google’s announcement came at a time when just about everyone at Huawei, along with everyone else in China, was enjoying a week-long national holiday. They return to their desks this week to find the tech world disrupted. No one quite predicted Google would amp up its hardware strategy to this level.

Google had toyed around before, selling small volumes of its outsourced Nexus-branded mobile phone to showcase more of Android’s features. Huawei was one of the companies making Nexus phones. Google also bought in 2011 Motorola’s mobile phone business and unloaded it two-and-a-half years later to China’s Lenovo, a deal that has not worked out at all well for the Chinese company.

But, this time Google says it is not dabbling. It defines its future strategy as becoming, like Apple, a fully vertically-integrated hardware and software business, but one with the world’s most powerful system of proprietary voice and text-enabled artificial intelligence.

Google introduced three hardware products last week. More are certain to follow, including perhaps a mid-priced phone that will take aim squarely at China’s Xiaomi (among others), already reeling from falling sales and an inability to crack the more lucrative higher-end Android market.

Google’s advantages run so deep they can seem unfair. Not only does it own and develop the Android software its competitors except Apple rely on, it also already has one of the world’s best and most recognizable brands. Also worth noting, Google now has about $70bn in cash, mainly sitting outside the US, looking for new markets to conquer.

As for the other new Google hardware products – the home speaker and virtual reality (VR) headset – the market seems ripe for the taking. Despite billions of government dollars invested into Chinese companies working on machine-learning, artificial intelligence and VR, none has come to market in any significant way.

Even if they now do, none can match Google’s enormous breadth, capability and experience in human-machine dialogue.

Though a success in the US, Amazon’s Echo home speaker, which is capable of interacting with the human voice, is a non-entity in China. It does not understand spoken Chinese. Google, on the other hand, is quite adept at Chinese. While Google Maps, Gmail, Drive are all blocked in China, Google Translate is not.

Indeed, the Chinese government quietly stopped blocking it about a year ago. It’s the only one of Google’s major online offerings that can be readily accessed in China. The reason: Google Translate has become an essential tool for Chinese companies active internationally, as well as for many of the 150m middle class Chinese now vacationing abroad each year.

If Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, is correct, the world including China is moving from a “mobile-first to an AI-first world”. Google is already miles farther down this path than any Chinese company. It need not reestablish its search engine business in China to be a major force there.

As for China’s government, however it chooses to react to Google hardware products sweeping into China, its own aspirations to nurture globally-competitive indigenous tech companies probably just got a lot harder to achieve.

In the seven years since Google departed, China became in many areas even more of a tech Galapagos. Poised now to reenter China by the back door, Google should like the way the competitive landscape looks there.

If Google takes just 1 per cent of the China Android market – and my prediction is it will do markedly better – it will have $2bn of annual revenues in China, a business larger, more valuable and unassailable than when it pulled out.

Peter Fuhrman is Chairman & CEO of China First Capital, a boutique investment bank

 

As published in the Financial Times

Can Xiaomi Reverse Its Slide in China? — CNBC Interview

 

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From King-of-Mobile to possible also-ran in two short years, China’s Xiaomi is struggling to reclaim its spot at the top of China’s domestic phone market. Here’s my interview on CNBC on the tough challenges Xiaomi faces. Nerves are starting to fray among investors who put money into the company less than two years ago at a $45 billion valuation.

To watch the interview, please click here.

 

Chinese Firms Are Reinventing Private Equity — Nikkei Asian Review

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July 26, 2016  Commentary

Chinese firms are reinventing private equity

Henry Kravis, his cousin George Roberts and his mentor Jerry Kohlberg are generally credited with having invented private equity buyouts after forming KKR 40 years ago. Even after other firms like Blackstone and Carlyle piled in and deals reached mammoth scale, the rules of the buyout game changed little: Select an underperforming company, buy it with lots of borrowed money, cut costs and kick it into shape, then sell out at a big markup, either in an initial public offering or to a strategic buyer.

This has proved a lucrative business that lots of small private equity firms worldwide have sought to copy. China’s domestic buyout funds, however, are trying to reinvent the PE buyout in ways that Kravis would barely recognize. Instead of using fancy financial engineering, leverage and tight operational efficiencies to earn a return, the Chinese firms are counting on Chinese consumers to turn their buyout deals into moneymakers.

Compared to KKR and other global giants, Chinese buyout firms are tiny, new to the game and little known inside China or out. Firms such as AGIC, Golden Brick, PAG, JAC and Hua Capital have billions of dollars at their disposal to buy international companies. Within the last year, these five have successfully led deals to acquire large technology and computer hardware companies in the U.S. and Europe, including the makers of Lexmark printers, OmniVision semiconductors and the Opera web browser.

So what’s up here? The Chinese government is urgently seeking to upgrade the country’s manufacturing and technology base. The goal is to sustain manufacturing profits as domestic costs rise and sales slow worldwide for made-in-China industrial products. The government is pouring money into supporting more research and development. It is also spreading its bets by providing encouragement and sometimes cash to Chinese investment companies to buy U.S. and European companies with global brands and valuable intellectual property.

While the hope is that acquired companies will help China move out of the basement of the global supply chain, the buyout funds have a more immediate goal in sight, namely a huge expansion of the acquired companies’ sales within China.

This is where the Chinese buyout firms differ so fundamentally from their global counterparts. They aren’t focusing much on streamlining acquired operations, shaving costs and improving margins. Instead, they plan to leave things more or less unchanged at each target company’s headquarters while seeking to bolt on a major new source of revenues that was either ignored or poorly managed.

So for example, now that the Lexmark printer business is Chinese-owned, the plan will be to push growth in China and capture market share from domestic manufacturers that lack a well-known global brand and proprietary technologies. With OmniVision Technologies, the plan will be to aggressively build sales to China’s domestic mobile phone producers such as Huawei Technologies, Oppo Electronics and Xiaomi.

The China Android phone market is the biggest in the world.  Omnivision used to be the main supplier of mobile phone camera sensor chips to the Apple iPhone, but lost much of the business to Sony.

In launching last year the $1.8bn takeover of then then Nasdaq-quoted Omnivision, Hua Capital took on significant and unhedgeable risk. The deal needed the approval of the US Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States, also known as CFIUS. This somewhat-shadowy interagency body vets foreign takeovers of US companies to decide if US national security might be compromised. CFIUS has occasionally blocked deals by Chinese acquirers where the target had patents and other know-how that might potentially have non-civilian applications.

CFIUS also arrogates to itself approval rights over takeovers by Chinese companies of non-US businesses, if the target has some presence in the US. It used this justification to block the $2.8 billion takeover by Chinese buyout fund GO Scale Capital of 80% of the LED business of Netherlands-based Philips. CFIUS acted almost a year after GO Scale and Philips first agreed to the deal. All the time and money spent by GO Scale with US and Dutch lawyers, consultants and accountants to conclude the deal went down the drain. CFIUS rulings cannot be readily appealed.

Worrying about CFIUS approval isn’t something KKR or Blackstone need do, but it’s a core part of the workload at Chinese buyout funds. Hua Capital ultimately got the okay to buy Omnivision five months after announcing the deal to the US stock exchange.

The Chinese buyout firms see their role as encouraging and assisting acquired companies to build their business in China. This often boils down to business development and market access consulting. Global buyout firms say they also do some similar work on behalf of acquired companies, but it is never their primary strategy for making a buyout financially successful.

Chinese buyout funds count on two things happening to make a decent return on their overseas deals. First is a boost in revenues and profits from China. Second, the funds have to sell down their stake for a higher price than they paid. The favored route on paper has been to seek an IPO in China where valuations can be the highest in the world. This path always had its complications since it generally required a minimum three-year waiting period before submitting an application to join what is now a 900-company-long IPO waiting list.

The IPO route has gotten far more difficult this year. The Chinese government delivered a one-two punch, first scrapping its previous plan to open a new stock exchange board in Shanghai for Chinese-owned international companies, then moving to shut down backdoor market listings through reverse mergers.

The main hope for buyout funds seeking deal exits now is to sell to Chinese listed companies. In some cases, the buyout funds have enlisted such companies from the start as minority partners in their company takeovers. This isn’t a deal structure one commonly runs across outside China, but may prove a brilliant strategy to prepare for eventual exits.

There is one other important way in which the new Chinese buyout funds differ from their global peers. They don’t know the meaning of the term “hostile takeover.” Chinese buyout funds seek to position themselves as loyal friends and generous partners of a business’s current owners. A lot of sellers, especially among family-controlled companies in Europe, say they prefer to sell to a gentle pair of hands — someone who promises to build on rather than gut what they have put together. Chinese buyout funds sing precisely this soothing tune, opening up some deal-making opportunities that may be closed to KKR, Blackstone, Carlyle and other global buyout giants.

The global firms are also finding it harder to compete with Chinese buyout funds for deals within China, even though they have raised more than $10 billion in new funds over the last six years to put into investments in the country. They have basically been shut out of the game lately because they can’t and won’t bid up valuations to the levels to which domestic funds are willing to go.

The global buyout giants won’t be too concerned that they face an existential threat from their new Chinese competitors. It is also unlikely that they will adopt similar deal strategies. Instead, they are getting busy now prettying up companies they have previously bought in the U.S. and Europe. They will hope to sell some to Chinese buyers. Along with offering genial negotiations and a big potential market in China, the Chinese buyout funds are also gaining renown for paying large premiums on every deal. No one ever said that about Henry Kravis.

Peter Fuhrman is the founder, chairman and CEO of China First Capital, an investment bank based in Shenzhen.

Abridged version as published in Nikkei Asian Review

China’s Xiaomi Under Pressure to Prove Value to Investors — Wall Street Journal

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Xiaomi’s Redmi 2 smartphones on display during a launch in Brazil in June, 2015.
Xiaomi’s Redmi 2 smartphones on display during a launch in Brazil in June, 2015. Photo: Reuters

BEIJING—In January 2015, Xiaomi Corp. founder Lei Jun announced to his staff in an open letter that the Chinese smartphone maker was the world’s most valuable technology startup.

“We will journey into the constellations, to places where others haven’t dreamed of,” he wrote.

Living up to those high expectations has been a challenge. Xiaomi missed its 2015 sales target of 80 million smartphones, according to people familiar with the company, and investors are beginning to question its $46 billion valuation, which was based on yet unrealized plans to generate substantial revenue from Internet services.

China’s economic slowdown, coupled with turbulence in the stock market, is prompting investors to take a second look at China’s high startup valuations. Startups such as Xiaomi, which raised vast sums on China’s mobile Internet boom, are now facing growing pressure to live up to expectations.

“With China’s economy slowing, many startups will need to be more cautious in their expansion strategies,” said Nicole Peng, an analyst for market research firm Canalys.

Xiaomi shot to the top of China’s smartphone market in 2014 with the novel idea of selling hardware by gathering a large user base, a business model usually favored by Internet companies, not those selling a physical product. Sales that year tripled to 61 million smartphones, compared with a year earlier. Mr. Lei cultivated fan clubs and used “flash sales” to sell smartphones with iPhone-rivaling hardware at a fraction of the price. He swallowed thin margins, betting he could later sell services to users.

Investors swooned. In December 2014, Xiaomi raised a $1.1 billion round that valued it at $46 billion, topping even ride-sharing startup Uber Technologies Inc. at the time, although Uber has since regained the lead.

But Xiaomi’s smartphones, which once sold out in minutes in limited batches via online flash sales, are now easily available—a shift that analysts say signals slowing demand.

A slowdown in China’s smartphone market has laid bare Xiaomi’s weaknesses.

Xiaomi has lost market share against established competitors with more financial and technological firepower, such as Huawei Technologies Co., which launched a high-end smartphone line and overtook Xiaomi as China’s top handset maker in the third quarter 2015, according to research firm Canalys.

Huawei, which sold more than 100 million mobile devices last year, is beefing up its marketing in overseas markets in a bid to challenge Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. , the world’s two biggest smartphone makers. Huawei’s engineering strength and brand image built up over decades make it difficult for Xiaomi to compete in China, analysts say.

“The competition in China’s smartphone market has intensified tremendously this year,” said a Xiaomi spokeswoman, who declined to comment on the company’s valuation or say whether it met its 2015 sales target. She said Xiaomi sales were “within expectations” and its flash sales are primarily for new phones when production ramps up.

The lack of its own high-end chip technology also proved to be a competitive disadvantage for Xiaomi in 2015. When early versions of the Qualcomm Inc. ’s Snapdragon 810 processor were reported to overheat, it dampened sales of Xiaomi’s most expensive handset yet, the 2,299 yuan (US$349) Mi Note, analysts said. Xiaomi couldn’t fall back on an in-house developed chip to get around the problem, as Huawei and Samsung did.

Xiaomi and Qualcomm declined to comment on the processor. Analysts say the problems have since been fixed.

Overseas growth has also been slow for Xiaomi, with the percentage of its smartphones sold overseas in the first nine months of 2015 rising to 8%, compared with 7% in the 2014 calendar year, according to Canalys. It faced tough competition overseas, and found consumers unaccustomed to online phone-buying, said Ms. Peng, the analyst from Canalys.

Xiaomi’s thin patent portfolio also became a hurdle as it sought to expand in markets such as India. A lack of patents led to a court ruling that crimped its access to the crucial India market. In December 2014, India’s Delhi High Court ordered Xiaomi to stop selling all smartphones not running on Qualcomm chips due to a patent lawsuit filed by Sweden’s Ericsson. A year later, the injunction remains, which means Xiaomi can’t sell its popular models running chips made by Taiwanese chip maker MediaTek Inc.

Xiaomi said it sold 3 million smartphones in India from July 2014 through August 2015, and 1 million smartphones there in the third quarter. Its average quarter-over-quarter growth is 45%, it said.

The lack of a diversified customer base is another challenge for Xiaomi. It remains “locked in a Chinese demographic ghetto of mainly males 18 to 30,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China-focused boutique investment bank China First Capital. Xiaomi’s focus on low prices has hit its brand image, he said.

Xiaomi’s average smartphone price fell to $122 in the third quarter from $160 a year earlier, despite China’s smartphone sector moving upmarket, according to IDC. The average price of a smartphone in China rose to $240 from $202. Huawei’s rose to $209 from $201. Xiaomi’s best-selling model last year was its cheapest, the $76 Redmi 2A, IDC analyst James Yan said.

Xiaomi’s supporters say the outlook is still bright, as it shifts to building an ecosystem of smart home products. The company has invested in 56 startups so far, ranging from iconic scooter maker Segway to a manufacturer of air purifiers, essential in China’s smog-choked cities.

“Xiaomi’s promise lies in its ecosystem,” said Steven Hu, former partner in Xiaomi investor Qiming Venture Partners.

But others are skeptical.

“Mobile services, e-commerce, branded consumer products—these still are largely just a figment rather than a huge and growing source of profits that could validate last year’s sky-high valuation,” said Mr. Fuhrman.

 

http://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-xiaomi-under-pressure-to-prove-value-to-investors-1452454204

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Xiaomi’s $45 Billion Valuation Seen `Unfeasible’ as Growth Cools — Bloomberg

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Xiaomi’s $45 Billion Valuation Seen `Unfeasible’ as Growth Cools

By Tim Culpan

November 25, 2015 — 7:00 PM HKT

Things were going so well for Xiaomi Corp. Customers were lining up, investors were swooning and the Beijing-based startup closed funding at a $45 billion valuation. That was last year.

Now the high-flying smartphone maker is stumbling. Founder Lei Jun’s latest business, one of China’s most exciting startup stories of the past few years, is likely to miss its own goal of selling 80 million smartphones this year, according to two people with knowledge of its production plans. Suppliers also cut their internal targets for Xiaomi in anticipation of the shortfall, they said.
Xiaomi’s falter shows the startup’s challenge in trying to maintain momentum after a meteoric ascent past Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. in China. Investors bought into the company’s story of youthful disruption and online sales, yet the subsequent lowering of China’s growth target and the copying of its sales strategy by rivals have neutralized Xiaomi’s first-mover advantage, putting its high price tag in doubt.

“All those expectations of growth aren’t being realized, which now makes that $45 billion valuation unfeasible,” said Alberto Moel, an analyst at Sanford C Bernstein in Hong Kong. “The argument was that their business is kind of like Apple and they’re growing very fast, but they’re no longer growing so fast and they’re not as good as Apple.”
Shipments Drop

Xiaomi doesn’t provide exact shipment targets to its suppliers, instead working on a real-time basis with orders fulfilled as they come in on Xiaomi’s website. Yet the companies tasked with preparing the components and capacity to meet Xiaomi’s needs have started scaling back production and diverting resources elsewhere, said the people, who have knowledge of the supply chain and asked not to be identified because the details are private.

Domestic shipments of Xiaomi smartphones, including its premium Mi 4 and more economical Redmi series, dropped 8 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier, its first-ever decline, according to researcher Canalys. IHS, another research firm, estimates that Xiaomi shipments dropped 3.9 percent, barely maintaining the lead over Huawei Technologies Co.

That’s a big change from the bold growth projections used to justify Xiaomi’s tag as one of the world’s most-valuable technology startups. In March of last year, Lei predicted selling 100 million smartphones in 2015. Through the first nine months of this year, Xiaomi shipped about 53 million smartphones.

With its optimistic forecast, Xiaomi secured $1.1 billion in December from investors including GIC Pte., All-Stars Investment Ltd. and DST. Xiaomi drew comparisons to Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the Chinese e-commerce company that months earlier held the largest initial public offering ever.

‘Hype, Hope’

At 3.75 times last year’s $12 billion in revenue, Xiaomi’s fundraising gave it a price-to-sales ratio exceeding that of Apple, which currently trades at 2.9.

That pricing of Xiaomi does not seem to have been based on any known or accepted valuation methodology, said Peter Fuhrman, chairman and CEO of China First Capital. “Hype and hope seem to have been the two key drivers,” he said.

In March, after that round of funding and after China set its lowest growth target in 15 years, Lei trimmed his earlier prediction to “80 million to 100 million” units for the year.

Its first year-on-year decline came during a quarter when Xiaomi released its Redmi Note 2, a lower-priced handset that sold for an average of 801 yuan ($125) each. On Tuesday it unveiled a metallic version of that phone with a fingerprint sensor, as well as a new tablet computer and air purifier.

‘Substantial’ Market

Growth might be reignited in the fourth quarter by China’s Nov. 11 Singles’ Day shopping promotions and the latest version of the Redmi Note. The company, which traditionally unveils an update to its marquee Mi smartphones during the third quarter, hasn’t yet announced a Mi 5 after last year’s Mi 4.

“I am not concerned about the valuation because, over time, their market is substantial,” said Hans Tung, managing partner at Xiaomi investor GGV Capital in Menlo Park, Calif. “Over the next 12 months, it’ll become increasingly obvious what Xiaomi is doing in the smart home and services space.”

Hugo Barra, a Xiaomi vice president, declined to comment on shipment targets or valuations and referred questions to Chief Financial Officer Shou Zi Chew, who didn’t reply to an e-mail seeking comment.

Xiaomi eschews the label of smartphone maker, claiming instead to be an “Internet company” furnishing a range of devices and online services. Xiaomi and its affiliates sell TVs, air filters, battery packs, action cameras, fitness trackers and even a self-balancing scooter. Its non-hardware offerings include games, payments, mobile-phone services and cloud storage.

No Loyalty

It’s those other products, such as the Mi Air Purifier 2 released this week, which Tung sees helping Xiaomi expand its sales and keeping consumers coming back to an ecosystem that connects home devices to the Internet and through mobile apps.

The ancillary businesses are still relatively small, with the company expecting the services units to account for just $1 billion of its $16 billion in projected revenue this year, Barra said in a July interview. Sales of smartphones outside China accounted for just 7 percent of its total in the third quarter, according to Strategy Analytics.

Xiaomi has struggled partly because competitors Huawei, Lenovo Group Ltd. and Gionee — among others — quickly copied its business model with ultra-thin devices, glossy websites and lower prices, allowing consumers to easily switch to the hippest new phone.

“Xiaomi was very popular because it was the first brand that marketed its phones as being limited edition,” said Chen Si, a 25-year-old real estate worker in Beijing who bought the Mi 3 after its 2013 release, citing its cool design. “I wouldn’t say I am loyal to Xiaomi, I just think that a phone should be affordable and easy to use. If not, then I’ll just change.”

A year later, she switched to the iPhone 6.

 

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-11-25/xiaomi-s-45-billion-valuation-seen-unfeasible-as-growth-cools

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The Hidden Unicorn: China Venture Capital Fails to Spot OnePlus

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Missed investment opportunities are rarely this glaring. Despite having hundreds of firms managing billions of dollars and employing thousands of people all supposedly out scouring China for the next big thing, China’s venture capital industry not only failed to invest in the single-most successful startup in recent Chinese history, mobile phone manufacturer OnePlus, most failed even to take note of the company’s existence. Meantime, a fair chunk of the tech savvy population of Europe and the US was enduring long waits and by-invitation-only rationing system to buy one of its prized mobile phones.

Since its founding less than a year-and-a-half ago, OnePlus went from bootstrap startup to likely “unicorn” (a billion-dollar-plus valuation) faster than any company in Chinese history. Unlike China’s other unicorns — Xiaomi, Meituan, newly-merged Kuaidi and Didi Dache and drone maker DJI Innovations — OnePlus hasn’t yet raised a penny of VC or private equity money.

With its first phones going on sale just one year ago, OnePlus has racked up a rate of growth as well as a level of brand awareness in Europe and the US never seen before from a new Chinese electronics manufacturer. OnePlus is the real deal. Revenues last year from May through December were $300mn. This year, OnePlus is on track to surpass $1 billion in sales, mainly in the highly-competitive US and European mobile phone market.

Over roughly that same period, China PE and VC firms invested over $15 billion in 1,300 Chinese firms, many also operating in the mobile industry, either as manufacturers or service providers. Needless to say, not a single one of these VC-backed startups has performed as well over the last year as OnePlus, nor created half as much buzz.

If China venture capital has a big fat blind spot it’s for companies like OnePlus. That’s because China venture capital —  which now trails only the US in the number of firms and capital raised —  is most comfortable backing Chinese companies that copy a US online business model and then tweak it around the edges to make it more suitable to the China market.

OnePlus couldn’t be more dissimilar. It is disruptive, not imitative. It takes a special kind of venture investor to recognize and then throw money behind this kind of business. OnePlus’s bold idea was to compete globally, but especially in the US and European markets, against very large and very rich incumbents —Samsung, Google, LG, Motorola, HTC — by building a phone that targets their perceived weak spots. As OnePlus sees it, those competitors’ phones were too expensive, too slow, of middling quality and the Android software they run too difficult to customize. At the same time, OnePlus sought to turn the sales model in the US and Europe on its head: no retail, no carrier subsidy, phones built-to-order after the customer had paid. Until a month ago, only those with an invitation were allowed to buy.

Nothing quite like it had ever been attempted. Will OnePlus continue its ascent or eventually crash-and-burn along with other once high-flying mobile brands like Blackberry and Nokia? Whichever happens, it’s already achieved more with less than any Chinese company competing for market share in the US and Europe. That augurs well.

From my discussions with OnePlus’s 25 year-old co-founder Carl Pei, it seems few China-based venture firms sought out the company and those that did failed to make much of an impact. The company instead opted to run on a shoestring, by cutting the need for working capital by building phones only after the customer paid. They also economized on marketing and advertising, typically where much venture money gets burnt.

OnePlus spent a total of about USD$10,000 on advertising. Instead, it poured its effort and ingenuity into building a mass following on the three major US social media platforms, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook. There’s no better, cheaper or more difficult way now to establish a brand and build revenues than getting lots of praise on these social networks. OnePlus’s success at this dwarves anything previously achieved by other Chinese companies. Compared to Xiaomi, OnePlus has double the Facebook likes, four times the Twitter followers and five times more Youtube subscribers. All three, of course, remain blocked inside China itself.

Sales of OnePlus phones also got an immeasurable boost from a string of flattering reviews in some of the most influential newspapers and tech blogs in the US and Europe.

Having reached a likely billion-dollar-plus valuation and billion-dollar revenue run-rate as a very lean company, OnePlus is now near closing on its first round of venture finance. But, it is planning to raise money in Silicon Valley, not from a VC firm in China. DJI just opted for a similar strategy, raising $75 million from Accel Partners of Palo Alto at an $8 billion valuation to expand its sales and production of consumer and commercial drones. DJI, like OnePlus, is based in China’s high-tech hub, Shenzhen.

One can see a pattern here. Many of China’s more successful and globalized companies prefer to raise money outside China, either by listing shares abroad, as Alibaba did last year, or raising money direct from US venture firms. US-based venture firms were early investors in Baidu, New Oriental Education and Ctrip , all of which later went on to become multi-billion-dollar market cap companies listed in New York.

Why do so many of China’s best companies choose to raise money outside China, despite the fact there’s now so much money available here and valuations are often much higher in China than outside? I have my theories. One thing is indisputable: being local hasn’t conferred much if any advantage to China’s venture capital industry.

Being China’s hidden unicorn hasn’t evidently done OnePlus much harm. It has revealed, though, some blinkered vision at China’s venture capital firms.

 

China’s Most Successful Startup?

 

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OnePlus Never Settle

China’s most successful startup?

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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.

Engadget smartphone rankingIn 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.

http://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Companies/China-s-most-successful-startup

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China High-Tech: giant ambitions can’t disguise a disappointing record of achievement

China innovation

China high-tech achievements

“China, the innovation nation. With nine times more engineering graduates and more patents filed each year than in the US, China is transitioning quickly away from its roots as a copycat, knockoff economy to become a potent new high-tech power.” By now, we’ve all read the headlines, heard the hype. China’s high-tech ambitions were part of the sales pitch used in Alibaba’s successful US IPO last month.

No story about China, no prediction about China’s future gets more attention or more traction from consultants, authors, policy analysts. It encapsulates the unanimous hopes of China’s leadership, and the fears of America’s. “China is now standing at a critical stage in that its economic growth must be driven by innovation,” declared China’s ruling State Council in May this year.

While China is certainly making strides the reality is sobering. For all the hype, the government policies and cash, China remains a high-tech disappointment, more dud than ascending rocket. As a banker living and running a business in China, I very much wish it were otherwise. But, I see no concrete evidence of a major change underway. The best the many boosters can offer is, “give it more time and it’s bound to happen”. In other words, they make their case unfalsifiable, by saying today’s China’s tech famine will turn into a feast, if only we are prepared to stand by the empty banquet table long enough.

Unlike a lot of those forecasting China’s inevitable rise to technology superpowerdom, I’ve actually met and talked with hundreds of Chinese tech companies, and before that run a California venture capital firm with investments in the US, Israel and Europe. I’ve also run a high-tech enterprise software company in the US that used proprietary technology to gain leading market position and ultimately a high price from an acquirer when we sold the business. So, I’ve been around the tech world a fair bit, both in China and elsewhere. Rule number one: deal with the facts in front of you, not wishful thinking. Rule number two: a high-tech economy is not a quotient of national IQ, national will, national urgency or national subsidies. If it were, China might well by now be at the epicenter of global innovation.

High-tech is meant to be a savior of China’s economy, delivering higher levels of affluence in the future and an escape from the so-called “middle income trap” that has slowed growth elsewhere in Asia. But saviors have a nasty habit of never arriving.

Let’s start with perhaps the most glaring weakness: China’s failed efforts, despite momentous efforts across more than a decade, to reach even the first rung of high-tech engineering competence by designing and serially producing jet engines.

Military power both requires and underpins high-tech success.  Any doubt about this was eliminated by the collapse of USSR. I was fortunate to have a front-row seat for that event. During the 1980s and 1990s, as a Forbes journalist, I spent a lot of time in the USSR surveying both its military and civilian industries, its indigenous technology base. I was one of the few who got to spend time, for example, inside the secret Soviet rocket program, including visiting main factories where its rockets and space station were built. The rocket program was for decades the pinnacle of Soviet tech achievement.

But, it proved to have little overall spinoff benefit for USSR economy. It was a dead-end. Note: the Soviet Union then, like China now, had far more engineers and engineering graduates than the US.

As I wrote back in the 1990s, US’s military supremacy rests as much on Intel and Broadcom as it does on Lockheed Martin fighter jets and GD nuclear submarines. The US has a huge fast-adopter civilian technology market with strong competitive dynamics, something China is without. This means US military then and now can procure the best chips, best integrated software and systems cheaply and quickly from companies that are mainly serving the civilian market. The Soviet Union had no civilian high-tech industry, no market forces. The Soviet military was exposed as a technology pauper by the 1989 Iraq War.

China is different and better off in so many ways. It now manufactures a lot of the world’s most advanced civilian high-tech electronics products. This gives China huge advantages USSR never had. All the same, the USSR by the mid-1950s was producing jet engines for military and civilian use. To this day, China relies on Russia, using Soviet-successor technologies, for its advanced military jet engines. Russian jet engines are generally considered a generation at least behind the best ones manufactured now in the US, France, UK.

China’s inability to make its own advanced jet engines casts light on problems China has, and likely will continue to have, developing a globally-competitive indigenous technology base.  In the case of jet engines, the problems are at manufacturing level (difficulty to serially produce minute-tolerance machinery), at the materials level (lack of special alloys) at the industrial level (only one designated monopoly aircraft engine producer in China, so no competitive dynamic as in the US between GE and P&W).

A recent report on China’s jet engine industry puts the technology gap in stark terms.  “In some areas,” it concludes, “Chinese engine makers are roughly three decades behind their U.S. peers.”

This challenge, to bring all the parts together in a high-technology manufacturing project, is also evident in China’s failure, up to now, to develop and sell globally domestically-developed advanced integrated circuits, pharmaceuticals, new materials. In drug development, China by some estimates has spent over $10 billion on pharmaceutical research and up to now has had only one domestically-developed drug accepted in the global market, the modestly-successful anti-malarial treatment Qinghaosu (artemisinin). Interestingly, it is derived from an herbal medicine used for two thousand years in China to treat malaria. The drug was first synthesized by Chinese researchers in 1972.

It’s simply not enough to count engineers and patents, or the content of government technology-promotion policies. China lacks so many of the basic building blocks of high-tech development. Included here is a mature, experienced venture capital industry staffed by professional entrepreneurs and technologists, not MBAs. A transparent judicial system is also essential, not only for protecting IP, but managing the contractual process that allows companies to put money at risk over long-periods to achieve a return. Non-Disclosure and Non-Compete agreements, a backbone of the technology industry in the US, are basically unenforceable in China. Not just here in China, but anywhere this is the case you can about kiss goodbye big-time technology innovation.

While ignoring the troubling lessons of China’s failure to produce a jet engine (as well as jet brakes and advanced radar systems) the boosters of China’s bright tech future these days most often cite two mobile phone-related businesses as signs of China’s innovation. The two are Xiaomi mobile phones, and Tencent‘s WeChat service. Both have had great success in the last year, including getting some traction in markets outside China. Look a little deeper and there’s less to be positive about.

Xiaomi is a handset manufacturer that now has a market valuation of over $10 billion, higher than just about any other mobile phone manufacturer. It relies, though, on the same group of mainly-US companies (Broadcom, Qualcomm, Google) for its phones. They, along with UK chip-maker ARM and non-Chinese screen manufacturers, are the ones making the real money on all Android phones. In addition, Xiaomi’s phones as are many cases manufactured by Taiwanese company Foxconn. As of now, China has no domestic company that can achieve Foxconn’s levels of quality at low manufacturing cost. Foxconn does this from factories in China. Its superior management systems for high-volume high-quality production also underscore another critical area where China’s domestic technology industry is weak.

With WeChat, it’s done some impressive things, in signing up over 300 million users. The basic application is similar to that of Facebook‘s WhatsApp and others. Its real technology strength is in its back end, in building and managing the servers to store all the content that is sent across WeChat, including a huge amount of video and audio files.

Whatsapp doesn’t have similar capacity. In fact, it points with pride to the fact it doesn’t backup for storage any Whatsapp customers’ conversations. Tencent does this because it’s required to do so by Chinese internet rules and government’s policies to monitor internet content. Tencent might be able to commercialize and sell globally its backend storage architecture, but it’s not clear anyone would be interested to own it. It’s a technology that evolved from specific Chinese requirements, not market demand.

Earlier this year I spoke on a panel at a conference in Shanghai of the global bio-manufacturing industry. This is precisely the sort of area where China most needs to up its game. Bio-manufacturing relies on a combination of first-rate science, cutting-edge manufacturing techniques and far-sighted management. After all the talk and the establishment of dozens of government-funded high-tech pharmaceutical science parks across China, the simple verdict was China has yet to achieve any real success in this industry.

China is not alone, of course, in having its difficulties nurturing a globally-competitive indigenous technology industry. In their time, most of the world’s advanced major economies have all tried — Germany, France, Japan, UK. All lavished government subsidies to foster domestic innovation. All made technology a policy priority. Yet, all have basically failed. If anything, the US is now more dominant in high-technology than it was at any earlier time in history. The US is home to most of the companies earning high margins, market shares and license fees for their proprietary technology.

China has already achieved what no other country has: in the course of a single generation, it has achieved the highest-ever sustained rate of growth, and so lifted hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty. This achievement shows the capabilities of the Chinese people, the far-sighted and pragmatic skills of its policy-makers. Both will continue to deliver benefits for China for decades to come.

For China, becoming a tech power is neither certain nor impossible. Progress can be hurt more than helped by those who engage more in hype, in predicting certain outcomes, rather than critically assess the impediments, and learn lessons from the failed efforts so many other countries have had in developing a technology industry. New thinking about innovation, and how to encourage it in China, is still lacking.