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What’s Pinduoduo?

Pinduoduo, or PDD, is a social commerce app founded by Colin Huang, an ex-Google engineer, in September 2015. Only a couple of years old, PDD has become the fastest growing ecommerce company in China. It raised $100 million in 2017, is backed by China’s Banyan Capital and Tencent, and valued at a whopping $1.5 billion.

Source: Crunchbase

As of Feb 21, 2018, PDD ranks #3 overall in the Chinese iTunes app store ranking for free apps, after popular apps like Tik Tok (Douyin) and WeChat, and ahead of other shopping apps like Taobao. PDD went from 100 million yuan ($16 million) GMV a month in early 2016 to 4 billion yuan ($630 million) GMV a month by 2017, putting it in fourth place behind Alibaba, JD and Vipshop.

How does Pinduoduo work?

Users can download the PDD app or access it within WeChat. Like any ecommerce platform, PDD offers products across a wide range of categories from food to fashion. However, unlike Tmall and JD, PDD incentivizes users with discounts to invite friends to buy in groups.

 

For example, one container of Similac Advance Infant Formula Powder costs 59 yuan if you buy alone but only 35.5 yuan if you can get one other person to buy it too. In the screenshot below, a total of 1,822 pairs have “group-purchased” this item already.

 

 

In addition to group discounts, PDD also incentivizes customer acquisition. Getting users to follow the PDD WeChat Official Account, install the app, and sign up via WeChat login will earn them free products.

PDD also offers cash red envelopes worth 5-20 yuan to users for each friend they get to download the app and register. The entire system is then gamified through a public leaderboard.

Wait, is this new? Didn’t Groupon invent social commerce?

Groupon did arguably pioneer the group buying concept. In its early days, a certain number of users had to sign up for the same deal in order for everyone to receive the voucher. But unlike PDD, there wasn’t a direct incentive; users had to sit back and wait for anonymous users to tip the scale.

This mechanism was quickly abandoned to scale faster with minimum thresholds that acted more like gimmicks.

Groupon was labeled “social commerce” at first but in its later years, lost its social aspect.

Source: wiredtech on Flickr.com

Let’s take a step back and look at the definition of social commerce, according to ConversionXl:

“Social commerce is defined as the ability to make a product purchase from a third-party company within the native social media experience.”

Groupon emerged in the pre-mobile age of 2008 when most consumers still transacted via desktop, especially in the company’s US home market. Back then, less than 1% of ecommerce transactions were via mobile acquisition channels.

In addition, the company’s main distribution channel was email newsletters, a slow and high-friction medium and payments weren’t seamless either as users relied on a credit card or PayPal.

Now looking at 2016 in China – PDD’s first full year in operation – WeChat is the country’s dominant “super app” and leading medium to socialize online with 889 million Monthly Active Users (MAUs) by year end.

71% of ecommerce now takes place on mobile, creating a flattering backdrop for the rapid rise of PDD, which started out as an app on WeChat.

Paying for products on PDD is also remarkably easy because the app makes it automatic. After the first payment, users can opt for one-click payment via WeChat Pay that don’t require passwords.

Desktop usage, clunky email newsletters, and credit card payments limited Groupon’s true social commerce potential. Where Groupon failed, PDD is succeeding because of an ecosystem of mobile-first users and WeChat’s features that make it a super app.

Will PDD come to Southeast Asia?

Why not? Southeast Asia ecommerce is already being carved up by Alibaba and Tencent. Lazada and Tokopedia, two companies owned and invested in by Alibaba, dominate the B2C and C2C space on one end and Tencent-invested JD, Shopee, and Go-Jek are on the other end.

With Southeast Asia’s horizontal ecommerce market being consolidated into a few properties like Lazada, Tokopedia, JD and Shopee, there isn’t as much opportunity in the space as before.

New ecommerce players have to focus on dominating a specific, vertical category or provide a competitive advantage through means other than outspending peers in advertising and/or coupon subsidies.

This is where a model like PDD fits snuggly.

It also helps that one of PDD’s biggest investors is Tencent, which already has its eyes set on the rapidly growing Southeast Asian market.

Will the PDD business model work in Southeast Asia?

To determine if the PDD model would work in the region, we need to identify the criteria that were conducive to its success in China:

1. Lack of distribution channels / expensive distribution channels

If you strip away all the hype, PDD’s competitive advantage is in its customer acquisition strategy. Instead of relying on expensive channels like display advertising or paid search (e.g. Baidu ads), PDD is paying its users to get more users. For example, CPCs alone on Baidu can range from 5 to 25 yuan. Note these are clicks, not even users acquired.

Southeast Asia (excl. Singapore and Malaysia) is very similar to China in terms of lack of channels, due to a similar “no-tail” ecosystem. Whereas entrepreneurs in China had to pick their poison between Baidu, Sina and Sohu back in the day, startups in emerging Southeast Asia are limited to Facebook Ads, Google Search, and portals like Detik in Indonesia and Sanook in Thailand.

Early entrants like Lazada took advantage of low cost-per-clicks (CPCs) back in 2013 but given the raging ecommerce “bloodbath”, online ad CPCs have gone through the roof.

Having saturated online channels, Lazada started exploring offline advertising channels like TV and out-of-home media.

Others like Pomelo Fashion tapped into physical stores as a more cost-efficient way to acquire users and simplify last-mile logistics.

PDD social and viral customer acquisition strategies could work quite well.

2. High mobile commerce penetration

The majority of ecommerce transactions in China now take place on mobile. In 2016, 71% of ecommerce GMV was on mobile. In the US, this number was only 20% in 2016.

In Southeast Asia, companies like Lazada and Shopee today see over 65% of their orders coming from mobile (with 21.6% using both mobile and desktop to shop), according to a recent survey by ecommerceIQ.

Needless to say, high mobile penetration in Southeast Asia along with high mobile ecommerce usage will provide a fertile ground for a business model like PDD to gain traction here.

3. Frictionless mobile payments

One of the drivers of PDD’s success is its seamless payments through WeChat Pay.

This will be a challenge for PDD in Southeast Asia as only Singapore and Malaysia are credit card dominated whereas the rest of the region is mainly a cash-on-delivery market.

Source: ecommerceIQ

Despite efforts to come up with a universal mobile payment standard, no one has succeeded as of today. Efforts like Sea’s AirPay, Ascend’s True Pay, and LINE Pay have hit a wall due to lack of distribution, lack of use case, and a plethora of other issues.

Right now, most eyes are on Go-Jek’s Go-Pay, which has a massive distribution channel by leveraging Go-Jek’s 40 million install base and 10 million Weekly Active Users (WAUs). In addition, and more importantly, Go-Jek addresses emerging Southeast Asia’s unique lack of both credit card and bank account penetration — users are able to top up their Go-Pay accounts by handing cash to Go-Jek drivers that essentially act like mobile ATM deposit machines.

While still a poor-man’s WeChat Pay, Go-Pay offers hope for business models like that of PDD to thrive in Southeast Asia.

4. Attachment to popular social platform

Without the WeChat ecosystem, PDD wouldn’t have been the company it is today. Being embedded in WeChat, PDD was able to quickly get massive distribution by tapping into the potential 889 million MAUs of WeChat.

In Southeast Asia, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and LINE are highly popular, however, none are considered super apps that offer seamless integration.

The closest to WeChat in Southeast Asia would probably be Indonesia’s Go-Jek.

While Go-Jek hasn’t entered ecommerce yet (it’s positioned only as a services marketplace and offers delivery for partners through its GO-MART product), it wouldn’t be surprising if PDD decided to leverage the Go-Jek platform, given the similarities to WeChat in China. Like PDD, Go-Jek also counts Tencent as an investor.

With an estimated third of ecommerce in markets like Thailand happening on Facebook, Instagram and LINE, the user behavior of buying through social channels already exists.

5. Access to cheap product sourcing

If you browse through PDD, you’ll notice that most of the products sold bear similarities to many of those sold on Taobao. In other words, a lot of “mass” and non-branded products. PDD thrives in China because of easy access to a supply of these products manufactured locally.

However, in Southeast Asia, these kind of products (typically sold on social media and C2C platforms) are imported from China, which leaves less margin for PDD to play with in terms of discounts and customer acquisition.

To sum up, emerging Southeast Asia meets several of the criteria behind PDD’s success in China but poses some unique challenges:
ecommerceIQ

What will happen next?

In the analysis, we’ve identified some of the drivers of PDD’s rapid rise in China and also their presence in emerging Southeast Asian markets at an earlier stage.

Given this opportunity, we can expect the following scenarios to play out over the next few months and years:

1. Local and Chinese entrepreneurs will launch PDD clones across the region

Ever since opening up to the world in the 80s, we can describe China having gone through the following three stages, with the third one still progressing as we speak:

1. Made-in-China (1980-2000)

China perceived as manufacturing base for (often cheap, low-quality) export products

2. Copy-to-China (2000-2015)

Chinese entrepreneurs, some foreign educated, bring back models that worked in the US, e.g. Search (Google -> Baidu), Portals (Yahoo -> Sina, Sohu)

3. Copy-from-China (2015-2030)

Birth of unique Chinese Internet business models (e.g. bike-sharing, payments, live streaming, social commerce, O2O). Increasing media focus on Chinese tech innovation and locals outside of China looking for Chinese models to copy

We are witnessing stage 3 happening right here in Southeast Asia. Below is a Thai post on Facebook looking to recruit staff to work on what looks like a PDD clone:

It doesn’t have to be local talent copying PDD from China to Southeast Asia. With the influx of Alibaba, Tencent and JD into the region, there are plenty of Chinese employees who’ll be noticing the similarities between Southeast Asia today and China, and jump on new opportunities.

2. PDD will enter Indonesia through Go-Jek (helped by common investor Tencent)

If PDD were to follow Alibaba and Tencent’s steps and enter Southeast Asia, we expect them to join forces with Go-Jek. By embedding itself inside Go-Jek, PDD is executing the same game plan that led to its rapid initial growth within the WeChat ecosystem. Fostered by a shared investor — Tencent — Go-Jek would be the perfect launch partner for PDD in Southeast Asia.

3. Existing players will adopt the PDD business model to compete against horizontal ecommerce plays

Local ecommerce players like MatahariMall, Konvy, and Orami could pre-empt PDD by adopting its customer acquisition strategies to compete with regional giants like Lazada and Shopee.

For Konvy and Orami, two female-focused ecommerce platforms, this move could make a lot of sense since the majority of PDD’s users in China are female, over 40 year old, and living in smaller cities.

Play on players.

Alibaba’s entry into Southeast Asia served as social proof for many entrepreneurs and businesses that they were onto something big, which led to a year of exuberance for ecommerce in the region.

“We’re just at the beginning, [the Alibaba-Lazada deal] will kickstart the whole cycle. It will attract more global investments into the region, and attract more entrepreneurs who now see this region as a great place to start a business.” — Stefan Jung, founding partner at Indonesia-based Venturra Capital in an interview with Tech in Asia

Even as we get closer to 2018, there are already numerous casualties in one of the most promising ecommerce growth markets in the world.

Alibaba doubled down on its Lazada investment by upping its share from 51 percent to 83 percent and in a push to monopolize the market, put grips on Tokopedia, arguably one of Lazada’s biggest competitors in Indonesia.

Tencent, through JD or directly, also began executing its China playbook by investing in companies like Sea, Go-Jek, Traveloka, Pomelo Fashion and Tiki.vn.

Global attention from the US came from KKR, who through Emerald Media, put $65M into ecommerce ‘arms dealer’ aCommerce in a bid to replicate Baozun’s dominance in the Chinese “TP” (Tmall Partner) landscape.

And the plays won’t stop here.

Leveraging newly consolidated positions of strength, marketplaces will cross traditional boundaries and move into areas like private label brands and offline distribution. Brands will also feel increasingly cornered, facing a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

Those that survive 2018 will have to find a niche for themselves, such as in fashion or home, because there isn’t much room left for another horizontal ecommerce player. Others will be tempted to take risky shortcuts like say, raising money through ICOs.

2018 will also see Tencent, not Alibaba or a local company, emerge as the winner in mobile payments in Southeast Asia.

It might be a good time to start learning Chinese.

1. Plata o Plomo: Southeast Asia ecommerce will be increasingly factionalized into Alibaba and Tencent camps, and locals will pick sides

Given its similarities to China roughly 10 years ago, Southeast Asia has become a gold rush for Chinese Internet giants looking to expand beyond the mainland. It was Alibaba’s acquisition of Lazada last year that triggered an arms race between China’s #1 and #2 in Southeast Asia, and in turn, will cause local companies to choose sides.

Image source: Sohu

Alibaba also led a $1.1B investment in Tokopedia in 2017, continuing to place its biggest bets on ecommerce. Moving forward, the company is expected to position Lazada and Tokopedia as the Tmall and Taobao of Southeast Asia, respectively.

Meanwhile, Tencent has aggressively tried to replicate a three-prong formula that was successful in its fight against Alibaba in China: gaming, mobile and payments.

The first step was becoming the largest shareholder of Sea (previously Garena), predominantly a gaming powerhouse that runs Shopee, a mobile-first ecommerce marketplace and the second was placing bets on Go-Jek to become a “super app” like WeChat and WeChat Pay.

Understandable as WeChat Pay now commands an impressive 40% market share in China vs. AliPay’s 54%, up from 11% in 2015.

“Is there a land grab right now for these kind of assets? I think in the land grab they [Tencent] are following us. They are seeing that we have positioned ourselves very well, and they’re sort of playing a catch up game. So what we want to do is, since we already have our positions, is to work with local entrepreneurs.” — Joe Tsai, Alibaba Vice Chairman, in speaking with Bloomberg.

Tencent and Alibaba share price increase over last 7 years compared to Amazon and NASDAQ composite
Source: Yahoo Finance (December 4, 2017)

With both Tencent and Alibaba market caps at all-time highs, we expect this trend to continue throughout 2018 with both sides gobbling up more local companies across the ecommerce ecosystem and upping shares in existing ones.

2. Facing slow organic growth, Amazon will acquire a company to fast-track its ecommerce expansion in the emerging region

Image source: Getty Images

Amazon’s entry into “Southeast Asia” was the biggest surprise and non-surprise at the same time.

A non-surprise because Amazon’s long-awaited and rumored soft-launch into Singapore was widely covered by the media even before the company’s Prime Now services officially became available on July 26, 2017.

A surprise because Amazon’s expected tour-de-force across the region ended before it even started.

Amazon fanboys celebrated the initial launch of a scaled down, poor man’s version of Amazon — Amazon Prime Now — offering a measly one million household items and daily essentials.

“I was expecting more things that I can’t get in Singapore, for example Sriracha or something small that’s not available in Singapore but most stuff on Prime Now are basic things you can get from Fairprice…” — Reddit User Ticklishcat

But there’s good reason for it.

It doesn’t make sense for Amazon to set up a full-blown local presence in the country-state. Singaporeans, under the Free AmazonGlobal Saver Shipping option, were already enjoying free international shipping from Amazon en masse for orders over US$125.

The country ranks #29 in terms of session/year to Amazon.com on a global scale but #4 when normalized for population size. With an average of 14.04 sessions per person per year visiting Amazon.com, Singapore takes the top spot among all the countries in Asia.

Singaporeans already buying from Amazon, without the latter’s full-fledged local presence: Singapore ranking only #29 in traffic to Amazon.com but #4 when normalized for population size (#1 in Asia)

Source: SimilarWeb, World Bank

The launch of Amazon Prime in Singapore earlier this month makes it even less likely for the firm to set up local operations beyond Amazon Prime Now. Amazon is no longer subsidizing the original free shipping for orders above US$125 to Singapore and Singaporean Prime members have free international delivery only on orders above S$60 on Amazon’s US website for S$8.99 per month in addition to other benefits.

Not much else has been heard about the company’s further expansion into the region, particularly Indonesia and Thailand, where markets are being rapidly carved up by Alibaba and Tencent.

With time running out for a full-fledged, organic entry into the high-growth markets of Southeast Asia, its stock trading at all-time highs, and not too distant memories of failure in China, we expect Amazon to attempt at least one major acquisition in 2018 to accelerate regional expansion.

3. Offline is the new online: pure-play ecommerce to launch physical stores to offset rising online customer acquisition costs and improve last-mile fulfillment

While traditional offline retailers like Central in Thailand and Matahari in Indonesia scrambled to move business online, online pure-play ecommerce is expected to make moves offline.

With online customer acquisition channels like Google and Facebook rapidly reaching saturation and diminishing returns, ecommerce players like Pomelo and Lazada will look to offline channels to reach new customers.

Pomelo dabbled in offline over the last few years but, fresh off a $19M Series B, recently launched its biggest pop-up to date in Siam Square, the fashion center of Bangkok. The store applies “click-and-collect”, enabling customers to order online and try items in store before deciding which ones to keep or return.

Image source: Pomelo

“In fashion, the number one barrier to purchase is still the need to try product on for fit coupled with the hassle of returns. An offline footprint addresses this barrier head on. Additionally customers can be acquired offline and data from online can be used to drive higher sales and greater operational efficiencies offline. In short, a mix of offline and online is the optimal strategy for fashion retail going forward.” — David Jou, Co-Founder and CEO, Pomelo Fashion

Love Bonito, another online-first fashion brand from Singapore, officially launched its permanent flagship store at Orchard Road after seven years of being an ecommerce pure-play.

Image source: Love Bonito

Lazada, on the other hand, may follow Alibaba’s moves in China where the ecommerce juggernaut launched Hema supermarkets in Beijing and Shanghai. In addition to reinforcing a positive brand experience and customer acquisition, these new offline stores serve as fulfillment centers, effectively making up for Southeast Asia’s lack of logistics infrastructure.

Alibaba’s Hema supermarkets in China. Image source: Quartz

Lazada Group CEO Max Bittner already hinted at the possibility physical stores in Indonesia at a conference earlier this year.

Over the last decade in China, Alibaba rode 50%+ year-on-year ecommerce growth to become what it is today, however, as maturation slows, Alibaba has doubled-down on initiatives like Single’s Day (11.11), “New Retail” (smart pop-up stores around China), and market expansion to accelerate sales (Southeast Asia).

Despite the region being projected as the next big ecommerce growth story, online accounts for only 1-2% of total retail today. If companies like Lazada and Shopee want to grow faster than the market allows, going offline will be the obvious choice.

4. New ecommerce startups will use ICOs to raise funding to battle giants

With Southeast Asia increasingly being carved up by giants such as Alibaba and Tencent in a presumed winner-takes-all-market, smaller ecommerce startups will look at alternative ways to finance themselves.

Enter newly hyped Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs).

Raising funds through these means in Southeast Asia was pioneered by Omise, a fintech startup based in Thailand, that successfully raised $25M in a few hours to develop a decentralized payment system.

Given early speculation of Amazon moving into the cryptocurrency space, we’ll have fertile ground for our first Southeast Asian ecommerce ICO. Already a start up called HAMSTER is selling HMT tokens to develop a decentralized marketplace that promises “no fees, no brokers”.

Revolutionary ecommerce platform funded by ICOs or ponzi scheme?

Expect ecommerce startups to use ICOs to fund customer acquisition, new product development, and inventory financing. That is, until the bubble bursts

5. A final wave of ecommerce consolidation sweeps through as local players adjust to a New World Order

We’ve shared numerous stories of casualties and consolidation during the Southeast Asian ecommerce bloodbath in our previous annual predictions.

Japan’s Rakuten sold off most of its assets in the region when it retreated in 2015/2016. Rocket Internet dumped Zalora Thailand and Vietnam in a fire sale in 2016 and sold its Phillipines entity to local conglomerate Ayala Group the year after.

In Thailand, Ascend Group put its assets WeLoveShopping and WeMall on life support to focus on fintech.

In Indonesia, reports surfaced of SK Planet selling its Elevenia shares to Indonesian conglomerate Salim Group, which was quickly followed by news of its Malaysian entity up for bid between Alibaba and JD.

Earlier in the year, Indonesia’s second largest telco Indosat Ooredoo shut down its ecommerce website Cipika. Alfamart, Indonesia’s second largest convenience store chain also had to downsize operations to pivot its ecommerce initiative Alfacart away from a general marketplace play towards an online grocery channel.

Come 2018, all eyes will be on the health of remaining bastions of home-grown, horizontal ecommerce plays. As Alibaba and Tencent up the ante, there will definitely be more casualties in the new year.

6. Go-Pay will venture outside of Indonesia through Sea, Traveloka and JD to become the WeChat Pay of Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s ecommerce today is like what China was in 2008 — the pace of change is unimaginable. When I visited our office in Jakarta 12 months ago, hardly anyone was using Go-Jek’s mobile payment platform and wallet, Go-Pay.

Returning six months later, almost all of my colleagues used Go-Pay to transfer money peer-to-peer and pay for products and services.

In most of emerging Southeast Asia (excl. Singapore and Malaysia), credit card penetration rates are in low single digits and most people don’t even have a bank account.

Source: Global Findex, World Bank

Unfortunately, few fintech and payment startups in the region have created products to address the lack of credit cards and large unbanked population. Instead, the majority happily build payment gateways and e-wallets that rely on existing and legacy credit card infrastructure like in the US (Apple Pay anyone?).

It’s no wonder cash-on-delivery (COD) still makes up over 70% of all processed transactions according to data by ecommerceIQ.

Those that do focus on mobile wallets topped up with cash like Thailand’s True Money struggle to achieve sustainable “core product value” and reach mass.

“Community, Commerce, and Payments are inter-connected in the Digital World. Thus far, all successful mobile payment plays, globally, are centered on the commerce and community axis. PayPal started with eBay, Alipay with Alibaba/TMall/Taobao, WeChat Pay leveraged WeChat/QQ, and Amazon Pay has Amazon. Due to this very reason, standalone payments/wallet business will struggle.” — Gaurav Sharma, Founder at Atlantis Capital

Go-Pay addresses these fundamental issues by allowing users to send payments peer-to-peer (P2P) and top up by giving cash to Go-Jek drivers who act like mobile ATM machines.

Top up your Go Pay mobile wallet by handing cash to a Go-Jek driver

More importantly, with Go-Jek being part of the Tencent faction, we expect the company to push Go-Pay into other Southeast Asian countries through its community and commerce platforms such as Sea (Garena, Shopee, etc.), Traveloka and JD.

Following rumors in November, Go-Jek finally announced its acquisition of Kartuku, Mapan and Midtrans. The latter, being one of Indonesia’s top online payment gateways, will give Go-Pay additional distribution channels and use cases such as Matahari Mall, Tokopedia and Garuda Indonesia, pushing it beyond the realm of P2P into B2C payments.

A strong contender for the “WeChat of Southeast Asia” is Grab, whose 2.5 million daily rides makes it the largest ride-hailing platform in Southeast Asia. GrabPay, launched this year, is Grab’s effort to move Singapore towards a cashless society, with plans to expand across the region in 2018.

Should Go-Jek be worried? Not really.

Singapore is not the ideal test-bed to launch a mobile wallet because the country already has an ubiquitous cashless payment platform called “credit cards”. And GrabPay’s recent partnership in Indonesia with Lippo Group’s Ovo hasn’t garnered much attention or presented wide use cases.

“While it might seem like common wisdom to first test (an idea) in Singapore, and then take it regionally and to the world, with all due respect to the government, I think it doesn’t make sense in today’s world.” — Min-Liang Tan, Co-Founder and CEO of Razer

Go-Pay, on the other hand, is adding value to users in a country where only 36% have bank accounts and 2% have credit cards. Emerging markets like Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines have a similar (lack of) financial infrastructure as Indonesia.

Go-Jek, by being part of the Tencent faction, has access to a much more diversified distribution channel and offers a variety of common day-to-day use cases such as gaming (Garena), shopping (Sea, JD), travel (Traveloka) and pretty much everything else (Go-Jek itself).

7. New mobile-first fashion and beauty marketplaces will fill void left by Zalora

Zalora, Rocket Internet’s once star fashion ecommerce venture, has struggled in Southeast Asia since launching in 2012. Zalora Thailand and Vietnam were picked up by Thai retail conglomerate Central Group for pennies on the dollar while the Philippines entity was partially sold off to the Ayala real estate group.

There were even rumors of Zalora Indonesia exiting to local retailer MAP, which were swiftly denied.

A few factors contributed to the company’s difficulties: 1. Price and product variety competition with merchants selling on Facebook, Instagram and LINE, 2. Control of brands by one or two retail conglomerates like Central in Thailand, MAP in Indonesia, and SSI Group in the Philippines.

These two factors made it difficult for Zalora to pivot to an ASOS-style premium brand marketplace.

A shell of its former self, Zalora’s challenges left a void that is increasingly being filled by more nimble, mobile-first fashion marketplaces that see an opportunity in a space dominated by mass-market, general ecommerce platforms like Lazada and Shopee.

As evident from Amazon’s struggle to court premium fashion brands in the US, luxury brands don’t like to sell on mass platforms, where merchandise shows up beside detergent and washing machines.

“After purchasing Whole Foods, Amazon now has access to the wealthiest refrigerators in the country but they still can’t get into our closets because the aspirational beauty and fashion brands don’t want to distribute on their platform. Why? Because they don’t have their heads up their ass and realize that Amazon partners with brands the way a virus partners with its host.” — Scott Galloway, L2 Founder and NYU Stern Professor

Over in China, both Tmall and JD had to exert a Herculean effort to attract fashion brands. In October, JD launched TopLife, a standalone online luxury platform to provide a high-end experience that high-end brands promise. Alibaba also launched Luxury Pavilion, a section within Tmall tailored to luxury brands like Burberry and Hugo Boss.

Spearheading a new wave of mobile-centric Southeast Asian fashion marketplaces are Zilingo, fresh off an $18M Series B, and Goxip, a Hong Kong based startup that recently completed a $5M Series A with plans to enter Thailand. In Indonesia, there’s LYKE, ironically founded by the ex-Zalora CMO.

With the benefits of hindsight and understanding of the importance of social commerce on driving fashion, these emerging players will offer elements like chat, content and an influencer network to offset some of the customer acquisition cost challenges inherent in scaling ecommerce.

8. Marketplaces will grow up and clean up ‘grey market’ for blue-chip and luxury brands

Over the last six years, most of the region’s initial ecommerce growth was focused on driving GMV by tapping into any merchant and brand willing to sell online.

In 2018, marketplaces like Lazada and Shopee will continue to attempt to onboard bigger global brands but their success will require them to control grey market sellers and counterfeit goods in order to cultivate an environment in which blue-chip brands will feel comfortable selling.

Alibaba went through the same process in China when discussions surrounding counterfeits and grey market goods on Tmall and Taobao peaked around the company’s IPO in 2014.

Based on data provided by marketplace analytics platform BrandIQ, 80% of SKUs from consumer product giants like Unilever, Samsung, and L’Oreal on average are sold by unauthorized, grey market resellers. These grey market SKUs are sold at a price 30% lower than official flagship stores and authorized resellers.

Why all the fuss? Because grey market sales impact the image of brands selling in official stores.

“Lately, the explosion of third-party sellers on the site has led to authentic goods from companies such as Nike, Chanel, The North Face, Patagonia and Urban Decay being sold on Amazon even though they don’t authorize the sales, undercutting their grip on pricing and distribution,” said the Wall Street Journal.

Nike, for example, refused to sell directly to Amazon for a long time, fearing it would undermine its brand. But by not selling on marketplace creates space that will be quickly filled by grey market, unauthorized third-party resellers looking for arbitrage opportunities as seen from the previous BrandIQ data.

Customers buying from these grey market resellers perceive this as buying from the brand itself and, when having a poor customer experience, end up blaming the brand rather than the unauthorized reseller.

BrandIQ data shows that the average rating for grey market SKUs are 24% lower than reviews for similar products sold through the official shop-in-shop or flagship store.

We’ll see a push from the marketplace and brands to address grey market sales in Southeast Asia in 2018. Marketplaces will employ a tighter grip on third-party resellers in order to attract better brands, while brands will set up an official presence on marketplaces as a way to pro-actively manage the customer experience and brand image.

9. Marketplaces and e-tailers will introduce its own private label products and alienate brands

As the ecommerce market in Southeast Asia matures and consolidates, marketplaces, e-tailers and ecommerce startups will be increasingly scrutinized for margin growth. Gone are the days of aggressive top line growth and market share grabs at all cost.

With Lazada post-Alibaba acquisition and Shopee post-IPO (as part of Sea), what other value-added services will these companies tap into for sustainable revenue growth?

In this instance, companies in Southeast Asia have taken a cue from the China playbook. Lazada launched a Lazada Marketing Solutions unit to monetize its 23M active annual customers through advertising similar to how Tmall and Taobao charge for ads in China.

Today, Lazada offers display ads and programmatic promoted product ads to its customers but is expected to launch pay-per-click search ads in 2018 competing with Google, Facebook and similar networks out there. Across the region, Shopee has already launched pay-per-click search ads.

Beyond advertising, we can expect more marketplaces and e-tailers to follow Amazon’s foray into private label brands to boost margins. With the data collected from selling third-party brands, these ecommerce platforms know exactly what kind of products sell best, to whom, at what time and where.

Flipkart, one of India’s top marketplaces competing with Amazon, recently announced its aim for 20-22% sales contribution from private labels in the next five years.

“When we first decided to foray into private labels in mid-2016, a ‘Tiger Team,’ for private labels was created internally to research 50-odd retailers around the world, including Europe, the US, China and India, to envisage what the private label landscape would look like for Flipkart over the next few years. Research revealed that private labels can contribute 10-20 percent of the company’s business. For instance, US-based Costco Wholesale’s private label brand Kirkland contributes 20-25 percent of its business,” said Adarsh Menon, Flipkart’s Head of Private Labels in an interview with The Hindu.

Launching private label brands in Southeast Asia isn’t something new. Zalora launched its own fashion label called EZRA as early as 2013 followed by Lazada’s LZD Premium Collection in 2014. With the focus on top line growth in the period of 2013-2016, private label brands have taken a backseat as seen from the limited number of them listed today on Zalora and Lazada.

Althea, a Korean beauty e-retailer that recently raised a $7M Series B, specifically said to be using the new funds to launch more private label products.

Althea private label product sold on their website

“Based on the vast amount of user data that we have gathered… we are now able to understand the specific needs of our customers in each market, garner feedback almost instantly through our online platforms, and quickly turn that into a product within a month or two,” said Althea Co-Founder and CEO Frank Kang. “We have deep insights into our customer base that traditional brands simply cannot match.”

In light of all this, it’s not surprising Zalora has expressed renewed interest in pushing its own private labels, “Something Borrowed” and “Zalora”, for the new year.

10. B2B ecommerce to disrupt offline distributors, blurring lines between online and offline distribution

Despite the rosy outlook for ecommerce in Southeast Asia, the reality is that B2C ecommerce today is still in the low single digit percentages. Given aggressive growth targets, brands, marketplaces and e-tailers will increasingly look toward non-B2C channels such as B2B and B2E (Business-to-Employee) channels for revenue.

Zilingo, the Sequoia-backed fashion marketplace, launched its Zilingo Asia Mall B2B marketplace to allow fashion buyers in the US and Europe buy Zilingo merchandise at wholesale prices, effectively creating an “Alibaba” for fashion.

Shopee launched a wholesale feature earlier this year, allowing merchants to set lower unit prices for larger order quantities.

 

Shopee Malaysia offering wholesale feature

aCommerce, Southeast Asia’s ecommerce enabler and e-distributor, fresh off a $65M Series B from KKR-backed Emerald Media, coined a new term for all this — “B2A” or Business-to-All.

The company is behind the B2B and B2E initiatives for brands like Samsung and L’Oreal. According to the company, B2B ecommerce now contributes to 30% of total revenues at aCommerce, up from 10% a year earlier (disclaimer, I work here).

Written by: Sheji Ho, aCommerce Group Chief Marketing Officer

Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

The Background

Name any Chinese bike-sharing company that you know of and chances are that ofo and Mobike are among your top choices. There is however, another bike-sharing company worth talking about.

Founded as early as November of last year, Bluegogo is a Tianjin-based bike-sharing firm and has quickly become the third largest company of its kind in China, following, of course, ofo and Mobike.

Similar to its competitors, the dockless bike-sharing brand is equipped with a GPS tracker and users book the bikes through the Bluegogo app.

Because the bikes are station-less, they are scattered random spots throughout the city. In the first half of 2017 alone, Bluegogo already has 70,000 bikes in three Chinese cities: 35,000 in Shenzhen, 25,000 bikes in Guangzhou, and 10,000 in Chengdu.

Source: Mashable

Bluegogo has drawn several investors to fund its business and was valued at $140 million after pocketing a Series A round of $21 million in November last year and $58 million earlier this year.

With two large funds raised within a single year, the company seemed to be performing well in China that it began looking into overseas expansion to leverage the hype surrounding the share economy. What could possibly go wrong?

The Challenge

Like other share-economy startups, think Uber, ofo, etc., Bluegogo needed to find a way to become profitable.

One way to prove its worth to investors is its ability to expand.

“Bluegogo, being a latecomer to the bike-share game, needs to be aggressive” – Mashable

Bluegogo has not only been aggressive in expansion at home but also reaching as far as the US. The Chinese company chose San Francisco, the second most bike-friendly city in the States as its first venture into North America.

In January this year, the company was the first smartphone-enabled bike-sharing platform to launch some 20,000 dockless bikes in San Francisco, USA.

However, Bluegogo’s American Dream was not smooth sailing. Instead of a warm welcome by SF city dwellers accustomed to miles of bike lanes and high quality cycling facilities, Bluegogo faced angry lawmakers.

The company having achieved rapid success in China, implemented the same strategy in the US by placing dockless bikes everywhere on the streets of San Francisco. The problem was that the city ended up with large, messy and unsightly piles of bikes.

Leftover bikes from bike-sharing firms such as Bluegogo pile up in China. Source: Mashable

San Francisco has historically been known for its welcome mat, but in recent years we’ve let ourselves become a doormat. It’s time to put the public’s interests first, even if that means disrupting the disruptors,” said Aaron Peskin, Supervisor of the San Francisco Board.

Peskin even called the bikes a “public nuisance,” and vowed to destroy or even sell the bikes if they clogged up city streets.

In Bluegogo’s defense,

There was a problem in communicating,” said Ilya Movshovich, BlueGoGo‘s North America VP of Operations. “The people we reached out to initially were not the people we needed to get to. We didn’t quickly enough communicate with the appropriate heads.”

Until even now, San Francisco has yet to approve Bluegogo’s presence and even imposed a new law to increase the penalty for Chinese bike-sharing companies planning to litter its city.

If expansion wasn’t success, monetization would have to come from deposits provided by Bluegogo’s claimed 20 million cumulative users. If only 10 million users paid a $14.96 deposit, it would mean the company has collected around $149 million in deposits, in addition to the $0.08 per half hour charge to ride.

So why was the company owing roughly $30 million in total outstanding payables to vendors, unpaid rent and overdue salaries?

Bluegogo’s empty Beijing office. Source: China Money Network

It also owed users $15 million worth of deposits as of November 2017.

To make things even worse, Bluegogo’s CEO Li Gang went missing early November 2017 and was later discovered to have fled the country. What was this once promising company going to do?

Li Gang, Bluegogo’s CEO. Source: Linkedin

The Strategy

In attempt to explain the disastrous situation, Li released an open apology letter. As cliché as it sounded, he blamed the company’s state on lack of financial support, claiming that Bluegogo was ‘on thin ice in the face of two well-funded players’, pointing fingers at ofo and Mobike backed by Tencent and Ant Financial, respectively.

The bike-sharing market is full of challenges, and my mind is too childish and naive to succeed in the sector.” – Li Gang

But there could be some light at the end of the tunnel. Li took the opportunity to announce a partnership with another small bike-sharing startup called Biker, who would be in charge of operating Bluegogo as usual under its management.  

The Future

The merger of small startups like Bluegogo and Biker is considered to be a typical one for competitive and costly markets. Li admitted that he will use the revenue generated from the partnership with Biker to pay off its debt.

Bike-sharing is an asset-heavy industry. As investors become increasingly cautious and reasonable about their bet, a timely merger or acquisition may be the only chance for second-tier players to survive,” – said Shi Rui, Analyst with consulting firm iResearch

Despite a promising partnership with Biker, there has been no word from the company itself to confirm the partnership.

The fall of Bluegogo has spurred the question, has the bike-share economy bubble finally burst?

There have already been three Chinese bike-sharing startups – Xiaoming Bike, Mingbike, and Coolqi – collapsing within a span of one year; the latter actually teaming up with Biker.

Even ofo and Mobike investors are said to be in talks for a possible merger to survive in China’s bike-sharing market, which was estimated to be worth $1.5 billion this year. Is the future of bike-sharing M&A and endless funds?

Without support from a wide range of investors and good financial planning capabilities, even the best bike product is powerless,” wrote Li Gang.

We beg to differ. A company that relies on solely on funding in the long run needs to rethink its business model. Good luck Bluegogo/Biker/Coolqi.

With the boom of technology in the region, Southeast Asia has become home to young startups, and investors hoping to help fuel its rapid growth.

Some examples of investment news surrounding the region only this year include Chinese ecommerce giant JD.com confirming a $500 million joint venture with Thai retailer Central to build up the ecommerce and fintech sector in Thailand; Malaysia Debt Ventures set aside a $238 million fund to target technology-based companies like AR, VR, etc; and 500 Startups has made its debut investment in Myanmar backing a social media monitoring and news discovery app.

A recent report commissioned by Google and AT Kearney also highlights just how much money has been funneled into the region, which market is the most attractive and where are the most deep-pocketed investors coming from.

Southeast Asia’s golden child

Although the investment for startup companies in Southeast Asia only contributed to 8% to the total $90 billion of investment into Asia, this value has grown 23 times from 2012 to 2016 from $0.3 billion to $6.8 billion.

Most of the money has been pumped into Singapore and Indonesia that captured 60% of the entire investment.

Indonesia startups investment

Singapore gained most of the startup investment in Southeast Asia

However, nothing shone brighter this year than the myriad of Indonesian startups that have been stealing the attention of global industry giants like Tencent, Expedia, and Tim Draper from Draper Associates who invested in the early days of Tesla, Baidu, and Skype.

The country has produced three startups that classify as a ‘unicorn’, a company valued at more than $1 billion. They are Traveloka, Tokopedia and Go-Jek.

The first is valued at $2 billion after a $350 million investment from Expedia in July, and both Tokopedia and Go-Jek also are worth around $1 billion and $3 billion respectively.

Where’s all the money coming from?

Attracting the Chinese investors

In a short span of four years time from 2012 to 2016, Indonesia has seen 31 times growth of investment value from $44 million to $1.4 billion. During 8 months in this year alone, this value has grown more than two times to $3 billion driven by later-stage investments.

Indonesia startups investment

The staggering growth has AT Kearney predicting the ecosystem could attract more investment than the oil and gas industry — which contributed $23.7 billion or 3.3% of the country’s GDP last year.

“Due to the massive growth, the value of startup investments in Indonesia may surpass the nation’s oil and gas investment which was $5 billion in 2016,” said AT Kearney partner, Alessandro Gazzini.

From all of the investment raised by Indonesian startups since 2012, ecommerce received the biggest chunk of gold taking 58% of the total investment value.

Transport and fintech quickly follow behind with 38% and 2% respectively.

Indonesia startups investment

Indonesia has also become a hotbed for the expansion of Chinese companies as the country sees a growing interest from Chinese investors this year.

94% of the startups investment in the country during 2017 have involved Chinese investors, up from only 2% last year. Two of the infamous Chinese BAT, Alibaba and Tencent, are raising stake in Indonesia by investing in Tokopedia and Go-Jek respectively.

Meanwhile, JD.com diversified its portfolios with investment in Traveloka making Indonesia the official battleground for Chinese companies to fight their proxy war.

Indonesia startups investment

The involvement of Chinese investors in Indonesia is something that the government has encouraged across all sectors. Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating has even set up a special China desk to attract more investors.

With the country still at a nascent digital stage, there is no precise measurement to find out the country’s true potential until company’s try but as the famed venture capitalist Tim Draper said about Indonesia, “it is a great place to be”.

Here’s what you should know:

1. Chinese regulator launches investigation against Tencent, Weibo, and Baidu

Chinese internet giants Tencent, Weibo, and Baidu are under investigation by Chinese government after reports of multiple violations.

The Cyberspace Administration of China instructed its Beijing and Guangdong branches to look into reports of content laden with “violence, porn, rumors” that swerling in the three platforms.

China has applied increasing pressure over internet media as the country prepare for Communist Party congress later this year that is expected to consolidate President Xi Jinping’s authority.

Read the full story here.

2. Logistics software Yojee raises $2.5M to grow in Asia Pacific

Singapore-based logistics software developer Yojee raises $2.5 million from undisclosed investors.

Its software enabling logistics providers to automate their business with features like real-time tracking, pickup and delivery confirmation, and more.

The company plans to fund its sales and marketing effort and further develop its technology. The company is listed on the Australian Securities Exchange.

Read the full story here.

3. Ola raises $36M to fuel its battle with Uber in India

Indian-origin cab-hailing company Ola has raised $36 million from New York-based hedge fund Tekne Capital Management.

This funding will give Ola the much-needed ammunition for its fight with Uber, which has captured a significant marketshare in the country.

It is not clear if this is a part of a larger round of funding. Report of Microsoft in talks with the company to invest between $50 million and $100 million also surfacing earlier. As well as Softbank’s plan of $300 million.

Read the full story here