The politics of protectionism are turning America inward at roughly the same moment high valuations have forced Chinese firms to seek profits abroad. From a macro perspective, globalization marches on, albeit with a different leader. But if Chinese firms will increasingly be at the center of a global economy, the nature of that market will certainly reflect the Chinese style – one that is noticeably distinct from the American and European styles of business. What will that development mean for tech firms outside of China?
Pay attention to Beijing — and ask Chinese counterparts to interpret
Late last year, the Chinese government placed strict controls on overseas investment. The stated reason for the shift in policy was to prop up domestic growth – a pressing concern given the fact that China’s 6.7 percent growth rate is the weakest annual economic growth the country has seen in 26 years. But if Chinese companies are seeking growth, changing the rules won’t necessarily spur domestic investment because Chinese firms already know that domestic investment won’t deliver the returns they need. So, what’s going on here?
To be blunt, only the Chinese truly understand the dynamics at play between the private sector and government regulation in China. To some extent, that’s true for anyone trying to understand a foreign society, but China represents a special case because its political and economic system represents a hybrid that’s neither the Communist regime of the 20th century, nor a free market economy like what we expect in the West.
Commenting on last year’s rule change, commerce minister Gao Hucheng said the government would “promote the healthy and orderly development of outbound investment and cooperation in 2017.” In other words, this isn’t about closing China off forever; it’s about finding new investment equilibrium. But where do Chinese authorities draw the line?
Reading Chinese government statements only gets you so far. Speaking with Chinese business counterparts can shed a lot of light on government thinking. By their reckoning, restrictions on capital leaving the country are a reaction to the overseas investment boom of 2016. The message the Chinese government is sending isn’t exactly “no” so much as “not so fast,” and the expectation, at least in the Chinese business community, is that the clamp-down at the end of last year will begin to loosen sometime this summer.
Expect Chinese investment, not management
Chinese firms already have great tech. What they need right now are new revenue centers. That focus on the bottom line won’t mean much for things like synergy or integration, and because the target company is already making money, it’s hard to see a reason why Chinese investors would want to meddle with the underlying business operations. When restrictions on the outflow of capital are loosened, we’ll see deals that are about revenue and little else. Chinese-run holding companies will balloon in size, as if they’re on steroids. Meanwhile, the size of the Chinese investment will alter the overall market landscape in favor of tech companies that have revenue – a departure from a market driven by investors seeking disruption.
What about innovation?
Technology investments are often about the tradeoff between innovation and a return on that investment. Historically, at least in the U.S., investors have focused on innovation – a company with a good story to tell about disruption is the definition of a hot startup. But with a Chinese-led focus on revenue, the market will have to rethink the value proposition of innovation and the disruption that it brings.
Airbnb, for example, was founded on a story about disrupting the hospitality industry by giving travelers an alternative to hotels that didn’t really exist in the past. But it took Airbnb nearly a decade to translate that disruption into a profitable business. What that means is that today’s Airbnb is attractive to Chinese investors because it’s profitable, but those same investors would likely look at the startup version of Airbnb with a lot of skepticism. Similarly, Intel’s acquisition of Mobileye wouldn’t make sense from a revenue perspective because that deal is about the long-term strategy of disrupting transportation through self-driving cars. Meanwhile, a startup like Waze probably wouldn’t have much value to a growth investor because Waze has little revenue potential, despite the fact that its technology represents a clear win for consumers. Add it all up and the focus on growth could mean missed business successes, missed strategic growth opportunities, and diminished innovation.
In the near-term, the Chinese emphasis on revenue may inject a healthy dose of skepticism into the technology industry. In moderation, that can be a good thing. But if the primary focus in the market is about disciplined adherence to business fundamentals, there’s no room for the big idea, one so revolutionary that its value cannot be understood through the lens of the prevailing business paradigm. Making those kinds of ideas a reality is something the technology industry excels at because technology is about dreaming up a future that has not yet been written. At the moment, China has an opportunity to lead the global technology industry, but if that leadership is going to be sustainable, Chinese investors will have to start investing in ideas that promise to change the world.
Hagai Tal is CEO of Taptica. He has invested, led and developed companies for growth, continued investment, and IPO/disposal, including Kontera, Amadesa, Payoneer, BlueSnap (formerly Plimus), and Spark Networks (NYSE: LOV). He is a Fellow of the third class of the Middle East Leadership Initiative of The Aspen Institute and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.