But do aggregate numbers tell the whole story?
This article appreared in Techcrunch, July 2018.
The evidence is increasingly clear: 2018 is the year of the Chinese venture deal.
With half of the year now complete, China is driving ahead of Silicon Valley and the rest of the United States on venture capital dollars invested into startups, according to a number of data sources including Crunchbase, China Money Network, and Pitchbook.
These sorts of top line numbers are always driven by large deals, and the Chinese VC market is no exception. Monster rounds this year have included a $1.9 billion investment from Softbank Vision Fund into Manbang Group, a truck hailing startup formed from the merger of two competitors, Yumanman and Huochebang, as well as Ant Financial, which raised a whopping $14 billion from investors.
While China hasn’t overtaken the U.S. in terms of total VC rounds, it has seen spectacular growth in deal volume. Crunchbase’s analysis shows an almost four-fold increase in the number of venture capital rounds completed last quarter in China compared to the same quarter last year. That’s in comparison to a dismal seed funding market in Silicon Valley, where seed volume has dropped off of a cliff over the past few years, down by 60% or more by some estimates.
That’s a rather linear look, though, of an industry that is facing extreme flux. Venture capital today is being wholly redefined by new crowdsourcing models and of course, the rise of blockchain and the world of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs). On the latter, billions of dollars have been raised by blockchain projects, perhaps most notoriously in recent weeks by EOS and Telegram. Institutional capital still matters, but it isn’t the sole source of funding anymore, even at the growth stage. That makes VC aggregate data much less compelling than it might have been in the past.
However, what these aggregates do show is the changing power dynamics between the U.S. and China, particularly in critical future growth markets in the emerging world.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the burgeoning strength of China’s high-flying tech companies. While venture firms are of course widely present in China, it is the country’s largest tech companies that are driving much of the venture investment in the mainland ecosystem. As China Money Network noted recently, “Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu … ranked as the first, fourth and eighth most active investors in [April], inking 11, 5 and 4 deals respectively.”
The aggressive investment strategies of Chinese tech firms was recently observed by Sequoia partner Mike Moritz in the Financial Times. In his analysis, Moritz wrote, “Between 2015 and 2017, the five biggest US tech groups (especially Apple and Microsoft) spent $228bn on stock buybacks and dividends, Bloomberg data shows. During the same period, the top five Chinese tech companies spent just $10.7bn and ploughed the rest of their excess cash into investments that broaden their footprint and influence.“
Context can explain some of this behavior, but there is also an outlook difference across the Pacific that is important to appreciate. American venture firms are robust, and Google and other tech companies don’t feel as compelled as their Chinese counterparts to step into the game themselves in order to finance the innovation industry.
Yet, one can’t help but feel that a different concept of ambition is being adopted by American companies — one that looks internally for growth rather than externally in new markets.
That’s certainly not the case in China, where companies are looking in both directions. Moritz again: “Most Chinese activity is outside the US, with Tencent and Alibaba building vast constellations of satellites. Tencent has more than 600 investments, while Alibaba has around 400 — totals that almost make Japan’s SoftBank look like a penny-pinching slowpoke.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, we see a complete pull back from much of the emerging world. The drastic reported cutback in Facebook’s efforts in the emerging world is just the latest example of this myopia.
The old line about venture capitalists still holds true: most don’t want to invest more than 40 miles from their house. While many Silicon Valley-based VCs have since extended that geography to the rest of the United States, only an extraordinary few have invested in more than a handful of companies in the developing world. That has left open opportunities for investment in countries like Indonesia, Nigeria, and Brazil, where the next set of internet users are coming online.
For founders, focusing on aggregate numbers is useless. Investors are either interested in a startup or not, and while macro factors can provide context for a fundraise, they don’t typically drive the outcome. But when it comes to evaluating the corporate strategy of tech giants, they are far more impactful. The U.S. can’t continue to look inward and expect the high rates of growth we have seen in the tech sector over the past two decades. Only new, global markets are going to be the driver of prosperity, and right now, China has its money where the action is.