But Ma is a careful manager and savvied financial guy, which is easily seen in the $4 billion investment deal he made with Yahoo in 2005 which left him with 30 percent ownership in his company. While that translates to a sizeable fortune—even by internet wealth standards—Ma is no doubt more focused on how he can use Alibaba’s IPO money to strategically grow his company into a global powerhouse.
Nothing is off the table, even U.S. media properties. Once kept out of foreign ownership hands given that the Federal Communications Commission limited foreign investments at a 25 percent cap, in late 2013 the FCC has changed its stance and would consider more sizable equity stakes on a case by case basis. Who in the realm of media properties would be in the category of accepting an offer it cannot refuse? Disney? Time Warner? Hearst? Comcast-NBC Universal?
More likely, as we have seen with companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Yahoo, companies build on technology most often like to buy other technology companies. In some cases, such as Amazon buying a robotics warehousing technology, the acquisition is additive to existing businesses. In the case of Facebook buying Oculus Rift, the purchase is geared to take the company in a new direction it views as being both strategic and financially lucrative. And then there are the headscratchers such as Apple buying Beats or Yahoo buying Tumblr. There are cases in which a large technology provider will buy a competitor only to shut it down and add its key personnel. And then there is everything in-between.
Taking a look at Alibaba’s key assets can provide some guidance as to where Ma and company will choose to spend its money:
- Taobao: A consumer to consumer e-commerce platform
- Alipay: An online payment system that includes cross-border payments
- Taobao Mall: A branded retail to consumer e-commerce platform
- Alibaba Cloud Computing: A cloud computing service platform similar to Amazon Web Services
- eTao: A shopping search engine.
- Aliyun O: An Android-based smartphone operating system
- UC Web: A mobile Internet company that offers a Chinese and Indian market-leading mobile browser.
- Kabam: A U.S.-based mobile gaming company
In addition, Alibaba has purchased minority shares in Weibo, a microblogging site similar to Facebook and Twitter, ride-sharing service Lyft, and TV service provider China Holdings. Alibaba has divisions within its owned properties that handle a diverse number of offerings ranging from ad exchanges to pay-for-performance (P4P) and display marketing services through its Alimama marketing technology platform. Since launching its investment group in Silicon Valley in October, Alibaba has bankrolled at least 10 startups, including mobile deep-linking company Quixey Inc., mobile messaging platform TangoMe Inc., and smartphone remote-control company Peel Technologies Inc..
So what’s left for the tech giant that seemingly has everything in its portfolio?
Delivery of physical goods within China is a nightmare. Using a service such as FedEx or UPS is good from station to station, but getting your goods from delivery center to customer within China’s great expanse is a nightmare. Cue the drones.
While the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has rules and regulations around commercial drone deployment, China is far more lenient. The nation of 1.35 billion suffers from excessive pollution and snarling traffic, so the government is anxious to get cars off the road and is willing to explore every option.
In 2013, a Shanghai-based bakery, Incake, experimenting with delivering its wares via drone, but given it did so without government permission, it was not-so-gently removed mid-delivery.
Health and well-being
As China grows as a world power, its health concerns begin to mirror those of other developed nations. In the course of 20 years, China’s major health issues changed from those common to developing nations to those more common to nations—such as the U.S.—which reflect a more comfortable lifestyle. In a 2010 study, the leading loss-of-health causes were now stroke, heart disease, COPD, lower back pain, and road injury—all signs of new prosperity.
While investments in biotech research might be a bit far afield for Alibaba, as competitors such as Google and Apple move into providing platforms that connect doctors to patients and data, providing the connective tissue in the form of infrastructure could be ideal for a company with billions to spend.
Consider that nearly all the new wearables are manufactured in China, Alibaba can work closely with hardware companies and use its skills in software and knowledge of its consumers to be a serious player in this emerging space in China.
Alibaba generates 93 percent of its revenues from Chinese customers which insiders claim presents opportunities and challenges. On one hand, there is plenty of room for growth within China to deliver new products and services to existing customers–the Amazon approach–but to become a worldwide force, Alibaba will need to tackle new markets ripe with opportunities.
With some movement in Brazil and Russia (two of the BRIC nations), Alibaba would like nothing more than to take on the Indian market for e-commerce. Rather start a new, the Chinese giant has been in talks to Snapdeal, one of the first and largest online marketplaces in India with more than four million products representing more than 20,000 sellers. Purchasing some of or all of Snapdeal makes Alibaba an instant power in the Indian marketplace but, more importantly, it creates the bridge that connects the Chinese and Indian markets. In addition to being a mammoth consumer marketplace, Alibaba also leads in the business to business space; connecting these two enormous, growing economies would make the company the envy of all e-commerce providers.
There is no Netflix in China. What China does have is an enormous amount of copyright piracy making it among the world’s top transgressors in that category. But here’s the dilemma: Is there piracy because of the lack of distribution of foreign films and music or is there a lack of distribution because of poor enforcement of copyright violations?
Sohu, based in Beijing, is one of the handful of minor players in the online video space. The Chinese search engine bought the rights to a single season of Netflix’s House of Cards, but is an example of hit and miss (mostly miss) approach to online video in China. At the same time, huge investments are being made in the creation of original video that are likely to be distributed via China’s version of YouTube called YouKu. Alibaba, which is interested in buying a stake in YouKu, is in the process of building set top boxes to stream video to Chinese viewers.
But for Alibaba to become a Chinese Netflix or even Hulu, it must take the issue of piracy seriously. It would be difficult to imagine that a technology company with such vast resources couldn’t create a secure way to delivery high-quality video to consumers. While piracy remains rampant on a global basis, Apple has shown with its iTunes ecosystem that people will pay a fair price to consume premium content. For Alibaba, building an iTunes-like platform seems like a no-brainer
Perhaps because of its relationship with Yahoo, many industry observers suggest Alibaba should buy Yahoo and restore it to its former glory.
Good idea? Bad idea?
Pros: Yahoo still has millions in revenue each quarter, even occasionally dropping some money to the bottom line. Under Marissa Mayer’s watch, the company has (somewhat quietly) launched a number of products in the area of mobile, online gaming, and second-screen TV. The site still ranks among the most visited in the U.S. with more than 300 million unique visitors, and it also has a large footprint in Japan and Asia. Yahoo owns such key properties as Flickr and Tumblr, and its Yahoo Sports and Fantasy Football sections are among the mostly highly regarded vertical sites on the Web.
Cons: Yahoo is an old, dusty brand. Yahoo missed the boat in commerce, mobile, social and in its work with leading newspaper publishers. Yahoo totally fumbled its chance to be purchased by Microsoft in 2008. Yahoo missed on opportunities to be a hardware manufacturer as well as an Internet service provider.
These are just a sampling of moves Ma and Alibaba might consider with the company’s overflowing coffers. On the other hand, they could just mail a check for 110 Yuan to each Chinese citizen and call it a day. But that seems unlikely.
Image via Wiki Commons (CC BY 2.0)