Shanghai ghost-offices reflect Internet Plus bubble
Published: Feb 01, 2016 06:53 PM

Last month my company moved offices to a high-rise in downtown Jing'an district. We spent several months seeking a suitable office space, visiting over 20 properties across the city, many of which had been recently vacated by Shanghai's first wave of "Internet Plus" startups.

Internet Plus is a new Chinese business model that applies information technology in more traditional industries, such as Internet+Retail. Though such a concept will take time to root in China's dynamic economy, at a macro-economic level all the abandoned offices I visited reflect an interesting local trend.

Based on my conversations with real estate agents and property owners while perusing these ghost-offices (some with business registration license plaques still hanging on the walls), I was able to piece together clues about the demise of these failed startups.

Internet Plus was one of last year's biggest buzzwords on the Chinese interwebs, with success stories like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu enticing millions of young entrepreneurs to team up with techies to get in early on the future of China's surging IT economy.

So a bunch of tech-savvy tuhao (nouveau riche) in Shanghai started selling themselves to venture capitalists, angel financiers and private investors, each boasting that they had the talent, the team and the technology. All they needed was a tycoon to back their idea and everyone would get rich.

Anyone who has ever met a tuhao knows how carefree these guys are about money. Most come from wealthy families and, after daddy gave them a few million to play with, made their own fortunes in real estate, mining or the stock market. In other words, they've never had to work for a living; to them, money comes easily - and goes just as easily.

So once these smooth talkers found some sucker to invest in their vague idea, the very first thing they did was go out and find some glitzy property to base their new business. One building owner recalled the day his downtown property started receiving unbelievably high offers from these wealthy wannabe entrepreneurs.

This is a reason why, in the past few years, Shanghai's property prices have hyper-inflated. He admitted that he was tempted to breach the contracts of his current clients, who were paying the market standard, so that he could move in these tuhao techies at 20 percent the going rate.

Other real estate agents and property owners I met with, however, were more short-sighted. Big-spending, fast-talking tuhao had only to flash a thick red stack of RMB to persuade them to kick out the old tenants, many of them established companies and long-term clients, and move in the new kids on the block.

In keeping with their luxury lifestyles, however, instead of applying their newfound capital to their R&D departments, these youngsters were mostly concerned about appearances. They'd spend hundreds of thousands of yuan on expensive furnishings but absolutely nothing on their actual product - because there was none! Their business models were like New Year's Eve fireworks - brilliant yet ephemeral.

But having blown their wads on a fancy office, some couldn't even afford to pay their monthly utility bills. Many absconded just as quickly as they had moved in, leaving all their furniture behind and forsaking their rental deposit just to bail out early.

It was no wonder, then, that all the property owners I met with were being overly cautious about who they were letting move in. Having learned their lesson by signing a lease with these irresponsible tuhao, many now required strict background checks and financial verifications to make sure that we too wouldn't soon be shuttering our doors.

It was reported that China's tech sector in 2014 raised $7.2 billion in private equity, up from $1.6 billion in 2013. And yet, by the end of 2015, only a small minority of the first wave of Internet Plus startups were still in operation. Some fizzled out due to ineptitude, others let greed get the best of them.

Indeed, Xinhua News Agency published an article this week exposing a Ponzi-like scam by Ezubao, a new O2O financial platform, which absorbed 50 billion yuan ($7.6 billion) from 900,000 individuals nationwide who had been lured by the startup's promises of high investment return.

I have no doubt that eventually a phoenix will rise from the ashes of the first wave of China's tech boom, but until then, property owners and private investors alike need to be more apprehensive of anyone claiming to be the next big thing.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.