Is Alibaba investing its way into a muddle?
What exactly is Alibaba becoming? The company's unique business model, meteoric rise and dominance of China's e-commerce (not to mention its opaque structure) have always belied easy analogies like “the Amazon of China.” Amazon disrupted a traditional commercial infrastructure with its site. Alibaba built a commercial infrastructure where one had never really existed.
If the business model that gave Alibaba a $215 billion market cap has been tricky for some to get their minds around, whatever strategy Alibaba is pursuing for its next phase of growth is even harder to understand. Alibaba has always relied on a complex network of corporate partners and minority investments. Now this network is growing so vast it's getting hard to discern any overall strategy, except maybe growth itself.
Beyond its core marketplaces, Alibaba went public last year with a payment service (Alipay), a browser and search product (UC Web), as well as location-based services, financing, marketing and logistics. It also had minority investments in companies like video app Youku Tudou and social media app Weibo. All played some role in the Alibaba ecosystem, supporting its marketplaces and their participants.
In the past year or so, Alibaba been busy with a number of other investments inside China and beyond. Many of them add incrementally to the central idea of creating the platform where purveyors of goods or content can connect with consumers who are looking for them.
Last year, Alibaba invested in a $250 million round raised by Lyft, and this year it invested in Didi and Kuaidi, two car-hailing apps serving China. It invested in smartphone maker Meizu and partnered with China Telecom to sell cheap smartphones preloaded with software. It entered into talks to buy India smartphone maker Micromax for as much as $1.2 billion and may also join a $500 million round for India's Snapdeal.
Alibaba invested $200 million in Snapchat, following a $50 million investment in smart-remote app Peel. Then it participated in a $140 million round raised by Amazon-challenger Jet.com around the time it became Zulilly's largest outside shareholder. In China, it has invested in hotel-management software company Beijing Shiji, delivery service YTO Express, and media companies Shanghai Media and Alibaba Pictures Group. And there are many more.
Beyond investments, Alibaba has been laying other plans. The company is working to sign up music-distribution deals with major labels, add Alipay to 410 Wal-Mart stores in China, launch a Netflix-like video service called TBO, and produce a facial-recognition app that lets shoppers pay by smiling.
What kind of a picture do we get when we connect all of these scattered dots? Nothing terribly clear, but a few things stand out. First, Alibaba's core marketplaces are rooted in a vision in which consumers can immerse themselves in a mobile world and buy whatever strikes their fancy – with Alibaba as the platform running the whole show. It's adding layer after layer onto that core vision.
Second, Alibaba is dead serious about expanding internationally. It can't easily export the e-commerce platform it built in China, so it's exporting its ecosystem. And if it can't to that, it will build another ecosystem based on companies that it has minority investments in. Minority investments are either just that – opportunities to see returns on your capital – or they are the mortar binding together partnerships. Unless Alibaba wants to be a hedge fund, its strategy is almost certainly the latter.
These days, growing your ecosystem is the name of the game for the biggest tech giants, even if it means straying into each other domains or new market entirely. But there is a risk of pushing too quickly into too many competitive markets. As Amazon found out it can lead to growing losses and money poured into unloved things like, say, the Amazon Phone. In that sense, Alibaba may become the Amazon of China after all.
Unlike Amazon, which is building its empire by itself, Alibaba is cobbling together a sprawling ecosystem through minority investments and partnerships. One advantage is that it could end up with the kind of lucrative investment that Yahoo found in Alibaba back in 2005. Should Snapchat go public and see its stock surge, it could deliver benefits to Alibaba beyond the strategic.
Partnering with Alibaba may bring its own two-edged blade. As investors in the IPO found out quickly, this is one opaque company, and figuring out what's going on inside it – or even who is driving the decisions – isn't easy. Alibaba has other baggage as well, such as rising scrutiny from government officials, an ongoing scourge of counterfeit goods and a stock price that is down nearly 30 percent since last November.
Alibaba may well recover from or push through all those concerns. The bigger question is how it can craft a coherent strategy from all of the different pots it's sticking its fingers into. Ecommerce is becoming a moble, global phenomenon, which Alibaba understands as well as everyone. The company will without question be a big player. But by running in so many directions as the same time, it may easily become distracted along the way.