What a Chinese Bike-Sharing Company Can Teach Global Businesses

Jul 20, 2017

On the morning this issue went to press, I borrowed a stranger’s silver-and-orange bicycle, rode it two kilometers, then left it leaning against a streetlamp at a city intersection. As I walked away from the bike—unchained and undocked in front of a hotel in Aspen—it was hard not to feel like a scofflaw. But I was benefiting from the remarkable business model of Mobike, a Beijing-based startup whose more than 100 million registered users do much the same thing—an average of 20 million times a day—with the company’s 6 million “connected” bikes.

Lots of cities have bike-sharing systems, of course: Members, who pay a fee for the privilege, retrieve a two-wheeler from one docking station and return it to another within a certain time frame. Mobike has dispensed with the occasionally cumbersome docking process entirely. You download an app, find a bike near you, and scan a QR code to unlock it. Then you drop it off wherever you darn well please. GPS and other wireless technology built into the chassis allow the company to track its whereabouts; a “smart” locking system, meanwhile, bolts the rear tire in place until the next user shows up.

The old dock-based sharing systems are like first-generation PCs, ­Mobike cofounder and CEO Davis Wang told an audience at Fortune’s annual Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen. They are as tethered to their docking stations as a PC is to a desktop, he said. His bikes, in contrast, are like smartphones—you can take them (and leave them) anywhere.

Today, astoundingly, Mobike has more daily riders than Uber. Think about that for a moment: Mobike, which got its start less than two years ago—and which, I’m guessing, few outside of China have heard of—is now a world-class ride-sharing giant (at least in the bi-wheeled transportation sector). The company has already expanded to Singapore and the U.K., and the United States isn’t likely to be far behind.

Which is yet another reminder of how dramatically the landscape for global business has changed in the past few years. Real innovation can happen—and, indeed, is happening—everywhere, not just in the familiar valleys and alleys of the tech establishment. So, too, are companies all over the world investing in that innovation—and growing their businesses, in many cases, at breakneck speed because of it.

That message was sounded over and again in mid-July at Brainstorm Tech, a gathering of some 600 inventors, entrepreneurs, corporate chieftains, and investors. And it blasts loud and clear in this issue of Fortune as well. One has only to look at the geographic breakdown of the 2017 Fortune Global 500—the definitive list of the biggest companies (by revenue) in the world. The companies in this latest ranking are based in no fewer than 232 cities in 34 countries.

At the same time, the center of gravity of the global business enterprise continues to drift eastward. More than a fifth of those on the latest list—109 companies—call China home, up from only 29 companies a decade ago. That includes newcomers like Alibaba Group and Tencent, but also little-known giants like the conglomerate HNA Group, based in Hainan in southern China. As Vivienne Walt writes in her terrific profile of HNA, the company now has—through “a labyrinth of subsidiaries in China and abroad”—ownership interests in everything from hotel chains like Hilton (which it bought from Blackstone in March for $6.5 billion) to Deutsche Bank, where HNA is now the biggest shareholder, with a $3.7 billion stake.

Great challenges remain for every company with a geographically expanding footprint, as Jeff John Roberts explains in “Globalization Bites Back.” But such cross-border spread is inevitable and essential—and yes, welcome. That’s one reason we’re holding the Fortune Global Forum in Guangzhou, China, in December—and coupling it with the first-ever Brainstorm Tech International in the same city.

Good ideas have never stopped at any border. And neither will those hoping to profit from them.

A version of this article appears in the Aug. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline "Ideas Know No Borders."

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