The consulting industry in China is flourishing. After all, it is the largest potential single market in the world, and everyone is flocking to it. New companies need information and advice about how to tackle the unique challenges of this market. For any MBA who is fluent in Chinese, or who has grown up in China, and is familiar with the tools of the trade, such as financial modeling, business negotiations and company valuations, China represents an “iron rice bowl” which will make their careers for years to come.
Or is it? My experience is that there are errors which are repeated over and over again. It gets like being condemned to watch a single Broadway show, over and over again, where the only things which change are the sets and the actors; the lines are the same.
I have covered one of the major fallacies in a previous posting, Getting Past the China Market Hype, which covered their initial reasons for entering China. This posting will cover some of the reasons for failing post-entry.
Since most of my experience has been with technology/media/startups from the US, I am naturally biased towards those companies in my evaluation. There have been many success stories from the financial sectors, engineering and consumer goods. These areas, unlike hi-tech, have had decades, and in some cases even more than a century of experience, building their China presence, and understanding the challenges involved. They have the money, and have built up a knowledge base of experience which they can draw from, and because of the large scale of their businesses, even if they cannot draw from in-house experience, they know how and where to get it when needed.
Some of the US technology companies which have come to China and have failed to succeed in the Chinese market are eBay, which basically had to hand over its operations in China after running into the strong local player, Taobao.com, in the auction field. Yahoo! had to basically pay a China partner, Alibaba.com, US1B to take over its China operations. More recently, Google, the US search advertising firm, has had to fight an uphill battle against the largest Chinese search firm, Baidu.com. Online gaming is a new area which does not exist in nearly as large a form as the US, with Shanda being the granddaddy in China, while newer players such as Perfect World (PWRD) have sprung up with new and different business models, and successfully going public on the Nasdaq. In instant messaging, Tencent’s QQ has been able to rack up 600M registered users, and unlike any US IM clients, become profitable.
Because most US startups come from technology backgrounds, they tend to believe that their business is scalable. The word “scalability” is in itself, an engineering term, which means that an architecture can go from 1 user to one billion (or infinite) users, or across national borders and into different languages and markets, without any major architectural hiccups. For this reason, they tend to play down distribution and cultural differences in their most initial stages. Most of the time, they have people on staff or in management who know something about the local market; more often than not, they are not in senior decision-making roles.
Then, when they get to China, they try to do what they did in the US, and quickly discover that the rules in China are very different. Whereas labor is very expensive in the US, with each hire drawing the attention of different company committees, in China it is one of the single cheapest expenses. (Except for senior and executive management, where highly qualified individuals cost just as much, if not more, than in the US.)
The most common failing comes in the area of product management, when the US insists on controlling the product development and launch schedule, with local product launches coming only after the US is ready. In smaller markets, that’s fine, but in fast-moving large markets, especially one as large as China’s, it’s a killer. (Even in fast-moving small markets it’s a dubious strategy; in South Korea, Google has been consistently beaten by Naver, a highly successful Korean company.)
This puts the China office in a continuous battle with the US headquarters for resources; the Chinese local competitor has no such restrictions on what it can do, and the Chinese company surges ahead in capturing market share, and eventually, revenue. The American company then organizes what can best be called a “strategic withdrawal”, as did eBay.
In more mature industries where there is some kind of brand equity, product lines are already fairly mature, and headquarters makes resources available to country managers as needed. Because of the fast-changing nature and relative immaturity of hi-tech, this has not yet happened.
When the American companies fail, the blame is usually assigned to some form of Chinese government protectionism, and favoritism to the local companies. Of course, this explanation is more palatable to Congress members seeking re-election and US TV talk-show hosts, but more often than not, it is a vast over-simplification of a complicated issue.