China’s increasingly important global role means that more and more businesses are coming to China. While there has been a significant presence among multinationals for nearly 30 years, now companies are coming in at earlier stages. Now some startups are even choosing to start in China instead of Silicon Valley.
This trend has been encouraged by venture capitalists, who now give a premium valuation to companies based in China.
This raises a very interesting question: “Is it possible for a western-managed business to succeed in China?”
First of all, a few qualifications. While there are many western multinationals in China, most of them have heavily localized their staff and management. The general trend in these companies is to localize staff and management as quickly as possible without sacrificing necessary management skills in the process. So, for the most part, while they are western companies, they are largely Chinese-managed.
Since most of my work is with startups, I’ll drill down in this field. Now the trend is for more American startups to start in China, even though they may not see China as their main market. In the gaming field, for example, China has a huge pool of people with talent and experience in the gaming field. This means that there is a pool of people with talent in programming and art, and understand gaming culture. The areas where the local Chinese population are weak is in product management. Chinese tend to gravitate to managing other people; there is a serious attraction to being able to say that a manager manages x number of people. Product management is more about managing resources, and coaxing cooperation from different stakeholders in the organization. Naturally, this requires more in the area of soft skills. And soft skills are an area where most technical people feel less comfortable with, and generally do not do as well in.
And unlike in the US, product management people in China are generally expected to be much more technical. So there is a difference here.
Hence the shortage of good product management people.
Naturally, this gives an advantage to startups which have experienced product management people. One mainly western-managed startup in Beijing which is strong in this area is ECitySky.
What about other kinds of companies, and what about the market for talent?
It all depends on what you are trying to do, and what audience you are trying to reach.
One tendency in the Internet field is that as the technology tools become more mature, the technology plays second fiddle to product marketing and marketing. Since the Internet has had just as long a history in China as it has in the west, it is getting harder for an experienced technology person to differentiate himself purely on technical skills alone. Increasingly he has to bring soft skills to the table, especially team management skills, to the table to be seriously considered. This means that for most technical people in China, the opportunities are becoming fewer, especially when you consider their significantly higher costs.
On the management and marketing side, it becomes more important to know how to communicate with your main audience in China. If the audience you are trying to reach is mainland Chinese, this means you must be keenly aware of social trends, the different social groups in Chinese society, government policy, what the different groups are thinking about, and the dynamics affecting the different groups.
The only way to get a deep feel and grasp is to know the language on a native level, including speaking reading and writing Mandarin Chinese. Basically, you need to become local. Assistants, translators and PR agencies will only get you so far because they cannot provide the social context to digest and understand the raw data to make good business decisions.
And then, even if you have a native command of Mandarin, that is no guarantee of success. I sum it up this way:
- If you don’t know Chinese (spoken, reading and written) and have not lived long in China, you don’t even know what are the right questions to ask.
- If you speak, read and write Mandarin on a native level, but do not socialize with mainland Chinese except on special occasions, you may know what you don’t know. More importantly, the most capable and intelligent mainland Chinese will not join the startup, instead choosing to start their own startup, often competing with the company they just left. (I’m thinking of many American-born Chinese, Taiwan and Hong Kong Chinese-managed companies which claim to be Chinese, but do not include mainland Chinese who have grown up in China in their management ranks. For the most part, they do not trust mainland Chinese and in private meetings, it is not unusual to hear them complain about things in China. In my opinion, they are doomed from the start.)
- If you have a startup which breathes, by which I mean that management does not have an inner circle dominated by any regional group or background, and freely allows people into senior and executive management based on their creativity, communication skills and ability to execute, then your startup will have the greatest chance of success. This is because a startup depends on moving quickly, and rapidly adapting to changes and competition in the marketplace.
So, in my opinion, when you get past the government regulatory issues, which are slanted to favor Chinese-owned companies in some sectors (especially media, where foreign companies are not allowed), it really is not any harder in China than many other parts of the world.
The biggest barrier for many startups is to get the management right so that it does breathe. Management needs to set the right tone from day one.
The best management hires the best people, empowers them, and let’s them go. At that point, it’s no longer a western- or Chinese-managed company; it’s just well-managed.
Get that right and China’s your oyster.