When Big Apple Meets Little Orange

Forbes Asia, May 23, 2016

Click here to read the full article at Forbes.com

by Bill Russo, Edward Tse and Alan Chan

Apple CEO Tim Cook with Didi Chuxing President Jean Liu Photo Courtesy of Didi Chuxing
Apple CEO Tim Cook with Didi Chuxing President Jean Liu
Photo Courtesy of Didi Chuxing

On May 13, Apple announced a USD 1 billion investment in China’s leading on-demand mobility (ODM) service, Didi Chuxing (Didi).  Didi’s legal name in Chinese means “little orange”, and an internal announcement made to Didi’s employees literally welcomed the apple to the orange family.

To understand the logic of this investment, it is important to first understand the popularity and explosive growth of such services in China – along with the role that Didi plays inside the expanding ecosystems of its largest investors, Tencent and Alibaba.

Originating from separate taxi-hailing services in 2012, Didi is now a one-stop mobility solutions provider that provides a variety of services including taxi-hailing, private-car hailing, on-demand bus, peer-to-peer ride-sharing, designated driver and test driving.  Didi currently has 14 million registered drivers, completing over 11 million rides per day in over 400 cities across China.  With over 87 percent share of the Chinese private car-hailing market, Didi is far larger than all the other ODM service providers in China, including Uber.

As a global leader in smart connected device technology, Apple has been exploring opportunities to expand the reach of its iOS ecosystem.  It is an “open secret” that Apple is working on its own vehicle program, code-named Project Titan, investing billions in R&D and poaching talent from leading automakers including Tesla, General Motors and Ford.  As a manufacturer of intelligent devices, Apple is a “serial disruptor” of industries ranging from media to telecommunications, and views smart transportation as a key target.

The logic of this collaboration is quite evident: the premier global smart device maker (Apple) has set its sights on disrupting transportation in partnership with the dominant mobility services platform (Didi) in the world’s largest car market with the largest number of mobile internet users.   Through this partnership, Apple and Didi will have the opportunity to shape the connected mobility ecosystem for China as well as the rest of the world.

A Collaboration Model for Connected Mobility Innovation

The traditional owner-centric business model of the car industry is being disrupted by shared ODM services.  As a result, we have witnessed the rapid emergence of a user-centric business model served by mobility services platforms dominated by Uber and Didi.  Apple’s investment in Didi will ensure that they will be able to access China’s dynamic internet and mobility ecosystem.

Apple gains a Chinese partner not only with a strong mobility services brand, but also with a proven market sensing capability and keen understanding of how to address mobility pain points.  Apple can leverage this to launch a car that delivers the perfect connected mobility user experience, and this can be leveraged both inside and outside of China.  Didi will benefit from being affiliated with the world’s premier smart device company, and also gains a major global strategic partner to help penetrate into overseas markets and compete globally with Uber.

While not the primary motivation, Apple’s investment in Didi can also help foster goodwill in China, signaling a willingness on the part of Apple to collaborate with leading Chinese companies.  The importance of maintaining such goodwill was underscored recently when Chinese regulators shut down access to some of Apple’s online media stores, triggering concerns among investors.  In addition, Didi expects to turn a profit next year and eventually list their shares, which could provide Apple with a fast return on their capital investment.

The recent loss of momentum in Apple’s profit growth and share price performance has raised concerns among investors that the Apple may not be able to recover its shine.  The deal with Didi brings hope that Apple can disrupt the auto industry in the world’s largest auto market.

From Connected Mobility to Connected Lifestyle

However, connected mobility is just one segment of the larger “connected lifestyle” opportunity.  The convergence of disruptive technologies such as autonomous driving, artificial intelligence and virtual reality will have the power to transform our everyday lives.  The implications of this go far beyond mobility, which is just one of the spaces where we will be connected through a smart device or platform.

Cars will increasingly become smart, connected, electronic and autonomous – and increasingly accessed through a mobility service.  A logical interpretation of Apple’s strategy is that it views the car as a “third place” after home and office where people are connected to the internet.  Its investment in Didi should be viewed as a strategic opportunity for Apple to capture a larger share of a mobility user’s time online, thereby generating recurring revenue.  By creating a more personalized mobility solution, Apple also hopes that the users of such a mobility service would eventually prefer an Apple hardware platform when they are on wheels.

More than just a taxi-hailing service, Didi is a technology-enabled platform. With advanced algorithms to match supply and demand, surge pricing and real-time route optimization, Didi is efficiently moving people and things by maximizing the utilization rate of vehicles.  More importantly, with big data and machine learning capabilities, Didi’s competitive advantages are constantly evolving and being reinforced.

Like WeChat and Alipay, Didi has emerged as one of the few “Super Apps” holding a vital part of Chinese consumers’ daily connected lifestyle.  These Super Apps typically start by addressing a major pain point and eventually evolve into ecosystems of connected lifestyle services for potentially billions of users.  They possess valuable “big data” on a user’s mobility patterns that are of high commercial value.

“Apple + Didi” vs. “LeEco + Yidao”

In fact, the “Apple + Didi” model is already being experimented by LeEco, a leading Chinese internet media company founded (as LeTV) in 2004.  Last year, LeEco purchased a 70 percent stake in another Chinese car-hailing app Yidao Yongche.  LeEco is also the principal investor in Faraday Future, a U.S.-based electric vehicle startup that is featuring a “subscription model” where users can enjoy the flexibility and convenience of mobility on-demand without having to own the vehicle.  Apple’s recent monthly paid iPhone subscription program indicates that they may already be considering such a business model for other smart devices.

The usage-based model effectively eliminates the problem of up-selling features to individual owners by allowing the businesses that generate revenue from the device to cover the cost for adding the technology.

LeEco’s vision is to cover all aspects of consumer’s connected lifestyle by establishing an extensive business portfolio with mobile internet, e-commerce, sports, internet finance, entertainment and others.  It is rapidly building a vertically-integrated ecosystem comprised of “Content, Devices, Platforms and Applications” offering premium user experience across multiple screens (i.e. mobile, tablet, computer, cinema, TV and cars).

Disrupt or Be Disrupted

Going forward, we expect to see increasing levels of co-opetition, and more cross-border, cross-industry collaborations:

Co-opetition: Google is an early investor in Uber while Baidu is a strategic investor in Uber China.  Alibaba is a major investor in Didi.  Meanwhile, Ant Financial Services Group, Alibaba’s affiliate that runs Alipay and other financial services, has partnered with Uber to enable Alipay globally.  Apple’s deal with Didi could potentially challenge both Uber and Google.  In addition, Didi is a member of an “anti-Uber alliance” including Lyft in the U.S., Grab (formerly GrabTaxi) in Southeast Asia, and Ola in India.  With Didi’s aspiration to become a global company, Apple could eventually extend strategic partnerships to other companies in the alliance as well.

Cross-border: China (Beijing) and U.S. (Silicon Valley) will be the leading innovation hubs for connected mobility and beyond.  The Chinese government is keen to promote electric vehicles adoption and digital transformation to improve urban mobility and address environmental issues.  China could leapfrog and become the epicenter for connected mobility innovation on a global scale, with its massive population serving as a fertile ground for technology commercialization, as well as connected lifestyle.  Permutations and combinations of cross-border alliances for connected lifestyle will create tremendous value for Chinese internet users as they trade-up for better products and services.

Cross-industry: The boundary between automotive and internet technology industries will become increasingly blurred.  General Motors, as one of the most forward-looking incumbents, has formed a strategic partnership with Lyft, acquired self-driving start-up Cruise Automation and established a new business division named Maven to experiment with new mobility services. Other automakers are also catching up by piloting ODM services, including Daimler’s Car2Go, Ford’s Go!Drive and Ford Pass, BMW’s DriveNow, and Audi On-Demand.  We have already seen emerging “disruption clusters” in China, including (1) LeEco, Faraday Future, Aston Martin and Yidao Yongche, (2) Future Mobility, Tencent and Foxconn, (3) NextEV, Tencent and JD.com, and (4) Alibaba and SAIC.

A Partnership to Reimagine Mobility

China is at the epicenter of a disruptive wave of automotive innovation and beyond.  The mobility experience is being redefined with innovative usage-based business models.  Incumbents and new players must re-evaluate their connected mobility strategies with a new lens for delivering the perfect connected mobility experience.  Past success in the old automotive game is not a guarantee for future success.  In fact, one would surmise that past legacy could often become a barrier for swift and innovative moves going forward.  It is time for the leading companies from China and Silicon Valley to join forces to re-imagine mobility and the marriage between Apple and Didi could offer the promise of doing just that.

Reimagining Mobility in the China Context

Gao Feng Insights Report, February 2016

We are pleased to share with you our paper titled: Reimagining Mobility in the China Context. This article builds on the themes from our previous article titled Digital Disruption in China’s Automotive Industry, and offers a perspective at how the traditional value chain of the automotive industry is being fundamentally transformed by a new wave of “digital disruptors”.

Unlike traditional automotive OEMs and suppliers, these digital disruptors are leveraging mobile internet technology to present new and innovative “Connected Mobility” services to users, and in the process challenging the business model of the automotive industry. The century old hardware-centric business model of individual car ownership and product-based segmentation is transforming into a new form which leverages internet technology to deliver a broader range of services to address mobility needs.  Such changes are happening faster in China than in the rest of the world, where the size and scale of the urban population and the sheer numbers of mobile internet users are much greater than other markets.

In such an environment, China’s Internet giants (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) along with mobility disruptors such as LeEco and NextEV are vying to deliver an increasingly connected, electrified, smart and personalized mobility experience.  Coupled with the Chinese government’s regulatory push on new-energy vehicle adoption and sustainable transportation infrastructure, China has demonstrated strong potential to become the breeding ground for the Connected Mobility revolution.   As a result, Automotive OEM and supplier CEOs must learn to reimagine mobility in the China context in order to secure a strong position in this new competitive landscape.

We welcome your comments and feedback on our briefing paper or in general about our firm. We would be glad to meet you in person to share our data and perspectives in a fuller manner. Please let us know if you are interested in meeting and discussing directly how we can help you to operationalize these insights.

Thought leadership is core to what Gao Feng does. We will, from time to time, share with you our latest thinking on business and management, especially as it relates to China and China’s role in the world.

Best Regards,

Bill Russo
Managing Director, Gao Feng Advisory Company
bill.russo@gaofengadv.com

Edward Tse
Chairman and CEO, Gao Feng Advisory Company
edward.tse@gaofengadv.com

Tel: +86 10 5650 0676 (Beijing); +852 2588 3554 (Hong Kong); +86 21 5117 5853 (Shanghai)

Digital Disruption in China’s Automotive Industry

Gao Feng Insights Report, January 2016

We are pleased to share with you our paper titled: Digital Disruption in China’s Automotive Industry. Recent advances in mobile connectivity, big data and social networks have infiltrated the traditional automotive industry and are beginning to redraw the competitive landscape among traditional hardware companies and digital “disruptors”.

The traditional automotive industry, where technology innovation has primarily been focused on powertrain and safety systems, must now contend with new forms of mobility services that are transforming the business model of the auto industry. The conventional hardware-centric, sales-driven, asset-heavy, and ownership-based business model with sporadic customer interactions is being superseded by more connected, on-demand, cost-effective, personalized mobility services. This new form of “connected mobility” is driving new technologies in the areas of navigation, analytics, driver safety, driver assistance and information virtualization.

China’s automotive industry is at the forefront of digital disruption as this transformation is happening much faster in China than the rest of the world, and China will leapfrog to a new era of personalized and electrified mobility.  The unique context of China’s urban transportation challenge, the high rate of adoption of mobile device connectivity, combined with the rapid and aggressive introduction of alternative mobility and ownership concepts will compress the time needed to commercialize smart, connected car technology and related services.  These conditions may permit China to “leapfrog” to towards a new era of personalized and electrified mobility.

We welcome your comments and feedback on our briefing paper or in general about our firm. We would be glad to meet you in person to share our data and perspectives in a fuller manner. Please let us know if you are interested in meeting and discussing directly how we can help you to operationalize these insights.

Thought leadership is core to what Gao Feng does. We will, from time to time, share with you our latest thinking on business and management, especially as it relates to China and China’s role in the world.

Best Regards,

Bill Russo
Managing Director, Gao Feng Advisory Company
bill.russo@gaofengadv.com

Edward Tse
Chairman and CEO, Gao Feng Advisory Company
edward.tse@gaofengadv.com

Tel: +86 10 5650 0676 (Beijing); +852 2588 3554 (Hong Kong); +86 21 5117 5853 (Shanghai)

Nation No Longer A ‘Wasteland’ For Entrepreneurs

China Daily, July 7, 2015

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China’s Xiaomi Redmi 2 smartphones are displayed to the media during their launch in
Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 30, 2015. [Photo/Agencies]

Rising generation of business leaders creates value-added solutions

People unfamiliar with recent developments within China generally believe that the nation lacks innovation capabilities as well as the infrastructure to support entrepreneurship. The stereotypical view, often fueled by Western media, portrays China as an “innovation desert” full of copycat companies that make shanzhai (fake) products.

They describe a China that lacks innovativeness due to an inadequate system of intellectual property protection, a rote-learning educational system that stifles creativity and a business landscape dominated by State-owned enterprises.

This perception is based on China’s history, but it does not reflect current realities. Worse, it fails to recognize the emerging wave of innovation from China.

Understanding innovation in the context of contemporary China requires a broader definition of innovation, beyond the classic product or technology-centric view espoused by Western management theory. We suggest a broader interpretation of innovation that includes solutions that offer added value to customers or businesses, which may be manifested in a variety of forms, but are not limited to low-cost disruptions or technological breakthroughs.

To better understand this broader view of innovation, we should look deeper into examples coming from China.

Three layers of innovation

In our view, there are three essential layers of innovation: people, organization and market.

At the core are people. Large corporations often find it difficult to maintain the same level of creativity and freedom, both of which are conducive to the innovation process, as exists within startups. In China, a growing culture of mass entrepreneurship and relevant favorable policies are emerging. As a result, we are witnessing rapid growth in startups, which serve as the breeding ground for creative entrepreneurial minds.

Inspired by successful examples of private entrepreneurs, a “why-not-me” mentality motivates aspiring young entrepreneurs to create solutions that deliver value. This new breed of young entrepreneurs are adept at identifying new and creative ways to add value to consumers’ lives within a volatile and sometimes sub-optimal environment.

Among the entrepreneurs who were born in the 1980s and 90s, there is a strong sense of entrepreneurial zeal and optimism ignited by recent successful examples of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd’s Jack Ma, Xiaomi Inc’s Lei Jun, Tencent Holdings Ltd’s Pony Ma and many others.

There are other factors in play that are creating a more favorable environment for innovation. These include China’s grassroots’ openness to the world, experienced returnee entrepreneurs with expertise and access to a global pool of resources gained from their experience abroad, and simply China’s scale that allows good business ideas to scale up rapidly.

China’s large population base also helps increase the probability of success from “trial and error” experimentation with new solutions. Many grassroots entrepreneurs are able to spot market imperfections and leverage that contextual understanding to create relevant solutions.

Lei Jun is a case in point. Xiaomi’s approach to innovation relies on a deep understanding of customer needs and continual feedback to tailor products for specific usage requirements.

Second, organization. Organizations typically resist change when they become successful. As markets mature, market leaders often lose their competitive edge as they fail to anticipate change, typical across numerous global industries.

As we know, China’s market changes fast. Many Chinese companies are very young and have a higher risk appetite for opportunities and radical innovations. A well-known case is how Haier Electronics Group Co Ltd achieved significant growth when it introduced a washing machine capable of cleaning not only clothes but also potatoes.

This demonstrates Haier’s awareness of indigenous demand from China’s lower-tier cities and the company’s customer-centric management philosophy.

Entrepreneurial Chinese organizations can be described as hungry, agile and nimble. They continually push for growth because there is no legacy of success to protect. This innovative character results in higher levels of patent activity and investment into research and development.

Third and last is the market. Critics often point to the flaws in China’s lack of market-centricity when expressing concerns about the future. These criticisms often dwell on the dominance of SOEs in certain sectors, a lack of transparency, the abundance of government incentives pushing for technological change without oversight mechanisms and the heavy presence of government investment to drive the economy.

SOEs will continue to play a major role in China, but private companies have emerged across multiple sectors (including foreign entities in China) and will become the dominant forces of innovation and economic expansion. In open sectors, competition has become intense as foreign corporations, SOEs and local private companies vie for a piece of the pie. Deregulation has been a major driver for China’s growth over the past couple of decades and that will remain the case.

Over the past couple of decades, China’s market has experienced unprecedented economic expansion, aided largely by government policies that provided top-down support at national and provincial levels. Tangible benefits include science and R&D parks as well as industry clusters throughout China. The supporting foundation for continued growth and innovation is also falling into place, including fast consumer adoption of the Internet, creation of startup incubators, and increased sources of funding for new businesses from venture capital, private equity and angel investment.

Innovation breeding ground

China is a complex, diverse and dynamic market, characterized by intense competition. Chinese companies are emerging with unique capabilities to win the bases of competition through lower cost, better quality and faster execution.

Innovative Chinese companies such as Baidu Inc, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi, Haier and others have demonstrated unique capabilities and an innovation mindset well-suited to China’s unique context. Such businesses have proven capable of building cross-industry ecosystems for collaborative innovation and a willingness to “boundary jump” across traditional industry lines. These ecosystems exhibit “biodiversity”, which makes the entire value chain more robust and sustainable; of course, up to certain limits.

The China context can be described as a highly complex, diverse, dynamic and discontinuous environment accentuated by time-space compression. Within this breeding ground, innovative Chinese companies are leveraging this market context to deliver exponential growth.

Edward Tse is founder and chief executive officer and Bill Russo is managing director of Gao Feng Advisory Co, a global strategy and management consulting firm based in China.

Competing in the China Truck Market

Gao Feng Insights Report, February 2015

We are pleased to share with you a report titled: Competing in the China Truck Market.

While global brands have enjoyed success in China’s passenger vehicle market, the same cannot be said for the commercial vehicle market. This segment has been dominated by local Chinese manufacturers who have relied on sales to local buyers seeking low-priced equipment. However, we anticipate that several factors will be reshaping the market and competitive landscape in the commercial truck sector, creating a “window of opportunity” in China for participation in what has historically been a predominantly local market.

We believe that market conditions and regulatory challenges will create a need within China’s truck industry to form alliances with foreign partners to secure capabilities which are lacking in the commercial vehicle sector in China. China’s truck manufacturers will need to upgrade their technology to meet demanding new regulations, and will need to improve their service and distribution business practices as the market matures. The changing mix of products towards a higher concentration of line-haul HT, along with anticipated policy changes brought about from China’s intention to reform its State-Owned Enterprises, are driving forces which will alter the landscape of competition in the commercial truck sector.

We welcome your comments and feedback on our report or in general about our firm.  We would be glad to meet you in person to share our data and perspectives in a fuller manner.  Please let us know if you are interested in meeting and discussing directly how we can help you to operationalize these insights.

Thought leadership is core to what Gao Feng does.  We will, from time to time, share with you our latest thinking on business and management, especially as it relates to China and China’s role in the world.

In this paper, we offer our “deeply rooted in China” perspective to the analysis of the impact of each of these developments.

Best Regards,

Dr. Edward Tse
CEO, Gao Feng Advisory Company
edward.tse@gaofengadv.com

Bill Russo
Managing Director, Gao Feng Advisory Company
bill.russo@gaofengadv.com

Tel: +86 10 8557 0676 (Beijing); +852 2588 3554 (Hong Kong); +86 21 5117 5853 (Shanghai)

Gao Feng website: www.gaofengadv.com