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DCM is poised to make roughly $1 billion off its $26 million bet on Bill.com

David Chao, the cofounder of the cross-border venture firm DCM, speaks English, Japanese, and Mandarin. But he also knows how to talk to founders.

It’s worth a lot. Consider that DCM could see more than $1 billion from the $26.4 million it invested across 14 years in the cloud-based business-to-business payments company Bill.com, starting with its A round. Indeed, by the time Bill.com went public last December, when its shares priced at $22 apiece, DCM’s stake — which was 16% sailing into the IPO — was worth a not-so-small fortune.

Since then, Wall Street’s lust for both digital payments and subscription-based revenue models has driven Bill.com’s shares to roughly $90 each. Little wonder that in recent weeks, DCM has sold roughly 70 percent of a stake that’s currently valued at roughly $900 million and was worth more than $1 billion a few weeks ago. (It still owns 30 percent of its position.)

We talked with Chao earlier today about Bill.com, on whose board he sits and whose founder, René Lacerte, is someone Chao backed previously. We also talked about another very lucrative stake DCM holds right now, about DCM’s newest fund, and about how Chao navigates between the U.S. and China as relations between the two countries worsen. Our conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: I’m seeing you owned about 33% of Bill.com after the first round. How did that initial check come to pass? Had you invested before in Lacerte?

DC: That’s right. René started [an online payroll] company called PayCycle and we’d backed him and it sold to Intuit [in 2009] and René made good money and we made money. And when he wanted to start this next thing, he said, ‘Look, I want to do something that’s a bigger outcome. I don’t want to sell the company along the way. I just want this time to do a big public company.’

TC: Why did he sell PayCycle if that was his ambition?

DC: It was largely because when you’re a first-time CEO and entrepreneur and a large company offers you the chance to make millions and millions of dollars, you’re a bit more tempted to sell the company. And it was a good price. For where the company was, it was a decent price.

Bill.com was a little bit different. We had good offers before going public. We even had an offer right before we went public.  But René said, ‘No, this time, I want to go all the way.’ And he fulfilled that promise he’d made to himself. It’s a 14-year success story.

TC: You’ve sold most of your stake in recent weeks; how does that outcome compare with other recent exits for DCM? 

DC: We actually have another recent one that’s phenomenal. We invested in a company called Kuaishou in China. It’s the largest competitor to Bytedance’s TikTok in China. We’ve invested $49.3 million altogether and now that stake is worth $3.8 billion. The company is still private held, but we actually cashed out around 15% of our holdings. and with just that sale alone we’ve already [seen 10 times] that $30 million.

TC: How do you think about selling off your holdings, particularly once a company has gone public?

DC: It’s really case by case. In general, once a company goes public, we probably spend somewhere between 18 months to three years [unwinding our position]. We had two big IPOs in Japan last year. One company [has] a $1.6 billion market cap; the other is a $2.6 billion company. There are some [cases] that are 12 months and there are some [where we own some shares] for four or five years.

TC: What types of businesses are these newly public companies in Japan?

DC: They’re both B2B. One is pretty much the Bill.com of Japan. The other makes contact management software

TC: Isn’t DCM also an investor in Blued, the LGBTQ dating app that went public in the U.S. in July?

DC: Yes, our stake wasn’t  very big, but we were probably the first major VC to jump in because it was controversial.

TC: I also saw that you closed a new $880 million early stage fund this summer.

DC: Yes, that’s right. It was largely driven by the fact that many of our funds have done well. We’re now on fund nine, but our fund seven is on paper today 9x, and even the fund that Bill.com is in, fund four, is now more than 3x. So is fund five. So we’re in a good spot.

TC: As a cross-border fund, what does the growing tension between the U.S and China mean for your team and how it operates?

DC: It’s not a huge impact. If we were currently investing in semiconductor companies, for example, I think it would be a pretty rough period, because [the U.S.] restricts all the money coming from any foreign sources. At least, you’d be under strong scrutiny. And if we invested in a semiconductor company in China, you might not be able to go public in the U.S.

But the kinds of deals that we do, which are largely B2B and B2C — more on the software and services side — they aren’t as impacted. I’d say 90% of our deals in China focus on the domestic market. And so it doesn’t really impact us as much.

I think some of the Western institutions putting money into the Chinese market — that might be decreasing, or at least they’re a little bit more on the sidelines, trying to figure out whether they should be continuing to invest in China. And maybe for Chinese companies, less companies will go public in the U.S., etcetera. But some of these companies can go public in Hong Kong.

TC: How you feel about the U.S. administration’s policies?  Do you understand them? Are you frustrated by them?

DC: I think it requires patience, because what [is announced and] goes on the news, versus what is really implemented and how it truly affects the industry, there’s a huge gap.

[Correction: This story originally reported that DCM had sold nearly $900 worth of shares and maintains another 30%; the firm’s entire position is currently worth $900 million, with 30% of those shares still held.]

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China Roundup: Alibaba to add 5,000 staff to cloud unit

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, we have updates from Alibaba’s rapidly growing cloud computing unit, Apple’s controversial decision to remove two podcast apps from its Chinese App Store, and more.

China tech abroad

TikTok’s besieged rival

Zynn, a TikTok rival that had rocketed to the top of the download charts a few weeks since its launch in May, was removed from Google Play this week over plagiarism. Developed by Kuaishou, the nemesis of TikTok’s Chinese sister Douyin, Zynn is another made-in-China app that has recently taken the international market by storm.

In a statement (in Chinese) this week, Kuaishou said the removal was triggered by one complaint about a user-generated video that had stolen content from another platform. As venture capitalist Turner Novak observed, much of Zynn’s early content seemed to be ripped from TikTok.

The main driver of the app’s rise, however, is its reward system; it essentially pays users to use and promote its app, a strategy that has proven popular among China’s rural and small-town populations. Nasdaq-listed content aggregator Qutoutiao has used the same tactic to grow.

Whether this pay-to-use strategy is sustainable is yet to be seen. Zynn is apparently making efforts to retain users through other means, claiming it’s in talks with “celebrity-level” creators to enrich its content.

Alibaba hunts for global influencers to sell more

Influencers are in high demand these days. After proving the strategy of driving e-commerce sales through influencer live promotion, Alibaba decided it wanted to bring the model to overseas markets. As such, it put out a notice to recruit as many as 100,000 content creators who would help the Chinese giant promote products sold on its international marketplace, AliExpress.

Data center in Tibet to connect China to South Asia

Many may know that China has turned one of its poorest provinces Guizhou into a pivotal tech hub that’s home to many cloud services, including that of Apple China. Now China is morphing Tibet into another cloud computing center. One main project is a 645,000-square-meter data facility that will facilitate data exchange between China and South Asia.

China tech at home

Dingtalk as an OS

At its annual summit this week, Alibaba Cloud reiterated its latest strategy to “integrate cloud into Dingtalk (in Chinese),” its work collaboration app that’s analogous to Slack.

The slogan suggests the strategic role Alibaba wants Dingtalk to play: an operating system built on Alibaba Cloud, the world’s third-largest infrastructure as a service behind Amazon and Microsoft. It’s a relationship that echoes the one between Microsoft 365 and Azure, as president of Alibaba Cloud Zhang Jianfeng previously suggested in an interview (in Chinese).

Dingtalk, built initially for enterprise communication, has blossomed into an all-in-one platform with a myriad of third-party applications tailored to work, education and government services. For instance, the Ministry of Education can easily survey students and parents through Dingtalk. The app is now serving 15 million organizations and 300 million individual users.

On top of Dingtalk integration, Alibaba Cloud said it will hire up to 5,000 engineers this financial year to fuel growth in areas including network, databases and artificial intelligence. The recruitment came after Alibaba committed in April to spend 200 billion yuan ($28 billion) over the next three years to build more data infrastructure amid increased demand for services like video conferencing and live streaming as businesses adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Apple bans podcast apps

Just as podcasts are gaining ground in China, two foreign podcast apps that appeal to independent content creators were banned from the Apple App Store. The move echoed Apple’s crackdown on Chinese-language podcasts on its own podcast platform last year this time.

Investor’s favorite app is back

Speaking of app removal, this week, many venture capitalists and product managers in China are celebrating the return of Jike (即刻). The social media app, which has a loyal following within the Chinese tech circle, was removed nearly a year ago from app stores for unspecified reasons, but many speculated it was due to censorship.

The app is a kind of a hybrid of Reddit and Twitter, allowing users to discover content and connect based on interests and topics. Many VCs and internet firm employees use it to trade gossip and share hot takes. Its death and life are a reminder of the immense regulatory uncertainty facing tech companies operating in China.

Sought-after Hong Kong listings

Two of the largest U.S.-traded Chinese companies are floating their shares in Hong Kong for secondary listings amid fraying ties between Beijing and Washington. NetEase, the second-biggest gaming company in the world after Tencent, jumped 6% from its offer price to HK$130 on the first day of trading this week. JD.com, the Alibaba archrival, has reportedly priced its offering at HK$226 a share.

Chip company Eswin raised $283 million

Eswin, a semiconductor company founded by the boss of Chinese display technology giant BOE Technology, has completed a sizable funding round as the Chinese government encourages domestic chip production.

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China Roundup: SoftBank leads Didi’s $500M round and Meituan crosses $100B valuation

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. Last week, we had a barrage of news ranging from SoftBank’s latest bet on China’s autonomous driving sector to Chinese apps making waves in the U.S. (not TikTok).

China tech abroad

The other Chinese apps trending in America

TikTok isn’t the only app with a Chinese background that’s making waves in the U.S. A brand new short-video app called Zynn has been topping the iOS chart in America since May 26, just weeks after its debut. Zynn’s maker is no stranger to Chinese users: it was developed by short-video platform Kuaishou, the nemesis of Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese sister.

The killer feature behind Zynn’s rise is an incentive system that pays people small amounts of cash to sign up, watch videos or invite others to join, a common user acquisition tactic in the Chinese internet industry.

The other app that’s been trending in the U.S. for a while is News Break, a hyper-local news app founded by China’s media veteran Jeff Zheng, with teams in China and the U.S. It announced a heavy-hitting move last week as it onboards Harry Shum, former boss of Microsoft AI and Research Group, as its board chairman.

Alibaba looks for overseas influencers

The Chinese e-commerce giant is searching for live-streaming hosts in Europe and other overseas countries to market its products on AliExpress, its marketplace for consumers outside China. Live-streaming dancing and singing is nothing new, but the model of selling through live videos, during which consumers can interact with a salesperson or session host, has gained major ground in China as shops remained shut for weeks during the coronavirus outbreak.

In Q1 2020, China recorded more than 4 million e-commerce live-streaming sessions across various platforms, including Alibaba. Now the Chinese giant wants to replicate its success abroad, pledging that the new business model can create up to 100,000 new jobs for content creators around the world.

Oppo in Germany

Oppo announced last week its new European headquarters in Düsseldorf, Germany, a sign that the Chinese smartphone maker has gotten more serious on the continent. The move came weeks after it signed a distribution deal with Vodafone to sell its phones in seven European countries. Oppo was also one of the first manufacturers to launch a 5G commercial phone in Europe.

Chinese tech stocks return

We speculated last week that Hong Kong might become an increasingly appealing destination for U.S.-listed Chinese tech companies, many of which will be feeling the heat of tightening accounting rules targeting foreign companies. Two firms have already taken action. JD.com and NetEase, two of China’s biggest internet firms, have won approvals to list in Hong Kong, Bloomberg reported, citing sources.

China tech back home

SoftBank doubles down on Didi

Massive losses in SoftBank’s first Vision Fund didn’t seem to deter the Japanese startup benefactor from placing bold bets. China’s ride-hailing giant Didi has completed an outsized investment of over $500 million in its new autonomous driving subsidiary. The financing led by SoftBank marked the single-largest fundraising round in China’s autonomous driving sector.

The capital will give Didi a huge boost in the race to win the autonomous driving race, where it is a relative latecomer. It’s competing with deep-pocketed players that are aggressively testing across the world, including the likes of Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, and startups such as Momenta, NIO and Pony.ai.

Marriage of e-commerce and live streaming

Speaking of live-streaming e-commerce, two of China’s biggest internet companies have teamed up to exploit the new business model. JD, the online retailer that is Alibaba’s long-time archrival, has signed a strategic partnership with Kuaishou — yes, the maker of Zynn and TikTok’s rival in China.

The collaboration is part of a rising trend in the Chinese internet, where short video apps and e-commerce platforms pally up to explore new monetization avenues. The thinking goes that video platforms can leverage the trust that influencers instill in their audience to tout products.

Meituan hit record valuation

Despite reporting an unprofitable first quarter, Meituan, a leader in China’s food delivery sector, saw its shares reach a record high last week to bring its valuation to over $100 billion.

Notion got banned in China, briefly

Notion, the fast-growing work collaboration tool that recently hit a $2 billion valuation and has attracted a loyal following in China, was briefly banned in China last week. It’s still investigating the cause of the ban, but the timing noticeably coincided with China’s annual parliament meeting, which began last week after a two-month delay due to COVID-19. Internet regulation and censorship normally toughen around key political meetings in the country.

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China Roundup: TikTok receives most government requests from India and US

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, TikTok, currently the world’s hottest social media app, welcomed the new decade by publishing its first transparency report as it encounters rising scrutiny from regulators around the world.

TikTok tries to demystify 

The report, which arrived weeks after it tapped a group of corporate lawyers to review its content moderation policy, is widely seen as the short video app’s effort to placate the U.S. government. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, is currently probing the app for possible national security risks.

TikTok is owned by Beijing-based tech upstart ByteDance and has been rapidly gaining popularity away from its home turf, especially in the U.S. and India. As of November, it had accumulated a total of 1.5 billion downloads on iOS and Android devices, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower, although how many materialized into active users is unknown.

The transparency report reveals the number of requests TikTok received from local regulators during the first half of 2019. Such orders include government requests to access user information and remove content from the platform. India topped the list with 107 total requests filed, followed by the U.S. with 79 requests and Japan at 35.

The numbers immediately sparked debates over the noticeable absence of China among the list of countries that had submitted requests. This could be because TikTok operates as a separate app called Douyin in China, where it claimed to have more than 320 million daily active users (in Chinese) as of last July.

TikTok has taken multiple measures to ease suspicions of international markets where it operates, claiming that it stores data of U.S. users in the U.S. and that the app would not remove videos even at the behest of Beijing’s authority.

Whether skeptics are sold on these promises remains to be seen. Meanwhile, one should not overlook the pervasive practice of self-censorship among China’s big tech.

“Chinese internet companies know so well where the government’s red line is that their self-regulation might even be stricter than what the government actually imposes, so it’s not impossible that [the TikTok report] showed zero requests from China,” a person who works at a Chinese video streaming platform suggested to me.

It’s worth revisiting why TikTok has caused a big stir on various fronts. Besides its nationality as a Chinese-owned app and breathtaking rise, the app presents a whole new way of creating and consuming information that better suits smartphone natives. It’s been regarded as a threat to Facebook and compared to Youtube, which is also built upon user-generated content. However, TikTok’s consumers are much more likely to be creators as well, thanks to lower barriers to producing and sharing videos on the platform, venture capitalist David Rosenthal of Wave Capital observed. That’s a big engagement driver for the app.

Another strength of TikTok, seemingly trivial at first sight, is the way it displays content. Videos are shown vertically, doing away the need to flip a phone. In a company blog post (in Chinese) on Douyin’s development, ByteDance recounted that most short-video apps budding in 2016 were built for horizontal videos and required users to pick from a list of clips in the fashion of traditional video streaming sites. Douyin, instead, surfaces only one video at a time, full-screen, auto-played and recommended by its well-trained algorithms. What “baffled” many early employees and interviewees turned out to be a game-changing user experience in the mobile internet age.

Douyin’s ally and enemy 

A recent change in Douyin’s domestic rival Kuaishou has brought attention to the intricate links between China’s tech giants. In late December, video app Kuaishou removed the option for users to link e-commerce listings from Taobao, an Alibaba marketplace. Both Douyin and Kuaishou have been exploring e-commerce as a revenue stream, and each has picked its retail partners. While Kuaishou told media that the suspension is due to a “system upgrade,” its other e-commerce partners curiously remain up and running.

Left: Douyin lets creators add a “shop” button to posts. Right: The clickable button is linked to a Taobao product page.

Some speculate that the Beijing-based company could be distancing itself from Alibaba and moving closer to Tencent, Alibaba’s nemesis and a majority shareholder in Kuaishou. Yunfeng Capital, a venture firm backed by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, has also funded Kuaishou but holds a less significant equity stake. That Douyin has long been working with Alibaba on e-commerce might have also been a source of discordance between Kuaishou and Alibaba.

Source: TechCrunch