China Marketing: Think Deep, Not Big, and Add A Twist

One of the things which I frequently hear from first-time visitors to China is that “It is so big!” Sometimes, I hear this even from Texans, an American state which takes pride in being bigger than almost any other state, with the exception of Alaska.

Westerners are not the only ones to fall victim to this thinking; Chinese also are enamored with these numbers. When I hear presentations, the most frequently heard numbers show 420 million mobile phone subscribers, 250 million IM subscribers, at which point the China virgins go gaga and start counting the yuan they are going to make (in their dreams) and planning their retirements (also in their dreams).

By now, I’m sure that you’ve figured out that I don’t buy into this view. Yes, China is big, but so what?

Instead, when you start looking at real revenue and earnings numbers, China is still way down there. And for many companies, both Chinese and western, it’s a difficult nut to crack.

But I don’t think that it needs to be. First of all, let’s get past the population and subscriber numbers. Yes, they are very big, and the only country which can even come close is India. All the thoughts, fantasies and conversation about projections should end there, and marketers should dig deeper to look at revenue and earnings projections, since they are the only real numbers which count.

Marketing 101 says that it isn’t the size of your market and number of units sold, it’s really all about your margins and accessories you can continue to cross-sell or up-sell to your customers after the initial sale. There is the often quoted example of “give away the razor, and sell the razor blades (where you really make the money).”

Since my field is the Internet, I frequently come across all kinds of interesting ideas where Chinese entrepreneurs are seeking funding. Let’s say that I’ve seen a lot of ideas in my lifetime, and I’m picky about what strikes my fancy. When I talk to people, I’m often looking for a “je ne sais quoi” which is different about them, or their products and services, and their ability to execute. China subscriber and user numbers don’t impress me, and make my eyes glaze over very quickly.

I’m much more impressed when people talk about revenue and earnings projections. I’m even more impressed when I find out that these numbers are not pulled out of thin air, and can relate to something the presenter/entrepreneur has worked on and delivered in the past. At this point, we cross the line from fantasy to a doable reality.

The trouble with many Chinese startups is that the founder is so focused on raising money that he forgets to even spin a good story about what he’s going to do with the money! And yet, China is such a hot place to be now that there are people with money who are willing to part with significant amounts of money without even asking for a good story about how they are going to execute!

Part of the reason so many poor ideas get funded is because the burn rate is so low in China that even if the startup fails in the initial stage, the burn can be kept so low that if/when the startup founder has to do a reboot (usually by coming up with a sensible idea), that there is still money left in the till for a repositioning and second chance. In reality though, I think that this is a bad strategy for investors. After all, if the founder/s did not come up with a good idea the first time, and it got funded, what is the incentive for him to come up with a good idea the second time around?

This is why countries like the US and Sweden and other countries continue to be competitive in the Internet startup field even though their initial startup costs and burn rate are much higher than in China. Being cheap and being good are too entirely different things, and often being cheap actually prevents you from being good because it allows, and even encourages, sloppy thinking and poor execution skills.

This is not healthy for the western investors and for the Chinese. This is a sign of a bubble, and is oddly reminiscent of that situation in the US just a few short years ago when many people thought that they could buy a house without a down payment and a job. Fortunately for China, the Internet sector is still a relatively small part of the economy, and while US and western funds may eventually come up $50 billion or so shorter in a few years, it won’t be significant enough to put a crimp in any venture capitalist’s or private equity fund manager’s retirement plans.

What is needed now, at least in the Internet startup area, are entrepreneurs who have actually had experience selling something, and actually understand the purchasing habits of Chinese consumers, and know how to provide a useful service to earn that money and are willing to put revenue projections into their pitches.

There are plenty of opportunities and China is still a big market. I can think of several things right off the bat.

But let’s stop talking population and subscribers, and start talking revenue and earnings, shall we?

3 Responses to “China Marketing: Think Deep, Not Big, and Add A Twist”

  1. Lonnie says:

    Well said Paul.

    I saw an ad today for an Internet Specialist post in Beijing and wondered if there was anyone who could fit the bill: MBA, Knowledge of China biz culture/language, 7 years of experience, 5 years of business management etc…
    I have been seen several newcomers recently hit the financial wall for lack of even 1-2 years of experience and a simple Biz plan…

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