Ep. 75: China E-Commerce SaaS: Youzan, Weimob & WeChat Mini Programs

75: China E-Commerce SaaS: Youzan, Weimob & WeChat Mini Programs

In episode 75 of Tech Buzz China, co-hosts Rui Ma and Ying Lu talk about China ecommerce SaaS (software as a service), which currently primarily refers to WeChat ecommerce as it takes place through mini programs. Listen to learn about major players Youzan and Weimob, the difference between public and private traffic, and what Alibaba’s and Tencent’s future strategies might be given their actions up to this point. How accurate are the various players’ much-sought comparisons to Shopify, and how closely do the companies truly compare with that platform in their journeys to becoming China’s dominant ecommerce solution provider?

Yes, Rui is still writing her e-book on ByteDance! You’ll want to get updates on it by subscribing to our newsletter, at techbuzzchina.com. As always, past transcripts and other content are also viewable at pandaily.com and supchina.com.

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And thanks to our ever-talented producers, Caiwei Chen and Kaiser Kuo, as well as to SupChina’s Production Associate Jason MacRonald.


[00:00]Hi everyone! We presented to a large e-commerce company last week on China tech and were reading up on ecommerce SaaS in China when it occurred to us that this is one of the most often requested topics, like ever, and we should just do an episode on it!

It really is. And it took us a while to research because actually it’s still a relatively small space compared to the giant centralized e-commerce platforms we typically cover. That’s because for decentralized e-commerce, where the shop owner has control over all of the data and the entire customer experience, really we’re primarily talking about WeChat e-commerce, and this just isn’t that big yet.

WeChat e-commerce primarily takes place through mini programs, and remember, last year, this was only a GMV of a bit over $100Bn USD, and that’s including what I imagine are substantial contributions from what are still centralized marketplaces like Pinduoduo. $100Bn though … that’s less than just what Alibaba and JD did this year for just the 618 Shopping Festival alone.

[01:13]The point though, is that it’s super fast growing and Covid has only helped the business. WeChat just announced that GMV for the first eight months this year more than doubled year-on-year and users reached 400mm DAU. Well, unless it grows by 10x, it’s still going to end up far smaller than Alibaba’s record-breaking $1Trn annual GMV, but the lower cost of customer acquisition is so enticing most people think amazing growth is going to be here for a while yet, and today we’re going to talk about some of the companies helping merchants take advantage of this format.

We’re only talking about the biggest players, but still, compared to the companies we’ve been covering in the last two episodes — KE Holdings and Ant — the companies we talk about today — Youzan and Weimob, are like babies. They both have market caps of just over $3Bn, and that’s after a pretty big ramp up this year due to the pandemic.

And remember, if you came to our webinar on SaaS in China, it’s still very, very early and in an emerging stage, so this level of scale is already pretty impressive, actually, because these companies are actually public and so there’s a lot more info. But let us know what you think after the episode!

[02:57]Hi everyone! We are TechBuzz China by Pandaily, powered by the Sinica Podcast Network by SupChina! We are a biweekly podcast focused on giving you a peek into what’s buzzing within the tech community in China. We uncover and contextualize unique insights, perspectives and takeaways on headline tech news that don’t always make it into English language coverage. So you can be smarter about the world of China tech.

Tech Buzz China is a part of Pandaily.com, an English language site that tells you “everything about China’s innovation.” I’m one of your two co-hosts, Ying Lu.

[03:30]And I’m your other co-host, Rui Ma. We are a part of the Sinica Podcast Network, created by SupChina! In addition to Tech Buzz, you can also find Sinica which covrers current affairs. And we are also proud to be partnered with Financial Times’ Tech Scroll Asia, a newsletter on Asia tech news from one of the best publications in the business. Go to ft.com/tech-scroll-asia to sign up today!

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[04:21]OK, first things first, to understand today’s episode, you need to understand the difference between public and private traffic, some of the hottest e-commerce buzzwords in China this past year. So let’s define those first. We found pretty good explanations on an Adobe Analytics blog post explaining them. Rui, go ahead and read the definition for public traffic.

Sure thing. I’m just going to quote the blog post here because it’s so clear. Public traffic “means the digital traffic and interactions within marketplaces such as Tmall and JD, and social content platforms such as TikTok and Little Red Book. Traffic on these platforms is usually shared by all brands that use them for e-Commerce. Most platforms establish distinct rules around traffic distribution.”

That makes sense right? Marketplaces serving multiple brands obviously aren’t going to give you all the data they have. Sure, you’ll know who bought from you and what they bought, but access to other info that you might want will be limited. Most importantly though is the fact that the relationship the customer is building is not really with you but the channel or marketplace itself. Like on Amazon, I don’t really build up my loyalty with the merchants I buy from, I become a bigger and bigger fan of Amazon itself instead.

[05:44]As you can probably guess, private traffic is the opposite. Called 私域流量 in Chinese, private traffic is traffic that the brands control, fully. So traffic to your own website versus Alibaba’s. Traffic through your own mini program, or WeChat or Weibo official account, stuff like that. Traffic that allows you to build a direct relationship with the consumer and a better return on your investment in the long run.

Maybe not even in the long run because the e-commerce marketplaces are both so dominant and so saturated in China now that you can spend a ton of money on marketing and not see great results. Which is the reason why private traffic is all the rage in China right now. You can’t read anything about e-commerce without people going on and on about it.

I mean, it is a big deal. Just look at the math. For B2C, the two dominant marketplaces, JD and Tmall, account for over 80% of market share. But that’s not where internet users are spending their time or learning about brands. According to McKinsey, 50% of online shoppers use social media to become aware of brands, and 25% rely on it for purchasing decisions.

[07:01]That’s not really surprising if you think about just how much time users are spending on social media and social networks like WeChat, Weibo and Douyin. Nearly half of their time online! So if you’re a brand, you’re definitely thinking, well, it doesn’t make sense that I’m spending all my money on Tmall rankings when my users are spending half their time on WeChat and Weibo learning about new products and I’m not meeting them where they’re spending all that time.

For sure. Which is why this episode is mostly about e-commerce solutions that work on top of WeChat and builds private traffic. Which is why the very first thing we gotta talk about is WeChat itself, and its own efforts at ecommerce.

If you’ve been following us, you know that China tech has one huge rivalry, the one between Tencent and Alibaba, and Alibaba is, of course, the most dominant player in e-commerce. What you probably didn’t know is that Tencent tried to compete with Alibaba head-on back in 2005, by launching its own platform, Paipai 拍拍网, and actually got up to 9% market share at one point, although I guess it was never truly a big threat to Alibaba.

[08:19]Tencent never gave up on e-commerce though, and tried a few other initiatives throughout the years, but none of them really worked out. In 2014, they changed strategy. They took Paipai and QQ Wanggou 网购 and some other stuff, as well as around $200mm of cash and became a 15% shareholder of JD instead. Since then, Tencent has mostly invested in other e-commerce players. The only directly e-commerce stuff it does these days is through WeChat.

A brief aside here for those who are not aware, but WeChat and Alibaba do not like each other. In fact, to this day, you cannot send Taobao or Tmall links to your WeChat contacts. Alibaba’s fix is to generate this kind of code called a 淘口令* that has this seemingly random combo of symbols and letters. You copy the message that contains the code, and then open the corresponding app and the app will know which page to open to.

In fact, you can’t send Douyin links either, which is kind of why I always roll my eyes when people say ByteDance’s product succeeded in China because Silicon Valley apps are blocked there. Well, try growing to 600mm DAU despite having your links be banned by both Weibo and WeChat, it’s like growing a product that cannot be shared on either Facebook or Twitter here in the US. And yes, WeChat has been sued for this, but nothing has changed. Their defense for blocking such direct sharing is concern for the user experience and also cybersecurity. It’s not untrue, but of course a lot of people think it’s really all about blocking your competition. Weibo, by the way, recently beefed up its restrictions on link sharing too, citing fraud concerns.

[10:09]Again, going way back in time to 2014*, WeChat launched this function called 微信小店 in Chinese. I’m not sure what the English name was, it doesn’t seem like it had one. Anyway, it was this special function you could activate only if you had a WeChat Service Account. And WeChat Service Accounts were only open to businesses with a valid business license.

Service Accounts are like a special type of WeChat official account. It’s different from the usual public accounts that you subscribe to, which is for pushing out content and anyone with a Chinese ID can sign up for one. Service Accounts are more for you to interact with the brand a bit, talk to a chatbot maybe, ask some questions, maybe do some very simple transactions, etc. And you can only push out content a few times a month. It really is for service.

If you’re asking why would anyone use this? Seems not that useful right? Well, we don’t have exact stats on what current usage looks like these days but remember, we’re still in 2014. Many of WeChat’s functions hadn’t arrived yet. Most importantly, there are no mini programs yet. That wouldn’t come until January 2017, as we covered in Tech Buzz episode 37.

[11:26]Yeah, going back to Weixin Xiaodian, basically you could put a shop inside of your Service Account. WeChat Pay was of course integrated and the experience was fine. A sandwich shop in my apartment complex at the time had turned on the function, and I used it whenever I wanted to order from there, since it didn’t warrant a delivery or anything. But the experience was quite bare bones. You couldn’t easily do anything even slightly fancy like loyalty cards or coupons or anything without hiring a developer.

Well, that’s because it was free! Anyway, eventually WeChat did release a functionality to upgrade your Service Account WeChat Store straight into a mini program*. Which is really cool, right? But again, it was still free, so it had very limited templates and customization. Still, that was a pretty awesome feature. And you could always hire someone if you wanted something custom. It wouldn’t be that expensive either since remember, mini programs are a fraction of the cost to develop versus full blown native apps. They were in fact designed with this in mind.

It was still only for businesses to use though, since remember you still had to qualify for a Service Account first to be able to activate it. But this year, WeChat announced that it would retire 微信小店 and launch a new product, 微信小商店, AKA WeStore. I’ve also seen it referred to as WeChat Minishop, but the official name is WeStore.

[13:00]Yup. WeStore has been in beta for a bit, but launched publicly last month. Unlike the Weixin Xiaodian function, which was only available to businesses, WeStore is much more democratic. If you have a Chinese ID card, you can open up a shop. If you are a business, you can upload your licenses and bank account info and you can open up to three stores.

Personal stores can be managed right on your smartphone, while business accounts can do so via the desktop and allows for up to 500 users to co-manage the store with the ability to set different access levels for different employees. Pretty nifty! And it supports livestreaming, which is such an important trend in China these days, as well as basic shop functionalities, like order management, transaction progress, coupons and promotions, customer support, etc. Best yet, it’s absolutely free! Aside from a 0.6% transaction fee for payments, you don’t need to pay for anything. You just need to put in your own time to set it up and manage it.

It’s so new that we won’t know how it performs for a while. But it makes a lot of sense for a certain type of seller. Firstly solopreneurs starting out will find no better deal than free, especially if you’re already marketing actively within the WeChat ecosystem and have followers and a community there. But, also, unless it becomes a lot more flexible, the tool as is probably won’t get any serious enterprise users. It’s just not as advanced as what a company like Youzan 有赞, for example, offers.

[14:16]Youzan is widely regarded as China’s answer to Shopify. I think if you said that five years ago, people are like, whatever, that’s cool, but nowadays, with Shopify at over $100Bn in market cap and achieving GMV of over $30Bn in the last quarter alone, people are paying a lot closer attention. Especially since if you ask the CEO of Youzan, Bai Ya 白鸦, he will actually tell you that they’re not just Shopify, but Shopify and Square combined. That’s right. The Chinese version of not one, but two incredible B2B businesses.

OK but we have to take these comments with a grain of salt, because this is Bai Ya. He is known for being a colorful character who says a lot of crazy stuff. Like last year, at the height of the 996 controversy about lack of work-life balance in Chinese tech firms, when everyone was like, ah, our company would never do that, we are nice to our employees, Bai Ya actually stood up and said that he loves 996, and that you can definitely depend on 996 if you work at Youzan. I mean, Bai Ya isn’t even his real name. His real name is Zhu Ning 朱宁, which is what he’s referred to in financial reports, obviously. Bai Ya is how he’s referred to in Chinese media though, and it’s a name he made up for himself after reading a fable in high school.

[16:11]Right. It means White Crow, and he renamed himself because he decided he is just like the white crow in the story, a bird who would rather be free and die of starvation than be in a cage and well-fed. That’s definitely Bai Ya for you. He is an outlier and hustler. He didn’t even go to college, let alone an elite one like almost everyone else we’ve covered on the podcast. He grew up super poor, cutting grass and herding cows, and only went to vocational school. And only by a wild stroke of luck did he get into working as a designer at Baidu.

After two years there, he joined Alipay as a head designer, and in 2011, he left to start his own e-commerce company. This particular effort didn’t work out, but the company he started in 2012 did. And that one was Youzan. His ex colleague at Alibaba suggested to him that he should take mobile shopping more seriously, and so he did. Youzan started off just helping merchants to sell on WeChat and manage their subscribers.

Pretty soon though, he saw there was an opportunity to actually run these merchants’ shops for them. You know, set up the shop, manage orders, customers, run promotions, the whole thing. And that quickly became Youzan’s core business. Per its latest filing, it has about 100,000 customers, growing at a rate of nearly 60% year-on-year. In 2019, GMV through Youzan’s merchants was $9.5Bn USD, almost double the number in 2018. That trend has accelerated slightly for the first half of 2020, because covid. And revenues? Currently at about a $240mm run rate for this year, also doubling year-on-year.

[18:04]We should mention that there are several asterisks to this revenue number, as not all of that revenue is SaaS, but it is the majority. 60% of its revenue comes from selling its SaaS products, another 10% from Extended Services for merchants, ranging from guarantees, to promotions, and whatnot. However, even within the SaaS categorization, not all of that is for e-commerce.

You see, Youzan also offers SaaS solutions to merchants for managing their offline stores, and it has targeted solutions for a few verticals, like chain retail, beauty parlors, etc. So say you’re a day spa and you have several locations. You can buy a Youzan software subscription that will not only give you an online storefront, but also give you an appointment booking system and other software that helps you drive customers you find online to purchase from your offline locations and vice versa.

I mean, it makes sense, since actually 75% of Youzan’s customers also have an offline presence. Yeah, they’re not your traditional pure e-commerce stores. And in August 2018, Youzan even opened up the first offline store of its own. The format? Basically like a physical Amazon store, where the products featured are some of the popular items sold online.

[19:28]What’s quite refreshing about Youzan is that like many Western companies, the prices* for its SaaS e-commerce shop-opening services are listed clearly on the website, ranging from a basic package that is $1000 per year, to the most premium one that is $3000 a year. A lot of Chinese companies, by the way, make you call in and speak to a representative to get any idea of pricing at all. Obviously, there are some parts of the Youzan software that is usage based, so if you’re a very successful merchant, you’re definitely paying more than $3000.

So that’s the 70% that’s SaaS and related revenues. Then there’s the 30% or so that’s from transactions. When Youzan went public in Hong Kong in 2018 after a lengthy reverse takeover process, they actually merged with an existing digital payments company and so have a payments license. That original payments business though, has been downsized, because like no surprise, it’s pretty hard to compete with the market being so dominated by Alibaba and Tencent. The gross margin on this piece? Just 1%.

Yeah, really ugly business. But fans of the company aren’t that worried about it, since it’s the SaaS business that is driving the bulk of the growth, growing triple digits last year. However, as a whole, the company is really unprofitable still. We’re talking about loss before taxes of nearly 100%.

Well, it took until late 2017 for Shopify to make its first profit, eleven years after it was founded. Youzan is just 8 years old, and it’s investing really heavily into R&D, so maybe we give it some time. One of its most commonly cited competitors though, Weimob, is already profitable, even though they’re super different companies, actually.

[21:16]Yeah, Weimob, Chinese name 微盟, is the other $3Bn ish market cap, nearly $200mm revenue company also listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, and it makes the bulk of its revenues from serving up targeted advertising on WeChat to merchants. Yes, you can also open up a mini program shop for your brand using Weimob through their Weimall function, and it allows you to do a lot of things like membership management, all sorts of social promotions, and of course livestreaming, but with less than a third of its business through SaaS, it’s just quite different from Youzan.

And to talk about Weimob we cannot skip over the largest scandal of its history that happened earlier this year and was a big shock to the SaaS community in China, during the peak of COVID-19 in China. A single employee who was stressed out over personal finance issues and being stuck at home alone decided to sabotage the company’s database, or so the founder claims. The damage? 3 million merchants were affected, including some pretty big brands. Weimob used to have insane customer churn, almost 60% just a few years back, which it brought back down to a much more reasonable 22% last year, but we’ll see if that incident jacked up the attrition rate again. I would think so.

[22:39]Me too. The single employee, in some kind of nervous breakdown, apparently deleted the entire database, so that per reports, merchants found their entire store just completely gone*. And what was shocking was that restoration wasn’t less than 24 hours, as you’d expect from you know, a publicly listed cloud service provider, but instead five days. By which time a lot of merchants, it seems, simply had their employees work overtime to rebuild their stores, because you don’t want to be offline for nearly a week, especially during coronavirus, when e-commerce was growing so quickly.

Right. But also it just didn’t make sense that there wasn’t some easily accessible backup on the cloud, or that just one person, not even some very high level employee either, could do such damage to the business. Maybe it’s because for the founder and Chairman Sun Taoyong 孙涛勇*, this is his first company. He’s only 33 years old and Weimob is the company he started as a graduate computer science student in Beijing. His other two co-founders, by the way, are also around the same age.

Fun factoid, Sun is also a reality TV star too, back when entrepreneurship reality TV shows were super hot in China and he won the first Season of I am a Founder. Now though, of course, he is a seasoned entrepreneur. And because Weimob does provide some of the same products as Youzan, including also all those software packages for offline stores like hair salons and such, they are often compared with each other.

[24:22]But again, the two companies have started to diverge since a few years back. Whereas starting out almost all of Weimob’s revenues came from SaaS — because it began thinking it could be a CRM for merchants on WeChat — that’s now only about a third. Walkthechat calls it a leading 3rd party solution provider for WeChat, and I’d agree with that. There’s a lot more to using WeChat than just setting up a shop and selling goods and services. Like if you’re a Ferrari dealer. You don’t want to sell your cars on WeChat, but you do want to use it to constantly try to acquire new customers and engage existing ones.

That product, by the way, is called Weizhan, 站 meaning stop or station, versus mall. And of course, all of these products use Wei in their name because they want to highlight the link to Weixin, AKA WeChat. I guess as long as the companies are helping the WeChat ecosystem, Tencent doesn’t much care. In fact, there is actually a third company called Weidian 微店, which literally means Mini Store in Chinese, that we thought we’d briefly mention, because it’s so easy to confuse it with Youzan and Weimob.

Just really briefly. Because Weidian also runs a SaaS business helping merchants sell through WeChat, and because it’s actually the earliest one to be founded of the three. It got seed funding from Lei Jun, the founder of Xiaomi, and it was the earliest to receive funding from Tencent, allegedly because it got the attention of Pony Ma himself because it got something like 12 million users and $20Bn GMV in 9 months* just by making it easy for people to sell posting to their WeChat Moments and chat groups.

[26:05]That’s pretty fantastic, and so a lot of name brand investors jumped in, and Weidian was also innovative in that very early on, it made it easy for you to sell not just your own goods, but also for other people. Remember, WeChat is where people have their close connections and friends, and so direct selling is a pretty good way to take advantage of the existing social network. Another company called Yunji Weidian, by the way, took direct sales pretty far and went public in the US last year. We just won’t talk about it on today’s show.

I know, super confusing, all these names. But the TLDR on Weidian is that it was rumored to have massive layoffs in the beginning of 2018 and despite being first to launch some really cool tools on WeChat, it didn’t really keep up with how quickly e-commerce evolved in China and soon fell far behind its competitors. It didn’t integrate your entire WeChat presence, for example, so you weren’t able to link up your public account with your shop, which is a pretty big misstep, given how much traffic public accounts contribute.

Another integration it missed — online and offline. WeChat did such a good job using offline QR codes and other tactics to drive mini program adoption and online engagement and Weidian totally missed this. And finally, it didn’t jump on the bandwagon of all the social commerce and gamification innovations that folks like Pinduoduo popularized. I mean, Youzan and Weimob, to their credit, were pretty fast to offer group buying and other promotional functions.

[27:39]Yeah, makes sense right? How could you not have these functions? First of all they were great for acquiring customers through social networks. Secondly lots of the bigger merchants are listed on multiple platforms and to make them need to create a different marketing plan just for your tool because you didn’t offer some basic acquisition and promotion channels? That makes no sense. You’d definitely lose users that way.

If you go to Weidian today, the website* still claims 80mm sellers and almost $6Bn in GMV, so it’s not nothing, but the massive amount of sellers tells you that its positioning is still completely unlike Youzan and Weimob, who both report less than 100K paying merchants as their core metric.

Now, you might be curious, is Tencent standing by while all these players are trying to build businesses off of the WeChat platform it so carefully built? No, of course not! We’re talking about Tencent here. This is the company that has invested in 160 unicorns, remember? We just told you that Pony Ma himself greenlit the investment in Weidian in 2014, but in early 2019, Tencent pulled the same move on Weimob and Youzan that it made on Douyu and Huya, which if you’ll remember from an earlier Tech Buzz episode were two esports livestreaming platforms that it invested in at the same time.

[29:04]Yup, Tencent invested in 8% of Weimob and 7% of Youzan at basically the same time. Now, it actually already owned shares in Weimob, so this was just increasing its holdings, but it hadn’t owned shares in Youzan before. If there’s anything you learned today, let it be this: marketplace e-commerce like Taobao, Tmall, JD and Pinduoduo might not see too much movement in their dominance for a while, but there are other things happening in China e-commerce that is more … decentralized.

Or what marketers in China call private traffic. And the leading players like Youzan and Weimob have basically replicated everything those platforms provide, like all the social selling and gamification features. And plus let you integrate it with everything else you do on WeChat, like public accounts, because remember, Alibaba and Douyin links are banned in the app.

Well, and they also have all these solutions that let you link up your offline presence and online one, because WeChat mini programs are all about that, driving online traffic to offline stores and vice versa. That’s definitely something WeChat shines at and a pretty massive opportunity if you ask me. You can offer so many more things to these merchants too once you acquire them, like Shopify currently does.

[30:28]And that’s what all of these companies to a degree want to be compared to and known as. The Shopify of China. Except that revenue make-up wise, Youzan looks the closest, since most of Weimob’s sales actually come from precision advertising. Even the way the companies sell product too, though, Youzan is the most Western, with transparent pricing online, whereas Weimob has you calling in to talk to a rep, and also has a heavy reliance on offline partners. It was also the victim of a very embarrassing employee attack earlier this year that resulted in extended downtime.

Don’t think that Tencent is sitting idly by and just waiting for third party solution providers to grow its e-commerce ecosystem though. Aside from revamping its own mini program solution last month and launching an easy to use, one click store opening function, it also launched Xiao’e Pinpin 小鹅拼拼, a group buying mini program that also allows you to open up shops for individual WeChat groups you’re in.

Makes sense, and I’m sure new ecommerce initiatives will continue to launch, because given how much time folks spend on Tencent properties — like 40% of all their time online, there is just no reason Tencent doesn’t try to make more money off of you. ByteDance is also doing the same, but Tencent has WeChat, and WeChat Pay, and as you can see, has been working on this for the last fifteen years. But maybe it’s finally coming together. What do you think? How big do you think decentralized ecommerce gets in 2 years? 5 years? And will it all be built on top of WeChat or you think other platforms have a chance? Let us know!

[32:24]Thanks for listening and don’t forget to write us that review for your free Extra Buzz subscription. Have any questions or suggestions? Email us! We really enjoyed putting this together, and we’re always open to any comments or suggestions. You can find us on twitter at thepandaily, at techbuzzchina, and my personal Twitter account is YINGLU2020.

And my Twitter is spelled RUIMA. Tech Buzz China by Pandaily is powered by the Sinica Podcast Network on SupChina. Pandaily.com is an English language site that tells you “everything about China’s innovation.” Our producers are Caiwei Chen and Kaiser Kuo. Thank you for listening!