Japan’s Amazon Has Bigger Dreams

Hiroshi Mikitani’s Internet giant spends billions on deals abroad

Hiroshi Mikitani, Rakuten’s chairman and chief executive, at the New Economy Summit in Tokyo on April 7.

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

In Japan, there’s no escaping Rakuten. Since its 1997 founding, the shopping-website operator has become much more than an Amazon.com look-alike—it’s expanded into sports, financial services, even family planning. When Rakuten’s pro baseball or soccer teams win a game, the 90 million members of the company’s loyalty program, including its 11 million credit card users, get extra points for purchases on its primary online marketplace, Ichiba. They also get points for using a Rakuten Bank debit card, signing up for Rakuten Broadband, booking a salon through Rakuten Beauty, hiring a mechanic through the company’s vehicle inspection service, or buying a policy from Rakuten Insurance. Couples can plan their nuptials through Rakuten Wedding, or use the Rakuten smartphone app Beauty°C Navigator to predict the best time to try and conceive a child, based on the would-be mother’s body temperature.

Partly as a result of this diversification, one in four online purchases in Japan takes place on Ichiba—impressive even by the standards of Alibaba’s Taobao in China. “We invented this marketplace model, and our international competitors basically followed,” says Hiroshi Mikitani, Rakuten’s founder and chief executive officer.

Outside Japan, however, Rakuten barely rates. It’s almost unknown in the U.S. and Europe, where Amazon rules, and Alibaba had already outpaced it in China well before Mikitani’s partnership with Baidu, China’s Google, collapsed in 2012. Rakuten’s limited footprint is a serious problem given Japan’s declining population and lackluster economy. So Mikitani, like many Japanese CEOs, is increasing efforts to expand abroad, buying foreign startups and investing in others.

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On March 19, Rakuten announced the $410 million purchase of OverDrive, a Cleveland e-books distributor. That purchase came only a week after Rakuten led a $530 million round of funding for Uber rival Lyft, spending $300 million for a 12 percent stake in the car-service app. In September the company spent $1 billion to buy Ebates, an online coupon service in San Francisco, and earlier in 2014 it bought the Cyprus-based messaging app Viber for $905 million. Rakuten now offers a credit card in the U.S. through a partnership with a subsidiary of First National Bank of Omaha. “The Internet is a global business,” says Mikitani, a Harvard MBA who made English the official language of Rakuten in 2011. He wants to assemble enough properties to put Rakuten on the map in the U.S. and Europe. “We cannot just stay in Japan and try to protect our turf,” he says.

All told, Rakuten has spent at least $2.6 billion on deals abroad since the start of 2014, data compiled by Bloomberg show, although Mikitani has mostly focused on scooping up also-rans at relative bargain prices. Viber has 236 million monthly users—well shy of WhatsApp’s more than 700 million, but ahead of Line, Japan’s leading messaging app. In February 2014, Rakuten paid less than 5 percent of the $19 billion that Facebook spent to buy WhatsApp five days later. “Viber makes Rakuten instantly global,” says Talmon Marco, the app’s founder. Marco says he initially met with Mikitani in early 2014 to discuss an investment, but the Japanese billionaire persuaded him to sell. “He wasn’t the uptight business guy that you get to meet a lot. He wasn’t a weird geek,” says Marco. He “was a person you can actually talk to.”

In some cases, Rakuten has been able to make money from its rivals. Consumers who sign up for Ebates can use the website to browse the selections of other e-commerce sites, including Amazon, and get cash back on their purchases; Ebates gets a small commission. The discount service made about $20 million in operating profit last year on $5 billion in transactions, estimates Masaru Sugiyama, an analyst in Tokyo with Goldman Sachs. It could become the foundation for a strong U.S. business by encouraging customers to use Rakuten’s U.S. marketplace and credit card, he says. “This could turn into a proper e-commerce platform” abroad, Sugiyama says. “They can finally start to build on this.”

Rakuten has had trouble making many of its other acquisitions profitable over the past few years, particularly the Kindle wannabe Kobo, which it bought for $315 million in 2011. Based in Toronto, Kobo has yet to turn a profit. But it had 23 million users at the end of 2014, a 25 percent increase from the previous year, and cut losses by discontinuing some of its lackluster hardware lines to focus on selling e-books through a mobile app. Although Rakuten’s noncore Internet businesses—meaning properties like Kobo but not Ichiba—lost $12.5 million in the last three months of 2014, that’s a lot better than the $108 million they lost in the same period the year before. Companywide operating profit jumped 73 percent in the fourth quarter, and the stock price has risen 93 percent over the past six months, hitting a 52-week high on April 8. “This is a big improvement,” says Keiichi Yoneshima, a director with Barclays in Tokyo.

It’s still early in Rakuten’s attempts to expand its business around the globe, and there are risks to Mikitani’s strategy. Its recent e-books purchase probably won’t do much to boost Kobo sales. Viber doesn’t have the numbers of WhatsApp or the heat of messaging apps like Snapchat. And Rakuten may not have the cash to go toe-to-toe with big U.S. Internet leaders. The company notched $5 billion in revenue last year; Amazon took in $89 billion. Lyft’s March funding boosted its valuation to $2.5 billion, but Uber is worth more than 16 times as much. Amazon declined to comment.

Mikitani says a dominant market share isn’t the only measure of success in a global business. “This is very different from a winner-take-all environment,” he says. “Consumer behavior tells us there is room for several players on the screens of smartphones.” For now, he says, he’s focused on linking his recent investments together. Mikitani wants to turn Viber into a mini-app store, selling games, e-books, music, and video, and hopes to use Lyft drivers to deliver Rakuten purchases. “You need to always have several alternatives,” he says.

The bottom line: Rakuten has spent at least $2.6 billion since the start of 2014 to expand abroad but has little to show for it so far.

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