The past decade have seen the rise of many Chinese Internet companies which have become wildly successful, and which most in the west are only now beginning to notice. These are companies with names like C-Trip, Shanda, Tencent, Alibaba, Taobao, Baidu just to name a few.
For the consumer-facing companies who benefited from China’s rapidly growing consumer spending power, this growth was unrivaled. They rode two waves to maximum advantage: the popularity of tech among Silicon Valley venture capitalists and private equity firms, and with the Chinese government; and with the rise of China’s urban middle class. In contrast to many American firms which really did invest in significant technology, many of these companies had less in terms of technology; preferring instead to spend their investment money on hiring people and building a human salesforce. C-Trip, the popular travel site, was mainly a call center with a website when it went public; Baidu built up a network of resellers which it bought out when it went public, and Alibaba has an aggressive salesforce to work with Chinese SMEs.
Over the next ten years, there will be dramatic changes. Here are some of the trends I see:
- Growth in the economy will slow gradually at first, then will become more dramatic. The Chinese economy’s period of rapid growth has already passed its peak.
- Slower growth means that income gaps will widen in the society, along with opportunity gaps for individuals. From a marketing point of view, segmentation becomes more important. Qualified lead-generation businesses will become lucrative.
- As the economy slows, targeted advertising will become more important for the Chinese Internet. Advertising-based Internet models which did not work well in China previously but worked well in the west will be re-introduced into China. Successful companies will adapt them to the realities of the China market without trying to force a western model.
- Because of the slower economy, real technology adaption will take place in medium- , and even small-sized, firms. These will focus on working with very large datasets and data mining, and will focus on describing the topology of the Chinese Internet in a way so that other businesses can use this data.
- Lower disk space and bandwidth costs will mean that even though Chinese companies adopt more technology, their costs will be lower.
- From a venture capitalist’s and private equity investors point of view, the biggest cost will be the founding team. The best teams will be few and far between, and will be much sought after. Compared to Silicon Valley and the rest of the world, Chinese Internet startups will still be more likely to be led by individual entrepreneurs than by founding teams in the western mold. This is a culture thing.
- The trend to Chinese government preference for RMB funds and local investors over US- and western-based venture capital and private equity funds will pick up pace. The more unfavorable the economic environment becomes, the more dramatic action the Chinese government will take. This will cause some tension with the US, but the Chinese government will be willing to take the hit because domestic concerns for social harmony take precedence.
- Some western venture capital and private equity firms are studying the possibility of Chinese IPO exits. Don’t hold your breath waiting for these to happen; they are likely to be few and far between.
- Hong Kong will gain some advantage because it policies are different from Beijing’s and like China, smart entrepreneurs will look for opportunities in the long tail instead of the large consumer market.
China’s economic development so far is based on two assumptions which will come under pressure over the next decade. The first assumption is that rapid urbanization is a good thing, since that will lead to the development of an urban middle class. The challenge over the next ten years will be how to find jobs for that urban middle class, whose living costs have gone dramatically higher, while the global macro climate has dramatically worsened? This is already showing up in the rise of the ant people, educated white collar workers who cannot make it up all the way to the top of the pyramid. For the first time in its history, the belief that education is the path to success in Chinese society will be challenged.
The second assumption will be a shortage of blue-collar factory workers, which has already begun to show up in southern China in the form of strikes and slowdowns at foreign-owned factories. As China’s working population dramatically ages over the next decade, this situation will worsen. Technology can, to some extent, ameliorate the labor shortage, but it cannot generate demand.
During the next decade, we will find out if China can become rich, on a sustained basis, before it grows old.
If the Chinese government does not succeed, then China will head into a prolonged economic slump after 2020, which will be much like Japan’s, and further adding to what is likely to become a prolonged global economic depression. In addition, the workforce which starts working after that year will have to deal with a worsening environment and dues, in the form of non-performing loans (NPLs), from spending in the high-growth years.
That is why this next decade is make-or-break for China.