Web 2.0 to China: Ok, Let’s Try This Again…

Yesterday, I had lunch with one of the top people in the Chinese Internet scene who said, “We have a saying here, ‘Internet multinationals all fail in China, Google was just the last one to go.’”

As sayings go, that’s not especially catchy. But it is devastating. And true even if you count Google’s recent actions as a China morally-based forfeit. The stark truth is there are already more Chinese than Americans online and China is only at about 20% Internet penetration. And yet, so far, Yahoo is the only one to play this market well, by swapping its local assets and $1 billion for a 40% stake in Alibaba back in 2005.

But a funny thing has happened between my last trip to China in October of last year and my current trip. The Silicon Valley Web 2.0 gang has invaded. OK, “invaded” is the wrong word, it’s more like gingerly “waded into the pool.” Most of the entrants are being very cautious, staying below the radar with limited, hedged plans. But there is a clear trend of Web 2.0 testing the Chinese waters—and hoping it doesn’t make the mistake the first generation made.

The picture above– snapped at a Beijing newsstand where Scarlett Johansson and Sarah Jessica Parker were the only other faces I recognized– is a good metaphor for the kind of hey!-don’t-look-at-us!, easing-into-the-market approach the Web 2.0 generation is taking. (Note the word “metaphor.” I’m not implying Facebook planted this or even pitched the story to what I understand is an English language learning magazine.)

There is Playfish’s office, the Zynga acquisition of XPD Media and Hulu CEO Jason Killar’s recent visit to Beijing where he announced an impending China launch. Just last weekend Max Levchin of Slide hosted a developer day at the company’s Shanghai office. Who even knew Slide had a Shanghai office? (It’s interesting that Levchin grew up in Soviet Russia just like Google founder Sergey Brin but apparently doesn’t have the same hang up with the Chinese government.) Facebook is reportedly opening an office next and I spoke with several people over the last week who said they had gotten calls from headhunters.

Will Silicon Valley Web 2.0 companies do better than the 1.0 generation? It depends on what the community has learned from such abject failure. A few lessons seem obvious, judging by the new, more cautious approach.

Lesson #1: The Valley learned it can’t be cocky. No one is making bold statements about taking over the Chinese market the way Web 1.0 leaders did. I remember a keynote by Meg Whitman in the early 2000s where she boasted that the “Sun never sets on eBay,” so assured of its future in China. Yeah, that didn’t go so well. No one is swaggering into China with the same bravado today. China has developed more $1 billion-plus Internet companies than any other market and most of them started out as US copycats on features, where they excelled was in process, execution and business models. Today, Web entrepreneurs get that.

Lesson #2: It’s China’s house, you have to play by China’s rules. A lot of people hate this one, but it’s just reality. You know that scene in “Jerry Maguire” where Tom Cruise storms out of the office and says “WHO IS COMING WITH ME?” and pretty much only Renee Zellweger joins him? That’s pretty much what Google’s pull out of the China market in March was. Since that date, Web 2.0 companies have only upped their China hires.

Lesson #3: Hire first, launch later. Most of these offices are just development offices, taking advantage of local talent. But make no mistake: This is a savvy way to assess the market and build connections. Talent isn’t that cheap in Beijing and Shanghai relative to the rest of the emerging world and the price is escalating. Call it the Hulu model– the company had an R&D division in Bejing long before it announced its recent intention to actually launch service in China.

All-in-all these three lessons make for a smart strategy. China is the only country outside the United States that’s given birth to several billion-dollar-plus Internet companies and there’s some $20 billion in venture capital sloshing around this country, by some estimates, that’s anxious to find the next local crop. There’s no question there’s a lot of momentum investing here and a lot of these startups will fail. But whenever you have this much activity and 400 million people online, there will be more big hits too. This is simply not our market for the taking.

But where the Web 1.0 generation was too cocky, the question is whether the Web 2.0 generation is being too cautious. Online games and virtual goods are already big markets in China—bigger than in the US in fact. And there are already big local iterations of things like Facebook and Twitter. Is it already too late for some of these companies?

Clearly, the Valley is still trying to figure out how it plays in China. At least this generation is trying to learn, listen and make friends first and colonize later.