• This Silicon Valley VC Says Chinese Investors are Joining Series A Deals, and They’re Playing “Hardball”

    Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 1.30.49 PMAs a venture investor for the last 20 years, George Zachary has witnessed plenty of trends develop and fizzle. Yesterday, we talked with him about what he’s seeing right now. One of the newest wrinkles he noted is a growing number of Chinese investors who’ve grown aggressive about getting into Series A deals, and who seem to be playing by their own rules.

    Our chat with Zachary — a general partner at CRV who has led the venture firm into bets on Twitter, Yammer and Udacity, among others — has been edited for length.

    You’re investing in seed and Series A deals. Are you not concerning yourself with what’s happening in the later-stage and public markets? That seems to be a common refrain for early-stage investors.

    You definitely have to worry about whether your company can be financed later on, no matter what everyone says. In fact, a lot of Series A companies that have to do an extension of the Series A are raising at lower valuations. One of our founders has done two startups before, but valuations in the space where he’s operating all went down 50 percent, so he’s just accepting that he’ll have to raise his (extension) round with a lot more dilution than he wanted. It is what it is.

    How much have valuations come down, and where are you seeing them hit the hardest?

    Well, for celebrity founders, they are staying high.We’re doing a celebrity-founder deal now that has a high price tag, and everyone wants into it. For repeat founders with a good exit the last time, the price is always going to be high, plus or minus 10 percent. This particular team is at concept stage. We’re basically handing them a near-blank check.

    But valuations are down elsewhere. The average thing coming out of Y Combinator is probably a half to three-quarters of what it was [in terms of valuation in recent years]. The average seed-stage deal is half.

    I should mention that for celebrity founders, research supports that if they’re operating in the same space [as their last company], they have a higher rate of success [than other people]. If they move from databases to clean tech or from cell towers to social networks, they usually don’t do super well.

    According to CrunchBase, CRV was involved in at least 27 financings last year. Its data shows just four deals in 2016. Is the firm waiting for the market to sort itself out?

    Not explicitly. We’ve committed to three things in the last month that are in the docs stage.

    Docs are taking longer because there are new investors coming in, and they want more stuff in their terms. These are newer investors, often foreign investors, who are basically saying: “I want senior preference to [a company’s earlier] investors,” and that’s adding two or three weeks as they usually ask right as the docs are closing.

    Wait, what’s happening? Who are these new investors, and how prevalent is this? When you say foreign, do you mean mostly from China? Obviously, a lot of Chinese investors are looking to invest more money in the U.S.

    They’re almost all from China, and they want all of their preferences to be senior to everyone else’s. What’s happening is, since they know the startup’s financials, they just wait it out. By that point, we’ve already signed a term sheet and turned off a lot of other people who wanted to invest. These things never come up in the term sheet phase but later in the docs. They’ll say, “We did our diligence, and we need XYZ to invest.”

    More here.

  • U.S. Companies Backing Out of U.S. Indices? Maybe Not

    ChinaIt’s been a big story of late. As of mid-June, 14 U.S.-traded China-based companies had received buyout offers valued at a collective $22.4 billion, according to Dealogic. The highest profile of the bunch is Internet services provider Qihoo 360, which, several weeks ago, announced it had received a buyout offer led by its chairman and CEO — one that would make it the “largest take-private deal of a U.S.-listed company,” said the WSJ.

    The reason for all the take-private talk? China’s stock market, which has roared along for much of this year, thanks to a series of moves by the Chinese government, including cutting benchmark interest rates, reducing stock market transaction fees — even reconsidering its stance on what are called variable interest entity structures, which are used by China-based companies to list in the U.S. and are hard to unwind.

    China, in short, wants its companies to come home.

    “The government wants to build its own capital markets,” says Glenn Solomon, a managing partner of the cross-border venture firm GGV Capital who we talked with last week. “It wants to see capital stay in China and continue to be invested in China.”

    The question is whether companies are smart to listen.

    (More on what’s changing fast in China here.)

  • Ben Thompson on What Xiaomi Gets Just Right

    Ben ThompsonBen Thompson, a Taipei, Taiwan-based writer with a sharp understanding of consumer tech, has attracted a loyal and growing base of readers to his one-man media company, Stratechery. Thompson has also become something of a thought leader in Silicon Valley over the last year, largely because of the perspective he enjoys from his perch halfway across the world.

    Last night, at a San Francisco dinner hosted by the venture firm GGV Capital, Thompson — who’s in the U.S. for an Apple event this Monday — shared some of his thoughts with investors and entrepreneurs as they sipped wine and enjoyed a series of carefully prepared Cantonese dishes.

    Among the topics raised was five-year-old Xiaomi, the fast-rising Chinese company that became the top player in China’s competitive smartphone market last summer, as well as the world’s third-largest phone maker. Thompson didn’t address the long-term prospects for Xiaomi, which raised $1.1 billion in funding at a stunning $45 billion valuation in December. But he did talk at some length about why he thinks it shouldn’t be underestimated. From his comments last night, edited lightly for clarity:

    “Whether [I’m ‘long Xiaomi’] is a separate question from why I think the company is interesting.

    Xiaomi is very highly valued right now, but they’re a company that a lot needs to go right for them to succeed. Then again, in 2012, if you said a lot would need to go right for them to get to X by 2015 — well, a lot did go right. They’ve executed very impressively to date.

    Why they’re interesting as a company is that tech companies get so caught up in scale, and the efficiencies that come with them, that they tend to treat entire markets the same. Not Apple, which has demonstrated that you can definitely segment markets, [and not Xiaomi, which has done the same].

    If you view the whole world as one market, you have this view that on one end, you have people who really love technology and will spend a lot on their phone and you give them the highest end sort of thing. And [you think that at the other end of the spectrum], you have someone who just doesn’t care, who walks into the AT&T store and buys whatever they’re told to buy and they get some crappy knock-off phone or whatever it might be.

    But too many tech companies treat that [latter] person the same as the person in the developing country who is also buying a cheap phone. And they’re exactly the opposite. If you’re a young person and you’re interested in technology but you don’t have much money, you’re very different from someone who will just walk into a store [with no agenda]. What Xiaomi did was treat that person [like a sophisticated buyer]. “You want something that’s super customizable that you can dig into, and we’re going to meet you at a price point that’s approachable for you.”

    It’s no wonder they just obliterated these other phone companies that are offering a knock-off of last year’s model at a low price. Like, which would you rather buy? A phone from a company that’s giving you what you want, or last year’s Samsung? The low-income market is different, but it’s the same in that there are also geeks there who want something interesting there, and there are people who don’t care there. You don’t think about [customers] in terms of money. There are different segments — people who are on the super cutting edge and people who aren’t — and that’s fine as long as you don’t treat it as one monolithic kind of thing.

    I kind of feel like tech in general is too much in love with scale when often what’s interesting is at the margins — identifying a niche and serving it and figuring out how to scale it later. Too many companies think about scale from day one and they end up making a mediocre product that tries to serve everyone and does it very poorly.”

  • China’s Economy Has Hit the Skids; Why Haven’t Internet Investors Noticed?

    China-PBOCChina’s economic growth has slowed to a quarter-century low of 7.4 percent. You wouldn’t know it, though, looking at the gigantic rounds that China-based Internet companies are raising.

    Just this week, Apus Group, a six-month-old, Beijing-based Android app development firm, raised a whopping $100 million; Beibei.com, a nine-month-old, mother and baby-focused e-commerce site in Hangzhou, raised $100 million; and Meituan, a four-year-old group discount platform that’s headquartered in Beijing, pulled in $700 million. There was also that little announcement by the Chinese government late last week about the venture capital fund it’s establishing with $6.5 billion to support start-ups in emerging industries.

    The word “bubble” invariably comes to mind. But there’s something far different going on, insist those bullish about Chinese tech companies.

    Take Glenn Solomon, a managing director at the cross-border investment firm GGV Capital and a frequent visitor to China. Though he acknowledges that “China’s economic growth will inevitably slow as the law of large numbers takes effect,” he says two very different economies in China — old and new — explain the seeming disconnect between that slowing growth and all the money sloshing into tech startups.

    In China’s retail industry, for example, overexpansion has hurt large, established brick-and mortar-retailers who are seeing flat or slowing growth and retrenching. Meanwhile, Alibaba and other new e-commerce players are growing extremely rapidly, says Solomon, noting that “on the ground [in China], there are delivery trucks lining the streets.”

    That divergence is “pronounced and growing” across other industries, too, says Solomon. “Companies in the Xiaomi ecosystem focused on home automation are rapidly going direct to consumer, while traditional players in this area are seeing a slowdown.”

    Travel, mobile commerce, and companies whose apps aim to improve their users’ offline experience — among them the GGV-backed Tujia.com, a site similar to Airbnb that raised $100 million last June, and Didi Dache, a taxi app that closed on $700 million in December — are also trouncing weaker, traditional offline players, he says.

    Yet there are other reasons to rationalize those big investment rounds, suggests Michael Feldman, an independent consultant based in Hong Kong who advises on cross-border technology investments from China to Israel.

    Feldman notes that unlike, say, Facebook, which only recently began reaching into new businesses, the “tentacles” of China Internet giants like Tencent Holdings and Alibaba stretch into everything from car service apps to their own mobile payment services, including Tencent’s Tenpay, and Alibaba’s Alipay.

    That growing reach is a scary prospect to startups and would-be entrepreneurs. “In almost anything you do online, you could potentially be competing with them,” notes Feldman. But in their race to compete with one another, such behemoths have also grown more acquisitive than they used to be — creating once-scant M&A opportunities. “It used to be that they’d either copy your product or pay a team to join their company, then they’d destroy the competing company,” explains Feldman. “Now that they’re kind of globalizing, they’re beginning to behave differently.”

    China is also seeing its first generation of battle-tested tech entrepreneurs launch companies, which is emboldening investors to back them with big checks, notes Feldman. “Everyone knows the PayPal Mafia and Google Mafia and Facebook Mafia. China now has its own mafias,” including those to spin out of Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and Xiaomi, among others.

    If that development is leading to some froth, Feldman, like Solomon, doesn’t seem terribly concerned. As in the U.S. and elsewhere, he suggests, China’s tech economy isn’t as closely tethered to the country’s broader economy as one might imagine.

    “Ultimately, it’s about the adoption of mobile,” Feldman says. “As in most of the world, it’s just totally changing society. At this point, the mobile revolution seems to be an unstoppable force.”

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