You know when you have a childhood dream, and then you grow up and it turns out not to be as glamorous or fantastic as you thought it would be? Yeah, well, that’s not what happened with me and China.
I first stepped foot in China at the age of 14, wide-eyed and stupefied by Shanghai, which even at that time seemed like a mega city from the future. When I returned during the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai EXPO, China once again did not disappoint.
Having met the girl of my dreams in Shanghai and brought her home to Africa where I grew up, after getting shot at in our car and almost hijacked, it became apparent that Africa wasn’t the best place to raise a family. So instead of becoming a partner in a multi-million dollar construction project, I took a chance with my pregnant fiancee by my side, only a few hundred dollars in my pocket and returned to China hoping it would be a good place to start fresh, raise a family and follow my dream of helping others achieve their dreams.
What happened within 4 years still to this day blows my mind. I found my dream job, set up 3 of my own companies, and became a TV Personality with over 100 Million views. I don’t know if I could have done that so fast anywhere else on earth.
When we realized that the pollution was affecting my son’s health, we decided as a family to leave our life in China behind, but the experience I had gained during that time made it possible for me to take my passion with me and continue get paid to do what I love, coaching others to do what they love, and thanks to the power of the internet, now location free!
During my time in China I’ve been honored to get to know some inspirational people on my journey who are doing what they love and absolutely killing it! For a more in depth guide on how to do that yourself, download my ‘Ultimate Guide to Live a Life you Love’ for free here.
So what can be learned from some of the Laowais living their China Dreams in 2018 so that you might be on this list for 2019 or 2020 or beyond?
BE GENUINELY INTERESTED IN CHINESE CULTURE
The width and depth of Chinese culture outstrips any in the modern world, with 5000 years of wisdom to draw upon. There are a number of expats I’ve met who have no interest in getting to know the people, the language, the culture – they don’t tend to get very far. How much do you know about Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Taichi, Chinese History…? There’s no need to be an expert in all of them, but to know a bit about some goes a long way in building relationships and showing reverence and respect for a 5000 year old culture. What is one aspect of Chinese culture you could delve a bit deeper into?
Liam Bates (李牧 Limu) – A Breath of Fresh Egg
There’s no one quite like Liam Bates —Epic Adventurer, Backflipping Wushu Performer, Cross-Talking TV Host, Hitchhiking Author, Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia and now inventor of the Critically-Acclaimed Laser Egg.
Liam, who graduated a year before me from the University of British Columbia, inspired me to film my own documentary about Chinese in Africa after seeing him film his trek across China on a motorbike. Described by a close friend of ours as “More Chinese than a Chinese man,” it’s not far from the truth, speaking better Chinese than some of my Chinese friends, there aren’t many people who have traveled China as extensively – hitchhiking, camping, climbing, farming, you name it – or ventured as deeply into the Chinese Culture as he has, with his mastery of the Chinese Comedic Cross-Talking (相声 Xiangsheng) and Wushu Martial Arts Performances.
After winning the China Bridge Contest in 2010, in front of a TV Audience of 300 Million, he joined The Travel Channel China, where he hosted a regular travel series filmed throughout the Chinese countryside. In 2011 he and ‘The Travel Channel China’ team spent two weeks in his home country of Switzerland, filming several aspects of Swiss life, which broke numerous records in China, with the first 30-minute episode registering 1.5 million views on video-sharing website Youku alone, earning him the half-joking, half-serious title of “the most famous Swiss person in China after Roger Federer.”
In 2012 Bates began a new series, A Love for Adventure (我爱大冒险), traveling around China seeking out groups who have maintained their traditional lifestyles in order for him to learn their survival techniques. He soon followed up with an international series, The Last Tribe (最后的部落), traveling around the globe searching out indigenous peoples whose traditional lifestyle is on the brink of extinction.
In 2014 he started his latest venture Kaiterra with his fiancée Jess, who had redeveloped asthma after moving to the pollution of Beijing to be with him. Starting on the floor of their living room, they endeavored to figure out how they could combat the effects of pollution, and the Laser Egg was born! It has since become a runaway success, thanks to Apple putting it in all their stores across China.
If there were ever a case of the Chinese government granting a caucasian a Chinese passport, Liam would be it – a true egg – Swiss on the Outside, Chinese on the inside.
FLIP WESTERN MEDIA PORTRAYAL OF CHINA ON ITS HEAD
Most of it is propaganda from its respective country. When you live in China you realize how much of it couldn’t be further from the truth. Don’t listen to anyone who has never lived and worked there, or hasn’t been back in the last 5 years. Things in China are constantly in flux. How could you diversify where you get your up-to-date information on China?
Shaun Rein – Economic Powerhouse
When I first connected with Shaun, he seemed to be swimming upstream, against a tide of nay-sayers, but his message rang true for many of those on the ground aware of the changes happening within China. The tide has now turned and Shaun is leading the pack, in the last year clearly emerging as one of the most respected experts on the Chinese Economy.
With a Masters Degree from Harvard and his extensive research through his firm China Market Research Group, his LinkedIn feed is a never-ending series of interviews with every International Media platform you can think of.
The message in his first book, The End of Cheap China, lays the foundation upon which many of the people on this list are building their empires, bringing foreign brands into China not to produce their products, but to sell them.
The End of Copycat China, released just a month after Alibaba claimed the largest global IPO in history, is now becoming more obvious with the undeniable innovation happening as China speeds ahead of the West.
His latest book, The War on China’s Wallet, paints an accurate picture of how, if you get it right, you can profit from China’s growth, and if you get it wrong, may be left far behind.
LEARN AS MUCH CHINESE AS YOU CAN
It doesn’t have to be perfect, but showing you have put in the effort to try and learn their language which is so different from your own garners a lot of respect. How much effort would it take to make your Chinese 10% better?
Daniela Bessia (安达 Anda) – The Voice of Beauty
When I first encountered Daniela as a co-star on the set of Shenghuo Dabutong, she was clearly a super friendly, ultra confident, elegant lady who demanded attention at the flip of her long blonde hair.
But it wasn’t until I heard her sing that I realized the full extent of her talent for commanding a room. A musician at heart, born and raised in Argentina, she started singing at 9, learned to play violin and guitar at age eleven and later mastered the drums, bass, flute and the Chinese erhu.
There are countless musicians trying to break into the Chinese market. Few have succeeded. What sets her apart is being a foreigner with the ability to sing professionally in Mandarin, speaking directly to the hearts of the Chinese people.
Invited to perform at the opening ceremony of China’s Got Talent, Venus Hit Mars with Jin Xing and at the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra at the Pearl Tower where she performed with Fei Xiang, having performed on countless TV shows and named a Top 10 expat Influencer in Shanghai, CCTV has a documentary in the works to chronicle the story of her Chinese Dream.
DON’T TAKE YOURSELF TOO SERIOUSLY
Chinese people like to be entertained. Willingness to drop my ego and show my TV audience a good time by letting loose opened up so many doors. Experts are boring, storytellers are golden. How could you wrap your story in an entertaining experience?
Thomas Derksen (阿福 Afu) – The White German “Dama” (大妈)
Thomas is another co-star I met on Shenghuo Dabutong, and is one of the few foreigners along with Youtube Stars Logan & Jake Paul to hit China’s Top Social Media 100 KOL list, and one of the only foreigners in China to do so.
He was always fun to be on the set with, unabashedly proclaiming himself the most handsome contestant on our show, despite being surrounded by male models. It was hard not to love his carefree attitude. After posting a series of hilarious videos of himself dressed as a middle-aged woman speaking in Shanghainese, he went viral on Chinese Social Media.
He has since used his reach for more than entertainment, writing a letter to Angela Merkel suggesting Germany could learn from China and become a cashless society. The letter went viral and within a few days ended up on Chinese and German media. Not only did he manage to help Germans to understand the innovation coming out of China, he also provided his Chinese fans an elegant example of Western civic engagement.
FOLLOW YOUR PASSION, NOT THE PAYCHECK
It’s easy to get excited by the explosive growth in China and try to make money on the big opportunities. But if your heart is not in it, and it’s just for the money, someone with more passion or resources will pound you into the ground. But if you stay true to yourself and what you really care about, you’ll put in that extra effort, you’ll meet the right contact by chance because you just can’t stop talking about it, and you won’t give up when things don’t go according to plan (which they rarely will in China). What are you passionate about? How could you share that passion?
Antoine Bunel (安闹闹 An Naonao) – The French Food Father
Antoine is not just number #1 foreign food KOL, but is also the only other person on this list who makes the Top 100 Social Media KOL list in China. Already popular on Weibo, he recently hit it off on the new most popular app in China – Douyin – amassing over 200K followers in less than a month.
He’s left his programming career in the dust and is following his passion for food, meanwhile sharing his journey along the way with hundreds of thousands. But he’s not just a foodie, taking inspiration from helping his mom in the kitchen when he was young, he’s on a mission to help parents bond with their children through the “fast becoming lost” art of family cooking.
In 2016 he opened his own French restaurant in Beijing, which he named Jomi in honor of his parents, taking the first two letters of their names — “Jo” from his father and “Mi” from his mother.
“I quit a job which gave me a satisfactory salary in order to have more time to focus on my passion for cooking. Not everyone would make such a choice. It’s not easy. It requires a lot of effort, support from friends, and opportunities,” says Antoine. “I don’t think of myself as any kind of celebrity. I’m just doing my job.”
STAY UP TO DATE WITH CHINESE CURRENT EVENTS
While the younger generation in China have a decent idea of what’s going on outside China, there aren’t many foreigners that have a good idea what’s going on in the Middle Kingdom. What are Chinese people watching? Who are their celebrities? Who’s the latest wanghong? Ever heard of Papi Jiang? She has 27 million followers on Weibo. How about Ms Yeah (办公室小夜 Bangongshi Xiaoye) who cooks food in her office with a hair straightener and iron? For those of you who don’t use Weibo or understand Chinese, you can check out What’s on Weibo by Manya Koetse for the highlights.
William August (拂菻坊 Fulinfang) – Bilibili Superstar
With the whole wide world watching YouTube, sometimes we forget that THAT world doesn’t include the 1.3 Billion people in China where Youtube is banned. Fulinfang is a Bilibili superstar – with over 2 Mil Followers – most of which are on Bilibili, but with a quarter million on Youtube as well.
His personal advice on our family vlog on Bilibili helped us solidify a sponsorship deal which gave us the freedom to travel with the kids filming fun videos for a few months. He’s a one man content machine, having put in the work on Bilibili posting quality daily videos over the last few years, doing his own research and editing himself, he has developed a keen eye for what his audience will react to and enjoy.
By closely following trends happening in China, and by adding his own comedic commentary (吐槽视频tucao shipin) from an English perspective in killer Chinese, he’s a hit with Chinese teens and young adults. Being the first real foreign wanghong in China, he’s in untested waters and has come up against some strong controversy, trolls, haters, and blatantly out of line media companies in the last few months. He’s been responding to this by experimenting with a more radically honest authentic take it or leave it approach, and has started building a community by doing podcast style interviews with Influencers like Haogeili, the next person on this list.
STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD
There are over a million foreigners in China now – English teachers, executives, entrepreneurs – being a foreigner is no longer enough to make you stand out other than in rural areas in China. What makes you different? And how can you shout that uniqueness from the rooftops (in an elegant way)?
Brendan Mc Manus (郝给力Hao Geili) – Mediocrity Smasher
Brendan is better known by his Chinese name Haogeili (郝给力) which is without a doubt one of the best foreigner Chinese names I’ve come across as it is designed around his whole persona. Geili (给力) in Chinese literally means “giving power”, but is now widely known more of a slang word which could be translated as “cool” or “awesome”.
He’s an inspiration to over 250K young Chinese men across Youtube and Chinese platforms, sharing wisdom and advice to help them “Smash Mediocrity” (打破平庸). He started with book reviews and has expanded into a quirky yet spot-on self-help channel, filming animated and humorous videos, even going so far as to chronicle his experience at the full moon party in Thailand picking up chicks while filming himself and wiggling his eyebrows.
When he’s not filming videos he runs his corporate training company British Brothers with his brother Liam who is the founder of Big Debates, the largest debating platform in Asia, consisting of normal people who want to take on the toughest topics – Sex, religion, war, politics, robots, economics, science, power, freedom, morals and Donald Trump. The British Brothers have hit China hard, and it’s clear they have just begun.
GET YOUR MESSAGE OUT THERE
Whether its videos, podcasts, blogging, live-streaming, writing a book – whatever medium you can share your message on, just start. There’s no perfect medium. The only way to find out which ones will suit you best, and get a positive response, is to experiment and learn as you go along. What is one medium you could experiment with over the next month?
Ashley Galina Dudarenok – The Chozan One
It’s hard to miss Ashley’s prolific online presence as a serial entrepreneur, professional speaker, bestselling author, vlogger, podcaster, media contributor and female entrepreneurship spokesperson. She runs Asia’s #1 entrepreneurship vlog and is the world’s #1 China marketing blogger.
As a member of Alibaba’s Global Influencer Entourage she works directly with a Tencent core founder with the lofty goal of conquering Western social media. In 2017 alone she spoke at 58 events across Asia, Europe, and the Middle East and is regularly interviewed by Forbes, CNBC, Huffington Post, Technode, Asia Times, Hong Kong Economic Times, Jing Daily and The Asian Entrepreneur.
Her book which she just released a few weeks ago, “Unlocking the World’s Largest E-Market: A Guide to Selling on Chinese Social Media”, is getting rave reviews and hit #1 Amazon bestseller in 2 categories within just a few days.
DO WHAT OTHERS AREN’T WILLING TO
When we move to a new place, we come with fresh perspectives and a different way of doing things, but we don’t understand the market. Then we spend some time there and understand the market, with the disadvantage of blending in and starting to do things the way others do in that market. But how can we retain that fresh perspective? That curiosity? And how can we break out of “the way things are normally done” and try something new? What is one outrageous thing you could try that might 10X your results?
Raz Gal-Or – No-Shame Street Researcher
Raz’s rise to fame is unprecedented. He managed to collect 1.9 Mil followers in a year. He’s willing to ask the questions that people are thinking but no-one dares to ask. His channel is called the Foreigner Research Association (歪果仁研究协会Waiguoren yanjiu xiehui) which does what it sounds like, researching foreigners on their opinions and perspectives.
Many of the foreigners that are interviewed speak Chinese, and it really has helped Chinese people have a better understanding of what foreigners actually think about things. Raz, like Fulinfang keeps up to date with hot topics and for the first time Chinese people don’t have to wonder what foreigners think about them.
Since the channel has grown, Raz has brought the camera into his house, with sharing his family’s perspective on life in China. He now lets other foreigners do a lot of the interviewing and he focusses on comedic acting, or letting them interview him. His comedic acting is exactly what Chinese people love to watch and the videos have become higher and higher quality, with a professional editing touch. He recently released a video of his “one day as a Chinese Fast Food Delivery Man“, which unsurprisingly, knowing Raz, has gone viral.
JUMP IN WITH BOTH FEET
If you’re thinking let me try it out, see if I can make a quick buck, give up, you’ll never make it in China. It will be a complete waste of time and resources. But if you are willing to go all in, and commit to making your mark, then there are has never been a place in the history of man where there were so many opportunities ripe for the taking. Have you committed to making it happen in China?
Josh Steimle – Influencer of Influencers
Meet Josh, my go to man for knowing how to get my message out there online, the one person on this list who is not just a KOL for his work in China, but with a Global Influence for his depth of Online Marketing Expertise. Called out by Forbes, Richtopia, Entrepreneur, Huffington Post as one of the top Online Influencers/Marketers to watch and by “Success Magazine” in the top 5 best business books of 2016 for “Chief Marketing Officers at Work” and named one of 11 Marketing Books Every CMO Should Read by Forbes.
I had assumed he moved to China to get in on the action of the growing economy. As I found out on a recent video he posted on LinkedIn, he moved to acquaint himself with the language and culture in order to adopt a Chinese girl. The more I find out about Josh, the more enamored I become. As I was searching for a picture for this article I came across the one above in an article on how he homeschools his kids, a topic close to my own heart.
In addition to his Digital Marketing Agency MWI which he founded in 1999 and shepherded through multiple boom and bust cycles, in 2016 Josh also founded Influencer Inc, a publishing, training, and events company that assists executives to become thought leaders and leverage their personal brands and influence to attract top talent, lead their teams effectively, and grow their businesses. If you don’t know Josh already, make sure you reach out, his responsiveness, expertise and sense of humanity inspire on a daily basis.
TAILOR YOUR GAME TO THE BEAST
There’s no use taking a business model from the West and applying it to China. It flat out doesn’t work. The Chinese Market demands a fresh approach with an open mind about the way things should be done, feeling out the constantly changing business climate and adapting your strategy to match. What are some Chinese-isms or elements you could add to what you do?
Kim Leitzes – KOL Connector
Kim Leitzes is a mother, ex-banker-turned-entrepreneur, fashionista and graduate of Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania – often ranked as the top business school in the world, rivalled only by Harvard.
It’s no surprise then that Kim has managed to raise $800K for her company PARKLU, named after Park Avenue in New York due to her passion for fashion. She found a niche as of yet untapped in the Chinese Market, but smack dab in the center of where the future of marketing in China is heading — connecting companies directly with the Social Media Influencers (网红 Wanghong) that the Chinese people are following, listening to and watching.
These Wanghong are the new influencers, and when they say “buy”, people buy, making them a formidable marketing force for companies looking to enter or expand in China. We had first hand experience of this after our family live-streaming channel took off and we helped our Irish partner sell products to China. Live-streaming was so effective in fact that Kim’s team called us to figure out how we were doing it. It’s not just about finding the KOLs with the largest followings, its all about relevancy, and that’s where PARKLU comes in, matching your company with the right Wanghong (网红) to sell for you.
DEVELOP MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS
The importance of relationships cannot be understated in China. Without a doubt if I was to single out the one most important aspect for me personally, it’s about building strong, authentic relationships. In each one of my businesses, my partners have been friends first and business partners second. For those of you who are familiar with the concept of Guanxi (关系), you’ll know that relationships have a whole other dimension in Chinese culture. I’ve seen smart, well intentioned foreigners fall flat on their face just because they didn’t spend the adequate time and energy building relationships before trying to close a deal. Put down the pen and contract and go for a round of Baijiu (白酒)! What are some relationships you have that would be worth investing more time, energy and money? Don’t forget the Hongbao (红包)!
You can’t be in the Foreign KOL community without knowing Elijah, he’s the insider that keeps everyone up-to-date with the latest influencer marketing in China. He is the Chief Marketing Officer of PARKLU and does a fantastic job of sharing the insights gained through the Big Data collected through the PARKLU Platform to keep us all informed.
When I was in doubt about whether I should bother putting in the effort of using LinkedIn as a publishing platform, it was Elijah’s encouraging words and expert advice that kept me going. It has turned out to be very fruitful, and for that I have Elijah to thank and you can thank him for this article being written.
Elijah co-founded the beauty influencer brand Melilim Fu with his partner. Melilim Fu’s flamboyant persona, signature style and willingness to go to the extremes has won the hearts of girls across China making her a top ranked beauty influencer in China. Their vision is to help Chinese girls have their own style rather than looking to Japanese or Korean celebrities. If you’re looking to step into the Chinese influencer scene yourself, Elijah sits right on the pulse.
CONNECT CHINA WITH THE REST OF THE WORLD
When we returned to Ireland a year and half ago, we innocently started live-streaming our life back to China. But it was new and fresh and people wanted to know what life outside of China was really like, and to watch our half-Chinese half-Irish kids spill their breakfast all over themselves. Little did we know our channel would take off, and within a few months we regularly had over 10K people watching and at times up to 30K. There is still a huge barrier between the rest of the world and china. They don’t call it the great firewall for nothing. Whatever experience you have in China, that’s something most people have never had, how can you smuggle that over the firewall?
Thomas Graziani – He Who Walks The Chat
Thomas’ company WalktheChat was integral to helping our Irish partner who was trying to enter the market get the word out to a Chinese audience. The WeChat reports released are incredibly useful and insightful if you’re looking to understand the power of WeChat.
Thomas spent his first 3 years in China working for Sneider Electric before getting a taste for entrepreneurship and stepping out to create something of his own. He went through a few business ideas before creating WalktheChat and then went through a few business models, originally starting out as an agency building WeChat solutions for large enterprises (Nestle, NFL, etc.) and finally settling on helping foreign businesses on WeChat. He offers a free 15 day trial for any businesses looking to try out their services.
When asked his favorite city in Asia for business, Thomas replied: “I picked Beijing. I don’t like the idea of a “favourite city for business.” Life is short, and you should live where you want to live. Beijing is an incredibly diverse, dynamic and charming city. It’s best for business for me, because that’s where I enjoy living.”
GET FAMILIAR WITH CHINESE APPS
Weibo is not the Chinese Twitter, Douyin is not the Chinese Snapchat, Wechat is not the Chinese WhatsApp (there’s the understatement of the century). Chinese apps are of a whole different breed, and are fast out-pacing, out-innovating and out-classing the giants in the West. What Chinese apps could you experiment with?
Matthew Brennan – The Godfather of Wechat
If you’re looking to get an understanding of how to best utilize China’s super-app Wechat and stay up to date with the constant developments, look no further than Matthew. He is regularly featured in global media from The Economist, BBC, The Financial Times, Forbes, TechCrunch, TechinAsia, Wired, and even Harvard Political Review for his expertise on Wechat and Tencent, China’s largest tech company.
He organizes the largest annual WeChat marketing conference for those who are looking to unlock their Wechat superpowers. He’s been in China for over 14 years, during which he co-founded China Channel and started co-hosting the China Tech Talk podcast produced with Technode, China’s largest English language tech media, sharing insights from top experts in the likes of Tencent, JD, Xiaomi and Mobike.
Be sure to keep an eye our for his book ‘The Story of WeChat’ which is due for release later this year.
STAND ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
One of the businesses I started during my time in China was an App to help Chinese people learn English. I poured time, energy, relationships and resources into it — it could have swallowed me up whole. But when our CEO’s other business was about to go IPO, he was all hands off deck as he became rich beyond his wildest dreams and I had to let it go. One of the most difficult things about developing an App is the, well, development. Having to develop for both Android and Apple was a headache on top of a headache. We didn’t have the opportunity that now exists. App development, it seems, is over in China, it’s now about Mini-App development. What was once “if it’s not on the Apple Store it’s not a real App” in China is fast becoming “if it’s not a Mini-App on WeChat it doesn’t stand a chance.”WeChat, like facebook in West, commands hours of daily attention, and it’s easier to subscribe than download a new app, no-one is going to turn off WeChat notifications, and you save the cost of developing on Android and Apple. It sounds like a no-brainer. How could you leverage the ecosystems that already exist in China rather than building your dream from scratch?
Drew Kirchhoff – Wechat Matchmaker
Drew Kirchhoff is a co-founder of Yoli, a WeChat-first on-demand English and Chinese language learning platform. Think of it as Uber for English lessons, very fast English lessons. “Since we’re on mobile and we’re on WeChat, we wanted to try 15 minutes,” says Drew. “A lot of people weren’t believers – they thought it was too short. They thought we were crazy.”
Before co-founding yoli, Drew worked at a few mobile gaming companies, one that got 100 million+ downloads, won the Apple Design Award and Google Play Game of the Year in 2015. Since co-founding yoli, he has been an avid WeChat entrepreneur, running WeChat Mini App Masterclasses, consulting for companies on their WeChat product development strategy and was featured by WeChat’s Enterprise Account team.
Yoli has found it’s place in the WeChat ecosystem, utilizing the service and enterprise accounts in a novel way, creating platform for students and tutors to learn/teach anywhere anytime. What began as B2C is now B2B as tech integration offers on-demand tutors. Yoli has signed on some big partners in the past 6 months, and is sure to make a big splash the market by the end of 2018. For each 15 minute session, Yoli teachers earn $4 USD. To spare teachers the hassle of planning, Yoli provides a curriculum and enough material for 180 classes. For students, there’s no need to prepare – they just open WeChat.
START WTH A NICHE
Too many foreigners look at the number 1.3 billion and try to create a product or service they can sell to everyone in China. Each province, each city, has its own unique flavor (you can tell from the food!) and so too each place requires a slightly different strategy. Start small and expand outwards once you’ve got a solid foothold. What would be the best niche for you to start?
Jay was the first person I met after my second son was born, on a mad dash to satisfy my wife’s post-birth cravings at the burrito store outside the hospital. We had started to set up a business together a few years before, but let it go when it became apparent we had skill sets that were too close to build a balanced team.
He obviously learned from that. Of the thousands of businesses set up by foreigners in China every year, the vast majority fizzle out of existence without a trace. Baopals is not one of them. Designed to help foreigners navigate the Chinese E-commerce market, it sounds more like a far fetched China Dream than a viable business plan. And yet, they have done the impossible, stepping up to play with the giants, all of this without a Chinese co-founder, no experience in ecommerce, no funding or guanxi, and plenty of legal, financial and technological uncertainty.
This was one of those problems that all foreigners in China had, but no-one wanted to or thought they could solve. So on March 1st, 2016, they launched Baopals to bridge foriegn shoppers to all 800 million plus products on Taobao and Tmall, updating in real time. In 2 years they have grown to a team of 35 employees, and the platform has helped expats in China purchase over 1.3 million items for over CNY68 million in gross merchandise value.
HELP BUILD COMMUNITIES
In my second year living full-time in China I gathered with a few friends and decided to run Shanghai’s first ever Healing Arts Festival to help coaches, mind-body practitioners and healers have a platform to share their services. It turned out to be a great success and helped raise my profile in the community landing me my dream job. The next year it came around, the company I worked for sponsored the event and I was paid to do what I had done for free the year before. It’s now an annual event and a legacy I’m proud to have left in Shanghai. What community could you get more involved in? What platform could you help create to make others more successful?
Jan Smejkal – The Community Builder
I just got off the phone (or rather WeChat call) with Jan and am feeling energized about all the opportunities that still exist in China ripe for harvesting. Jan is a super approachable, super connected entrepreneurship advocate that runs Startup Grind, the world’s largest entrepreneur community, in over 70 cities in China and APAC.
When he was in university he setup an online business selling Chinese electronics like Xiaomi phones and powerbanks to his local community in Czech Republic. Seeing the potential of what was coming out of China, he took the opportunity to move out there as an exchange student. Noticing his talent, the Chinese university offered him a scholarship if he decided to transfer to full-time, which he did. He started volunteering for Startup Grind as he wanted to meet people and build a network. Within a few months, he took it over with a friend. He went out to San Fran to one of the main events and the CEO asked him to help them grow the community in Asia, so he did.
The community, still in its infancy in China attracts a different crowd than the International Startup Grind events in Silicon Valley or London, mostly consisting of aspiring and budding entrepreneurs, with successful entrepreneurs coming as speakers. Jan now mentors entrepreneurs and students, and creates content to deconstruct the Chinese business world and help people understand what people in China are interested in buying and doing. Jan is an advisor at Lean Venture Partners, for those on the fence about the value of entering China, particularly in technical or engineering fields. But whatever your field, reach out to Jan if you are interested in seeing a master networker at work building long-lasting relationships.
BE OPEN TO NEW EXPERIENCES
My China experience has been a series of eye-opening experiences, not to mention the questionable activities I probably shouldn’t mention on LinkedIn. From eating dog, which I’ll never repeat, to hitching a ride through central China when I was a student and had no money, to the traumatic experience of not getting to see my son for 10 days after he was born in a public hospital in Shanghai, each experience, while I wouldn’t necessarily repeat, brought gems of wisdom and depth of understanding of the Chinese culture that I would never have had without the personal experience. What is one aspect of life in China you could try that you would usually say no to?
Regina Galang – Celebrity Importer
Looking to get Leo Messi, Taylor Swift, Wonderwoman (at least the actress who plays her Gal Gadot) or any other A-lister into China? Whether it’s to maximize your brand awareness, drive sales, launch a new product – essentially any commercial activity that requires foreign celebrities or KOLs as an influencer marketing tool, then Regina is the best person in China to reach out to, responsible for the APAC expansion of Bookmark Entertainment, the world’s leading buyer of celebrity talent.
After a BS in Business Administration from the University of California at Berkeley, an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management and a MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School and working in the US, Europe, Africa and Asia, she was the only woman to be featured in the 2014 Global Entrepreneur article “Business Elites Under 40” in China.
After exactly a decade as an innovation executive at Diageo, Regina took a year off before making a 180 degree career choice, leaving the corporate world behind and joining an agency in both an industry and a role in which she had zero experience. She says the change has opened her up to new experiences, talking to people she usually wouldn’t and even modeling for a Dove Commercial.
CROSS THE RIVER BY FEELING THE STONES
Business plans, who still does those? Any strategy you start with quickly becomes obsolete with the speed of change in the Chinese marketplace. How can you let go of your attachment to how you expect your future to go, and follow your intuition, adapting your strategy and keeping your ear close to the ground? What can you provide that the market really needs? The answer to that question should keep evolving.
Lauren Hallanan – Bachelorette Turned Live-Streamer Turned Podcaster
Lauren got her break when she auditioned for China’s hottest dating show “Feicheng Wurao”, and was invited back to film 23 episodes. The show is so popular she was constantly recognized on the streets, heightening her interest in the Chinese media industry.
She subsequently was offered the opportunity to become a Chinese-language TV host for “Hello Tianjin” and appeared as a regular guest on several other Chinese TV and radio shows. She was one of the first foreigners to master the boom in live-streaming, gathering over 300K followers, and regularly streaming to over 25,000.
She has since moved back to the US, but with the power of the internet keeps close ties with China, sharing her travel experiences with her fans, writing for Jingdaily and PARKLU and hosting the China Influencer Marketing Podcast where you can find interviews of many people on this list.
DON’T REINVENT THE WHEEL
Instead of taking on the gargantuan task of trying to understand the Chinese Market by yourself, connect with and learn from those who have proven their success with China.Who has accomplished something similar to your dream? How could you learn from them?
Sam Goodman – Street-Smart Growth Advisor
As a seasoned serial entrepreneur, M&A advisor and greenfield strategist, Sam helps companies strategically expand in the China market, leveraging his over 20 years of on-the-ground experience. He has built and sold China based businesses for retail, ecommerce and environmental tech.
Sam is fluent in Mandarin and is the author of one of the most practical and well received China business books (Where East Eats West: The Street-Smarts Guide to Business in China) that has been integrated into university curriculum worldwide, rave reviews on Amazon and still relevant despite being written in 2009.
“From sandwiches to nuclear power plants, Goodman’s in-the-trenches China experiences cover an unusually broad range and the advice he offers you comes unvarnished, unleavened, and unadulterated, just like he lived it. Anyone contemplating an adventure in the world of China business will learn an awful lot from him.”
BRING THE REST OF THE WORLD TO CHINA
The Chinese people are hungry for authentic foreign experiences. Tourism is a prime example.
“China already accounts for more than a fifth of the money spent by outbound tourists, twice as much as the next-biggest spender, the U.S., according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. And the Chinese have barely started — only around 5 percent of them even have passports, and the government is issuing about 10 million new travel documents every year.” – Bloomberg
Chinese kids watch movies from the West, imagining what it would be like to grow up in the suburbs, or go to an American high school, but its not until they get to university, if they are one of the few that actually get to study abroad, that they get a truly Western experience. One of the businesses I set up while in Shanghai was designed to help kids learn the lifeskills they don’t learn in school, through a fun engaging traditional American sport like Basketball or Baseball. The sales pitch for the parents is that all our trainers are foreigners, giving them exposure to English and foreign culture, getting some exercise and learning lifeskills in one fell swoop. Having trained up the trainers and developed lesson plans I was able automate the business, growing to over 10 locations across Shanghai before I left, and with the business still running, its fulfilling to have left a legacy that will positively impact the younger generation for years to come. What could you bring from your culture to the Chinese people that they would find valuable?
Eric De Fontenay – Rock Revolutionary
Eric de Fontenay is an advocate for both sides – bringing foreign music to China and sending Chinese talent around the world. It’s no secret that the Chinese music industry has been isolated from the rest of the world for a long time, and not just because of the language. Eric is doing the world a service, remixing cultures to learn from, understand and love one another through the language of music.
Eric is a man of the “digital revolution”, starting in the 90’s as a telecom consultant, which led to establishing MusicDish as a new media firm that uses emerging technologies and models to produce, package and distribute original web-based content, and eventually expanded into online marketing and artist development, working with over 200 acts.
In 2009, he turned his focus to China’s music industry, creating MusicDish*China brand that has collaborated on cultural export missions from Taiwan to Paris, Toronto and NYC as well as developing and booking Western acts in Greater China. He signed mainland Chinese rock band Second Hand Rose and supported them on a successful tour of the US. Eric continues to be a regular speaker at conferences worldwide, as well as being published in books like “Peer-to-Peer Video” and “The Future of the Music Business”.
DREAM BIG, START SMALL
One of the most valuable concepts I’ve learned on my journey in China is dead simple. I run a workshop about creativity where I get people to compete to build the highest spaghetti marshmallow towers. Research of people who have done this experiment shows that kindergarteners outperform most adults, the worst of all being business school students. The business school students try to find the perfect idea before building. Then they get to work building before time runs out and when they put the marshmallow on top it inevitably comes crashing down. The kindergarteners, unaffected by years of multiple choice and right & wrong education, start building at the beginning, and update their tower as they go along. They build and test prototypes. It’s not about waiting to come up with the perfect business idea and then going for it. Its about having an idea, and then trying it out to see how well it works. Then continually tweaking and testing and tweaking until you have a working model. Is there a demand for what you do? Does the business model work? Do you even enjoy doing that?
“The first venture was pretty small, if it failed it wouldn’t be the end of the world.” – Grant Horsfield, Founder Naked Group
Grant Horsfield – The Naked Dreamer
Naked is the quintessential China Dream come true. Grant has achieved what legends are made of. He started with a humble lodge in Moganshan, and has built a Naked empire, showing prowess in vision and business acumen, beating the international co-working space goliath WeWork at their own game and is now selling NakedHub to them for a cool $400 Million.
When we see fairytale success stories, it’s easy to imagine there was luck involved, but what we don’t often hear about is the hardship endured to make the dream a reality. Despite his success Grant tends to stay out of the spotlight, continuing to work behind the scenes running the empire and cooking up the next unbelievable concept. The best interview I have come across of Grant’s story is on Tech in Shanghai by John Vallis, which I may not have found had he not interviewed me shortly after.
When he was working on his first big retreat in January 2010, investing 300 million RMB, “the bank took half [his] money away… they can’t do that, but that’s China.” What followed was an epic series of events involving mostly very shady debt deals, loan sharks, and an infarction, which is like a heart attack. Not willing to give up, he followed his patched-up heart, continuing to believe in his vision and play by the ‘market research is bullshit’ approach, “Everything in China looks daunting because there’s no roadmap. If you believe in something, then just go for it. Have the courage to take that step…you’ve just really gotta jump.”
YOU ARE NOT TOO LATE TO THE PARTY
I have a Dream, that China opens its borders to become a truly global multicultural country, where how Chinese you are is not about the color of your skin. If you look at other world capitals – London, Paris, New York – it’s hard to tell who is local. 1 million foreigners in China sounds like a lot, but that’s still less than 0.1% of the population. Even the most developed cities in China – Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen – still have a gaping gap to close. You can fill that gap. The opportunities are immense. This is just the beginning. The dragon is stirring, awaking from its slumber, ready to take flight with the majesty of a 5000 year old beast. Ride it, deride it or hide from it, but you can’t ignore it.
What did I miss?
I clearly don’t know everything! Share your advice for achieving a China Dream down in the comments.
Who did I miss?
I clearly don’t know everyone! If you know someone who deserves to be a part of the Your China Dream Virtual Summit, who has an interesting story to tell and valuable advice to give, tag them in the comments.