CommonWealth Magazine | Exclusive: How Appier became Taiwan’s first digital unicorn
At the end of March, the AI startup company Appier received the green light to list on the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE), becoming Taiwan’s first digital unicorn startup. CommonWealth Magazine reveals the content of the “preliminary offering circular” being circulated among investor representatives, which offers a rare insight into the inner workings of this magnificent creature.
Founders: Yu Chih-han (CEO), Winnie Lee (COO), Joe Su (CTO)
Locations: 17 locations around the world, including Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia
Number of employees: Over 400
Appier is about to be listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s startup-focused Mothers (market of the high-growth and emerging stocks) board. A March 22nd report shows that Appier’s initial offering price will be 1,600 yen per share. Since Appier is offering 18.7% of its total shares, the initial public offering (IPO) is valued at approximately 30 billion yen, and 99,872,490 shares have been offered, which means that Appier’s net worth is about US$1.465 billion. That puts Appier above the threshold for unicorn startups, i.e. a private startup company with a valuation of US$1 billion or more.
This is a shot in the arm for Taiwan’s startup scene.
“For one thing, it proves that Taiwan has what it takes to make it big in the AI and SaaS markets. For another, it proves that Taiwanese startups can thrive on the world stage,” says former Minister of Science and Technology Chen Liang-Gee, who tapped Appier as the next Taiwanese unicorn when he was in office.
CommonWealth was able to acquire an English-language copy of the “preliminary offering circular”being circulated among investor representatives. The date on the document is February 24th, 2021. Disclaimers on the report proclaim the content as strictly confidential and subject to completion. The circular contains more details than the Japanese version of the bond pricing report published on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s website. It includes a complete report of Appier’s financial numbers over a period of three years, from 2018 until the end of 2020.
Appier’s own report shows that its revenue grew by 24% year-over-year to reach US$84.21 million in 2020. Subtracting expenses and taxes will result in a net loss of 1.454 billion yen, which is a decrease of 38% year-over-year.
How does a company that is losing money pull off such an astounding market value? CommonWealth discovered four key points in the report.
Key No. 1:The Japanese and Korean markets make up 70% of total revenue; the potential for overseas success is propping up market value
One of Appier’s strongest suits is the fact that a great deal of its revenue comes from foreign markets.
During the three-year period ending in 2020, northern Asian markets like Japan and Korea contributed to 67.7% of Appier’s overall revenue. In contrast, the greater Chinese market (including Taiwan) contributed to only 22.4% of the revenue.
In other words, 80% of Appier’s revenue came from overseas. There is still a lot of room to grow, which is why the international capital market is receptive to the higher-than-average valuation.
This was always part of the plan, as envisioned by Appier cofounder Yu Chih-han.
KPMG Partner and Head of Advisory Vincent Chang was commissioned in 2014 by the international venture capital firm Sequoia Capital to conduct Series A due diligence on Appier. He recalls that Yu made it clear he would focus on the overseas markets, especially the United States and Japan. His reason was that he had spent many years in the United States, and because he saw the Japanese and Taiwanese markets as mutually complementary.
Shortly after that, Appier received an investment of US$6 million from Sequoia Capital. It was the first Taiwanese startup to secure funding from Sequoia Capital. In 2014 and 2015, Appier made headway into the Japanese and Korean markets.
Key No. 2: Core business demonstrates profitability with gross margin as high as 50%
By 2020, Appier had yet to make a profit, but its gross margin kept climbing. In the fourth quarter, it reached 50%.
“The gross margin is its crown jewel!” says an experienced venture capitalist who has declined to be named. Even if the revenue and profit numbers look less than stellar, the outstanding gross margin proves the profitability of Appier’s core business.