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中国互联网的烧钱之战 Big Read: China cash burn

作者:  来源: 发布时间:2016-04-19

关键词: 公司, 中国, 表示, 应用, 补贴, ┊阅读:次┊

Burning cash has become alarmingly fashionable among Chinese internet companies, many of whom have taken to paying customers massive subsidies to use their services in hopes that their competitors go out of business before they run out of money.


One start-up, Emao.com, which aims to be an online platform for car dealerships, has based its entire marketing strategy around losing money. “We burn cash from our investors to win the hearts of car shoppers,” a recent ad says.


Travis Kalanick, chief executive of Uber, boasted earlier this year that the ride-sharing app’s China affiliate was losing more than $1bn a year, in part because of the subsidies it was paying to grab market share. A local car hailing app, Didi Kuaidi, is waging a fierce price war against Uber in several cities.

优步(Uber)首席执行官特拉维斯?卡兰尼克(Travis Kalanick)今年早些时候吹嘘,这款共乘应用的中国分支一年亏损逾10亿美元,部分原因是支付补贴以抢占市场份额。本土叫车应用滴滴快的(Didi Kuaidi)正在多个城市与优步大打价格战。

Uber’s competitors have made it clear they will not be outspent. Jean Liu, Didi’s president, said in September that “we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for burning cash”. The company’s chairman, Cheng Wei, said the company spent $4bn last year in what he called “market fostering”.

优步的竞争对手们表态说,它们在花钱上不会落于人后。滴滴快的总裁柳青(Jean Liu)去年9月表示:“不烧钱我们走不到今天这一步。”该公司董事长程维表示,去年滴滴快的花费40亿美元进行“市场培育”。

Executives from another rival carhailing app, Yidao Yongche, said last month that they are “entrapped in a cash burning vortex”. Zhou Hang, the chief executive, said recently: “We have prepared at least Rmb3bn-Rmb5bn of ammunition for the year.”

另一家叫车应用易到用车(Yidao Yongche)的高管们上月表示,他们“卷入了烧钱的漩涡”。该公司首席执行官周航近期表示:“我们为今年准备了至少30亿到50亿元人民币的‘弹药’。”

“Burning cash” may not sound like a viable business model, but these young companies argue that paying customers to use their services is necessary to build their brands and achieve the scale needed to compete. This is especially true in China, where a shift from an investment-driven to a consumption-led economy, which the government insists is under way, makes the goal of buying Chinese consumers — in hopes that one day they will buy your wares — look appealing.


At least some see it this way. Others claim the Chinese internet fad for burning cash heralds the top of an internet bubble. Just as Silicon Valley companies convinced investors that profits no longer mattered during the 1990s dotcom bubble, China’s internet companies have made a fetish out of losing money.


“A lot of these companies will be forgotten when the money runs out,” said Ma Jihua, founder of Datareal consulting, who estimates that as much as Rmb50bn a year is being poured into subsidies aimed at connecting Chinese consumers via their smartphones to taxis, massages and car washes.


But he concedes that companies have little choice. “In this market, if you don’t burn cash you won’t get market share which means you won’t get funding, consequently meaning you won’t stand a chance against competitors that do burn.”


‘A big party for consumers’


Funded largely by venture capital and private equity firms, along with larger — and profitable — internet companies like Tencent and Alibaba, most of the subsidies are going into apps that aim to be the Uber of massages or the Airbnb of car washes. These “online to offline” services, or O2O, are the hottest investment theme in China’s internet sector.


The potential benefits to the market leaders help explain why they are so willing to spend: according to HSBC, China’s O2O sector is a Rmb10tn market that is only 4 per cent penetrated, and grew 80 per cent year on year in the first half of 2015. HSBC estimates that in five years the “profit pie” in the industry would be worth Rmb26bn.


“O2O right now is a big party for consumers,” said Meng Xing, CEO of Helijia, a health and beauty app, in an interview last month. “We have no plans to make profit in the near future, because the VCs are still offering money.”


Over the past year, his company has “burnt several hundred million renminbi,” he said, though he has cut back on subsidies after his main competitor went out of business. “That’s just how the Chinese internet is, it’s too popular. There are so many VC and [private equity] companies that are willing to fund these wars.”


Start-ups are busy raising funds from investors at ever more dizzying valuations, only to plough them back into subsidies. Recent funding rounds have valued Didi Kuaidi at $20bn, up from $15bn last July. Uber China was valued at $7bn in a January funding round, while the merger of Meituan and Dianping, the two largest food delivery and group discount sites, was valued at $15bn-$17bn in November.

各家初创公司都在忙着融资,它们的估值一次比一次惊人,筹得的资金大多用于补贴。滴滴快的去年7月估值为150亿美元,在最近几轮融资中已达到200亿美元。中国优步(Uber China)在今年1月的一轮融资中估值为70亿美元。去年11月,中国最大的两家美食外卖和团购网站——美团(Meituan)和大众点评(Dianping)合并,估值为150亿-170亿美元。

Many of these companies do not publish financial statements, so it is impossible to see what the true scale of cash burn is. Mr Zhou estimates that Rmb20bn was burnt by car-hailing apps like Yidao, Uber and Didi Kuaidi on rider subsidies in 2015, while Meituan Dianping, the biggest seller of restaurant reservations and cinema tickets in China, put out a cryptic press statement in February that said it had “saved food lovers Rmb58bn” in 2015.


Last year, 84 O2O companies went bankrupt, but the sector also attracted huge headline investments. Alibaba and its payment affiliate, Ant Financial, announced they will each invest Rmb3bn to develop a food delivery service called Koubei, while search engine Baidu has said it would invest Rmb20bn in Nuomi, a group discount and food delivery app.

去年中国有84家O2O企业倒闭,但该行业也吸引了大量引人瞩目的投资。阿里巴巴及旗下支付公司蚂蚁金服(Ant Financial)宣布将各自投入30亿元人民币,发展送餐服务“口碑”(Koubei)。搜索引擎百度(Baidu)则表示将向旗下团购和送餐应用“糯米”(Nuomi)投入200亿元人民币。

JP Gan of Qiming, a venture firm that is funding the Helijia app, says there is method to the subsidy madness. “Most sophisticated venture capitalists are looking at the same model — you buy users, you buy service providers, you scale up the platform to 100 cities or 200 cities, and you build up a concentrated workforce to provide services to the parts of the cities where there are customers,” he says.

启明创投(Qiming)是投资河狸家应用的风投公司之一,该公司的甘剑平(JP Gan)表示,这种狂热的补贴行为是有章法的。他说:“多数资深的风险资本家都在盯着同样的模式——你买用户,买服务提供商,把平台扩展到一二百个城市,召集大量人手,向城市中消费者集中的区域提供服务。”

But the pitfalls are obvious in a sector where the providers are fragmented and the services closely resemble each other. Ken Xu of Gobi Capital, a VC firm in Shanghai, says the problem is that “the user has no loyalty to anybody in these sectors; they only go for the apps that have the subsidies. In car-hailing apps, everybody is starting to realise they are subsiding the same group of people who either use Uber or Didi Kuaidi, depending on who is paying them more.”

但是O2O行业的缺点也是显而易见的,比如供应商分散,服务同质性很高。上海风险投资公司戈壁创投(Gobi Capital)的徐晨(Ken Xu)表示,问题在于“用户对这些行业的任何企业都没有忠诚度,他们只使用有补贴的应用。在打车应用领域,所有人都开始认识到,他们补贴的是同一群人,这群人既用优步也用滴滴快的,谁补贴多就用谁”。

‘Last man standing wins’


The O2O model has been subjected to scrutiny elsewhere, especially in the US, where many apps that form the basis of the “gig economy” have failed after venture funding dried up. That experience has spawned worries in China about whether the same will happen once the era of “VC welfare” ends.

在其他地方,O2O模式已经遭受过审视,尤其是在美国,许多组成“零工经济”(gig economy)基础的应用都在风险资金枯竭后失败。这些经验在中国引发担忧:一旦“风投福利”时代终结,是否也会发生同样的情况?

One difference between the US and China, however, is that the offline shopping and services are so much farther developed in the US that “business is not desperate for the internet to make it more efficient or attractive”, says Duncan Clark, head of Beijing technology consultancy BDA and author of a forthcoming book on Alibaba. In China, bricks-and-mortar commerce is often overpriced or simply dismal, he says, so investors are betting that the internet will be the primary way that Chinese connect to services in the future.

不过中美之间有一个区别,就是美国的线下购物和服务要成熟得多。北京博达克咨询公司(BDA China)的董事长邓肯?克拉克(Duncan Clark)表示:“美国企业并不渴望用互联网来提高效率或增加吸引力。”邓肯写的一本关于阿里巴巴的著作即将出版。邓肯表示,在中国,实体商业往往产品定价过高,或者不能提供愉快体验,因此投资者相信未来互联网将成为中国消费者与服务“连接”的首要方式。

“In the west, we’ve had efficient retail for a long time,” Clark adds. “In a sense China is leapfrogging the west.”


Another advantage for China’s high tech economy is a distinctly low-tech factor: labour costs. Couriers are 10 to 20 per cent the cost of what they are in the US.


Hans Tung, a managing partner at GGV Capital, said that cheap labour and urban population density in China are among the main reasons why the O2O services are economic, compared with the US, where the sector has struggled. “In the US there has been uneven uptake of this so-called gig economy because consumers are more spread out, delivery cost is higher, usage frequency is lower,” he says. “It is harder, besides Uber and Airbnb, for start-ups in this category.”

纪源资本(GGV Capital)的管理合伙人童士豪(Hans Tung)称,廉价劳动力和城市人口密集是O2O服务在中国具有经济效益的两个主要原因,而在美国,这个行业发展困难。“在美国,由于消费者更加分散、配送成本更高、使用频率更低,这种所谓的零工经济发展不均衡,”他称,“除了优步和Airbnb外,这一类的初创企业是比较艰难的。”

In China these factors are all flipped in favour of the industry. “The costs of delivering O2O services are lower, urban population is denser, and therefore, the fundamentals of the sector can be better once there is consolidation around category leaders,” he says.


But it is clear that subsidies still play a defining role.


Companies are giving massive discounts to tempt consumers. At Rmb99 on the app goodchef.com, it is cheaper to invite a chef over to your house to cook a five-course Sichuan meal than to go to a restaurant, where the same meal might set you back Rmb200. Taking an Uber ride a short distance for Rmb8 is two-thirds the price of a ride in a licensed taxi, whose fares are already held low by government fiat.


A driver for both Uber and Didi, who gave his name only as Mr Guo, says both companies pay subsidies that often amount to two to three times the cost of the ride.


“Subsidies are an essential part of the income. Because of the competition, the fare is very low,” says Mr Gou. “Without subsidies, the fare is not enough to cover the gas — it wouldn’t pay off.”


The ultimate viability of this business model depends on what happens when the money stops, as it inevitably will, say analysts.


Last year, there were already signs that investors have had enough of “cash burn”. Pressure from investors was thought to be behind the merger last year of Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache, two reigning taxi apps, who no sooner had solved their cash burn problem than Uber appeared on the scene. Later in the year, Meituan and Dianping merged, only to be confronted with search engine Baidu’s competing platform Nuomi.


“That’s the story of the Chinese internet — the last man standing always wins. And sometimes when there are two last men standing they will merge,” says Mr Gan of Qiming.


Brian Viard, an economist who teaches at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, says platforms like Uber and Airbnb depend on large numbers of customers and sellers to achieve a critical mass, which drives down costs. But he said the fundamental model of “burning cash” is more about optimism than economics.

在北京长江商学院(Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business)授课的经济学家布赖恩?维亚尔(Brian Viard)称,优步和Airbnb这类平台依赖于大量的消费者和商家来形成足够大的规模,从而拉低成本。但是他称,“烧钱”的基本模式更多与乐观有关,而不是成本效益。

“A lot of these companies have one thing in common — their perceptions of the odds of success are higher than they actually are,” he says.


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