China’s troika of digital champions collectively known as BAT further underlined their hold on the world’s biggest market of internet users when Alibaba – the e-commerce group – snapped up UCWeb, a Chinese internet browser company, last week.
Search engine Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, a gaming and social media conglomerate based in the southern city of Shenzhen, have risen far past their peers and are buying almost any and everything – from app stores, to travel websites and virtual taxi services, as they rush to steal a march on each other. Their targets, including UCWeb, are receptive to these offers, which provide a quick way to cash out without a time-consuming and complex listing.
UCWeb, which began laying the groundwork for an initial public offering two years ago, instead sold the remaining 34 per cent stake to Alibaba. “If it were a matter of wielding more control [over the company], then it would make sense to list at a later stage,” chairman Yu Yongfu told employees in an internal memo.
“But as the leader of this team I face immense pressure to bring greater economic benefits and possibilities for personal development for everyone.” UCWeb will be paid mainly in shares of Alibaba, which will list later this year in one of the biggest IPOs of all time.
UCWeb is treading a familiar path – last year a number of companies made the same calculation. Autonavi, a US listed virtual mapping software company, was bought out by Alibaba in deals in 2013 and 2014 which valued it at $1.6bn.
Autonavi’s chief executive, Cheng Congwu, says size matters in order to compete in China’s internet today. “Each independent app and service needs to attach itself in the larger ecosystem; not every company is big enough to be its own ecosystem,” Mr Cheng said in a speech at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing in May.
“The mobile internet is full of transformations and challenges, and, as I see it, is a game for giants. In such a world we must make our own decisions and arrangements.”
Competition in China’s internet market is fierce, and market share increasingly belongs to companies with pockets deep enough to tough out price wars.
“The whole system is changing, and the ticket to participate in that change is market share,” says CC Zhuang, chief executive of Qunar, China’s largest travel website by volume, which sold a majority stake to Baidu in 2011. Endless price wars on the Chinese internet, he said, are “not good or bad, just the future”.
Youku Tudou, China’s most popular video hosting site, sold an 18 per cent share to Alibaba and affiliated investors in April, after competition from Tencent’s QQ and Baidu’s Iqiyi drove the price of content to exorbitant levels.
The second most popular video site – Sohu TV, which belongs to Sohu Group, an internet portal – is persistently rumoured to be in negotiations to sell a stake to a BAT company.
Another example of a strong internet player that nonetheless sought an alliance with one of the big three is JD.com, an Amazon-like e-commerce site that competes head-to-head with Alibaba.
It sold a 15 per cent stake to Tencent, alongside its May IPO, which valued the company at nearly $26bn.
The move was applauded by analysts as a win for both companies, giving Tencent a fully formed ecommerce company to compete with Alibaba.
Other deals may not be far off. As well as Sohu TV, speculation hovers over Ctrip, a travel website similar to Expedia.
“It’s the best of times and the worst of times to be an internet company founder,” said Wang Xiaochuan, chief executive of the Sogou search engine which sold a stake to Tencent last year, in a March interview.
“Generous acquisitions from internet conglomerates are now providing a way out for many entrepreneurs. But if your company is not out in front, it’s not an option, and there aren’t many other options.”
Additional reporting by Ma Fangjing
高德首席执行官成从武表示，规模在当今中国互联网竞争中起着重要作用。今年5月全球移动互联网大会(Global Mobile Internet Conference)在北京举行，成从武在会上发言说：“移动互联网任何一个独立的应用和服务必须寄生在一个大的生态体系里面，所以大的生态体系没有一家能够彻底把它做到。”
互联网门户搜狐集团(Sohu Group)旗下搜狐视频(Sohu TV)是第二大热门视频网站，一直有传言说它在与BAT中的一家洽谈售股事宜。