Two years have passed since Snap Inc first struck a deal with Baidu that authorized China’s largest search engine to be a reseller of Snapchat ads for companies in Greater China as well as Japan and South Korea, where Baidu runs a portfolio of mobile apps.
This week, the pair announced they have renewed the sales partnership without revealing how revenues are divided between the two and when the extended agreement expires.
Despite being blocked in China like most other western social media services, Snap has shown interest in China in various capacities, including a research and development center in Shenzhen for Spectacles. It’s also serving the country’s game developers, e-commerce merchants and other export-led advertisers who wish to capture the network’s 190 million daily active users around the world.
None of the western social giants can go it alone in China, which is why Snap chose Baidu to be its local partner to not only overcome regulatory restrictions on foreign entities but also tap the latter for language support, account management and an extensive advertiser network.
Through the deal, companies that purchase media through Baidu gain access to all forms of ad slots in Snap’s videos, real-time selfie effects, overlays and more. The return can be satisfying. Besides the opportunity to capture a predominantly young user base, advertisers are reaching a sticky group who, on average, opens Snapchat over 20 times and spends over 30 minutes on the app every day.
“With its young, vibrant user base, Snap’s advertising platform has been instrumental in driving growth for our game AFK Arena,” said Chris Zhang, vice president of Shanghai-based Lilith Games, in a statement.
“Our partnership with Snap Inc. provides Chinese companies new avenues to expand their businesses through Snapchat advertising,” said Sheng Hu, head of U.S. strategy and partnership at Baidu’s Global Business Unit that operates a range of overseas products such as Japanese keyboard app Simeji. “We look forward to connecting with marketing executives in China and beyond on behalf of Snap to discuss the benefits of these advertising solutions.”
When Chinese internet companies seek initial public offerings, they tend to look to the United States where rules for profitability are less strict. SMZDM, an online shopping guide that few people outside China have heard of, has joined a small rank of internet startups that are trading on public markets in mainland China.
SMZDM, short for Shen Me Zhi De Mai or “what’s worth buying” in Chinese, saw its shares soar nearly 44% on its first day of trading in Shenzhen. After pricing its IPO at 28.42 yuan ($4.13) and opening the day at 34.1 yuan, SMZDM closed at 40.92 yuan. This values the company at about 2.18 billion yuan ($320 million).
The company is raising 330 million yuan from the public offering and plans to spend the money on upgrading its big data capabilities so it can deliver more personalized content and services to users.
Before applying for an A-share listing on China’s main bourses, firms generally need a three-year track record of profitability, though the country has made progress to smooth the way for loss-making, high-potential tech firms. SMZDM clocked (in Chinese) net income of 19.35 million yuan ($2.81 million), 35.16 million yuan and 86.24 million yuan in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Its revenue climbed from 97.29 million in 2015 to 367 million yuan in 2017.
Since its founding nine years ago, SMZDM has only raised from one institutional investor, China Growth Capital. Why sell shares to the public when the company was already earning good money?
“For an internet startup to keep attracting talents, it needs to have a transparent corporate structure and an employee stock ownership plan,” Wu Haiyan, managing partner at China Growth Capital, told TechCrunch in an interview. “Of course, going public is another way to raise capital.”
SMZDM began life as founder Sui Guodong’s blog where he reviewed a range of gadgets as a pastime. Over time, the WordPress site blossomed into a public platform where people share guides to purchasing products of all sorts — from baby milk formula to Nikon’s latest lens — and where to get the best deal. When a transaction happens on its partnering marketplaces, SMZDM gets a commission.
The model means shopping guides like SMZDM rely overwhelmingly on shopping portals for success and are susceptible to the changes at the e-commerce behemoths. Indeed, over 85% of SMZDM’s commission and marketing revenues in 2018 came from Alibaba, JD.com, Amazon and its other major clients.
For now, at least, Alibaba and the like seem to show enough interest in third-party product review sites. As Wu argued, “the heart of e-commerce portals is to drive sales instead of building a community for giving and receiving unbiased feedback,” which is SMZDM’s value proposition. The key performance index of an online community, she added, is the level of user interaction and amount of content they generate.
That’s why both Alibaba and Tencent — which has backed e-commerce companies JD.com, Pinduoduo and Mogu — threw money at Xiaohongshu (“The Little Red Book” in Chinese), a part marketplace, part social media platform for learning lifestyle trends.
While shoppers on Xiaohongshu are predominantly female as is the case with most Chinese e-commerce services, over half of SMZDM’s users are male, a result largely attributable to its abundant content about hardware and home appliances.
That library of product reviews, Wu argues, is what sets SMZDM apart from its competitors.
“Building any community takes time and capital alone can’t help it grow,” the investor observed. “People stay for high-quality content and interaction with like-minded users. When a community starts to have its own vibe, people will stick around.”
Just two years ago, investors were heavily pouring money into China’s dockless bike-sharing startups. Now that boom has busted with derelict bikes littering the streets of cities.
Meanwhile, a new race has started for two-wheelers with motors — and one of the main players is a survivor from the bike-sharing craze. Blessed with fundings from the world’s most valuable fintech company Ant Financial through its Series D to F funding rounds, Hellobike provides a range of mobility services such as shared e-bikes and rented electric scooters to its 230 million registered users.
Hellobike first launched in 2016 by deploying shared bikes in smaller cities and towns — where Ofo and Mobike were largely absent early on — rather than large urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai. This allowed Hellobike to largely avoid the cash splurging competition against Ofo and Mobike.
“When the two major powers were at war, neither of them went after electric bikes. They were fighting over bicycles,” Hellobike’s chief financial officer Fischer Chen (pictured above) recently told TechCrunch at Rise conference in Hong Kong, referring to the feud between Mobike and Ofo. “As such, there was no price war for e-bikes from the outset. The competition is rational.”
Electric two-wheeled vehicles are in high demand in the country where nearly 1.4 billion people live. According to data collected by Hellobike, nearly 300 million rides are completed on analog bikes every day in China. What many don’t realize is that pedal-assist electric bikes and pedal-free scooters together more than double that number, generating 700 million rides per day.
As with bicycles, there are benefits to rent rather than buy an electric bike in China. For one, users don’t need to worry about getting their assets stolen. Second — and, this is specific to electric vehicles — finding a safe, convenient charging spot can be a challenge in China.
That’s why Hellobike put up charging stations as it went about offering shared ebikes in 2017. At these kiosks, riders swap their battery out for a new one without having to plug in and wait. They then have the option to pay with Alipay, Ant’s mobile wallet with a one-billion user base.
Of all the monthly two-wheeler electric bikes activity in China, Hellobike has captured 80% of the market share, Chen claims. For bike-sharing, it accounts for 60-70%. It’s hard to verify the share by looking at data compiled by third-party app trackers, for they don’t usually break out the user number for individual features. The Hellobike app is a one-stop-shop for bicycles, e-bikes, e-scooters as well as carpooling, a service complementary to its main two-wheeler business intended to “capture price-sensitive small-town consumers” according to Chen.
Similarly, Mobike has been folded into Meituan’s all-in-one service app. What further complicates the inquiry is some of Hellobike’s rides are accessed directly on Alipay rather than its own app.
When it comes to competition in electric two-wheelers, Chen maintained that other challengers are “relatively small” and that acquiring online users has become “very difficult.” For Hellobike, getting existing customers to try out new features takes as much effort as “adding a new tab to its app,” Chen suggested.
What’s for certain is that Hellobike has big ambitions for electric micromobility. While shared bikes and e-bikes are meant for one-off uses, Hellobike plans to rent out e-scooters for longer swathes of time as many people might want the powered-up vehicles for their daily commute.
Hellobike’s electric scooter. Caption: “App-enabled lock. Smart anti-theft. Real-time location tracking for checking the vehicle’s status.” / Photo: Hellobike homepage
Hellobike founded a new joint venture last month to fulfill that demand. Joining forces with Ant — which is controlled by Alibaba founder Jack Ma — and China’s top battery manufacturer CATL, Hellobike is launching a rental marketplace for its 25 km/h e-scooters targeted at millions of migrant workers in Chinese cities.
“People might be able to afford an e-scooter that costs several thousand yuan [$1 = 6.88yuan], but they might be leaving the city after a year, so why would they buy it? So we come in as a third-party partner with a new rental model through which people pay about 200 yuan a month to use the scooter,” explained Chen. “By doing so, we convert people from buying vehicles to paying for services, renting the vehicles.”
The three shareholders will also work to install more battery-swapping stations nationwide that not only recharge Hellobike’s shared e-bikes but also its e-scooters, that will be made by manufacturing partners.
“We function as a platform and won’t compete with traditional scooter manufacturers,” suggested Chen. “They still get to use their own designs and SKUs [stock keeping units], but we will put smart hardware into their models… so users know where their vehicles are… and they can unlock the scooters with a QR code just like they do with a shared bike or e-bike.”
Hellboke has raised at least $1.8 billion to date, according to public data compiled by Crunchbase. Bloomberg reported in April that it was seeking to raise at least $500 million in a new funding round. The company declined to comment on its fundraising progress.
When it comes to financial metrics, Chen, a veteran investment banker, declined to disclose whether Hellobike overall is profitable but said the company “performs much better than its competitors” financially. The most profitable segment, according to the executive, is the electric bike business.
As for bicycles, Chen noted that China’s main bike-sharing companies are “no longer burning money” since they’ve raised prices in recent times. Hellobike’s bike unit has achieved cash-flow positive during the warmer, peak seasons, Chen added.
Instead of switching between apps to secure a ride during rush hour, people in China can now hail from different companies using a single app. Some of the country’s largest internet companies — including ride-hailing giant Didi itself — are placing bets on this type of aggregation service.
The nascent model is reminiscent of a feature Google Maps added in early 2017 allowing users to hail Uber, Lyft, Gett and Hailo straight from its navigation app. A few months later, AutoNavi, a maps app owned by Alibaba, debuted a similar feature in China. Other big names like Baidu, Hellobike, Meituan and Didi subsequently joined forces with third-party ride-booking services rather than building their own.
The trend underscores changes in China’s massive ride-hailing industry of 330 million users (in Chinese). The government is tightening rules around vehicle and driver accreditation, leading to a widescale driver shortage. Meanwhile, established carmakers including BMW and state-owned Shouqi are entering the fray, offering premium rides with better-trained fleet drivers, but they face an uphill battle with Didi, which gobbled up Uber China in 2016.
By corraling various ride-booking services, an aggregator can shorten wait time for users. For new ride-hailing players, riding on a billion-user platform like Meituan opens up wider user acquisition channels.
These ride-hailing marketplaces let users request rides from any number of third-party services available. At the end of the trip, users pay directly through the aggregator, which normally takes a commission of about 10%, although none of the players have disclosed how revenue is exactly divided with their mobility partners.
In comparison, a ride-hailing operator such as Didi charges about 20% from each trip since they take care of driver management, customer support and other dirty work which, to a great extent, helps build the moat around their business.
China’s war on garbage is as digitally savvy as the country itself. Think QR codes attached to trash bags that allow a municipal government to trace exactly where its trash comes from.
On July 1, the world’s most populated city Shanghai began a compulsory garbage sorting program. Under the new regulations (in Chinese), households and companies must classify their wastes into four categories and dump them in designated places at certain times. Noncompliance can lead to fines. Companies and properties that don’t comply risk having their credit rating lowered.
The strict regime became the talk of the city housing over 24 million residents, who criticized the program’s inflexibility and confusing waste categorization. Gratefully, China’s tech startups are here to help.
For instance, China’s biggest internet companies responded with new search features that help people identify what wastes are “wet” (compostable), “dry”, “toxic”, or “recyclable”. Not even the most environmentally conscious person can get all the answers right. Like, which bin does the newspaper you just used to pick up dog poop belong to? Simply pull up a mini app on WeChat, Baidu or Alipay and enter the keyword. The tech firms will give you the answer and why.
A WeChat mini program that lets users learn the category of cash
Alipay, Alibaba’s electronics payment affiliate, claims its garbage sorting mini app added one million users under just three days. The lite app, which is available without download inside the e-wallet with one billion users, has so far indexed more than 4,000 types of rubbish. Its database is still growing, and soon it will save people from typing by using image recognition to classify trash when they snap a photo of it. Alibaba’s answer to Alexa Tmall Genie can already answer (in Chinese) the question “what kind of trash is a wet wipe?” and more.
If people are too busy or lazy to hit the collection schedule, well, startups are offering valet trash service at the doorstep. A third-party developer helped Alipay build a recycling mini app (“垃圾分类回收平台”) and is now collecting garbage from 8,000 apartment complexes across 11 cities. To date, two million people have sold recyclable material through its platform.
Ele.me, Alibaba’s food delivery arm, added trash pickup to its list of valet services its fleets offer on top of “apologize to the girlfriend” and dog walking.
Besides helping households out, companies are also building software to make property managers’ life easier. Some residential complexes in Shanghai began using QR codes to trace the origin of garbage, state-owned media outlet Xinhua reported. Each household is asked to attach a unique QR code to their trash bags, which will be scanned for sources and classification when they arrive at the waste management station.
Workers at a waste management station in Shanghai scan codes on trash bags to check their source. / Screenshot from Xinhua feature
This way, regulators in the region know exactly which family has produced the trash — although the city’s current garbage regulations do not require real-name tracking — and those who correctly categorized receive a small reward of 0.1 yuan, or 1.45 cents, per day, according to another report (in Chinese) from Xinhua.
When people travel, they usually have a list of apps installed to navigate a new city, find restaurants, book transit tickets and more. China’s top chat app WeChat has designs on claiming that spot with a new strategy that lumps all these functions into a collection of destination-specific apps.
Operated by Tencent, Asia’s second most valuable tech giant, WeChat is a so-called “super app” defined by the myriad of services it hosts ranging from ride-hailing and food delivery to e-commerce and payments. Its efforts to dominate China received a huge boost back in 2017 when it launched “mini programs”, easily-downloadable apps that provide stripped-down but essential functionality. Millions of these lite apps are serving WeChat’s one billion users today, and WeChat is now adding travel to the list of needs it addresses.
One of WeChat’s first attempts at aiding tourism is a mini app called “MyHelsinki”, a collaboration between Tencent, mobility startup Whim, the city of Helsinki and other partners. In effect, the WeChat-powered app is a hybrid of Lonely Planet, Yelp, Google Translator, Uber and an e-wallet for Chinese tourists who visit the Finnish capital, and it has plans to replicate the system elsewhere in the world.
In China, striving for accuracy in a piece of facial recognition software isn’t enough. As Alibaba’s e-wallet affiliate Alipay has recently demonstrated, the way software presents a user’s look is also crucial to its success.
On Tuesday, Alipay announced on social media platform Weibo (in Chinese) that it’s added beauty filters to its pay-with-face system inside the app. Within a week, the feature will roll out across retail stores equipped with Alipay’s face-scanning solutions.
“We are going to make you look even prettier than with a beauty camera. I bet you’ll be impressed,” Alipay wrote on Weibo.
The new feature was created to address complaints that facial recognition machines make people look ugly. A new poll (in Chinese) ran by news portal Sina Technology showed that more than 60% of respondents think they look uglier through the next-gen payments method than on a regular camera. This could be a real concern for beauty-obsessed people who, at a busy supermarket checkout, find their face displayed unflatteringly on a large computer screen.
The chase of beauty in China has spawned a handful of movers and shakers in the internet space, from Hong Kong-listed selfie-app maker Meitu to plastic surgery marketplace Soyoung that recently raised $180 million from a Nasdaq public listing.
Will WeChat Pay, the payments solution of messaging giant WeChat, follows Alipay’s shadow to build a similar offering? Beauty filters can be a competitive advantage to a business, if not a necessity. In an effort to draw more female users, smartphone maker Xiaomi recently joined hands with Meitu to develop new models that place more focus on selfies, stickers and graphics.
Alipay boasts more than one billion monthly active users of late. WeChat doesn’t break out the number for its payments segment but said in March the service processed more than one billion daily transactions.
The mobility giant said Tuesday to a group of media that it has removed more than 300,000 drivers who don’t meet its standards since launching a safety overhaul last year. That adds pressure to an already loss-making company, which some speculate could be hit with a halved valuation (link in Chinese) since reaching an $80 billion high last year, for which passenger wait time is crucial to the success of its business.
In the long term, Didi could address the driver shortage by betting on robotaxis. The Information reported this week that the seven-year-old company is in talks with its largest shareholder SoftBank and other investors about raising money for an autonomous driving unit.
Didi is also hoping to keep both drivers and passengers happy by hiring more support staff. The company said it now has some 9,000 customer service reps on standby 24/7 to take questions from drivers and passengers; half of the agents are in-house staff. The number exceeded an earlier goal of 8,000 disclosed last September when Didi announced to spend some $20 million on customer service.
The hiring spree marks a moment of reckoning at Didi who had been fixated on collecting passengers and drivers while falling short in fulfilling social responsibilities attached to a tech platform. Case in point, Didi’s outsourced passenger support system was criticized for failing to act promptly on irregularities flagged by customers. Labor costs can swell, but safety measures have become a necessary business expenditure as the Chinese government call for more “social responsibilities” among private firms.
The same goes for other sorts of internet platforms like ByteDance, which runs TikTok and the popular news app Jinri Toutiao. The startup often touts itself as a “platform” distributing content to readers instead of a “publisher”. But following a series of online crackdowns ByteDance and other similar media businesses employed thousands of moderators to make sure their content is in line with laws and Beijing’s directives.
Didi claimed that it receives 300,000 calls from passengers and drivers daily, while only 1.7% of the inquiries are suspected to concern safety. It said its customer service system — which utilizes bots to solve standard questions — can react to 95% of the safety risks flagged under 30 minutes. For some context, China’s transportation regulator require safety issues to be responded within 24 hours and processed within five days, according to a set of guidelines published in 2016 to regulate the nascent industry.
Audio apps are flying high in China. In 2018, online listeners in the country grew 22.1% to surpass 400 million, at a rate far exceeding that of the mobile video and e-reading populations, according to market researcher iiMedia.
But the fledgling sector is taking a hit. On Friday, a total of 26 audio-focused apps were ordered to terminate, suspend services, or have talks with regulators as they were investigated and deemed to have spread “historical nihilism” and “pornography,” according to a notice posted by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC).
The clampdown has, in a way, been foreshadowed by a recent attack of user-generated audio content. Last month, Apple restricted Chinese users from accessing podcasts that aren’t hosted by its local partners, effectively preventing those with a Chinese Apple account from consuming content unchecked by Chinese censors.
It’s not uncommon for Chinese authorities to take aim at a rising media field. As short-form videos took off in 2018, the government issued similar directives demanding Douyin (TikTok for China), Kuaishou and many others to purge “illicit” content. The year before, a raft of live streaming apps were in the crosshairs.
CAC, the country’s top internet regulator, only disclosed four of the apps it’s attacking. These services are dwarfed in user size by mega-apps like WeChat or Douyin, with the most successful one — Soul — used on six million devices in May, per data from analytics firm iResearch.
Nonetheless, people reported on social media that more prominent services have also gone missing from app stores. China’s top podcast sharing app Himalaya FM and its smaller rival Lizhi FM, for example, have been pulled from certain Chinese Android markets including one operated by Xiaomi.
Himalaya FM has been pulled from a number of Chinese Android stores. Screenshot: TechCrunch
Music apps seem to be under fire as well. Searches for “NetEase Cloud Music,” a music streaming service operated by internet titan NetEase, on a few local Android stores returned the alert that the app is unavailable for download due to ongoing “maintenance”.
NetEase Cloud Music has been pulled from a number of Chinese Android stores. Screenshot: TechCrunch
As of Monday afternoon, Himalaya FM, Lizhi FM and Netease Cloud Music are still available for download via Apple’s Chinese App Store, where Beijing’s oversight has historically been slower to come.
This is hardly the first time online music platforms get scrutinized in China. The government has occasionally disavowed and censored songs, including most recently works of Li Zhi, an outspoken musician who’s reportedly gone missing ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. None of Li’s songs can be found on China’s major music streaming apps now.
Popular rock musician Li Zhi’s songs are missing from all major Chinese music streaming apps. / Screenshot: TechCrunch
Himalaya FM, Lizhi FM, and NetEase could not be reached for comment at the time of writing. We will update the story if we hear back from the companies.
China’s audio market has been left to “run rampant” for a long time and create “harmful influence” on teenagers, so measures must be taken, said the CAC. The regulator accused firms of chasing eyeballs with personalized podcasts containing content like pornography, superstition and, to some surprise, “two-dimensional culture,” a term referring to a fast-growing industry consisting of anime, comics and games inspired by Japanese pop culture.
The Communist Party is certainly on the watch for the expanding universe of imported content from a country over which it has historical grievances. Besides suppression, the party has also responded by making its own anime — one about Karl Marx — to attract the younger generations. Of course, the series was scheduled to broadcast on Bilibili, the Nasdaq-listed video-streaming platform that’s long been a favorite haven for China’s fans of 2D and youth cultures.
Alibaba and JD.com have been in a war over the Chinese e-commerce space for a decade or so, but a third player called Pinduoduo has managed to shake up the duopoly in recent times. The startup, which was founded in 2015 by an ex-Googler and went public on the Nasdaq last July, has further flexed muscles during the recent “6/18” shopping spree.
JD, in comparison, ended with 88 million DAUs and Alibaba’s Taobao retained its top spot at 299 million. That result further solidified Pinduoduo’s position as China’s second-biggest ecommerce company by number of users.
The boom of Pinduoduo is in part attributable to ties with its investor Tencent — also a backer of JD — which enables it to sell via WeChat’s lite app and tap the giant’s vast social network. Alibaba, on the other hand, has for years been prevented from selling through WeChat.
In terms of sales, Pinduoduo still remains some miles behind JD, which focuses on large-ticket items like home appliances and targets China’s urban, deep-pocketed shoppers. Pinduoduo took a more rural tack and has built a reputation for hawking ultra-cheap goods at small-city consumers.
In 2018, Pinduoduo racked up 471.6 billion yuan ($68.6 billion) in gross merchandise volume, a somewhat problematic term for gauging sales as it totals the value of orders placed, regardless of whether they are actually sold, delivered or returned. (Alibaba stopped revealing GMV a few years ago.) JD’s GMV was almost four times that of Pinduoduo at 1.68 trillion yuan ($243.9 billion) last year.
One has to keep in mind that JD is a 21-year-old firm born out of the PC era, whereas Pinduoduo has been up and running on mobile for less than four years. The startup’s continued growth is undeniable. In a March report, investment bank UBS’s Evidence Lab predicted that Pinduoduo could overtake JD in GMV as early as 2021.
But Pinduoduo’s story is not all roses. Currently trading at $20.54, its stock has plunged about 35 percent since a March high. The online marketplace has also been chided for selling counterfeits and subpar goods, an endemic problem that’s long plagued Chinese e-commerce. This year Pinduoduo was put on the U.S. government’s “notorious” blacklist alongside rival Alibaba for selling fakes, while the company claims it’s actively working to root out problematic listings.