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A Chinese Rival Beats Uber at Its Own Game

Jean Liu explains how her ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing is besting Uber in China and why data is its biggest asset.

In May, Apple announced that it was investing $1 billion in Didi Chuxing, China’s leading car-hailing service. That’s part of a reported $7 billion the Beijing-based startup has raised in recent months. Didi, which arranges 14 million rides a day in cities across mainland China, commands about 87 percent of the private car-hailing business there. It is so dominant that its main rival, San Francisco–based Uber, recently acknowledged it is losing $1 billion annually in the country. Both companies spend heavily on marketing and on subsidizing drivers to offer lower fares. Interestingly, Uber China’s director of strategy, Liu Zhen, is a cousin of Didi’s president, Jean Liu. In an interview with reporter Christina Larson, Jean Liu said she thinks data will help Didi maintain its edge. In its four years of operation, the company has gathered information like common pickup points and destinations, peak demand times, and frequent routes in 400 Chinese cities. It’s used the data for predictive analysis and to create new products such as Didi Bus, a bus-booking service that’s become a popular alternative to crowded public buses.

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Why did you come to join Didi two years ago from Goldman Sachs, where you were a managing director?

I was born and raised in Beijing. I love the city, and I also get stuck [in traffic] in the city. I studied computer science for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, [but] I went into banking after graduation. I stayed in finance for about a dozen years. My last investment opportunity was Didi.

How has the company changed in those two years?

When I joined, there was only one business line—that was the taxi [service]. But the opportunity is so much bigger than just taxi-hailing. It’s really a world-class dilemma—how to move around 800 million urban Chinese.

China has a lot of urban density, but the public transit system really lags behind. Today our product line includes hailing taxis [working with existing taxi companies to give drivers a more efficient way to find passengers]; private car services [like the Uber model] with higher-, middle-, and lower-end [vehicles and prices]; a bus service.

The bus is like an expanded carpool shuttle service: instead of taking a public bus with many stops, and maybe no seats left, and uncomfortable, we offer a shuttle-­like service with typically just one or two stops. All the seats on the bus are prebooked. We can [use our years of data] to determine popular origins and destinations, where commuters are basically making the same journey in the morning. With the scale of this network, we can pull people together.

What role has data played in developing your new services?

When passengers want to go, they want to go in five minutes. We need to be fast and efficient. Analyzing that data, we have a very good idea, in a particular city, what demand will look like in 10 minutes. Even before the 6 p.m. rush hour, we can dispatch drivers in particular directions. We can predict at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday how many people will [hail cars] from a particular workplace. The only way you can match the supply with the demand is to do intelligent dispatching and demand prediction.

What are the differences between Didi and Uber in China?

The understanding of the local market and the local users is very different. There is a product we invented last June called Hitch, a social ride-­sharing product. Now we have half a million rides completed just on that. Daily. That’s what I mean by understanding the local market. 

Uber is known, in part, for friction with its drivers. Does Didi face similar challenges or ­resentments?

We provide business opportunities to 14 million registered drivers. If you count just the drivers whose majority income comes from Didi, that’s 2.5 million on a monthly basis. We actually help drivers increase their income by increasing the efficiency of their routes. In Beijing, a lot of the private car drivers [who find customers via Didi’s app] earn four times the minimum wage.  That resolves the fundamental issue for the drivers.

What are your biggest challenges?

At this stage, we spend a lot of time talking about how to recruit and retain top talent.

What’s the story behind the recent Apple investment, and how will Didi use the money?

Both of us [Apple and Didi] are invested in technology; it just seemed very intuitive. Both have a big overlap in our customers in China. We have some ideas. But bear in mind, this is a speed date: we got to know them in late April. A lot of things are still in discussion. Going forward, maybe we could use voice function [technology] from Apple; a big percentage of our users are using iPhones.

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