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The Hidden Unicorn: China Venture Capital Fails to Spot OnePlus

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Missed investment opportunities are rarely this glaring. Despite having hundreds of firms managing billions of dollars and employing thousands of people all supposedly out scouring China for the next big thing, China’s venture capital industry not only failed to invest in the single-most successful startup in recent Chinese history, mobile phone manufacturer OnePlus, most failed even to take note of the company’s existence. Meantime, a fair chunk of the tech savvy population of Europe and the US was enduring long waits and by-invitation-only rationing system to buy one of its prized mobile phones.

Since its founding less than a year-and-a-half ago, OnePlus went from bootstrap startup to likely “unicorn” (a billion-dollar-plus valuation) faster than any company in Chinese history. Unlike China’s other unicorns — Xiaomi, Meituan, newly-merged Kuaidi and Didi Dache and drone maker DJI Innovations — OnePlus hasn’t yet raised a penny of VC or private equity money.

With its first phones going on sale just one year ago, OnePlus has racked up a rate of growth as well as a level of brand awareness in Europe and the US never seen before from a new Chinese electronics manufacturer. OnePlus is the real deal. Revenues last year from May through December were $300mn. This year, OnePlus is on track to surpass $1 billion in sales, mainly in the highly-competitive US and European mobile phone market.

Over roughly that same period, China PE and VC firms invested over $15 billion in 1,300 Chinese firms, many also operating in the mobile industry, either as manufacturers or service providers. Needless to say, not a single one of these VC-backed startups has performed as well over the last year as OnePlus, nor created half as much buzz.

If China venture capital has a big fat blind spot it’s for companies like OnePlus. That’s because China venture capital —  which now trails only the US in the number of firms and capital raised —  is most comfortable backing Chinese companies that copy a US online business model and then tweak it around the edges to make it more suitable to the China market.

OnePlus couldn’t be more dissimilar. It is disruptive, not imitative. It takes a special kind of venture investor to recognize and then throw money behind this kind of business. OnePlus’s bold idea was to compete globally, but especially in the US and European markets, against very large and very rich incumbents —Samsung, Google, LG, Motorola, HTC — by building a phone that targets their perceived weak spots. As OnePlus sees it, those competitors’ phones were too expensive, too slow, of middling quality and the Android software they run too difficult to customize. At the same time, OnePlus sought to turn the sales model in the US and Europe on its head: no retail, no carrier subsidy, phones built-to-order after the customer had paid. Until a month ago, only those with an invitation were allowed to buy.

Nothing quite like it had ever been attempted. Will OnePlus continue its ascent or eventually crash-and-burn along with other once high-flying mobile brands like Blackberry and Nokia? Whichever happens, it’s already achieved more with less than any Chinese company competing for market share in the US and Europe. That augurs well.

From my discussions with OnePlus’s 25 year-old co-founder Carl Pei, it seems few China-based venture firms sought out the company and those that did failed to make much of an impact. The company instead opted to run on a shoestring, by cutting the need for working capital by building phones only after the customer paid. They also economized on marketing and advertising, typically where much venture money gets burnt.

OnePlus spent a total of about USD$10,000 on advertising. Instead, it poured its effort and ingenuity into building a mass following on the three major US social media platforms, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook. There’s no better, cheaper or more difficult way now to establish a brand and build revenues than getting lots of praise on these social networks. OnePlus’s success at this dwarves anything previously achieved by other Chinese companies. Compared to Xiaomi, OnePlus has double the Facebook likes, four times the Twitter followers and five times more Youtube subscribers. All three, of course, remain blocked inside China itself.

Sales of OnePlus phones also got an immeasurable boost from a string of flattering reviews in some of the most influential newspapers and tech blogs in the US and Europe.

Having reached a likely billion-dollar-plus valuation and billion-dollar revenue run-rate as a very lean company, OnePlus is now near closing on its first round of venture finance. But, it is planning to raise money in Silicon Valley, not from a VC firm in China. DJI just opted for a similar strategy, raising $75 million from Accel Partners of Palo Alto at an $8 billion valuation to expand its sales and production of consumer and commercial drones. DJI, like OnePlus, is based in China’s high-tech hub, Shenzhen.

One can see a pattern here. Many of China’s more successful and globalized companies prefer to raise money outside China, either by listing shares abroad, as Alibaba did last year, or raising money direct from US venture firms. US-based venture firms were early investors in Baidu, New Oriental Education and Ctrip , all of which later went on to become multi-billion-dollar market cap companies listed in New York.

Why do so many of China’s best companies choose to raise money outside China, despite the fact there’s now so much money available here and valuations are often much higher in China than outside? I have my theories. One thing is indisputable: being local hasn’t conferred much if any advantage to China’s venture capital industry.

Being China’s hidden unicorn hasn’t evidently done OnePlus much harm. It has revealed, though, some blinkered vision at China’s venture capital firms.

 

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