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Jack Dorsey is so money: What Tidal and banking do for Square

Teaming up with Jay-Z's music streaming service may seem like a move done for flash, but it's ultimately all about the money (and Cash).

​Jay-Z performs at the Tidal-X concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in 2017.

Jay-Z performs at the Tidal-X concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in 2017.

Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

It was a big week for Jack Dorsey, who started by turning heads in Wall Street, and then went Hollywood with an unexpected music-streaming deal.

Dorsey's payments company, Square, announced Monday that it now has an actual bank, Square Financial Services, which just got a charter approved. On Thursday, Dorsey announced Square was taking a majority stake in Tidal, the music-streaming service backed by Jay-Z, for $297 million.

If there's a theme around the moves, it's control. Having its own bank gives Square more purchase in the financial world. And if Square does something with Tidal, which promised to give artists a bigger cut of the money produced by streaming, it will likely be about giving musicians more control over the revenue streams they create.

It also suggests Dorsey wants to diversify Square far beyond its original smartphone-swipe business. Already, he talks about Register and Cash App as two distinct businesses within Square. (Caviar was another, until Square sold it to DoorDash.) Now Tidal joins the portfolio.

"Dorsey is flexing his muscles and expanding his tentacles into banking, crypto, and now the Jay-Z Tidal deal," Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives told Protocol. Ives compared Dorsey to Tesla's Elon Musk in the boldness of his ambitions.

Some disagreed: There was chatter that the deal was about Dorsey's habit of hobnobbing with celebrities. He was famously photographed with Beyoncé, who is married to Jay-Z, last year. Square plans to name Jay-Z, a.k.a. Shawn Carter, to its board.

But Square's push into banking is not about "white pillars in front of buildings and marble," as Matt Harris, partner at Bain Capital Ventures, put it. Financial services are becoming a "lifestyle choice" for a new generation of consumers, he said.

It helps, then, that Cash App is part of the cultural lexicon of hip-hop. "One of the things Square has captured is the consumer business for a long time," Harris said. "Their customer acquisition strategy for a long time has been urban. And Tidal is just a further step. A somewhat radical further step."

Veteran tech analyst Michael Dortch of DortchOnIT saw the deal as more straightforward: Square can offer valuable services to musicians and artists in what has become a more complex entertainment market, and let them avoid "exploitation and bad treatment" from the major labels, he said.

Artists often don't get paid for three to six months after a song is streamed, because they have to wait for their label to get paid first. Square has experience, but it's not the only one that could address this problem.

"Maybe there's an argument that Square will get in the middle of that to simplify payments so creators get paid more quickly," said David Pakman, partner at Venrock. "That's interesting and a bunch of people have tried to do that. But Spotify could do that on their own."

Square's bet on Tidal is unlikely to shake up the streaming world in the short term. Tidal has not released any subscriber numbers for some time, but data shared by digital music wholesaler CD Baby suggests that the service is little more than an also-ran. CD Baby, which distributed the music of 800,000 independent artists, received 40% of its digital revenue from Spotify, with Apple Music accounting for 18%. Tidal, Deezer, Napster and other third-tier services together made up just 8% of CD Baby's digital revenue.

Dorsey and Jay-Z both said Thursday that the Tidal link-up went well beyond streaming.

"Square created ecosystems of tools for sellers and individuals, and we'll do the same for artists," Dorsey wrote in a tweet thread. "We'll work on entirely new listening experiences to bring fans closer together, simple integrations for merch sales, modern collaboration tools, and new complementary revenue streams."

"I said from the beginning that Tidal was about more than just streaming music … Artists deserve better tools to assist them in their creative journey," Jay-Z tweeted.

Focusing on services over streams is a smart bet, music industry analyst Mark Mulligan from MIDiA Research said. "Streaming is fundamentally a terrible margin business," he said.

Water & Music author Cherie Hu agreed. "The business of music streaming is not sustainable in and of itself," Hu said, pointing to the fact that Tidal lost $52 million on subscription revenues of just $166 million in 2019. "Tidal is not a profitable business," she said.

A bigger focus on creator services could change that. "It is the only big bet at the moment," Mulligan said. And while pundits have focused on Tidal's star power, creator services could actually help Tidal and Square monetize the long tail of music: part-time creators looking to make a few extra bucks, musicians who haven't given up on their day job. "It monetizes hobbies," Mulligan said.

Square could build out credit or other products or tools for artists. "Even though Tidal has been declining as a streaming service, they have a strong brand and access to artists," said Laura Chau, partner at Canaan. "With Square buying Tidal, they essentially are buying access to those artists and circumventing the creator acquisition challenge that many emerging companies will have."

The flip side is that there are already a plethora of creator services companies out there, helping bands with everything from playlist sharing to merchandise sales. Those companies include Spotify, which has been looking to offer musicians more tools after acquiring artistry services startups SoundBetter and Soundtrap. "It's super crowded right now," Hu said.

The one major differentiator for Square could be its financial services business, freshly strengthened with its own chartered bank. "That is one of the growth areas," Mulligan said. The company could offer artists advances, royalty processing and more, effectively taking over some of the roles traditionally held by record labels.

It's a space that is long overdue for change. In the age of TikTok, artists can see huge streaming spikes practically overnight when one of their songs goes viral. Most of them won't see the resulting royalties for months, Hu said: "The financial innovation has not caught up to general technological innovation."

If the Tidal bet pays off, Dorsey's reputation as a daring strategic thinker will only grow.

"He deserves a lot of credit for long-term vision," Eric Sager, Plaid's chief operating officer who was once head of sales at Square, told Protocol in January. "A lot of the things that have made Square the amazing company it is today are things that he was talking about years and years and years ago when it wasn't clear at all that those things would be successful."

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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