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The perks of startup marketing in China: be fast, ready to adapt and don’t plan too much

Author: Kerttu Kongas

China presents a fascinating startup ecosystem for the achievement-hungry and restless tech entrepreneurs who want to make a change in the world. One could say it’s somewhat a modern tech wonderland. The speed at which China’s technology grows and transforms is mind-blowing: in 2014 the number of unicorns based in China was 14 percent, today it’s increased to 35 (as a comparison, the domestic unicorns in the US are in decline).

To dive into the subject a bit more, we grabbed hold of Marian Danko, the founder, and CEO of China Classifieds, a hub for innovation and growth hustlers, to give us some insight on the Chinese startup marketing scene. As a side note, the mentioned perks are, without a doubt, adoptable globally.

A couple of highlights:

  • Be fast, be lean and be ready to adapt to change very quickly.
  • Tomorrow is all about blockchain and AI.
  • Don’t waste your time in planning and perfection, just do it.
  • The Chinese market is very competitive, and consumers are picky.
  • Marketing tools in China are different from the ones in the West.
  • The Chinese market is less regulated.

What is the biggest obstacle in regards to startup marketing in China right now?

That would depend on the market, audience, and industry but I would say the common thing is huge competition and fast-paced changes.

How to overcome that?

Be as lean as possible and ready to adapt quickly. Startups often are built overnight, to keep up with it, one needs to move fast.

Keep up with the latest trends and technology, don’t waste time on planning and perfecting things. China lives in a beta version, as long as the product/service works, you are good to go. Waiting is a huge mistake in China.

How would you describe the startup scene in general in China? What are the main characteristics?

Dynamic, advanced, fast-paced (I will repeat it a few times, but it is essential to understand, unicorns are built within a year). It’s a challenge and opportunity at the same time. You win fast or fail fast, and then start over.

There is a stereotype about easy money in China. Perhaps it used to be like this; it’s not anymore though. Now the market is very competitive, and consumers are picky. A large population is definitely a plus, but not everything that is offered can be sold.

China is a land of opportunities, it is still true, but to succeed in China, one needs to do some homework.

An article stipulates that 2013-2014 was for smart hardware, 2015 for cross-border e-commerce and ride-hailing, 2016-2017 for VR and bike sharing, 2017 for unmanned store and new retail. What was 2018 for? And what will 2019 be like?

I think healthcare and e-commerce are still growing super fast. If it comes to technology, the blockchain, and AI are the leaders. I believe AI and blockchain will keep dominating and changing industries in 2019. Chinese government invests a lot in the development of blockchain and AI.

Is it all Beijing with its nearly 22 million inhabitants, or are there other actual players on the field?

Well, Beijing is home to many huge tech startups, and the reason is simple: the government wants to keep big players as close as possible. Small to middle Chinese startups are in Beijing as well.

When it comes to foreign startups, Shanghai is a far better place. More international, less regulated, more business and service-oriented, but the tech is powerful as well. Look at the events like SLUSH, TechCrunch, Mobile World Congress, CES Asia, etc. happening regularly in Shanghai attracting attendees from all over the world.

Shenzhen is a hardware city. Chengdu is picking up as well, but a long way to go.

If, and how different is the startup marketing scene in China from the one in Europe?

I have no clue what is happening in Europe, to be honest. But what I can think of from the top of my head: less regulation which in general allows to play with ideas and develop products/services much faster, people are less sensitive when it comes to personal data, it is much easier to collect data, again, due to less regulation, and then use this data to analyze and scale faster.

The second thing is marketing channels if you are coming from the West and rely on Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, ect., you will fail as none of them works in China. So, it takes time to learn and get used to the new channels. The channels are very different and way more expensive.

In China, WeChat is a must-have channel for every business regardless of the industry. KOL (key opinion leader aka influencer) is a big thing in China. But they are very pricey. If the startup is funded, it could be a super efficient channel to spread the word. Weibo is a big platform and still very powerful for marketing. Zhihu is the Western Quora. Out of video platforms, I would recommend Douyin. Also, local communities and incubators, like Chinaccelerator, XNode, Innospace.

And last but not least: what are the main lessons?

Some lessons are universal, and some apply mostly to the Chinese market. But there are some to follow when planning to build a startup in China, or anywhere.

  • Forget everything you knew before.
  • Spend some time in China first to learn about cultural differences and a little bit of Chinese as well.
  • Build your network, personal connections (guanxi rudimentary dynamic in personalized social networks of power which can be best described as the relationships individuals cultivate with other individuals and is a crucial system of beliefs in Chinese culture) are deeply rooted into the culture and very important.
  • Move as fast as possible and go lean.
  • Do not waste time on perfecting things. Nobody cares as long as it serves the purpose.
  • Think big, you have to. China is huge.

Got questions or need help with marketing your startup? Get in touch!