Listen to this article
Apple’s earnings announcement last week contained a glaring anomaly for a western technology company. The company disclosed that 22 per cent of its history-making $74.6bn in quarterly sales came from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. But business leaders around the world should pay more attention to the interview that Jack Ma, Alibaba’s executive chairman, gave to Charlie Rose at Davos.
Several things were apparent during Mr Ma’s session: the scale of his ambition, the extent of Alibaba’s existing reach and, more interestingly, the change in the balance of power within the global technology business.
These days many non-US tech groups, particularly those born and raised in China, are better positioned for the next 25 years than their American counterparts. The intergalactic technology battle has been joined.
Shortly after Mr Ma’s interview, I glanced at my inbox and found a briefing from Alibaba’s PR department and another update from its investor relations group. I cannot imagine many US or European groups communicating in a similar manner to interested followers in China, India or Indonesia.
Everyone knows how the internet has transformed communications in the past 20 years but fewer people understand what it means for business formation. When I entered venture capital in the mid-1980s, company founders often appeared at our front door carrying an envelope containing a business plan. If we funded the business, the press didn’t give a hoot and it often took our competitors in Boston — then the other thriving US venture spot — months to figure out what we had done. Meanwhile, most people in large, established companies considered developments in Silicon Valley irrelevant or laughable.
Not so today. Now business ideas arrive by email; platoons of reporters, together with bloggers, rumour-mongers and tweeters, have their sensors planted around Silicon Valley. The result: a new business idea is conveyed instantly — in English — all around the world where it is carefully scrutinised by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people — a group of whom have the training, education and drive to adapt and improve upon these ideas, meld them with their own and tailor them for their own markets.
Whenever I go to China or India, I am always struck by how well informed the leaders of technology companies are about developments in California. This is not to imply, let alone agree with, the usual lament that western ideas are shamelessly copied.
The reality is that this information is further fuel for the creative and imaginative entrepreneurial fires that are alight in more places than ever. There are few markets as ferociously competitive as the technology business in China and, to a lesser extent, India. I certainly do not know of a place where the appetite for work is greater, the resilience and fortitude stronger, or the pace quicker, than China.
In the first decade and a half of this century non-US (and non-European) tech companies have advanced further than anyone could have imagined. Today, six of the 20 most valuable internet companies are based in China and China Mobile is by far and away the world’s most valuable carrier. Huawei threatens Cisco in most countries outside of the developed west while Samsung’s consumer electronics business is being assaulted by several Chinese and Indian companies.
This is just the beginning. Today, the large Asian companies, particularly the Chinese varietal, are, for the most part, better equipped to go on the offensive than their US rivals. Some of this is due to the formidable language and culture barrier presented by China, but much is due to attitude.
American technology companies have enjoyed almost half a century during which they have become accustomed to being dominant. That era is over. Many of the western companies selling software and hardware will find that they cannot compete with the local knowledge of their home-brewed foreign rivals.
As if to show how far things have travelled, the little drone that was inadvertently landed on the White House lawn last week was made by DJI, a Shenzhen company that sets the pace for that entire market.
The label on the drone should read: created, designed and made in China. Purchased, flown and landed (clumsily) in the US.
The writer chairs the investment firm Sequoia Capital. Views expressed are his own. Sequoia Capital persons hold interests in certain companies mentioned