Growing a business is never easy. Whether doubling a small company’s staff, setting up a second retail outlet, or rolling out a full-blown global expansion, you’ll rarely find an executive who hasn’t encountered a few hurdles in their expansion plan.
Even a company like Uber isn’t immune to the difficulties of growth. Having spent a reported $2 billion over two years in a fierce battle to enter the Chinese market, they eventually announced the acquisition of their local assets to the established ride-hailing rival: Didi Chuxing.
China is often held on a pedestal by Western technology companies as the ultimate expansion opportunity. While the roadblocks to access the Chinese market can compound typical scaling difficulties, the allure of leveraging the world’s largest internet market and the second largest economy is too much for many to pass up.
Like with any market, China is no different in that established players will likely offer similar services and products. But in addition to existing local competitors, the Chinese market entails other more nuanced adaptations that many overseas firms aren’t aware of.
Which leads me to some big news today: I’m thrilled to announce Startupbootcamp’s first program in China, based in Chengdu and targeting the Digital Health industry.
Needless to say, it’s been a busy 18 months for us. We’ve announced a new Startupbootcamp program almost every other month, with now 16 programs in 11 cities across 3 continents.
But no other program has been as eye opening as launching a program in China, so I wanted to share some lessons we’ve learned along the way…
Establish A Local Partnership
For years we’ve suggested to countless entrepreneurs that finding the right co-founder will likely raise their chance of success more than any other decision they make. Similarly, we realized early on in order to establish a program in China we would need to find a local partner with the shared goal of supporting entrepreneurship and innovation.
My Partner and Co-Founder of Startupbootcamp Carsten Kolbek spent almost two years and an enormous amount of air-miles being on the ground in China, getting to know the local ecosystem and eventually finding a Chinese partner who truly shares our values – Thinkzone – the first state-ranked private incubator across the whole country of China.
With the core Chinese partnership established, it was time to start the program launch preparations. From logistics to finding talent, to creating the program schedule, to the communications plan, after launching 15 previous programs our expectation was that China would be a ‘piece of cake’.
That was until things like not having access to certain tools and platforms presented new challenges…
While for the past 9 months we had completely re-written every line of code for www.startupbootcamp.org, launching a website in China wasn’t the simple copy/paste we hoped it would be. Mirrored websites, duel CMSs, Chinese hosting, launch licenses, and social media adaptations ensued before www.startupbootcamp.cn could go live.
While we had templates and policies in place, many needed to not only be translated but fully adapted to the Chinese market. While regulatory hurdles delayed the launch timeframe, in conjunction we needed to pivot from existing digital strategies of one common website in English across all Startupbootcamp programs.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
Yes, we knew language may be a barrier for simple everyday communication when launching a program in China. But after we spent years building the Startupbootcamp technology infrastructure on platforms that are not used in China, it quickly occurred to us that even our communication and information sharing platform would need to be adapted to the Chinese market.
Instead of using Google Hangouts for our launch prep calls, our team became WeChat users. Instead of sending links to existing documents in our Google Drive, we emailed them as attachments. Instead of planning marketing campaigns via our ‘Western’ social media channels, the Startupbootcamp China team schooled us on Sina Weibo, WeChat & QZone.
During the last few months, we have learned that in a project like this you can never take simple things such as picking up the phone or sending a message for granted. Plan on needing to adapt everything, then if tools happen to work in a new market celebrate it as a small win opposed to yet another hurdle.
Find A Talented Team With Local Market Experience
At its core, every company is the sum of its team. When entering a new market a local partner can certainly contribute to identifying local talent, but the hiring process will always need support from the parent company when it comes to both recruitment and onboarding.
Our organization revolves around connecting the world’s top entrepreneurs with an extremely targeted group of mentors, partners, and investors. So without an extremely talented program team with world class connections, the program fails. Luckily we were able to recruit a world-class operating team from day one in China.
The senior leadership team is crucial in each Startupbootcamp program: the connector, the supporter, and often the shoulder to cry on. We thrilled to welcome Christina Pamela as the Program Director of our Digital Health Chengdu program. She’s originally from Copenhagen, worked in the innovation space her whole career, and has spent more than a decade in China and is fluent in Mandarin. What a combination!
While it does feel a little strange writing a ‘lessons learned’ summary the day we’re entering a new market, just getting to this point seems like an accomplishment, with many lessons learned that will hopefully help others.
There is definitely an enormous amount of work ahead of us to not only recruit the first batch of 10 amazing digital health startups to join our Chengdu program. However, the effort we’ve put into getting our the team and structure right before launching will pay serious dividends in the future.
Like Uber, we’ve invested the time and effort to enter the Chinese market because of the immense opportunities and ever increasing adoption of innovation. And while our market entry is not fueled by an Uber-scale $2 billion investment, who knows, maybe one day we may reluctantly be acquired for $5.3 billion if we play our cards right