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Power bank rentals: How far will the journey be?

With the popularity of smartphones and the massive adoption of mobile payments in China, a revolution that boosts battery life is probably the only thing to fear.

Feb 1, 2019 by A. Alfaro
Power bank rentals: How far will the journey be?

Power bank rental companies began to appear three years ago amid ridicule by Chinese netizens. Then in a span of four days in 2017, the industry raised USD 111 million. More charging stations popped up in train stations, hospitals, malls, restaurants and other public spaces. You pay, charge your phone and leave. But mind you, the skeptics are still lurking. As Chinese startups brace up for a “capital winter”, the lens is back on the market for power bank sharing.

Shared portable phone chargers are no longer the hot topic among venture capitalists. Many companies have given up. LeDian (乐电), for instance, was founded in March 2017 and closed in October the same year. According to business portal ICEO.com.cn, which has published a report on the industry’s situation, the players Laidian (来电), Jiedian (街电 ), Xiaodian (小电) and Guaishou (怪兽) are likely to survive.

On May 5, 2017, when news of Jumei International investing CNY 300 million in Jiedian was out, the son of Wang Jianlin, one of China’s richest tycoons, posted on WeChat: “If shared portable phone chargers can succeed, I will eat my own arm”. The comment was viral.

Three hours later, Jumei’s CEO Chen Ou posted on microblogging site Weibo: “Wang Sicong, thank you for your attention. Entrepreneurship is about taking risks, we know the chances for a startup to succeed are slim.”

After the shared bicycles boom, there was an explosion of startups that focused on the “sharing economy”: shared umbrellas, shared concrete mixers and even shared basketballs. Investors who were late to the shared bikes craze were desperately looking for the next unicorn.

Co-founder of a mobile phone power bank startup based in Shanghai, who prefers to use the alias Hu Tian, said no investor showed interest in his idea in 2015. He had failed to find funds for his startup. However, just a year later, the tide had changed. Investors contacted him so often that it was he who had to turn them down. Hu says the threshold in the industry was low, and most startups only had to show some numbers to get enough financing.

During interviews, CMO of Laidian, Ren Mu, likes to stress that they were the first to come up with the idea back in 2014, before shared bikes were in vogue. In the first half of 2016, the company’s finances were tight, after almost spending the CNY 10 million they had painstakingly raised from the company’s founding team. Facing indifference from investors, the company’s entrepreneurs invested their own money again, CNY 7 million in total. They tried out several locations for renting stations. Eventually, they could lease each power bank 7 or 8 times a day in the best performing locations.

In the second half of 2016, following the success of shared bikes, investment institutions started to pay attention to shared power banks. In April 2017, Laidian received investment from SIG and Redpoint China Ventures.

As opposed to Laidian, which endured many hardships before things started to work, Jiedian had it easy. From its inception, Laidian used smaller stations that could fit on a restaurant table. Users could take the charger with them and leave them in a different station whenever they want. Jiedian, on the other hand, was using a big station in each location, which was not as convenient as the smaller ones. If customers take chargers with them and forget to return, the deposit paid upon registration compensates the companies.

Some companies install big charging stations at malls. Others set up ones that fit on a restaurant table.
Some companies install big charging stations at malls. Others set up ones that fit on a restaurant table.

Tang Yongpo is the founder of Xiaodian, another player the market is hopeful about. Thanks to his expertise in understanding the shared portable chargers’ industry, he was able to secure a financing of hundreds of millions of yuan from players like Tencent, Sequoia, Gaorong VC and CDH in March 2018. Xiaodian offers charging stations on restaurants’ tables and other venues, but they are not portable. According to Tang, “this model is more convenient than the portable power bank”.

Among investors of Guaishou are big firms such as Gaorong VC, Shunwei and Xiaomi. Thanks to its partnership with Xiaomi, Guaishou has the advantage of supply of reliable and good quality devices.

With such fierce competition, how big can a company grow?

Hu Tian says when the industry was booming, restaurants, malls and other locations started to charge much higher fees to let companies offer their portable chargers. The most popular spots were charging thousands or even tens of thousands of yuan to allow the presence of a company. The fierce competition led these firms to sometimes offer twice as much as their competitor to set up on a particular spot.

The competition got so fierce that some problems had to be fixed by courts. In December 2018, a court in Guangzhou ruled that Jiedian had infringed patents, and copied the layout and design of Laidian’s charging stations. Jiedian had to compensate Laidian with CNY 30 million.

Redpoint China’s manager Zhou Tailue thinks we’ll see some mergers pretty soon as most companies have the same business model, “so the competition is fierce”.

Xiaodian’s Tang says 2019 will be the fiercest year, because all companies “are fighting for the best locations and channels”. Cai Guangyuan, founder of Guaishou, agrees. But investors are reluctant to participate in the sector now. Peng Chuang, an associate partner at Hongtai Capital Holdings, says the business is good, “but it is unlikely that the industry can produce a big company”.

Currently, most companies have two sources of revenue: renting fee (the main one) and advertising. Hu Tian says a charging station with ten chargers and a decent usage frequency can recover the cost in six months. Qu Kai, founder of new media platform 42Zhangjing, too is optimistic and says these companies can perform well “just considering the number of people who forget or don’t use their own power banks”.

Guaishou’s Cai Guangyuan says thanks to the widespread popularity of smartphones, the short life of batteries and the massive adoption of mobile payments in China, the industry has reasons to be optimistic about the future.

Hu Tian says costs in this industry are significantly lower than in the shared bikes sector. “Unless a technological revolution that dramatically enhances battery life takes place, shared power banks will not only survive, they will thrive”.

A. Alfaro

A. Alfaro is a Beijing-based freelance reporter. He focuses on China's politics, culture and society. He can be reached at varofaro@gmail.com. 

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