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Watch out Uber: SoftBank is a far tougher international competitor than the Samwer Brothers

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 13, 2015

From The Venture Capital Desk

We’ve written before that China could be the one market where Uber struggles to find dominance. Not only is China historically a difficult market for Silicon Valley Internet companies to break into, but today’s China creates formidable local companies well before a Valley giant can wander over.

To wit: Uber competitors Kuaidi Dache and Didi Dache recently merged to become Didi Kuaidi, the overwhelming market leader. More telling are the company’s backers: The Asian super trio of Tencent, SoftBank, and Alibaba. The combined company just added another $2 billion to its war chest in recent weeks.

But CB Insights just published some research that shows China is hardly SoftBank’s only play in thwarting Uber’s plans for global domination. It has also backed Olacabs in India and GrabTaxi in Singapore. And counting that recent mega-round for Didi Kuaidi, the trio of SoftBank-banked Uber competitors have now actually raised more money than Uber has. And that’s saying something.

As of now, Uber has raised $5.5 billion in funding and is valued just north of $40 billion. The SoftBank-backed trio has raised $5.6 billion and combined are valued at some $19 billion, CB Insights reports. Sure three companies combined represent half the value of one Uber, but remember Uber has a leviathan valuation even by current Silicon Valley standards. A combined $19 billion is still huge. The cash being put into these companies and the prices being paid for them show that the battle for ridesharing in Asia is not Uber’s for the taking, despite Uber’s constant PR spin of how well it’s doing in China.

And unlike the days of Groupon, when a Valley company only had to worry about the Samwer Brothers ripping off its idea, SoftBank knows how to build valuable properties in Asia. Remember: It was SoftBank who helped create the bulk of the value for Yahoo investors of late, in creating Yahoo Japan and co-investing with Yahoo in Alibaba.

The other interesting thing about this war for the greatest war chest is that almost all the money is coming from Asia as well as being used to try to dominate Asia. Uber has already raised money from corporate investors in India and China including Baidu, China Life, and Times of India Group. And now, Uber is reportedly in talks to raise $1 billion from Chinese fund manager Hillhouse Capital, who CB Insights notes also invested in Kuaidi Dache and GrabTaxi.

In the US, Uber has reportedly tried to thwart Lyft’s fundraising efforts by telling potential investors they can invest in an upcoming Uber round instead if they boycott Lyft now. (A strategy that hasn’t worked, by the way, Lyft has raised $1 billion in an unlikely coalition of billionaires that don’t like or missed out on Uber.) Apparently Uber isn’t so picky about sharing when it comes to hoovering up as much money in Asia as it can.

There are a few other interesting connections between the purse strings behind these surging Asian giants and Uber’s main US competitor Lyft. Coatue recently made a $200 million investment in GetTaxi and is also a prominent investor in Lyft. See also Alibaba, which invested in Lyft and was one of the main backers in Kuaidi Dache.

Lyft’s John Zimmer has wisely said he’ll use his recent influx of capital to focus on the US, not chase Uber overseas. That’s absolutely the right strategy. Lyft is far behind Uber in the US, and LivingSocial chasing Groupon all over the world ultimately hobbled both companies. But it also clears any conflicts between investing in Lyft and all the Asia Uber-spoilers. You have to wonder if more formal partnerships between all of the Uber spoilers are coming since they’re all backed by so many of the same pots of money and all ultimately share the same goal: Stopping-- or at least slowing-- the seemingly unstoppable Uber.

We’ve seen a lot of cases of Silicon Valley companies trying to dominate China. There was the first generation of companies who got to China late and assumed just putting a, say, eBay logo on a building was enough. There was Google, which pulled out of mainland China because it was opposed to government censorship. There was Yahoo’s approach of investing alongside Asian heavyweights like SoftBank into assets like Alibaba. Yahoo undoubtedly made the most money in the early digital China wave-- but hardly build a dominant local franchise. And then there was a company like Groupon, where the Samwer Brothers set up shop and hired a bunch of expat management consultants to out-spend thousands of local group discount sites. There are few success stories.

But I’ve never seen a battle like this, where all the cash is coming from Asia to try to dominate Asia and a surging US company is doing so many concurrent battles with such sophisticated local backers who ultimately have a home field advantage. I can’t imagine Uber’s usual tactics of buying state legislatures, bullying journalists, styling its corporate image like an American presidential candidate, and whipping up faux grassroots fervor to put pressure on regulators is going to play the same in Asia. If it’s going to win, it’s going to need to do it in a different way and against harder competitors than it’s faced anywhere.

Silicon Valley was never good at Asia, and Asia has gotten way harder in recent years. It’s difficult to believe even the all-powerful Uber will be able to break the Valley’s Asian losing streak.