How Zhihu’s become one of China’s biggest hubs for experts

Zhihu may not be as well known outside of China as WeChat or ByteDance’s Douyin, but over the past eight years, it has cultivated a reputation for being one of the country’s most trustworthy social media platforms. Originally launched as a question-and-answer site similar to Quora, Zhihu has grown to be a central hub for professional knowledge, allowing users to interact with experts and companies in a wide range of industries.

Headquartered in Beijing, Zhihu recently raised a $434 million Series F, its biggest round since 2011. The funding also brought Zhihu two important new partners: video and live-streaming app Beijing Kuaishou, which led the round, and Baidu, owner of China’s largest search engine (other participants in the round included Tencent and CapitalToday).

Launched in 2011, Zhihu (the name means “do you know”) is most frequently compared to Quora and Yahoo Answers. While it resembled those Q&A platforms at first, it has grown in scope. Now it would be more accurate to say that the platform is like a combination of Quora, LinkedIn and Medium’s subscription program.

For example, Zhihu has an invitation-only blogging platform for verified experts and since launching official accounts, it has become a channel for companies and organizations to communicate with users. A representative for Zhihu told TechCrunch that the platform had 220 million users and 30,000 official accounts as of January 2019 (for context, there are currently about 800 million Internet users in China), who have posted a total of 130 million answers so far.

The company’s growth will be closely watched since Zhihu is reportedly preparing for an initial public offering. Last November, the company hired its first chief financial officer, Sun Wei, heightening speculation. A representative for the company told TechCrunch the position was created because of Zhihu’s business development needs and that there is currently no timeline for a public listing.

At the same time, the company has also dealt with reports that its growth has slowed.

Baidu beats estimates on strong video streaming growth

Chinese search giant Baidu on Monday posted a revenue of 26.33 billion yuan ($3.73 billion) for the quarter that ended in June, beating analysts’ estimates of 25.77 billion yuan ($3.65 billion) as its video streaming service iQiyi style="font-weight: 400;"> continues to see strong growth. The 19-year-old firm’s shares were up over 8% in extended trading.

The company, which is often called Google of China, said revenue of its core businesses grew 12% since the same period last year “despite the weak macro environment, our self-directed healthcare initiative, industry-specific policy changes and large influx of ad inventory.”

Net income for the second quarter dropped to 2.41 billion yuan ($344 million).

“With Baidu traffic growing robustly and our mobile ecosystem continuing to expand, we are in a good position to focus on capitalizing monetization and ROI improvement opportunities to deliver shareholder value,” Herman Yu, CFO of Baidu, said in a statement.

Today’s results for Baidu, which has been struggling of late, should help calm investors’ worries. In recent years, as users move from desktop to mobile and rivals such as ByteDance win hundreds of millions of users through their mobile apps, many have cast serious doubts on Baidu’s ability to maintain its growth and hold onto its grip on advertising business. (On desktop, Baidu continues to command over three quarters of the Chinese market share.)

In the quarter that ended in March this year, Baidu posted its first quarterly loss since 2015, the year it went public.

Baidu’s shares were trading at about $114 in extended hours, pushing its market cap to about $40 billion — still less than half of about $100 billion in mid-May last year.

Robin Li, Baidu co-founder and CEO, said Baidu app was being used by 188 million users everyday, up 27% from the same period last year. “In-app search queries grew over 20% year over year and smart mini program MAUs reached 270 million, up 49% sequentially,” he added.

Baidu’s video streaming service iQiyi style="font-weight: 400;"> has now amassed over 100.5 million subscribers, up from about 87 million late last year, the company said. Revenue from iQiyi stood at 7.11 billion yuan ($1.01 billion), up 15% since last year.

iQiyi inked a deal with Netflix in 2017, which does not operate in China, to cross-license portion of one another’s content. But the partnership has since ended because the “results weren’t as good as iQiyi had expected,” a company top executive said earlier this year. iQiyi continues to maintain its relationship with all six of the major local movie studios.

“On Baidu’s AI businesses, DuerOS voice assistant continues to experience strong momentum with installed base surpassing 400 million devices, up 4.5 fold year over year, and monthly voice queries surpassing 3.6 billion, up 7.5 fold year over year, in June. As mobile internet penetration in China slows, we are excited about the huge opportunity to provide content and service providers a cross-platform distribution channel beyond mobile, into smart homes and automobiles,” he added.

Revenue from online marketing services, which makes a significant contribution to overall sales, fell about 9% to 19.2 billion yuan ($2.72 billion).

More to follow…

The five great reasons to attend TechCrunch’s Enterprise show Sept. 5 in SF

The vast enterprise tech category is Silicon Valley’s richest, and today it’s poised to change faster than ever before. That’s probably the biggest reason to come to TechCrunch’s first-ever show focused entirely on enterprise. But here are five more reasons to commit to joining TechCrunch’s editors on September 5 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for an outstanding day (agenda here) addressing the tech tsunami sweeping through enterprise. 

#1 Artificial Intelligence.
At once the most consequential and most hyped technology, no one doubts that AI will change business software and increase productivity like few if any, technologies before it. To peek ahead  into that future, TechCrunch will interview Andrew Ng, arguably the world’s most experienced AI practitioner at huge companies (Baidu, Google) as well as at startups. AI will be a theme across every session, but we’ll address again it head-on in a panel with investor Jocelyn Goldfein (Zetta), founder Bindu Reddy (Reality Engines) and executive John Ball (Salesforce / Einstein). 

#2. Data, The Cloud and Kubernetes.
If AI is at the dawn of tomorrow, cloud transformation is the high noon of today.  90% of the world’s data was created in the past two years, and no enterprise can keep its data hoard on-prem forever. Azure’s CTO
Mark Russinovitch (CTO) will discuss Microsft’s vision for the cloud. Leaders in the open-source Kubernetes revolution, Joe Beda (VMWare) and Aparna Sinha (Google) and others will dig into what Kubernetes means to companies making the move to cloud. And last, there is the question of how to find signal in all the data – which will bring three visionary founders to the stage: Benoit Dageville (Snowflake), Ali Ghodsi (Databricks), Murli Thirumale (Portworx). 

#3 Everything else on the main stage!
Let’s start with a fireside chat with
SAP CEO Bill McDermott and Qualtrics Chief Experience Officer Julie Larson-Green.  We have top investors talking where they are making their bets, and security experts talking data and privacy. And then there is quantum,  the technology revolution waiting on the other side of AI: Jay Gambetta, the principal theoretical scientist behind IBM’s quantum computing effort,  Jim Clarke, the director of quantum hardware at Intel Labs, and Krysta Svore, style="font-weight: 400;"> who leads the Microsoft’s quantum effort.

All told, there are 21 programming sessions.

#4 Network and get your questions answered.
There will be two Q&A breakout sessions with top enterprise investors for founders (and anyone else) to query investors directly. Plus, TechCrunch’s unbeatable CrunchMatch app makes it really easy to set up meetings with the other attendees, an
incredible array of folks, plus the  20 early-stage startups exhibiting on the expo floor.

#5 SAP
Enterprise giant SAP is our sponsor for the show, and they are not only bringing a squad of top executives, they are producing four parallel track sessions featuring key SAP Chief Innovation Officer
Max Wessel,  SAP Chief Designer and Futurist  Martin Wezowski and SAP.IO’s managing director Ram Jambunathan (SAP.iO) in sessions including, how to scale-up an enterprise startup, how startups win large enterprise customers, and what the enterprise future looks like.

Check out the complete agenda. Don’t miss this show! This line-up is a view into the future like none other. 

Grab your $349 tickets today, and don’t wait till the day of to book because prices go up at the door!

We still have 2 Startup Demo Tables left. Each table comes with 4 tickets and a prime location to demo your startup on the expo floor. Book your demo table now before they’re all gone!

China’s largest Q&A platform, Zhihu, raises $434 million from investors including Kuaishou, Baidu and Tencent

Zhihu, the largest question and answer platform in China, has raised a $434 million Series F. This is not only the company’s biggest round since it launched in 2011, but also one of the largest secured over the past two years by a Chinese Internet culture and entertainment company, said China Renaissance, which served as the funding’s financial advisor.

The Series F was led by Beijing Kuaishou, the video and live-streaming app, with participation from Baidu . Existing investors Tencent and CapitalToday also returned for the round, which Zhihu will use for technology and product development. Baidu told Bloomberg that it will add 100 million Zhihu posts to its main app.

While Zhihu has downplayed reports that it is planning an IPO, it embarked on plans to hire a CFO and restructure last year.

Zhihu users tend to be educated with relatively high incomes and the platform has developed a reputation for hosting experts and organizations that are knowledgeable in tech, marketing and professional services like education. Like Quora and other Q&A platforms, Zhihu lets users post and answer text-based questions. But it also has other features, including discussion forums, a publishing platform and live videos for brands and companies to answer questions in real-time. Instead of making its streaming video feature, called Zhihu Live, open to all users, it is available to only to experts and organizations, differentiating it from other streaming apps like Douyin, the domestic version of TikTok (ByteDance is an investor in Zhihu but did not participate in this round).

In a post about the round on his Zhihu page, founder and CEO Victor Zhou wrote the company plans to keep up with rapid changes in China’s media and Internet landscape. “Over the past 8 years, users have gone from expecting simple entertainment to using the Internet to deal with real-life and work problems. The focus of competition has also shifted from traffic to traffic + quality.”

 

TikTok-parent is getting into mobile search

China’s ByteDance, which owns popular video sharing app TikTok, is already working to enter the smartphone business and the music streaming space. It appears the world’s most valued startup also has ambitions about developing its own search engine. Kind of.

A company spokesperson told TechCrunch on Thursday that it has introduced a search function in ByteDance’s Toutiao news app.

“The function is in line with Toutiao’s mission of “information creates value”. Users can try the function in the app and provide feedback and suggestions on the new function,” the spokesperson said.

The search function gleans information not just from content on Toutiao, but the entire world wide web, TechCrunch understands.

From the looks of it, ByteDance’s current search functionality is more alike WeChat’s in-app search function than local giant Baidu’s or Google’s offering.

On WeChat, when a person looks up a keyword, they see news articles about that topic, followed by mentions of it from their friends. This is followed by random articles about the subject. When a user clicks on any of these article or news links, WeChat serves them the page through its in-app browser, giving them no option to leave the walled-garden.

The idea is to change the way people think about — and use — a search engine altogether. And in China, where apps such as WeChat and TikTok have gained gigantic reach on mobile, it seems logical to add all news functionalities within those apps.

ByteDance’s interest in a search engine became public on Wednesday after it published a recruitment post on its WeChat account. The startup said its “search engine” is aimed at “hundreds of millions of mobile users in China.”

“We will build a universal search engine with a better user experience from 0 to 1. Only you don’t want to search, there is no [info] you can’t find, because we can search the whole network,” the company said in the post.

According to the description in the listing, ByteDance has already hired people from other search engines such as Google, Baidu, Bing, and 360.

An analysis of LinkedIn listings by TechCrunch found more than 100 people from Google, Microsoft, and Baidu, many of whom worked around search divisions at the previous companies, have joined ByteDance.

Baidu currently holds more than 75% of the search engine market in China, according to StatCounter Global Stat, a third-party service that tracks web usage. Microsoft’s Bing is also operational in the country though its market share remains in the low single-digit. Google currently does not offer its search feature in China — though it has attempted to change that in recent months to no luck.

After Baidu tie-up, BMW taps Tencent for autonomous driving in China

China is BMW’s largest market, and the German automaker knows in order to capture the country’s demanding consumers, its future models must support robust autonomous driving capability.

But to build it itself in China is hardly possible. The success of autonomous driving relies in part on high-definition mapping, a process that requires an expansive collection of geographic information. By law, foreign entities can’t host China-based data without local partnerships. Apple noticeably works with a Chinese firm to store user emails, text messages and other forms of digital footprint in the country.

That appears to be one of the catalysts for BMW’s new partnership with Tencent. The Chinese tech giant, which is best known for WeChat and runs an expanding cloud computing business, said on Friday it’s setting up a data computing and storage platform for the German premium carmaker. Reuters reported that the pair plans to launch the computing center by the end of this year in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing.

The tie-up came months after BMW’s earlier data expansion in the world’s largest passenger car market. In February, Here — a Google Maps alternative partly owned by BWM — joined forces with Chinese navigation service Navinfo which would help Here collect data locally. It’s perhaps by no coincidence that Navinfo and Tencent both bought small shares in Here three years ago.

As BMW gets more familiar with China’s road conditions, there’s no reason why it won’t apply those data to its freshly minted ride-hailing venture.

Teaming up with BMW can be a big win for Tencent, which has been placing more focus on enterprise-facing endeavors as its main gaming business copes with regulatory pressure. In the world of transportation, “Tencent is committed to assisting automotive companies in the digital transformation,” said Dowson Tong, the company’s president of Cloud and Smart Industry, in a statement.

Another relationship

BMW has previously sought after another Chinese tech leader to automate its vehicles. It has been working with Baidu, the country’s largest search engine provider with a growing list of artificial intelligence initiatives, on automated driving since 2014.

Last October, the duo ramped up their alliance after the German automaker joined Baidu’s autonomous driving open platform Apollo . The deal carried larger diplomatic significance as it came about during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit in Germany to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Baidu president Zhang Yaqin said at the time the deal was meant to “accelerate the development of autonomous driving technologies that align with the Chinese market.”

BMW’s relationship with Tencent, on the other hand, has previously played out on other fronts including joint research into autonomous driving security and testing that involved Tencent’s noted Keen Security Lab.

Baidu and Tencent don’t compete directly for their core businesses, but both are making a big push into the future of mobility, whether the effort pertains to in-car entertainment or self-driving. It’s not uncommon for tech rivals in China to target the same partner. A spokeswoman for BMW told TechCrunch that “there is no overlap in the collaboration” and the German firm is “cooperating with different top-notch Chinese companies in different fields.”

Indeed, the setup with Tencent seems more comprehensive at first glance. The Chinese company is providing “IT architecture, tools and platforms supporting the entire process of [BMW’s] automated driving research and development,” according to the spokeswoman. When it comes to Baidu, she cited an example of the pair working on a self-driving safety white paper that also involved ten other partners.

That might be a roundabout way of saying that the Baidu alliance is looser. It’s worth pointing out that BMW isn’t unique to Apollo, which bills itself as the “Android for autonomous cars” and now counts more than 100 auto partners from across the world.

A large network helps generate conversations and potential leads down the road, but keeping it this way could compromise the depth of “collaboration” — a word that’s too often co-opted by publicists. As Cao Xudong, founder of Chinese autonomous driving unicorn Momenta, told TechCrunch earlier, collaboration in the auto sector “demands deep, resource-intensive collaboration, so less [fewer partnerships] is believed to be more.”

What about the other heavyweight Alibaba, which also wants to own the future of driving? The Chinese e-commerce and cloud computing company has become pally with state-owned carmaker SAIC, with which it has set up a joint venture called Banma to create autonomous driving solutions. This existing marriage means BMW will unlikely tap Alibaba for automation, an employee at a major Chinese self-driving startup suggested to me.

Snap turns to search giant Baidu to court Chinese advertisers

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.

Facebook and Twitter are in the same overseas ad business in China. Facebook, with an “experience center” in Shenzhen for clients to learn how its ads work, counted China as its second-largest ad spender in 2018, according to Pivotal Research Group. Twitter also holds an annual summit in China for small and medium enterprises going global.

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.

Baidu also intended to resell Facebook ads but did not manage to get a license, a former Facebook employee who wishes to remain anonymous told TechCrunch. Instead, Facebook works with Cheetah Mobile, PapayaMobile and seven other advertising representatives in China.

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.”

The need-to-know takeaways from VidCon 2019

VidCon, the annual summit in Anaheim, CA for social media stars and their fans to meet each other drew over 75,000 attendees over last week and this past weekend. A small subset of those where entertainment and tech executives convening to share best practices and strike deals.

Of the wide range of topics discussed in the industry-only sessions and casual conversation, five trends stuck out to me as takeaways for Extra Crunch members: the prominence of TikTok, the strong presence of Chinese tech companies in general, the contemplation of deep fakes, curiosity around virtual influencers, and the widespread interest in developing consumer product startups around top content creators.

Newer platforms take center stage

GettyImages 1161447217

Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images

TikTok, the Chinese social video app (owned by Bytedance) that exploded onto the US market this past year, was the biggest conversation topic. Executives and talent managers were curious to see where it will go over the next year more than they were convinced that it is changing the industry in any fundamental way.

TikTok influencers were a major presence on the stages and taking selfies with fans on the conference floor. I overheard tweens saying “there are so many TikTokers here” throughout the conference. Meanwhile, TikTok’s US GM Vanessa Pappas held a session where she argued the app’s focus on building community among people who don’t already know each other (rather than being centered on your existing friendships) is a fundamental differentiator.

Kathleen Grace, CEO of production company New Form, noted that Tik Tok’s emphasis on visuals and music instead of spoken or written word makes it distinctly democratic in convening users across countries on equal footing.

Esports was also a big presence across the conference floor with teens lined up to compete at numerous simultaneous competitions. Twitch’s Mike Aragon and Jana Werner outlined Twitch’s expansion in content verticals adjacent to gaming like anime, sports, news, and “creative content’ as the first chapter in expanding the format of interactive live-streams across all verticals. They also emphasized the diversity of revenue streams Twitch enables creators to leverage: ads, tipping, monthly patronage, Twitch Prime, and Bounty Board (which connects brands and live streamers).

Andrew Ng to talk about how AI will transform business at TC Sessions: Enterprise

When it comes to applying AI to the world around us, Andrew Ng has few if any peers. We are delighted to announce that the renowned founder, investor, AI expert and Stanford professor will join us on stage at the TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise show on Sept. 5 at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. 

AI promises to transform the $500 billion enterprise world like nothing since the cloud and SaaS.  Hundreds of startups are already seizing the AI moment in areas like recruiting, marketing and communications, and customer experience. The oceans of data required to power AI are becoming dramatically more valuable, which in turn is fueling the rise of new data platforms, another big topic of the show

Last year, Ng  launched the $175 million AI Fund, backed by big names like Sequoia, NEA, Greylock, and Softbank. The fund’s goal is to develop new AI businesses in a studio model and spin them out when they are ready for prime time. The first of that fund’s cohort is Landing AI, which also launched last year and aims to “empower companies to jumpstart AI and realize practical value.” It’s a wave businesses will want to catch if Ng is anywhere near right in his conviction that AI will generate $13 trillion in GDP growth globally in the next 20 years. You heard that right. 

At TC Sessions: Enterprise, TechCrunch’s editors will ask Ng to detail how he believes AI will unfold in the enterprise world and bring big productivity gains to business. 

As the former Chief Scientist at Baidu and the founding lead of Google Brain, Ng led the AI transformation of two of the world’s leading technology companies. Dr. Ng is the Co-founder of Coursera, an online learning platform, and founder of deeplearning.ai, an AI education platform. Dr. Ng is also an Adjunct Professor at Stanford University’s Computer Science Department and holds degrees from Carnegie Mellon University, MIT and the University of California, Berkeley.

Early Bird tickets to see Andrew at TC Sessions: Enterprise are on sale for just $249 when you book here, but hurry prices go up by $100 soon! Students, grab your discounted tickets for just $75 here.

Cars-as-a-service, Alibaba and ridehailing, mental health, and the future of financial services

The future of car ownership: Cars-as-a-service

It’s Mobility Day at TechCrunch, and we’re hosting our Sessions event today in beautiful San Jose. That’s why we have a couple of related pieces on mobility at Extra Crunch.

First, our automotive editor Matt Burns is back with part two of his market map and analysis of the changing nature of how consumers are buying cars these days. Part one looked at how startups like Carvana, Shift, Vroom, and others are trying to disrupt the car dealership’s monopoly on auto sales in the United States.

Now, Burns takes a look at how startups like Fair and premium automakers like Mercedes are disrupting the very notion of owning a car in the first place. Rather than buying a car or leasing one, users with these new services are asked to subscribe to their cars, giving them the flexibility to get a car when they need it and to get rid of it when they don’t. Fair has raised $1.5 billion in venture capital, so clearly the space has caught the eye of investors.

“In simple terms,” co-founder and then CEO [of Fair] Scott Painter, told TechCrunch following its recent raise, “for every dollar in equity we unlock $10 in debt, and we borrow that cash to buy cars.”

Fair works much like a traditional lease with more options. Users can drive the vehicles as long as they’re paying for them and can switch to a different one whenever. This is different from a traditional lease where the buyer is often locked into the vehicle for two to four years. The model makes Fair an excellent option for Uber and Lyft drivers, and in the last year, Uber sold fair its $400 million leasing business to accelerate this offering.

Meituan, Alibaba, and the new landscape of ride-hailing in China

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, our China tech reporter Rita Liao takes a deeper look at the quickly changing tides of the ride-hailing industry in China. It’s a fight between intermediation, disintermediation, and who ultimately owns the ride-hailing consumer. As transit in China and the rest of the world increasingly becomes multi-modal, who owns the gateway to figuring out the best method and paying for it is increasingly in the driver’s seat: