Jeffrey Towson

Bike-sharing companies in China had a rough year, combining huge investments and limited returns. Smaller ones went bankrupt and market leaders Mobike and Ofo are rumored to discuss a merger. Peking University investment professor Jeffrey Towson still see enough room for success, he tells the South China Morning Post.

The South China Morning Post:

For users, the cost of a ride is a pittance – about one yuan, or 15 US cents, for an hour – with much cheaper deals available. In a recent promotional campaign to lure riders from its competitors, Mobike offered unlimited rides for three months for only five yuan. Rival Ofo has a similar inventive scheme.

Despite the unattractive economics, Jeffrey Towson, an investment professor at China’s elite Peking University, said bike sharing is “definitely not a fad”.

“The economics of the business are becoming clearer. Rental revenue is still the foundation. Advertising revenue may be part of the picture,” he said. “Some Ofo bikes, for example, have had Minions advertisements on them. And perhaps delivery and e-commerce revenue will come in the future.”

While Towson is bullish on the industry’s business prospects, he is not confident that more than a couple of companies can peacefully coexist.

“If it was in the United States, I think it could end up as giants with many smaller players coexisting. But there seems to be a Chinese phenomenon to eliminate the competition by taking over the entire industry,” he said.

One example in the car hailing business was the fierce rivalry between Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache. In 2015 they merged to form Didi Chuxing, which absorbed Uber China the following year, becoming the only dominant player in the mainland Chinese market.

“Investors tend to step in to stop a price war because it is their money. It is better to spend the money on growth than fighting each other,” Towson said.

Bloomberg first reported in October that Ofo and Mobike were in merger talks, but neither company would confirm the speculation. In November Zhu Xiaohu, a tech sector venture capitalist and early investor in Ofo, called for such a merger during a forum attended by Mobike co-founder Hu Weiwei.

Despite pressure from investors, there is no sign that the two bike-sharing giants will merge any time soon. Ofo is raising another US$1 billion from investors, including Alibaba, and is expected to put any proposed merger plan with Mobike on hold, according to a number of news outlets, citing market sources. Ofo has declined to comment.

“The merger of Ofo and Mobike is going to be a big topic of discussion in 2018,” Towson said. “But [whether it happens] depends on the availability of capital … and in China there is a lot of capital.”

More in the South China Morning Post

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