Beyond a billion: here are China’s 15 most valuable startups
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Photo Credit: Ilya Plekhanov at Creative Commons

There are state secrets for which people are hanged for betraying – and then there are the valuations of Chinese startups. Here’s our chart of China’s highest value startups.

Tech in Asia

There are secrets that are broken; there are secrets taken to the grave; there are state secrets for which people are hanged for betraying – and then there are the valuations of Chinese startups.

While valuations are flaunted in Silicon Valley, Chinese startups are much more discreet on this topic. A more accurate adjective might be cautious because China’s tech businesses know the kind of quick-to-copy, fast-to-roll-out industry they’re in, so their secrets are guarded closely even when they’re celebrating major new funding rounds.

An exception is Xiaomi, the disruptive phone maker that launched its first model in only 2011, and is on course to sell 60 million this year – and 100 million by 2015. In August 2013, Xiaomi founder Lei Jun took to social media to announce another milestone, saying that a new round of financing effectively valued his company at $10 billion. A month later, Microsoft bought Nokia, which has been making phones since 1982, for less than Xiaomi’s valuation, paying out $7.2 billion for the struggling Finnish handset business.

But the rest of China’s startup ecosystem is more circumspect, realizing that if you’re far from having Xiaomi’s impact on the market, then you need to keep the cards closer to your chest. To gather the valuations of what we believe might be China’s top 15 most valuable startups, we’ve had to delve into rumors on reasonably reliable Chinese tech media.

“Very few startup companies are above a billion in value,” says William Bao Bean, a partner at SOS Ventures, managing director of Chinaccelerator, and an eight-year veteran as a VC in China’s startup landscape. “The issue with startups that are north of a billion is generally they haven’t been able to get their IPO done which calls into question their billion-dollar valuation in the first place.”

That certainly seems to be the case with everyone below Xiaomi.

So that we focus on proper startups, we’re only looking at privately-held web companies that haven’t been acquired by a publicly-listed tech giant. So UCWeb is excluded because it’s now owned by Alibaba; JD is out of contention after its recent IPO; Sogou is discounted because it’s a subsidiary of a larger firm. And so on.

That leaves us with younger, fresher companies still seeing soaring growth and possibly looking for venture capital funding during times of high expenditure to gain market share. We might see a few of those startups go to IPO in years to come, but don’t expect them to be greeted with huge enthusiasm by investors, as all have a number of extremely strong competitors doing virtually the same thing within China. That’s the kind of high-attrition market it is.

Here’s our chart of China’s highest value startups. Read below for a summary of each startup.

China-15-most-valuable-startups

Image Credit: Tech in Asia

1. Xiaomi / $10 billion valuation in August 2013 / raised $350 million in funding

Photo Credit: Ilya Plekhanov at Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Ilya Plekhanov at Creative Commons

Xiaomi has already beaten Apple in China and, by the end of this year, it might prove to be China’s top smartphone company if it manages to surpass Samsung’s lead. It has done this by making premium-feel smartphones for $325, starting a new wave of high-power but low-cost smartphones that are stealing customers away from pricier offerings from HTC, Samsung, and Apple.

$10 billion puts Xiaomi on par with the valuations of U.S. startups such as Airbnb, Dropbox, and Snapchat.

2. Didi Dache / rumored $3.5 billion valuation in April 2014 / raised $120 million in funding

Didi Dache is China’s biggest taxi app. It got a decisive boost in the first week of this year when web giant Tencent put in $100 million in funding and quickly integrated the taxi-hailing service with its wildly popular WeChat.

Its main rival is Alibaba-backed Kuaidi Dache (see below).

3. Meituan / rumored $3 billion valuation in May 2014 / raised $320 million in funding

China’s daily deals market is brutal. After the rise of Groupon, literally thousands of Chinese businesses sprung up, using this easy-to-replicate business model to flog batches of discounted goods to consumers. Hundreds of these shambolic startups died off each month. Eventually, about six prominent players emerged – of which Meituan is the top indie deals site.

But daily deals in China is dominated by Alibaba’s Taobao. That’s indicative of how China’s gang of gargantuan web companies can trample the country’s startups, which makes it even tougher for Chinese startups to grow stronger and dominate a sector. It all makes Silicon Valley look like child’s play.

Now that Meituan has risen to the top (sort of), it’s showing off by revealing daily sales of about $20 million. But there’s still no solid word on its valuation or if the startup is prepping for an IPO.

4. Momo / rumored $3 billion valuation in September 2014 / raised $42 million in funding

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Photo Credit: PR Screenshot

This Chinese flirting and dating app might be the first U.S. IPO we’ll see from this bunch of startups. Rumors last month say it’s looking to raise up to $300 million in a listing in December that’d value it at $3 billion, but the company won’t comment and no documents have yet been filed with the SEC.

Momo’s user base has rocketed in the time since it first started gaining traction in late 2012. Now it has well over 100 million registered users and 52 million monthly active users at the last count. Judging by Momo’s online video adverts and some recent new features, it’s morphing into a local, interests-based social network that’s not necessarily about dating – perhaps a sign that it’s looking for a more long-term clientele as the business grows.

5. Dianping / rumored $2 billion valuation in February 2014 / raised $550 million in funding

Dianping, which combines Yelp-like listings with Groupon-style daily deals, is another startup that’s now being steered behind the scenes by Tencent thanks to a sizable investment to take a 20 percent stake earlier in the year.

No number was put on that newest funding, but rumors insist Dianping is now worth about $2 billion.

6. Yongche / rumored $2 billion valuation in September 2014 / raised $90 million in funding

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Image Credit: PR Screenshot

Yongche combines short-term car rentals and an Uber-style limo service. It operates in over 50 cities across China (in contrast to Uber’s current seven) and has a wider range of cars and price points than its rivals. The startup also has a relatively new taxi-booking app called DaChe Xiaomi.

Herman Zhou, Yongche’s founder and CEO, said this summer that the business would expand to the U.S. soon to serve Chinese-speaking business travelers and tourists, but that hasn’t happened yet.

7. Kuaidi Dache / rumored $1 billion valuation in April 2014 / undisclosed funding

This taxi app is backed by Alibaba. That makes it a pawn in the growing rivalry between Tencent and Alibaba across an ever increasing array of online services.

Alibaba first put money into Kuaidi in April 2013. By January of this year – a few weeks after Tencent tied up with the rival taxi app – the service became integrated into Alipay, which is Alibaba’s mobile wallet app and epayment service.

The startup diversified to take on Uber in July when it rolled out an app-connected limo service.

8. Mogujie / rumored $1 billion valuation in June 2014 / raised $220 million in funding

Mogujie is basically Pinterest on steroids. Most of its users seem to be e-commerce merchants who are posting items that they sell on various online stores – but mostly on Alibaba’s Taobao. And so Mogujie is printing money from all those shopping referrals. That makes it China’s top social commerce site.

It got $200 million in funding this summer. It has 35 million monthly active users in its newest figures, and it was raking in about $50 million in sales each month at the end of last year.

9. Xunlei / $1 billion valuation in May 2014 / raised $330 million in funding

Xunlei, a streaming video site that’s struggling to grow out of its piracy habit, is trying to IPO in the U.S., which is how we know its touted $1 billion valuation so precisely. But Xunlei’s IPO dreams have been torpedoed before due to its piracy risks and investors steering well clear of a startup that’s a very minor player in China’s tough video market. So it might well fail to list once again this year.

10. Vancl / rumored $1 billion valuation in June 2014 / raised $620 million in funding

Image credit: PR Screenshot

Image credit: PR Screenshot

Now this list heads into murkier territory. Is Vancl worth a billion? Can Vancl even survive a few more years after a rough period of apparent decline? Once a darling Chinese startup that was simultaneously disrupting both Alibaba and Uniqlo with its own brand clothes, its offerings now seem to have gone out of style.

People in China’s tech industry were pegging Vancl’s valuation at about $3 billion a few years ago, but that’s not the case anymore.

Its market share has dropped a couple of percentage points in the past couple of years, and now it’s down to 0.5 percent in figures for Q1 from iResearch. That’s still a lot in China, where consumers spent $74 billion online in the first quarter of this year, but it’s being beaten on clothing by the nation’s ever-expanding web giants.

Vancl also runs a more conventional fashion estore, called Vjia, selling a variety of brands.

11. Wandoujia / rumored $1 billion valuation in June 2014 / raised $130 million in funding

This valuation is plausible in China’s multi-billion dollar market for apps. Wandoujia is China’s largest startup-run third-party Android app store, up against similar services run by the likes of Baidu, Tencent, and Qihoo.

Baidu paid $2 billion in the summer of 2013 to acquire 91Wireless, which was at the time the country’s top indie app store, so there’s a precedent for Wandoujia’s potential worth.

At the start of the year, when Wandoujia nabbed $100 million in series B funding, the team claimed to have over 300 million users and a monthly active user count (undisclosed) that makes it China’s second biggest Android app store. At that time it was taking in half a million new users per day.

12. Tujia / estimated near $1 billion valuation / raised $155 million in funding

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Image Credit: PR Screen shot

This is where we’re starting to make estimations of near billion-dollar territory based on large, recent funding rounds. Many will dispute these, but we believe they’re strong contenders to be close to that kind of milestone.

Tujia is a Chinese site for vacation home rentals both at home and overseas. Amidst an array of Chinese Airbnb clones, Tujia stands out for focusing on quality, higher-end properties and its extensive selection of places in hot holiday spots around the world. U.S.-based HomeAway is an investor in Tujia (and a partner that supplies the overseas listings), along with Ctrip, China’s top travel booking site. They most recently put in some of the $100 million in Tujia’s series C.

13. LY.com / estimated near $1 billion valuation / raised $200 million in funding

Ctrip was instrumental in LY’s recent $200 million round as well. It’s an online booking portal for local attraction tickets, making it a nice complement to Ctrip’s transport and hotel bookings.

14. Ganji / estimated near $1 billion valuation / raised $290 million in funding

Ganji attracted $200 million in investment in August as the market for China’s online classifieds heats up. Arch rival 58.com listed in the U.S. earlier this year, which seems to be inspiring – rather than putting off – investors.

Online classifieds sites in China haven’t had the same level of success as e-commerce marketplaces in the country, such as Alibaba’s Taobao, and remain an undesirable shopping resort for most people. But that’s not stopping a bubbly influx of cash.

15. Guahao / estimated near $1 billion valuation / raised $100 million in funding

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 11.22.51 AM

Image Credit: PR Screen shot

Guahao, a healthcare portal, secured $100 million from Tencent a couple of weeks ago. Because Tencent is involved, the startup will likely see a big boost in the months ahead as its listings are incorporated in some way into Tencent services such as QQ and WeChat, which collectively have around a billion active users.

This list is not exhaustive, so there may be some omissions, especially in enterprise or gaming-related areas. Please suggest other billion-dollar Chinese startups in the comments.

This post was originally published on Tech in Asia.

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