Technology companies, we have to talk about China

Uber has been cited as an example of how US technology companies can’t succeed in China, but the wrong lessons are being learned. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Facebook

Facebook is viewed as having ‘failed’ in China. There are two parts to this. First of all lets talk about Facebook’s business model, simply put it monetises consumers attention by selling advertising and related services to businesses.  In order to get consumers in a relevant market, it has to comply with local laws. In the EU it has a relatively easy ride as it is policed by the Irish government for compliance with EU regulations.

China has taken much more of hands on regulatory approach to the internet, like all media. Much of this is down to keeping a ‘harmonious’ society. You might not like the way they do it, but the party views internal pressures in a similar way to Western views on terrorism. Whether that terrorism in the name of Islam or black bloc anarchists.

China has an extensive censorship mechanism, it is a part of doing business there. Whilst the content maybe different, it is similar to the censorship structure for the UK in many respects:

  • Government steered industry practice
  • Legislation

One of the big differences in the UK is site blocking to protect commercial rather than government interests such as sporting event rights. Facebook chose not to implement systems that would make it compliant in China – so it isn’t available to ordinary Chinese consumers. Facebook does sell advertising in China to companies who want to reach western consumers. It has been successful in its advertising sales, sometimes to the detriment of western consumers. State-owned enterprise (SOE) Air China features as a case study for Facebook’s advertising business. San Francisco-based Papaya Mobile has built a successful business providing an online portal that allows Chinese businesses to target Facebook users abroad. I’d argue that Facebook isn’t failing in China.

If Facebook wanted to get Chinese consumers on board it had three market entry routes:

  • Build a separate Chinese product. This is something that US companies generally don’t do, they may localise the product but they avoid forking the product
  • Build infrastructure that complies with Chinese regulations. Google had done this in the past, before they chose not to
  • Have a local partner do the relevant work. Skype successfully entered the Chinese market with Chinese partner TOM. The Chinese client of Skype is known to allow government listening and weaker encryption. But in a post-Snowden world that shouldn’t be too surprising, the Chinese lack the subtlety of other countries security apparatus in their implementation but the goals are similar

Facebook somewhere along the line decided that they didn’t want to enter the Chinese market for consumers as is; but may do in the future if market dynamics change.

It is notable that Facebook’s growth in both Korea and Japan was slower than comparable western countries. Local platforms addressed the market better (KakaoTalk) and social norms of ‘nick name’ identities allowed to Twitter to become a comparative success in Japan.

Google

Google had entered China in 2005. They hired a local executive to run the business who had previously worked at Microsoft. Four years later they were third in the market behind local firms Baidu and Soso (Tencent subsidiary). Google had an estimated 29% market share.

So Google was in third place before it had legal issues in China. Why was it in third place? Google is thought to have under-estimated the growth rate in terms of number of web pages of the Chinese internet. In the same way that Yahoo! and Bing under-indexed the western web and paid for it by losing market share to Google, Google lost out to Baidu. This was about localisation and agility rather than the system being gamed against it. Google hasn’t indexed non-Roman languages as well as English, French etc.

Google was particularly beloved of those Chinese who had a more international life; scientific researchers, journalists, bankers, marketers and the more cosmopolitan members of the middle class. But for the average Chinese consumer, other search engines did a better job.

Google services ran into trouble with a YouTube video showing security forces and protestors in Tibet. Google took action in the Chinese market when Chinese dissidents had their Gmail accounts hacked. Again in a post-Snowden world this isn’t the shocking scandal it would have once been. Complaints in the US together with this incident meant that Google was prepared to give up on Chinese consumers. The business still has an R&D team in China and works with manufacturers on Android.

So why do American companies succeed elsewhere?

The simple answer is one of scale. The US is a single country with largely the same regulatory framework, a single language, good infrastructure and access to large amounts of capital. It is a market for approximately 324 million people. This allows businesses to grow rapidly to a scale that is internationally competitive.

By comparison although the EU has an addressable population of just over 510 million people, you have different legal systems (though it is becoming more harmonised by the EU). You have 24 languages, a common currency but diverse banking systems.

This comparative lack of scale in EU technology start-ups has two effects:

  • They are harder to grow as there isn’t a comparable domestic market to incubate businesses. If they do grow, the better access of capital allows an EU start-up to be bought out. Look at last.fm, DeepMind or ARM as examples of this.  Some businesses have managed to break like Spotify as they tapped into US funding. It is also pertinent to point out that Spotify isn’t make money
  • With some noticeable exceptions like Spotify, getting capital to grow a business internationally is much harder. It isn’t realistic for a European start-up to pursue the Amazon / Uber model of betting against competition by assuming that they will always have access to cheap plentiful capital

This has meant that Facebook, Google and the like have risen largely unopposed in Europe. They have found it so easy that they’ve gained monopoly levels of market share. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. At best Europe acts like a ‘feeder team’ of talent and IP to US start-ups. Where Europe is successful is largely based on past dominance in legacy industry sectors like vehicle manufacture and pharmaceuticals. This also partly explains Europe’s stagnant growth.

China is different

China is the polar opposite of Europe. It has an addressable market for 1.4 billion people. Whilst there are many dialects in China the party railroaded Mandarin as the lingua franca and simplified Chinese as a common written language.  Live and incomes in the tier one cities would be comparable to parts of Europe. Economic growth has slowed to 6 per cent a year, but the economy is still flush with capital.

A huge population means a huge pool of qualified staff. You combine this with a large amount of capital and you have a business than can out-Uber Uber.

The culture of China is different. Chinese consumers like to go to Starbucks and KFC, use Apple products and wear luxury fashion brands; but only because these fit into Chinese cultural constructs. That means that products need to be optimised for the local market.

China has been through huge change since the rise of the party, which means that the owner executives of these companies have have a greater desire for risk to capitalise on ‘the now’.

This means that most of the advantages Silicon Valley has: agility of action, talent and capital are negated in their competition in China. In addition, since they committed to an approach that already works, adaptation to local market needs are limited. This is interpreted by the Chinese counterparts as hubris; the reality is more subtle.

China does have strategic interests which means that it regulates ‘state secrets’ very carefully. Mapping technology is carefully controlled. It has tried to use its size to benefit its businesses. In the same way that the EU through ETSI defined the GSM standard, the Chinese government tried to do the same with TD-CDMA. The reality is that favoured companies like Huawei have managed to allow their clients to get cheap funding for purchases via Chinese state-owned banks.

Like the US government, the Chinese government uses research funding and infrastructure spending to direct some aspects of technological development. Since the administration of Hu Jintao, the Internet of Things (IoT) has been a government focus.

The danger of the invincible China myth

Whilst China wants to have a world-beating successful technology sector. There are problems that comes with a perception of invisibility, China will find it hard to keep open markets. Trade negotiations will become intractable as the other party sees no upsides to working with China. An eco-system where foreigners have a modicum of success is a better outcome for the Chinese government.

Uber’s problems were entirely of their own making, their choice to go into China was likely their first error. Not because it is excessively gained against them, but because they didn’t have any comparative advantages over Didi.

More information
Uber has destroyed the Western myth that companies can grow huge in China without being Chinese
Content filtering by UK ISPs | Open Rights Group Wiki
Facebook “Will Do Everything We Can” To Address Shady Dress Retailers | Buzzfeed News
Facebook for Business | Air China
Papaya Shoptimize | Papaya Mobile
China listening in on Skype – Microsoft assumes you approve | GreatFire.org
Spotify financial results show struggle to make streaming music profitable – The Guardian