Uber Slayer: How China's Didi Beat the Ride-Hailing Superpower
"We felt like the People's Liberation Army, with basic rifles, and we were bombed by airplanes and missiles."
Photographer: Ka Xiaoxi for Bloomberg Businessweek
At the Beijing offices of the ride-hailing startup Didi, many employees refer to Cheng Wei, the founder and chief executive officer, as laoda, or "big boss." Others use his English nickname, Will. This summer the world came to know him by another designation: the Uber Slayer, the one entrepreneur who managed to beat back the relentless advance of the richest, most rapacious startup since Bill Gates ran Microsoft. In August, after a multibillion-dollar, year-and-a-half-long battle, Uber agreed to sell its business in China and depart the country.
It was a face-saving retreat for Uber, which got a 17.7 percent ownership stake in Didi and $1 billion in cash. But it was a huge victory for Cheng. Eight weeks after the deal, on the fifth floor of the company's headquarters, he's careful to sound magnanimous toward his vanquished rival. "Uber is a great company," he says. "They have the best strategy in China among all the Silicon Valley companies. They are more agile than Google. They aren't like this in other parts of the world, but in China they've learned to show goodwill. They are not like a usual foreign company in China, but more like a startup, full of passion, feeling like they are fighting for themselves."
The world is plenty familiar with Uber and the fighting spirit of its CEO, Travis Kalanick. But until August, Cheng was little known outside China, preferring to let the company's English-speaking president, Jean Liu, a former Goldman Sachs managing director, serve as its public face. Under Cheng, Didi has expanded in just four years to 400 Chinese cities. The service lets users digitally hail and pay for taxis, private cars, limousines, and commuter buses. Cheng says 80 percent of all taxi drivers in China now use Didi to find passengers. So many people use the app, it can be difficult to get a cab during rush hour without it. Investors recently valued Didi at $35 billion, making it one of the most valuable private companies in the world. Uber, with operations in almost 500 cities on six continents, is worth $68 billion.
In late September, during a rare interview, Cheng spoke to Bloomberg Businessweek about his journey from obscurity to China business hero. At 33, he's cherubic and bespectacled—he wouldn't look out of place in a video game parlor at 2 a.m. His spacious office in the north part of the city is furnished with business books and a desktop goldfish tank. On clear days, which are rare in Beijing, he can see the mountains in the northwest where the Chinese strengthened the Great Wall in the 15th century to protect against invasion from the Mongols. This seems apt.
"By the time we were actually about to launch the service, about 30 companies emerged at the same time," he says. "There were different models. Some companies were much more powerful than us.
"It's a long story," he continues. "It had unexpected twists."
Cheng was born in Jiangxi province, a landlocked region in eastern China famous for being the cradle of Mao Zedong's Communist revolution. His father was a civil servant, his mother a mathematics teacher. He says he excelled at math in high school but during his college entrance exams neglected to turn over the last page of the test, leaving three questions blank. He got into the Beijing University of Chemical Technology, less prestigious than the upper-echelon schools. Cheng planned to major in information technology but was instead assigned by his university to business management. He worked during his senior year, as Chinese students often do. His job: selling life insurance. He didn't sell a single policy—not even to one of his teachers, who told him that "even my dog has insurance," Cheng says. At a job fair, he applied for an opening as a manager's assistant at a company billing itself as a "famous Chinese health-care company." But when he showed up for work in Shanghai, luggage in hand, he discovered it was actually a chain of foot massage parlors. "That's why we seldom advertise at Didi," he says. "Because I think it's all scams." He's not a fan of foot massages.
In 2005, out of school at 22, he got an entry-level job at Alibaba, the huge e-commerce company, by showing up at the front desk of its Shanghai office and asking for work. He landed in sales, earning 1,500 yuan, or $225, a month. "I am very thankful toward Alibaba," Cheng says. "Because someone stepped forward, didn't shoo me away, and said, 'Young people like you are what we want.' "
Despite his earlier insurance fiasco, Cheng proved to be good at selling online ads to merchants. He moved up the ranks and eventually reported to an outspoken executive named Wang Gang. When he first met Cheng, Wang says, his sales numbers were strong, but his real talent was emceeing customer events.
In 2011, Wang, unhappy about being passed over for a promotion, gathered Cheng and other underlings to brainstorm about startups. After they tossed around ideas about companies in education, restaurant reviews, even interior decorating, a foreign ride-hailing startup that was rapidly raising money and planning to spread around the world captured their attention. It wasn't Uber; it was Hailo—a U.K. company that worked with London's famous black cabs, driven by licensed hackney drivers. Cheng figured the Hailo model could be replicated in China, with its 2 million yellow-striped taxis. He left Alibaba in 2012; so did Wang, who became Cheng's primary financial supporter, investing 800,000 yuan. (Wang's Didi shares are now worth $1 billion, he estimates.) Aiming for a memorable name, Cheng came up with Didi Dache, or "honk honk taxi." The company recently rebranded itself as Didi Chuxing, or "honk honk commute."
Didi is 4 years old, active in 400 Chinese cities, and worth $35 billion
Cheng and several ex-Alibaba colleagues initially set up shop in a shabby 100-square-meter warehouse space with a single conference room, in the northern part of the city. The team—they called each other classmates, just as they did at Alibaba—spent its first months trying to outmaneuver the dozens of other ride-hailing companies that had gotten the same idea at the same time. Cheng says he dispatched two of his first 10 employees to launch the service in Shenzhen, home to Foxconn's iPhone factories, because he thought the city had the most liberal regulatory attitude in China. Didi's service was promptly halted by local authorities.
But it turned out that Didi had a few advantages over the competition. Some were copying Uber's U.S. strategy of working with limousine and town car chauffeurs. But there are far fewer black cars than yellow cabs in China. When Yaoyao Taxi, a rival backed by Silicon Valley's Sequoia Capital, won an exclusive contract to recruit drivers at the Beijing airport, Didi classmates descended on the city's biggest railway station to promote their app. Instead of imitating competitors and giving away smartphones to drivers, an expensive proposition for a capital-strapped startup, they focused on providing their free app to younger drivers who already had phones and were likely to spread the word about Didi.
During an epic Beijing snowstorm late in 2012, when it was impossible to hail a cab on the street, residents turned to the app and the company surpassed 1,000 orders in a single day for the first time. That got the attention of a Beijing venture capital firm, which put in $2 million, valuing Didi at $10 million. "If it didn't snow that year, maybe Didi wouldn't be here today," Cheng says.
Then, some bad news: Alibaba invested in a rival ride-hailing company, Kuaidi Dache ("fast taxi"). Success for internet startups in China often depends on the strength of a company's connection to one of the Big Three—Alibaba, Tencent, or Baidu. Wang and Cheng turned to Tencent, the social network and video game maker based in Shenzhen.
With the backing of two rival Chinese internet giants, Didi and Kuaidi trained their sights on each other. During one notoriously difficult week, reverently known at Didi as "Seven Days, Seven Nights," both companies had intermittent technical problems, sending drivers and riders scurrying from one service to the other and back again. Cheng says engineers were holed up in Didi's cramped offices for so long and worked so hard to resolve their issues that a classmate had to have his contact lenses surgically removed.
Finally, Cheng called Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, for help. Ma agreed to lend 50 engineers and a thousand servers, and invited Didi's team to work temporarily out of Tencent's more comfortable offices. But Didi wasn't making any money, and Cheng needed to raise capital. He visited the U.S. for the first time in November 2013, only to be rejected by multiple investors. "We had burned a lot of money," he says. "Investors were like, 'Whoa.' "
In early 2014, during the Lunar New Year, everything changed. Tencent ran a successful promotion over the holiday called Red Packet, which allowed WeChat users to send small financial gifts to friends and families, a Chinese custom, using their smartphone. It was a big success and led Tencent to an epiphany: Mobile payments were the future.
Tencent recognized that Didi could help increase mobile transactions and started to funnel capital into the company, which by then was allowing riders to pay drivers using WeChat's cashless payment service. Alibaba responded by pumping money into Kuaidi, which was integrated with its mobile payment service, AliPay. Together the companies spent about 2 billion yuan in discounts and subsidies to customers on the taxi-hailing apps over the first few months of 2014, according to Chinese media reports. Ridership soared. Li Hairu, an early Didi employee, recalls checking daily orders each night during those months—3 million! 3.1 million!—and yelling them across the office to her colleagues.
With Kalanick eyeing China as Uber's next big opportunity, Didi's and Kuaidi's investors eventually realized the two companies were going to bludgeon each other into oblivion. The Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner, a Didi backer, shuttled between the headquarters of Alibaba and Tencent to help broker a deal. In February 2015 the companies merged. Didi, which had more ride volume than Kuaidi, ended up controlling 60 percent of the combined company. Cheng insisted on running it as a condition of the deal.
In late 2013, Kalanick and a team of Uber executives toured China to size up prospective partners and rivals. They visited Didi's offices. Cheng kicked things off by telling Kalanick, "You are my inspiration," after which the mood became tense. Emil Michael, Uber's senior vice president for business, remembers what may have been some psychological warfare: "They served us maybe the worst lunch I've ever eaten," he says. "We were all just poking at our food, wondering, Is this some kind of competitive tactic?" (It wasn't. Liu, Didi's president, later apologized to Michael for the food.)
At one point during the meeting, Cheng walked over to a whiteboard and drew two lines. Uber's line started in 2010 and went up sharply and to the right, depicting its rapidly rising ride volume. Didi's started two years later, in 2012, but had a steeper curve and intersected Uber's line. Cheng said Didi would one day overtake Uber, because China's market was so much larger and many of its cities restrict the use and ownership of private cars as a way to manage traffic and pollution. "Travis just smiled," Cheng recalls.
Kalanick raised the possibility of Uber investing in Didi, but he demanded a 40 percent stake, Cheng says. "Why would I take it?" he replies, when asked if he considered the offer. Uber's executives were impressed. Kalanick, Michael says, "told me that among all the ride sharing founders, Cheng Wei was special. He was just a massive cut above anyone else in the industry." Uber and Didi were going to have to settle the matter in the market.
By the beginning of 2015 it seemed that Uber had an insurmountable advantage. It had a better app, powered by more stable technology. Investors valued it at $42 billion, about 10 times Didi's valuation at the time. While Didi was consumed with its merger with Kuaidi, Uber was catching up: It controlled almost a third of the private car-hailing market in China within a few months. "At that time we felt like the People's Liberation Army, with basic rifles, and we were bombed by airplanes and missiles," Cheng says. "They had some really advanced weapons."
Cheng is a student of military history, particularly such heroic events as the battle of Song Shan during World War II, when Chinese nationalist troops tunneled under a mountain to surround the invading Japanese army. Cheng held morning meetings with his senior staff, which he called the Wolf Totem. The name, based on a popular novel set during the Cultural Revolution about urban students sent to live in Inner Mongolia, connotes aggression. The Wolf Totem studied Didi's daily results and adjusted the amount of subsidies given to drivers and riders. Cheng would regularly warn employees, "If we fail we will die."
In May 2015, Cheng went on the offensive. Didi said it would give away 1 billion yuan in rides. Uber matched it. Cheng and his advisers searched for ways to fight the American company on its home turf. Uber, they reasoned, was like an octopus—its tentacles were everywhere in the world, but its mantle was in the U.S. Wang, the early investor and former board member, suggested at a meeting that Didi "stab Uber right in its belly."
Wang says Didi contemplated expanding into the U.S. Instead, in September 2015, it invested $100 million in Uber's American rival, Lyft. According to Wang, it was less about undermining Uber than about gaining negotiating leverage. "The purpose of them grabbing a lock of our hair and us grabbing their beard isn't really to kill the other person," he says. "Everyone is just trying to win a right to negotiate in the future."
It was widely suggested in press accounts that the Chinese government helped Didi in its battle against Uber. Cheng rejects that, noting that as the largest ride-hailing company, Didi had to shoulder most of the regulatory burden and paid tens of millions of yuan to cover driver traffic citations and other fines. He also points out that state-connected companies such as Guangzhou Automobile Industry Group and China Life invested in either Uber or its China operations.
At the peak of hostilities, Didi and Uber were each burning through more than a billion dollars a year, giving unprofitable subsidies to drivers and riders. Both companies were desperate for new capital. Apple invested $1 billion in Didi in May 2016. A month later, Uber raised $3.5 billion from Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund. The message to both sides became clear: They were going to have to wage this destructive money-losing battle for a very long time.
Cheng says the initial call for peace came from Uber; Michael from Uber contends that the Saudi money forced Didi to the table—the investment suggested there was simply no end to the capital Uber could tap. Regardless, both sides agreed it was time to stop the bloodletting and focus on building their businesses. "It was like an arms race," Cheng says. "Uber was fundraising, we were also fundraising. But in my heart I knew our money needed to be put into a more valuable field. This was why we were able to join hands with Uber in the end."
Michael and Liu hammered out the deal terms in two weeks and then met Kalanick and Cheng at a hotel bar in Beijing to raise glasses of baijiu, a traditional Chinese spirit made from sorghum. Over drinks, the CEOs spoke of mutual respect and their admiration at how hard both sides had competed. "We are the craziest companies of our times," Cheng says. "But deep in our heart we are logical. We know this revolution is a technology revolution, and we are just witnessing the very beginning." He genuinely seems to admire Kalanick—to a point. "His alcohol tolerance is just so-so," Cheng says, smiling.
"On the global market, we will also have competition. We hope that this competition won't be as malicious"
Didi now has about 5,000 employees, about a quarter of them in a collection of prefabricated five-story buildings on the periphery of Beijing's Zhongguancun technology district. IBM and Lenovo have campuses nearby. Adorning the walls are pictures of a smiling cartoon taxicab, the company's mascot. In the main building, a slide no one seems to use connects the fourth and fifth floors. Legions of young engineers hunker over their PC screens. One engineer wears an Uber T-shirt. "Surreal," says a PR person, who still can't get over seeing the former enemy's logo on Didi property.
Uber and Didi each have one seat on each other's board—without voting rights—and, Cheng says, "will also learn from each other." The deal hasn't closed yet; China's Commerce Ministry is still examining the merger. But Chinese legal experts say the odds are slim that the antitrust agency will nix such a high-profile deal involving a well-connected national corporate champion. There are no restrictions on the two companies competing with each other in other countries. "On the global market, we will also have competition," Cheng says. "We hope that this competition won't be as malicious."
The steep discounts of the past two years have come to an end, which means fares are going up and payouts to drivers are going down as the company attempts to become profitable and establish favorable numbers for an initial public offering. "The industry is slowly getting into a more rational state," Cheng says.
Drivers and riders in Beijing have noticed, and their complaints mirror the grumbling about ride hailing in other parts of the world. The private cars "are more expensive to use than a taxi now," says Christina Chen, an internet company employee who was taking a crowded Uber carpool in Beijing, with three other passengers, in late September.
Her driver, Sun Can, worked in construction before driving but says these days, with fewer special bonuses and incentives for drivers, he often prefers to just stay at home. "Who wants to be on the road when you are not making money?" he asks.
Cheng is already thinking about replacing his drivers. Didi is hunting in Silicon Valley for data scientists to develop a self-driving car, which will put it in competition with companies such as Google, Baidu, Tesla, General Motors, and, of course, Uber. He's also held conversations with Gansha Wu, the former director of Intel Labs in China and founder of a Beijing-based driverless car startup called UiSee Technology, which is developing road-scanning systems for autonomous cars. "We share the same vision that driverless cars can do wonderful things for society," Wu says.
For Cheng, this is what constitutes peacetime. The Wolf Totem is no more. He and his wife of four years are expecting a baby, their first. And that chart he drew a few years ago for Kalanick? Cheng says that when the total amount of money spent on rides on Didi and Uber China is combined, it will exceed the total spent on Uber rides around the world. The prediction he made to Kalanick has come true, and he believes it's a turning point for his country: "This means China will become the leading country in the world for the sharing economy."