Beyond the copycats: 5 things I learned about China Internet
based on real experience working in China for 14 months
A little background: I grew up in a 3rd tier city in China and came to the US in 2006 for last two years of high school and college. I worked in finance in NYC before moving to LA to join Whisper App in Dec 2013. Over the last 10 years, I have lived between US and China and have strived to add value to the Internet space & culture exchange between US and China. twitter/instagram: @chenyuz
In July 2014, my colleague and I moved to China to set up Whisper’s operations in Shenzhen. The subsequent 14 months were my first real experience working in China, on a startup. I was fully immersed in China’s booming tech scene. This humbling journey not only made me more grounded and connected to my roots, but also taught me life-long lessons.
Below are 5 of my observations of China’s Internet sector:
- China is far beyond copying the West. Great innovation is happening everywhere in China.
Copying a popular app directly to China does not work — only when a validated need is combined with proper localization by the right team at the right timing. In Chinese, we say 天时地利人和。
(1) For example, Zhihu (30M registered users as of Aug 2015 and raised series C funding from Tencent in Nov 2015) is a leading Q&A platform with significant media distribution in China. At first glance, it could be China’s version of Quora, but far beyond a copycat.
In my mind, it combines Pinterest-style lifestyle, fitness, inspiration photos with Quora’s Q&A and knowledge sharing. Their motto 与世界分享你的知识、经验和见解, which translates to “Share with the world your knowledge, experience and opinion.” Interestingly, the founders are journalists turned entrepreneurs and their stand-alone app Zhihu Daily is a leading media distribution platform in China. For tech worker or lifestyle blogger, having your article selected by Zhihu Daily is a great honor and adds credibility.
Most of my Western friends know about major SNS such as Weibo, Wechat, QQ, but for any real China insider, Zhihu is a blossoming platform that people are rushing to build a presence on. It is similar to the trend I observe that Instagram influencers now direct their fans to follow them on Snapchat. The quality and $ value per Zhihu follower are way above Weibo.
(2) With 600M MAU as of Aug 2015, WeChat is the Facebook of China. It is no exaggeration to regard it as a swiss army knife. When you make new acquaintance, the first thing to ask is not their phone number, but scan each other’s WeChat QR code.
On Wechat, I order my Didi taxi, pay for grocery at 711, AA with friends at a meal, top up my cellphone, pay for water & utility, order a ferry ticket to Macau, you name it. In addition, I can order fresh produce, snacks, fresh made yogurt from Wechat official accounts. Not to mention that most of my news and media consumption are from WeChat moment. Everything I need to make life convenient is all within Wechat.
WeChat’s product innovation and ultra user experience are worth an article itself. I plan to write a post on Wechat vs QQ — their differences, similarities and how they turned from competitive to complementary over the last 2 years.
2. In China, idea to market moves fast
Entrepreneurship has been booming everywhere in China — the media buzz is around people born after 90’s starting their own companies. One thing for sure is that in China, things move fast — a combination of Chinese diligence, hardworking and engineering skills.
There is a saying that the sun never sets in a Chinese startup. Work-life balance is not a term often mentioned in China. What do I mean by Chinese diligence? Here are examples from everyday life, I ordered a Uber in Guangzhou and my driver was a 65 year old retired grandpa — he was earning extra bucks during his down time from cooking at home. Another Uber driver didn’t eat dinner at 10:20pm because he gets $500 bonus for making 90 rides a week & he was half way through.
A validated idea from the US can get better execution & faster product cycle in China. Dubsmash’s Chinese copycat 小咖秀 was far more polished and well-executed not only as an product, but also on the marketing front. The app is sleek and stayed on top of app store rankings all over China with celebrities participating.
Chinese entrepreneurs follow trends and hot apps in the US for product validation. Their phones are equipped with every single top app from the US iTunes store. They may still have limited English communications skills, but great product sense & engineering capabilities.
3. Chinese companies are fierce and grow out of alkaline land
Moreover, Chinese startups face extremely competitive landscape where not only 20+ companies are building the Operator of China, but also back-stabbing occurs among each other. Competitive apps report each other and within some of the largest Internet giants, a few groups would work on the same idea simultaneously and only one survives.
A Chinese internet executive once told me: “The Chinese companies that survive grow out of alkaline land, while the US companies may be greenhouse grown.” “中国公司是在盐碱地里杀出来的，美国公司在温室里。” In his opinion, Uber is the most fierce US company that resembles Chinese companies.
4. Marketing an app in China and US shares some similar mechanism
From my observation, when market an app in the US, Facebook Ads Platform is an effective tool. Working with Youtube, Instagram, Vine etc influencers can be another.
Similarly in China, Tencent Ad Platform is used and KOLs help market products. But audience targeting does not work as well as the US counterpart.
In my mind, China’s innovation occurs both in product and marketing. The endless possibilities of promoting an app was truly eye-opening.
Marketing an app gets very creative and content driven . For example, 9 apps in the same category (say productivity or winter break) can bundle together to work with 9–10 Weibo KOLs.
1. the ad appears as useful content instead of an ad
2. cost-effective: 9 apps share the cost and can work with more influencers at once
One caveat is Android app market — a different game between US and China. While there is one Google Play store for Android in the US, keep in mind that 50+ Android app stores exist in China and each android market comes with promotion strategies. For example, new app / version launch on a particular market, entering a raffle as a reward for downloading, or buying banner ad space in app store’s mobile app.
5. In China, celebrities are getting into startup space
In China, increasingly celebrities promote new apps in exchange for an equity. For example, a Chinese copy of Airbnb and a juice cleanse company both have Angela Baby (one of the most popular celebrities) as an investor.
Regarding my own startup experience:
Adam and I were given autonomy and resources to operate Whisper’s China branch in Shenzhen:
We needed to figure out a lot of things — from setting up the legal structure, finding the right place for office , furnishing the office to create a start-up environment that resembles our HQ, to hiring a team from 2 people to 35, figuring out how to market an app in Chinese ways etc.
This experience allowed for accelerated learning and discovering my potential in leading a team on the operations & marketing side.
Working and living in China were drastically different from the US:
- all my contacts are on WeChat and I became active on China’s Quora “Zhihu” and Douban
- No gmail or google calendar were used in local Chinese business, I quickly adapted to exchange QQ numbers for work
- WeChat Moment was our Faceboook Timeline
- Productivity, analytics and team collaboration softwares don’t run as smoothly:
We tried hard to find the equivalents of Dropbox and MixPanel in China, but they are just a bit less smooth and user friendly. I came to appreciate the details that make Dropbox a great product that just works.
- Harder to stay in touch with friends in US via SNS:
During my 14 months in China, given the physical distance, I first attempted to stay in contact with US friends via Facebook Twitter, Instagram, via VPN of course.
But every US service was slow — gmail, google cal were barely working. So half way through, I decided to fully embrace what China has to offer and disappeared from US Social networking sites.
Among many hard things I learned, the following 5 have stood out most:
- Focus on things that matter most
- Be relentlessly resourceful
- Work with the right people
- your greatest strength can also be your biggest weakness
- Learn how to say No
I wanted to share 2 stories:
- Focus on things that matter most:
I tend to over-stretch myself and working on multiple tasks simultaneously . Our daily to-do list was overwhelming, especially during the first 3 months. I had been staying up till 2–3AM constantly with high stress — I once wrote in my journal: “ My to-do list at midnight is as long as it was this morning when I woke up.”
In Oct 2014, our CEO Michael visited and suggested us to focus more on building an A team fast. You may think — isn’t that every startup’s priority? Then he said:” Hire an admin and recruiter soon.”
Adam and I were doing (almost) everything ourselves and hiring an office manager wasn’t on our priority list then. But it was that short conversation that really opened up my mind. Once we had a super great admin, Adam and I were able to focus on other matters more.
Everyday, I am striving to learn to prioritize and keeping this saying in mind.
- Be relentlessly resourceful:
I arrived at Shenzhen with few contacts but one of my highest priorities was to recruit the best talent. I had to find innovative ways to reach the talent — — I went on Dribbble to look through every China-based designer portfolio, for the suitable ones, I guessed their WeChat and Weibo ID based on their Dribbble ID ( Dribbble ID & WeChat ID are prob equally important for a designer)
After sending many requests, I made a few designer friends.
Instagram was also my best friend in making contacts — I geo-explored Tencent and other internet companies on Instagram & befriended a few designers.
Things started to evolve as my story of leaving finance for a startup with a series of acrylic portraits of entrepreneurs became a widely distributed inspirational story across China. I had readers from every corner of China, from tech workers to students. I spoke at 20+ universities and internet companies like Tencent (4 times), Alibaba, Baidu, Meitu, Zhihu. By the time I relocated to LA, I felt comfortable and plugged in working in China.
This write-up was my 2015 Reflections and a mentor suggested me to share with a wider audience. Stay tuned for more writings on China, the Internet and Innovation, life and culture etc.
To me, 2015 was a year of connecting with amazing people, getting lost in my own roots, wandering into new destinations, and rediscovering who I am. I learned to work hard yet appreciate what life brings to us.
2015 made me a stronger, more appreciative and courageous person. I lived and breathed in the “can do” mentality and learned to blend in China’s ever-changing tech world.
instagram/ twitter: @chenyuz (if you want to continue to see interesting shares about China)