Youku wants to be the premier online video source for China, sure. But it's also something like Hulu and a movie studio. Maybe that's why Goldman Sachs is about to underwrite its IPO.
Viktor Koo is as about as matter of fact as it's possible to be when he describes the audacious goal he has set for a company that he founded just four years ago. "We want to be the primary source of video content [delivered] across Internet-enabled devices." Given that he sits in China, the country that already has the most Internet users in the world (384 million, with roughly 240 million of them already accessing video via the Internet), that would presumably be a pretty valuable piece of cyberspace to occupy. Which is why investment bankers at Goldman Sachs (GS) are in the final stages of preparing an initial public offering of Youku's stock in the U.S. that is, according to one Wall Street source not working on the deal, imminent. (Koo, in an interview with Fortune, declined to confirm or deny that an an IPO is planned.)
Audacious Koo's goal may be—but it's not necessarily unrealistic. A Hong Kong native, graduate of Berkeley and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and an alum of Bain & Co.—Koo is the founder of Youku.com, the Beijing based company that is typically--and perhaps not quite accurately -- described as the "YouTube' of China. It is, as of now, the leading online video company in China, with a market share of 42 per cent, (as measured by user time spent on video sites in China, according to Itracker.com, a market research firm.) Its principal rival, Tudou.com, has about a 25 per cent share of the market, and it too will go public in New York, either this quarter or next, sources say. (Both companies are now in the so-called quiet period before IPOs and thus can't confirm timing.)
Their dominant positions reinforce the central commercial reality of China's digital world: this is, in effect, a parallel Internet universe. In virtually every key space when it comes to making money online, Chinese companies have either unseated global powerhouses, or entered spaces explicitly off limits to foreign firms. In online commerce, Alibaba-Taobao came from behind and effectively ran eBay (EBAY) out of the country. SOHU.com—where Koo served as CFO and then COO before starting Youku—and SINA.com are the dominant web portals. Google (GOOG) -- which, to be fair, wasn't doing badly as the second largest search engine in China, proceeded to torpedo its chances in China when Sergey Brin decided he couldn't live with Beijing's censorship laws earlier this year. Since then, Baidu (BIDU) has only widened its share of the search business in China.
YouTube, for its part, is already banned in China—accessible only via proxy servers—thus leaving that space wide open to domestic competitors. In the four years since sufficient bandwidth has been available in China to make online video a viable business, Youku and Tudou have emerged as the dominant forces in that market. But YouTube's absence, Koo says, doesn't mean the online video business in China isn't competitive. There were more than than 200 entrants scrambling for share just three years ago, according to Koo.