Yesterday, Twitterdom in China was on fire with the news, first published on TechCrunch, that Facebook clone Xiaonei had raised US$430M from Softbank, which is huge, even by current Web 2.0 bubble standards. Immediately on Twitter, there was almost an uproar, especially from users in Taiwan, who said that it was ridiculous that a Facebook clone would have such a high valuation. Does Oak Pacific Interactive and Softbank know something which we don’t? (My answer to that is a simple “Obviously yes”.)
But before delving into that, let’s talk about the pluses and minuses of C2C, or “copy to China”, a term which I believe was first used by Tangos Chan, publisher of China Web 2.0 review. I believe that when an entrepreneur does not have a clear idea about what he is going to do, starting with a copy of a currently popular application is a good way to go. After all, if it got funded by VCs in the US, it is highly likely that given the team’s experience, they will also be able to get funded in China.
What is important is what happens after it gets initial funding. Where many startups lose direction is that they look too closely at their competitors, and don’t look at the challenges for many users whom they want to reach. Most ask the wrong questions: They are too focused on their platform and applications, and don’t study the problems their users have in their daily lives.
There are a few simple questions startup founders need to find answers to:
- What are the most important tasks for a person in any given day? (These are always changing according to age, situation, etc.)
- Where do they encounter the most frustration?
- Can you offer a solution to this?
I have a simple way of looking at this: If the need is urgent, then you can charge a fee or subscription for it. If you can help people make more money, you can charge a fee or subscription for it. If it is a hardware solution which simplifies and clarifies life and makes the user more efficient, you can sell it (as is the case with the iPhone).
If it does not do any of the above things, but still offers some informative or entertainment value, then your most likely source of revenue is advertising.
Back to C2C. When OICQ was launched in early 1999, it was nothing except a Chinese-language clone of ICQ. It had an advantage in that there was tremendous need among Chinese for easy convenient communications across the computer and the then-new mobile phone platforms. The management saw this need, offered the services, collected fees all along the way, evolving into QQ along the way, and the company is now worth more than US$11B.
Tencent, the parent company for QQ, saw a social wave in China, copied something which worked overseas, fulfilled the need, and evolved it into something tremendously popular and successful in China. Instead of looking iinwards and worrying about their technology and UI, they looked out, and saw the opportunity in users’ needs and frustrations.
Now the company has more than 500M registered user accounts. It has achieved brand lock-in among most younger Chinese users.
That is why I say that when anyone only compares UI features, they are not thinking deep enough.
Now, the question is whether Xiaonei or any of the Chinese Facebook clones can evolve into something successful. The China of 2008 is vastly different from the China of 1999, and there are all kinds of communications solutions competing for users. The dynamics has changed to favor the user, who now has almost too may choices.
Add to that my feeling that SNS (social networking solutions) are a solution to a problem which is not that urgent for most people (hence the reliance on advertising as a revenue source instead of fee or subscription).
Of course, if depending on income was the only way to make money in this business, then I’m sure that Xiaonei would not have received such a high investment. An article in Plus8star talks about possible strategy scenarios in the move (h/t to Kaiser Kuo).