Learning to accept the challenges for startups in China
Day in day out my woes of being a startup business in enormous China are mere when I stop and take in my surroundings. The problems that I build up to be mountains in my head are shrunken down to tiny mole hills with each stride I take when walking down the streets of Shanghai.
Not only is there a sheer, bustling amount of people, but the majority, like myself, are all making something of ourselves in one way or another. From the elderly, smiley, wrinkled man I see when I step out from my house who is hand-crafting shoes on the pavement; the woman I see in her hole in the wall shop, hand making 煎饼果子 (Jianbingguozi); the construction worker who has created his own sun proof hard hat; to the many men I see pedalling across the city’s congested roads with cardboard on their trailer stacked as high as the skyscraper backdrop.
The hustle can seen everywhere and this dynamism is what makes China such a unique place to be innovating and building a startup.
In a recent China Innovation panel for Westpac’s 200th year anniversary (celebrating Businesses of Tomorrow), I confessed to fellow Australian startups looking at the China market about the mountains I’ve had to climb with starting a business here in China. The market size that you’re able to tap into here is immense, yes. And it totally provides a platform for endless opportunity — to be precise, China’s population now stands at an astonishing 1,388,964,136 people (approx). And they are willing to spend more than ever before. However, with this opportunity, comes challenges for startups.
First and foremost, the challenge to be seen, heard, and have traction recognised. We all know the market potential in China is gigantic — it breeds a much greater, different scale of penetration to the West. The amount of competition multiplies, and the amount of people you’re aiming to target also more than quadruples. Everything’s larger. Just like upgrading to the Jumbo chips at Nandos — it takes commitment, determination & an appetite.
But this isn’t to say that because high figures and traction are greater in this market, you should throw your product at everyone. Differences in regional patterns across the country are strong and allow you to create a focussed and tailored product for the right kind of market; what might fly in Shanghai may never catch on in Chengdu for instance.
Within this widespread population also comes the opportunity to meet a lot of people — business networks, customers, partners — build relationships and get people talking about your product. But as you can imagine, this takes time, conversations, trust building, plenty of coffees & sometimes a few glasses of 白酒 (Baijiu).
A combination of masses of people with masses of ideas explains why China is renowned for being so fast paced. Within a few days, what was a bamboo scaffolding maze now has lengthy queues outside its doors for the latest generation of tea. China very much lives in the now; they’re interested in the latest trends and are quick to adopt these new ideas. The growth in Independent outbound travel in China is just one example that we’ve been fortunate to catch on to with chozun 途赞; particularly amongst Middle Class Chinese millennials wanting to be the first to visit somewhere across their boarders and to be the first to post a selfie from there on their WeChat moments for their friends to see. Nine out of 10 Chinese travellers are hoping to travel more frequently than they did five years ago. But with a fast adoption of products then causes a fast fall, and what was once considered something great, can be left remembered as just another fad. This way of thinking sometimes proves difficult for investors and external stakeholders to foresee your business in five years time. This future vision, I have found is sometimes harder for the local market to master, but is crucial for believing and progressing in any startup business.
The final mountain to climb which has the toughest, sharpest peaks that you can fall down from at anytime is the politeness in business in China. You can be stood facing the top of the peak about to trek into the summit to complete your journey, but the reality is that you’re left amidst the clouds. Think of it as the guy or gal you went on a date with who then never calls you back. It can be common to get led on a little in business here and to feel like you aren’t sure where you stand, with key takeaways from meetings such as objectives and outcomes hard to come by — the word no doesn’t often press from the lips here.
In any journey for startups, wherever you are in the world, there will be challenges to overcome. Real challenges, sometimes unspoken. But by immersing myself in where this startup lies, and in accepting Chinese culture, has in fact humbled my worries. I have without regret exchanged my previously somewhat lavish and chaotic lifestyle to simple beginnings, inspired by Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, where I now swear by and practice — less truly can mean more.
Today I’m living in the hustle of China, watching and walking alongside others fight in the uphill battle from sunrise to far past sunset, making me realise that it’s okay to not have had that call back. It’s okay when someone tells you, “China’s hard” and you all have a little giggle. I can empathise with the workers I pass on my daily commute to my air-conditioned office and think; you know what, this mountain climbing isn’t all that bad. ⛰️👊
Thanks to the ever so brilliant Saffron Otter for taking this piece out of my head (whilst I run from one meeting room to another), word smithing & articulating it so eloquently. I hope one day, you too enjoy climbing these mountains, and that they aren’t too steep.