Jack-Ma

Historically, Chinese Internet companies haven’t had much luck when it comes to international expansion. Ecommerce giant Alibaba attempted to enter the US a few years ago, only to ultimately consolidate its operations back within the borders of the Middle Kingdom. More recently, China’s tech industry focus has switched to Tencent, the country’s largest Internet company, which is moving aggressively to push its WeChat messaging app into global market.

All the while, however, nine-year-old UCWeb, maker of China’s most popular mobile browser, has been quietly making progress in India. Today, the company announced that it has now surpassed Opera to take the No. 1 spot in India’s mobile browser space, with its UC Browser claiming a 29.9 percent share of the market, according to StatCounter’s latest figures.

That means that UC Web, which claims it has more than 400 million users, now has market-leading positions in two of the world’s leading Internet markets, China (564 million users) and India (137 million users). It is the first Chinese Internet company to claim such dominance in two major markets.

Perhaps equally as significant, UCWeb also announced that Alibaba founder and chairman Jack Ma has joined its board of directors. Ma is a Chinese Internet hero, revered for leading Alibaba to ecommerce dominance in China and defeating eBay along the way, a feat memorialized in a recent documentary about the tussle, “Crocodile in the Yangtze.” He stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO in January to make way for younger blood.

Not only will Ma add considerable business heft to UCWeb’s board, but his appointment will also deepen the ties between the two companies. Alibaba has twice invested in UCWeb since 2009, according to the Wall Street Journal. UCWeb says only that Alibaba holds a “significant stake” in the company.

Today’s announcement also provided a look at how UCWeb plans to execute its international expansion plans. Rather than merely port its product and a few team members to India, UCWeb has localized by the browser and its operations for the country. This year, it more than doubled its office space in the country and next year plans to increase its headcount there to 100 employees, most of whom will be Indian nationals.

Last year, I visited UCWeb’s headquarters in Guangzhou, southern China, and spoke to founder and Chief Product Officer Xiapeng He about the company’s plans to one day move into the US. He was full of questions for me, asking for advice on how to best approach the US market, and whether it would make more sense to have an American or a Chinese person heading up a Silicon Valley office.

The company was wary of making the same mistakes that US Internet companies had made when attempting to establish themselves in China in previous years. Those mistakes revolved chiefly around not properly understanding and integrating into the culture, and trying to impose American business ideas on the market. When it got to the US, He said, UCWeb would be “like a student.” Its expansion strategy in India hints at UCWeb’s “gloaclization” approach to moving into new markets.

UCWeb ended up opening an office in Silicon Valley late last year, and it streamlined its logo to make it more appealing to American consumers (the previous version was a comic-book-character-like depiction of a squirrel, exhibiting the sort of cutesiness that goes down well in China). It is moving cautiously in the US and targeting the iPad as its first key device, and it one day hopes to IPO here.

In the meantime, however, it is eyeing up markets in Southeast Asia for its next big push. Just like WeChat.

(For more on UCWeb, WeChat, and China’s most innovative Internet companies, buy my ebook, “Beta China.”)

Image via Netsphere Strategies