One of the frequent questions I run into in China is how western Internet companies coming into China should position themselves for growth in China.
Should they try to be western, or should they try in the shortest possible time, try to become Chinese, hiring Chinese for their local staff and management? Under what circumstances is it best to be western, and under what circumstances is it best to be Chinese? And what if a company has been in Taiwan, Hong Kong and/or the US; how should they position themselves for future growth in the Chinese market?
Their positions are made more complicated because it is now hard to find good management people they can trust locally in China; as an organization becomes larger the camaraderie and culture which forms in the management team becomes increasingly important. Over time, this builds into trust, especially if they need to deal with problems and challenges which need to be overcome on a daily basis. This comes face to face with another China reality: it simply is not easy to find people you can trust in China. Backgrounds can be fudged, headhunters want to push their candidates; the list goes on and on.
Internet businesses are especially complicated; most founders come from technology backgrounds, even today, and they have very little understanding of marketing, company positioning, and yes, national and corporate culture. Many still have dreams of serving the world from one virtual data center in Redmond, Mountain View, Beijing, Hong Kong or elsewhere, and letting more junior management deal with the soft and fuzzy stuff like “culture” and “marketing”. Even relying on ethnic Chinese management from Taiwan or Hong Kong has not really worked, as China is littered with Internet startup failures led by Taiwan and Hong Kong management teams who really did not understand the dynamics of the market in China. There have been many western executives who have said “How was I supposed to know that they didn’t understand China; they told me that they were from Hong Kong/Taiwan?”
For anyone from established business service sectors, such as banking, these ideas seem silly, even foolish. And they are. A simple reality of the Internet is that it is going to come under more national jurisdictions and regulations as it becomes a more important part of peoples’ lives. Just as it is inconceivable that banking would not be government regulated (unless you count the ongoing subprime mortgage crisis as a failure of the government’s regulatory system), it is becoming inconceivable that the Chinese, US or other governments would not want to have a say in how the Internet is run.
These established sectors know only too well how important it is to somehow find a way to live with government regulatory bodies. In China, successful new startups have almost always come from new areas which the Chinese government has not figured out regulations about and does not yet know how to regulate.
The perfect example is the online gaming industry. This industry was basically an import from South Korea, and took root in China because gaming consoles are technically illegal. (Sony PS2 and 3, Nintendo Wii and xBox360 are all freely sold; that law is seldom enforced, and all of the games sold are cracked versions.) The Chinese government’s rationale for that law was because way back in the nineties, the Chinese government saw PCs as a valuable educational tool, but considered gaming consoles to be expensive frivolous tools for kids to waste their time. At a time when the Chinese had much less buying power than they do today, it seemed like a good idea to ban gaming consoles.
This created an opportunity for Shanda, which was the first company to launch online games (almost all from South Korea) in the Chinese market. This idea caught fire with many younger Chinese and spawned the Internet cafe industry, where many younger Chinese choose to spend/waste their time and has also popularized QQ, the ultimate social networking application if there ever was one, and which for many Chinese, is the Internet.
This industry has swiftly matured, and with success has come regulation. Online gaming companies have tried to adapt, some have adapted (or tried to adapt) by moving into the online game publishing business from online game distribution. The transition from online game distribution to online game publishing has been a rocky road for companies like Shanda. The company has in the past acquired studios and titles, but many of the creative pros have left post-acquisition. A new wave of game publishers with strong titles have come up, led by Perfect World and the highly-contentious Giant Interactive.
On the regulatory and marketing fronts, the online game publishing company has become a victim of its own success: the huge amount of revenue it generates has created something the government and other regulators call a “social problem”, and it has fallen into a rut on the creative side, adding more titles in what are basically the same genre with very little to differentiate each other. The result: titles with diminishing shelf lives and ROI. People who are not addicted to games (i.e. people who have lives) have an increasingly bad view of the industry and game titles.
Unless you have some way to break out of your core audience, which is exactly what Nintendo did with the Wii. The greatest contribution of the Wii is that it has forced people to take a second look at gaming, as something other than just frivolous entertainment which wastes a lot of time and is anti-social for people who do not play games. (Heavy game players would argue that game players are social; they are just online.)
So the Nintendo Wii is halfway there; it has offered a new paradigm for games and gaming.
Now, if gaming is going to really succeed, it will have to get non-gamers to think that they are not playing a game. Then we are talking breakout.
And the game publishers (creative people) will have to learn how to get along and work with the marketing pros, and will have to understand that there is much more to marketing than press releases, press conferences, paying off the media to pick up their stories, planting stories and fake planted conversations on Chinese BBSes, etc.
To really go big, they will rely on a new class of professional and and a new kind of strike force.
We’re not there yet, and we’re not moving fast enough. But there is a way.
I believe in the value of history, but I also believe that there are times when we have to stop referencing the past for what we do in the future.
This is one of those times.