Cheaper labor, densely populated cities, and a giant body of consumers that live on mobile devices is a dream scenario for any restaurant delivery, discovery, or booking service.
— Jason Clampet
China’s Meituan Dianping just became the world’s fourth-most valuable startup, reaching a $30 billion valuation that puts it ahead of high-fliers like Airbnb Inc. and Space X.
Never heard of Meituan? You’re not alone. The Beijing-based company, led by Wang Xing, is almost unknown beyond its home country. It delivers food to people’s homes, sells groceries and movie tickets, provides reviews of restaurants, and markets discounts to consumers who buy in groups. It’s a sort of mashup of Groupon, Yelp, Foodpanda and Uber Eats.
Meituan’s appeal for investors is its dominant position in a market of more than a billion people. It was formed through the 2015 merger of Meituan.com and Dianping.com, creating the leading player for internet-based services ordered via smartphone apps. It raised $4 billion in the latest round from Tencent Holdings Ltd., Sequoia Capital and U.S. travel giant Priceline Group Inc.
“It’s a quasi-monopoly built on the stomachs of 1.4 billion people,” said Keith Pogson, global assurance leader for banking and capital markets in Hong Kong at consultant EY.
Wang started Meituan.com in 2010 as a group-buying site similar to Groupon Inc., where people can get discounts by buying electronics or restaurant meals together. Dianping was founded in 2003 in Shanghai with reviews of restaurants and other local businesses, then diversified into group discounts. The companies were valued at $15 billion when they merged two years ago.
The combined companies have far surpassed their U.S. peers. Chicago-based Groupon, once a sensation in the U.S., has dropped to a market value of less than $3 billion. Yelp, based in San Francisco, has tumbled from its peak in 2014 to $3.7 billion.
Meituan Dianping has expanded well beyond its original businesses. With a few taps to navigate its smartphone apps, Chinese customers can order up hot meals, groceries, massages, haircuts and manicures at home or in the office. One popular service: You can get your car washed while you’re at work and it’s parked on the street — the service sends a photo to your phone to verify the job. Meituan says it now has 280 million annual active users and works with 5 million merchants.
The offerings, collectively known as online-to-offline or O2O services, may ultimately prove more successful in China than in the U.S. Labor costs are lower in China, cities are more densely populated and there are more people. The country’s O2O market surged 72 percent to 762 billion yuan ($115 billion) last year, according to estimates from consultant IResearch.
“China’s market is big enough for a company this size,” said Wang Ling, an analyst with IResearch. “After years of consolidation, Meituan is one of the few contenders in areas with gigantic revenue.”
Meituan is facing increasingly stiff competition from China’s technology giants and their proxies. In particular, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. has backed a rival service called Ele.me, which recently acquired Baidu Inc.’s business, Waimai. Alibaba, Tencent’s primary rival, is boosting its investment to bankroll expansions into more cities and businesses.
“Meituan faces so many competitors because of its wide range of business,” said Cao Lei, director of the China E-Commerce Research Center in Hangzhou. “Lifestyle e-commerce, which includes online travel and dining reservations, is one of the fastest growing sectors in the country.”
Travel is becoming the latest competitive ground. With the recent fundraising, Meituan plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next three to five years to become a leading travel booking site. It’s also exploring opportunities to collaborate with Priceline as part of the investment. That may present a challenge to China’s biggest online travel site, Ctrip.com International Ltd., which is backed by Baidu.
In the latest funding, Meituan also received money from Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Trustbridge Partners, Tiger Global Management, Coatue Management and the Singaporean sovereign wealth fund GIC. Meituan said it would use the cash to expand in artificial intelligence and drone-delivery technology.
Meituan is one of the new generation of Chinese technology companies that has rapidly gained popularity thanks to the rise of smartphones. Where Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent have come to be collectively known as BAT, new media upstart Jinri Toutiao, Meituan Dianping and ride-sharing king Didi Chuxing have now earned their own acronym: TMD.
The $30 billion financing ranks the company fourth in the world in startup valuations, according to CB Insights. The first three are Uber Technologies Inc., Didi and Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp.
EY’s Pogson however cautioned that valuations in China may be getting a bit overheated. Shares of private companies like Meituan and Uber aren’t traded in liquid markets every day, so valuations change only rarely and typically go up. In addition, many of the fundraisings in China and the U.S. are done with ratchets, or protections so that investors get compensation if the valuations fall later on.
“You have to take these numbers with a grain of salt,” he says.
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.