Tech

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

There's a saying in China to describe what many singles seek when dating: ``Give me fair-skinned, smart and rich, or give me fair-skinned, attractive and dumb."

Meitu has built a business around making users look light-complexioned and attractive. Now it's taking a stab at convincing investors it can make them look smart and rich too.

With a selfie-editing app that boasts 270 million users, the Chinese company is in talks to raise funds that would value it at a minimum of $3 billion, Bloomberg's Lulu Chen and Shai Oster reported Wednesday.

Meitu's app has attracted a following from its mostly female users by allowing them to lighten skin, lengthen legs and thin faces.  If the startup succeeds in its next funding round, it would become the 30th Chinese company to attain the so-called unicorn status of a $1 billion valuation, according to CB Insights.

Betting on a Bubble
Meitu is set to become China's latest unicorn as investors back its beauty app
Source: CB Insights
Note: List shows only those valued at more than $1b. CB Insights lists a further 15 worth exactly $1b

A $3 billion price tag translates to an astronomical $11 per current monthly active Chinese user. While it's true that user numbers will grow, shareholders also expect the value of their investment to increase exponentially -- and the value of each user tends to fall as numbers rise.

The reality is that there's something bigger at play here. On Wednesday, Dave McClure, founder of famed Silicon Valley venture capital firm 500 Startups, became the latest to add his voice to concerns that China's tech valuations are bubbly. In a discussion in Taipei, McClure noted the similarities between China today and the U.S. at the start of the century, just before the tech bubble burst.

What Goes Up...
The Nasdaq's boom and bust may be at risk of repeating in China
Source: Bloomberg

McClure is coming off a Greater China tour that included Hangzhou and Shenzhen. Instead of investing now, he said he wished he could raise money today and sit on it for three years until after the bubble has burst. Picking up bargains among the rubble was what many smart venture capitalists did from 2002 to 2005, and it's what McClure expects to happen eventually in China.

The problem is that there's still so much money in China keeping the bubble inflated. Xiaomi's valuation of about $45 billion has looked under pressure, but the smartphone maker has been able to avoid a so-called down round of devalued equity funding thanks in part to its ability to sell debt.

Meitu's expectation that it can raise money at a $3 billion valuation shows there are plenty of people who lack the patience and discipline to wait. Rather than smart and rich, there's a high chance that its beauty app will end up making these investors appear both red-faced and dumb.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Matthew Brooker at mbrooker1@bloomberg.net