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Chinese unicorns are here | Tacoma Daily Index

The unicorns are coming – and they are hungry 

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

I don’t know about you, but as someone who reads and studies aspects of the economy and business on a regular basis, I certainly find that the news get stranger and stranger every day.

And we need an increasingly surreal vocabulary to keep up with it.

What would be more mythical and unique than a unicorn?

Whether in mythology or on the business landscape, unicorn sightings are rare, but as with almost everything else, what was once unusual, if not impossible, is now relatively commonplace.

As a reminder, a unicorn in the business world is a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion. The term was coined in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, choosing the mythical animal to represent the statistical rarity of such successful and well-funded ventures.

Decacorn is a word used for those companies over $10 billion, while hectocorn is used for such a company valued over $100 billion. According to TechCrunch, there were 279 confirmed unicorns as of March 2018.

The largest unicorns included Ant Financial, DiDi, Airbnb, Stripe and Palantir Technologies. Lyft is the most recent decacorn that turned into a public company on March 29, 2019.

But March of 2018, even March of 2019, is ancient history.

494 tech unicorns have been founded in the 2000s as of June 30. 206 of them came from China, while the US had 203, according to the inaugural Hurun Global Unicorn List 2019.

That means that China and the USA hold 80% of the world’s unicorns despite representing only half of the world’s GDP and a quarter of the world’s population.

Only 24 countries around the world have unicorns, found in 118 cities with a total value of US$1.7 trillion, according to the latest Hurun list. India ranked third with 21 unicorns, followed by the UK with 13 and Germany with seven.

Among cities, Beijing was ranked as the world’s unicorn capital with 82, ahead of San Francisco with 55. Shanghai followed with 47, New York had 25 and Hangzhou counted 19. As a region, Silicon Valley led the world with 102 of the world’s unicorns.

192 unicorns are involved in the e-commerce and financial technology sectors, while 118 were in the cloud computing, artificial intelligence and logistics sectors.

So what does any of that mean to any of us?

For one thing it means that a few large companies own almost everything – and will own and control even more of it in the future. And these companies will get even larger.

If you visit China you will be immediately struck by two things; first, the Chinese have no problem using futuristic technology alongside the most ancient processes (this worker is building an entryway of blocks of granite to a university building in Zheijiang, home of Alibaba) and second, the Chinese are not afraid of hard work. Photo: Morf Morford

If you visit China you will be immediately struck by two things; first, the Chinese have no problem using futuristic technology alongside the most ancient processes (this worker is building an entryway of blocks of granite to a university building in Zheijiang, home of Alibaba) and second, the Chinese are not afraid of hard work. Photo: Morf Morford

Ever hear of Didi (

If you haven’t you will.

Didi offers on-demand mobility options, including taxi hailing, private car hailing, hitch (social ride-sharing), chauffeur (designated driver), bus, minibus, car rentals and even bus passes. They are also leading the way in autonomous driving.

And they bought Uber in China in 2016.

Didi provides about 11 million rides a day. Uber (outside of China) provides about 2 million each day.

Didi’s valuation hovers around $20 billion. With 550 million users across over 400 cities, they provided 7.43 billion rides in 2017 in countries as diverse as Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Australia and Japan.

Didi, of course is only one of the Chinese unicorns creating, innovating, and sometimes devouring industries around the world.

When it comes to AI (Artificial Intelligence) Chinese companies dominate the market. When it comes to 5G, facial recognition software, autonomous vehicles and almost every other device that defines the future, China dominates the technology as well as the financing.

Speaking of financing, ever hear of Ant Financial Services Group (AFSG)? Formerly known as Alipay, AFSG is an affiliate company of the Chinese Alibaba Group. (1*)  Ant Financial is the highest valued FinTech company in the world, and the world’s most valuable unicorn (start-up) company, with a valuation of US$150 billion.

In March 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported that Ant’s flagship Tianhong Yu’e Bao money-market fund was the biggest in the world, with over 588 million users of Ant’s mobile payments network Alipay contributing, more than a third of China’s population – that’s more than the entire population of the US.

Five years ago, Chinese fintech Ant Financial didn’t exist. Today, it’s one of the largest financial institutions in the world. (2*)

Ant, an affiliate of Alibaba Group, is now 50% bigger than Goldman Sachs. Ant’s most recent valuation came in at $150 billion, compared to Goldman Sach’s $99 billion.

Alipay has over 700 million active users and completed over $8 trillion in transactions in 2017 – that’s equivalent to 65% of China’s GDP.

If they did this in five years, where do you think they will be in another five years?

An important corollary question is “Where will we be in five years?”

Our concerns about cyber-hacking of business (and military) processes and documentation can never decline and our understanding of the intricacies of global trade needs to increase.

We, the United States, are not China’s only trading partner. If we increase tariffs or other trade impediments, China will impose their own – and even worse, establish or expand trade relations with other countries.

When it comes to agricultural products for example, China, because of our tariffs, has cancelled all sales with the USA and has expanded trade with Russia and Brazil.

We need to expand our knowledge and operate with much more foresight and finesse as our economy becomes ever more engaged, interdependent and the demands on us become both financial and mythological.


(1*)    If you are not familiar with Alibaba ( they are the ultimate global online resource. Just in the toy category they offer action figures, baby toys, balloons, candy toys, classic toys, dolls, educational toys, electronic toys, glass marbles, inflatable toys, light-up toys, noise makers  and vastly more. Founded in 1999, its online sales and profits surpassed all US retailers (including Walmart, Amazon, and eBay) combined since 2015.


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