(Nov 16): When unicorns start setting up their own venture-capital funds, you know the tech world is getting frothy.

In June, Singapore-based ride-hailing app GrabTaxi Holdings launched Grab Ventures, shortly after its Indonesian rival Go-Jek Indonesia PT set up its own Go-Ventures. Onetime unicorn Meituan Dianping — the Chinese food-delivery firm that just completed its US$4.2 billion ($5.8 billion) IPO in Hong Kong — raised a US$302 million fund in July for its DragonBall Capital fund.

What are unicorns doing in the venture-capital world when they still need plenty of their own financing? Just in the past few months, Grab has raised US$2 billion to double down on its expansion into Indonesia and Go-Jek is close to adding another US$1.5 billion to its war chest. As for Meituan, its loss-making service helped burn through US$1.2 billion for the year ending June.

Blame liquidity.

These days, even private equity funds, fearful of missing out, have emerged in the venture world. KKR & Co is co-investing with SoftBank Group Corp in Beijing Bytedance Technology Co, a deal that would value the parent of news aggregator Toutiao and video sensation Tik Tok at US$75 billion. If there’s one lesson from the past decade it’s that tech investors win: Since 2009, the Nasdaq Composite Index outperformed the S&P 500 Index by 250 percentage points.

These generous checks are pushing back IPO timelines — and as they mature, unicorns are being forced to buy growth.

For young startups, having Meituan or Grab as an early investor is a prestigious talking point. But it doesn’t mean these stakes come cheap — in China, at least.

As liquidity in China’s private-funds industry starts to dry up, there are still plenty of angel investors out there. To encourage innovation, the Ministry of Finance stipulated in May that early-stage venture-capital firms can deduct up to 70% of their investment for future capital-gains taxes. As a result, more than 50% of VCs in China are A- and pre-A rounds, and these funds account for almost 20% of capital raised.

In the past, strategic buyers like Tencent Holdings and Alibaba Group Holding were often aggressive, wanting 30% to 40% ownership. That pressured young startups to cede control of business decisions, even forcing them to fight for market share at the expense of profitability. If unicorns take a page out of the blue chips’ playbooks, they better pay up.

“We do not want strategic buyers to come in too early,” said Yipin Ng of Yunqi Partners, an early-stage venture capital fund, at the 31st Annual AVCJ Private Equity & Venture Forum in Hong Kong this week.

There’s a note of caution in all this. Despite its glamorous US$100 billion Vision Fund, SoftBank — loaded up with a tangle of investment arms and non-core businesses — famously suffers from a deep conglomerate discount. So when (if?) the world’s most-valued unicorns go public, they risk coming across as a bit bloated, too.


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners