Friends from China visiting Singapore often make the following remark “why aren’t there shared power banks?”
For many of them living Chinese cities, power bank rental has now become a necessity.
Many people, us included, had doubts about the business model in the beginning. It might become yet another ‘sharing economy’ fad where intensive capital investment creates artificial growth that is not sustainable.
However, we were all proven wrong. The leading players, Jiedian, Xiaodian, Energy Monster and Laidian are all profitable. According to TrustData, they collectively occupy more than 95% of the market. Dian = electricity in Chinese.
Jiedian seems to be the only viable business of its parent, Jumei, a US listed company that started as cosmetic vertical ecommerce.
The current coronavirus pandemic proved to be a big test for the players, as the venues where power banks were deployed shut their doors, and the supply chain disrupted. However, the worst is over in China, with places like restaurants and shopping malls reopening.
So why do we not see it in Singapore?
To be fair, many have tried. If you go to some of the major malls, you would see large cabinets of shared power banks. The model works pretty much the same – you download an app, unlock the power bank, and return when you do not need it anymore.
Some people are saying that the reason it did not take off is the lack of demand. We disagree – the demand can be created, if you look at what happened in China. Consumers in Singapore are probably only slightly less glued to their phones compared to their counterparts in China.
We think the reason is twofold: Capital & execution. And they are closely linked.
Most of the leading players in China have raised hundreds of millions of CNY (dozens of millions of dollars) funding. That allowed them to not only have a good deal with the upstream supply chain, but also take an aggressive stance on merchant/channel acquisition.
And when consumers see the shared power banks everywhere, the odds that they will try it out increase. After a few attempts, you become too lazy to bring your own power banks.
Singapore is a market of only 5+ million consumers, which naturally does not attract big capital to invest in consumer driven business with small transaction size.
Not sure if you noticed, most of the shared power banks you see are stocked in big cabinets in shopping malls. This approach is flawed. Because people are on the move – having to take a power bank out and return to the same spot later is a hassle.
Having to download an app while on the move (on foot) is another barrier.
You would not be surprised that Brezze, which is in a few popular malls, only has a few thousand downloads, far from enough to grow the business.
The better place to place is the restaurants, the Karaokes, the cinemas etc. where people stay for a prolonged period of time, enough to have their phones charged. And they do not have to move around too much to take it out and return.
Alas that required the operator to have a strong merchant acquisition ability. Building such a team in Singapore, even for a short period of time, is not easy.
Because hungry, aggressive and yet effective merchant acquisition managers are not in great supply – and you can’t really hire foreigners to do that due to work permit and quota issues.
Also for those who are good at offline sales, they would rather become property/insurance agents, which are far more lucrative for their skills. Even if they do merchant acquisition, doing that for Grab, Foodpanda or Shopback would be more profitable than for power banks.
That is also linked to capital – shared power bank companies do not have the capital to hire top sales people to sweep the market.
Another related execution issue is product – as you can see from comments of dozens of angry customers on WeCharge’s page.
Many of the reviews are about the product – alas, without much capital and a big market, it is difficult for operators to hire good product/tech people, and fix problems quickly.
Part of an ecosystem
Any players who recognise that, and tackle the two challenges correctly, could actually be profitable in this market.
Or they can choose to tag along the sales force of Grab, as part of the superapp ecosystem. They help you solve the payment problem as well.