In this podcast with Linka Lin, who works for the United Nations Development Programme in Bangkok, we discuss making life-changing decisions, keeping one’s energy high, and supporting the next generation of innovators.
Who hasn’t heard about the podcasting trend yet? We can say that Podcasting is a lot more than a trend, considering that there are 700K free podcasts available. The average weekly consumption for Americans adult is 6 hours and 37 minutes as per this article on a16z. While I doubt that Chinese listeners are as passionate (short videos are the thing in China), I can see how many community leaders and KOL have started interviewing people and recording their opinions.
We also tried something with Upstart, and I’m looking into ways to get it off the ground once again. Over the coming months, there will be more interviews from local entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders.
From time to time, I have a chance to get interviewed and share some of my thoughts and stories. A recent one got published on En Eclaireur (in French) and the latest one has been with ChinaBusinessCast.
China Business Cast’s goal “is to help entrepreneurs who want to learn how to do business in China. The podcast features conversations with experienced entrepreneurs and business people who’ve built their businesses in China.” I met Jons a few years ago at a Startup Weekend in Chengdu and got to see him again at TECOM earlier this year. That was an excellent opportunity to join his show and talk about “Entrepreneurship, Accelerators, and Unicorns in China.”
That episode was recorded when I was still with Techstars (since then, I transitioned to XNode) but the content is still very much relevant. Beside some observations, it got me thinking about the way we perceive innovation in China. And how, as a global ecosystem player, we used to share it.
A big thank to China Business Cast team for making this happen!
My fellow Carnet.cc author Vincent accepted to endure a live recording with questions on his experience in manufacturing in China. We’ve had long discussions over the past few years, always very lively. I am so glad that we could seat behind the mic and record 45 minutes of hands on content.
Feel free to listen to the recording on Anchor.fm, Spotify and Apple Podcasts) or read the transcription. Any questions? Comment at the end of the post.
Vincent, please introduce yourself
I am one of the partners at Pinn.hk. We are a product development studio located in Hong Kong. We are mainly developing products for our owns brands Huzi and Infinity Pillow, toys and travel accessories. We design, manufacture, and sell online. I have been in Hong Kong for the past eight years, and I have been enjoying life there so far!
Where do you find a good manufacturer to prototype your product?
That’s the tricky one! It is about understanding what the product requires in terms of expertise. We run the first round of due diligence based on skills needed – most often through recommendations.
For our simpler products, we’d look broadly, via traditional sourcing channels. We attend fairs and exhibitions – meeting with manufacturers that show up. We’ll follow up on these contacts as projects start coming up. We then contact them, trying to understand if the description matches. That helps us shortlist the one we’ll be visiting on-site. We mainly work with factories from the Guangdong area, so it’s an easy day-trip there.
What are the key considerations when selecting manufacturers?
There can be some particular production skills required. Picking a manufacturer that wants to learn from us helped find a win-win situation. We are on a premium segment, with high-quality requirements, often stronger than most companies. Some factories (especially in the Guangdong area) are interested in improving their processes to avoid manufacturing cheap things only. The prospect of working with brands like us is appealing to them! That gives us the confidence that we can build a stronger relationship with them. Helpful in urgent situations.
Other benefits that the manufacturer might perceive from working with you?
It is a case by case basis. One might be interested to learn about great design. Another one might want to improve their processes based on our experience together. We can also use our experience of selling with online platforms to justify working with us; there is a lot to learn here.
What are the milestones to have with the factory?
As a project grows in complexity, we will validate the costing and technical elements. A pre-production test would typically happen shortly after. It helps us make sure that both parties well define everything from pricing to small details.
Are manufacturers more willing to work on small batches of production?
Ultimately, manufacturers want big orders; they want to keep their production units going. Lower quantities can work if products and tooling requirements match. We’ve worked with hard and soft products – each requires different methods. With soft products, you can order fewer pieces because it often doesn’t need new toolings. In practice, small quantity orders will end up at the end of the schedule, at the bottom of their priorities.
Then, if it’s more interesting for you to produce in bulk, how do you deal with production and forecasting your orders?
Large companies have tools and a history of sales to help them forecasting orders a long time in advance. It’s not perfect, but that gets the job done.
For us, we try to scrap information on small trends. We are carefully looking and anticipating where markets might go up or down. It’s not rare to end up with too much or too little stocks. Someone in this industry for long would end up stocking a little more than ideal, to be safe.
What are the typical minimum order quantities?
For our products requiring specific toolings, we would have troubles finding a factory in Guangdong willing to work for less than 1,000 pieces.
For soft products, it’d depend on the fabric you need – some have high minimum order quantities – but you can negotiate down to three hundred pieces.
Beware, it might not be about the manufacturer; you need to look at the entire chain. If you have to order a part that has a much higher minimum order quantity, you can rapidly get stuck on really high numbers.
How did you learn what you know now about the industry
You can learn from theories and reading books, but you need to experiment. Most learnings come from each opportunity. Every batch you run will provide another round of insights. Over the years, you’d hope to get better at it.
After some many bruises though, you’d want to remain agile and not get overwhelmed by processes – that’s often a false sense of protection or security. The goal is to find a balance that you’re comfortable with.
Can you describe how the supply chain of a product manufactured and sold in China would work?
China is not one of our primary market for expansion. We don’t have something specific for the country. Typically, if you produce and sell in China, you have to pay the sales tax early.
The scheme that most international brands use is to export a product immediately upon production completion, hence avoiding to pay sales taxes. We stock up in Hong Kong and ship orders from our warehouse there.
So let’s say, somebody in Mainland China purchased one of our product, we’d ship it from Hong Kong rather than from our factories. In that scenario, the customer pays the sales taxes.
Some factories can help you set up the sales tax part, but it requires additional controls. Taobao and JD.com have global solutions as well, assisting foreign brands in selling products on the Chinese market.
Who are the stakeholders involved in this process?
You can get help from designing firms, a certification agency to validate products, import and export licenses, distribution channels, and then the marketing and PR support.
We’ve realized that manufacturing the product is just a part of the overall process. And it’s not because your product is available on Amazon that you’ll get it purchased. You want to outline and execute a marketing and PR strategy. That might require some additional support.
How do you compare Tmall and JD.com systems with the Amazon warehouses systems?
Selling in China is a lot more complicated. In that regard, dealing with Amazon is more straightforward, more open.
But it is not all rosy, Amazon still considers that most sellers out of Hong Kong speak Mandarin, they wouldn’t try English or Cantonese with you. Nonetheless, they can do wonders to support your logistics needs. They have a license to do ocean freights, which means that they can pick up your products directly from your factories in China.
Picture a well-integrated process from the manufacturers to the end customer.
On the other hand, for a foreigner to sell in China without a base in the country – there’s no equivalent to Amazon. Tmall global exists, but it isn’t broadly used yet, partly due to an invitation-only system.
Without an entity in China, the seller will have to fulfill the order and be pretty much on their own.
A few years ago, we discussed Amazon supporting customers to send products back. In general, the fact that it has a lot of power over its sellers. Do you feel that the Chinese platforms have the same angle or will support sellers a lot more?
Well, in China, you do have the seven days return policies. But this is more restricted than the 30 days of Amazon.
The significant difference might be down to customer habits. American consumers are a lot more used to returning products. One might order every color of an item and return all of them but one, the favorite one. That’s not very common in other market places.
You’ve used Kickstart several times to launch a product – what’s your opinion on the platform?
Many exciting projects are happening on Kickstarter, and it’s still a great way to validate a product’s potential. If you don’t have a lot of money to invest, it can help you test if you’re heading in the right direction.
But there are also many stories of how some people took advantage of the platform. So in many ways, you have to do your due diligence and understand if using Kickstarter will have real benefits for you.
For example, some websites don’t publish news about the on-going Kickstarter campaign because of the high failure rate in the execution and shipping phases. That might hurt your PR strategy.
How do you get your product into your customers’ hands when you don’t sell via Amazon?
We leverage fulfillment centers. We work with a center in Hong Kong and the US plus considering one in Europe. It’s effortless to find providers allowing you to outsource most of the worries associated with fulfillment.
There are two types of fulfillment centers for us: the B2Cs, that are connected to our selling platforms via an API and would ship an order as soon as it’s settled.
The B2B warehouses that will specialize in much larger volumes. Typically getting palettes for retailers and wholesalers.
How much time do you spend on reviewing that system that you put in place?
Roughly every quarter or semester, we review and make sure it is supporting our needs. We will also look into customer feedbacks as a way to anticipate updates to be made.
For example, Germany recently changed its customs policy: customs are getting paid on every single item arriving in the country.
With Amazon, things used to be in a grey area where the platform nor the seller were including taxes. Many countries have since changed their policies and made it mandatory for the platform to collect taxes on behalf of the seller. Things are now a lot clearer.
We are officially registered with the German VAT system, but postal services don’t offer “Delivery Duty Paid” services. It requires a specific courier that makes the total price expensive in comparison to the product’s value. That forced us (and many other sellers) to look into different fulfillment methods.
Have you considered stopping to sell in Germany altogether?
Not really, what we did is indicating at the time of checkout that our products were shipped from Hong Kong, hence inquiring additional fees.
But we are looking at alternatives that would allow sending the product from Europe (hence making shipment quicker). The strange situation that we’ve encountered is that shipping from Hong Kong to Europe is significantly cheaper than from Europe to Europe.
And currently, it’s just a few days faster to ship within Europe compared to from HK to EU. Look at a map, and you’ll see that it’s crazy!
How are you charging Mainland Chinese customers and which platforms you’re using?
I can share some of my experience, but I’m also looking for suggestions on a great setup! Right now, we charge Mainland Chinese customers with Alipay (via Stripe). But it’s only in Hong Kong, so customers would need to be ok with paying in a different currency (HKD).
We found that it was more convenient for them than paying with a credit card in USD.
WeChat is not correctly set up on Stripe, so we haven’t offered this option yet.
You can’t charge in RMB if you don’t run operations in Mainland China.
But then it means that your Chinese customers need to do that extra work: getting to your website and being willing to pay in HKD.
The conversion in Alipay from RMB to HKD is simplified, so it doesn’t require much effort from them. But it’s less than ideal.
It’ll be the same if you want to sell on Tmall, Taobao or else, you got to have a business set up officially in China.
Have you looked into setting up in China? What would be your typical channels of distribution?
We are looking into this. Several leading online stores cover the vast majority of the market. If you have a presence on Taobao, JD.com, Xiaomi, Sunning, and several more, you cover 90% of the e-commerce market in China. That’s unheard of in most countries.
What we found is that having a presence on these platforms require a tremendous amount of human resources. Your customers reach out to you at any time, and they expect immediate replies. The challenge that we’re facing is finding the right partner willing to commit to our highest standards of quality.
What would be other adjustments to be made if you wanted to sell on Chinese platforms?
There are more and more Chinese entrepreneurs looking for brands that they can develop in China. They believe in leveraging the massive size of the market to justify bringing prices down massively.
That poses a fundamental question to us:
Some brands have different pricing strategies for Western markets versus China, where it’d be substantially cheaper. We aren’t comfortable with this strategy.
We make sure that our brand is consistent worldwide, pricing and customer service wise. That might come at the expense of not moving on a popular platform.
What are the top reasons to sell on Taobao or JD.com compared to setting up your own WeChat store?
It’ll be the same situations as posed by Amazon: “the bottom line is the reach of these platforms.”
Customers want to find what they seek. It’s not about your opinion as a seller on the platform. You got to leverage the best places to sell your products.
With a larger market share, you hope to leverage new business opportunities, develop new products, increase the quality, and more.
It means making your own informed decisions – being independent is a lonely path.
Would you say Chinese customers value “China-made” products?
On our segments of products, it doesn’t make a difference as far as we’re concerned. We design and manufacture in China, and we haven’t seen an impact. But it is plausible that our niche market has specific desires and expectations.
Our Chinese customers are mostly in first-tier cities. Most definitely households who have been over the purchasing-craze and are now looking at few but thoughtful purchases. It’s unclear if they pay a lot of attention to Design/Made in China.
Have you considered manufacturing elsewhere than China and possibly in Europe and the US?
Not really, we take pride in the work we do from China. It is a clear advantage to work with factories close to us. We don’t produce in China because it is the cheapest option, we produce in China because we live here and found everything required to be successful.
Felix is an Entrepreneur and Community Builder in Asia and beyond. Love startups, coffee, reading, and Marvel. He reads a lot and has plenty to share.
You can find these books and more on an Airtable that Felix created here. I read a lot too, feel free to follow me on GoodReads.
Felix, how do you select a book that you want to read?
[Felix] I usually get recommendations from friends and colleagues. And I get some inspirations from online bookstores (such as Amazon or Book Depository) and clickbait blog articles like “Seven books you need to read to become an entrepreneur.”
What format of books do you read on?
[Felix] I am not an avid user of digital copies or ebooks. I prefer hardcover books – that prevents me from being distracted and keep my eyes in good condition by not always looking at a screen. Plus, I don’t feel like it’s the same to read a book on a smart device. People would usually be more eager to skip content rather than go from beginning till the end. I can better concentrate, have a coffee, and have fun with the book.
[Matthieu] Interesting! On my side, often traveling + regularly changing apartments made carrying books a significant challenge. That got me to read a lot more on my Kindle. But I do have physical books as well. The experience between those and digital copies isn’t the same, but it’s a lot lighter.
Now back at you, when do you find time to read? When do you find time to sit down and open a book?
[Felix] I usually read during three distinct periods: 1/ In the morning, on my way to work in the commute. I live far from downtown HK and typically seat in the subway. That’s 45 to 60 minutes of travel time, the equivalent of a chapter or two. Instead of staring at my phone, I choose to read. 2/ During lunchtimes on my own. When I eat alone, I open a book 3/ Right before sleeping – it helps me to cool down from a busy day. I find this routine helpful to structure my thoughts and get ready to fall asleep.
It seems that you’re reading a lot in English – it used to get me sleepy quickly (I’m not native English), aren’t you feeling the burden?
[Felix] Most of the books I read are business, entrepreneurial, or psychology themed. Most of the Chinese translations are not a hundred percent accurate, hence picking English. I’m not a native English speaker as well but uses this to my advantage: I learn from books on how to describe new concepts, sentence structures, etc. As I’m in active learning mode, I don’t feel sleepy reading in English. I tried reading in Cantonese or Chinese, but that’s when my eyes close faster!
Have you tried listening to books on Audible or similar?
[Felix] I cannot keep my attention focused on something I listen to for so long. Music or radio will work, but it doesn’t work with somebody reading the book for me.
Let’s talk about your first book, one that you’ve mentioned many times during your workshops at Techstars Startup Weekend, especially the ones around customer discovery and prototyping. It’s the Airbnb Story by Leigh Gallagher. What can you share about it?
[Felix] I picked this book about Airbnb’s early stages as a good reference for entrepreneurs. That’s the kind of books that you can refer to multiple times on your journey. The author was authorized to follow the Airbnb’s founders and get close to the action. That helped him capture the day to day life and how they eventually managed the team’s success. I learned from this book the idea of the Lean Startup concepts, sometimes better than with the actual Lean Startup book from Eric Ries.
It illustrates many strong concepts such as why entrepreneurs should start working on something small while keeping a strong vision and a bold dream. The book also emphasizes how you should focus on the problem of your customers first. And eventually the way you may build your company step by step to become a large venture. One more thing had a substantial impact on me: the culture created at Airbnb. There is a chapter where you learn that the founders interviewed and hired each of the first three hundred employees. On the one hand, it means that there was no hiring department until a large scale. It also assumes that founders could encourage a culture where people share the same signs, codes, and agile thinking.
Founders spent the time to pick the right people, to foster a specific culture, and build a big company. Finally, I learned that you don’t need tech co-founders to start a tech startup. Two design graduates started Airbnb; they didn’t have any technical background. It all began with a WordPress built from scratch, without complicated technology involved. They spent a year and a half before committing to make Nathan Blecharczyk their CTO after working together for a while.
[M] The book gave me a clear and precise perspective on what’s the link between our values and actions. That link in between is called “Principle,” and without realizing it, one already has hundreds of these principles. And as it drives the way you make decisions, you better identify them. It’s insightful to visualize the Principles that you follow and write them down somewhere. It helps make sense of the many actions that you’re taking. The book shares a framework on finding yours after justifying why it’s essential. To help, the author provides hundreds of their Principles at his firm.
By doing this work on myself, I was able to identify specific patterns that I turned into Principles. Knowing them helped to understand why I make individual decisions. There is one that I can share as an example: the relationship that I have towards trust with others. I tend to trust people at the first encounter. You have it until you break it. But once it’s broken, it’ll be super hard to get it back. I made this idea one of my Principle. It’s neither good or bad, and it doesn’t have to be. But knowing it helps me understand some of my relationships with people.
I am now digging into my Principles for leadership, public speaking, selling, my own goals, and more.
[F] Speaking of Principles, how can entrepreneurs make decisions using Principles?
[M] As a founder, you get pushed towards your limits as stakes are getting higher. And you’re often in survival mode. That might lead you to more stress and sometimes auto-pilot mode. Knowing your Principles empower you to understand when it’s time to have a break because the decisions you make aren’t matching who you indeed are. You may want to stand back and take a break.
At the same time, when you’re struggling in making decisions, you can take a look at your principles and figure out what might be the right way to go. They act as a reminder of what I typically stand for and use this energy to make the tough calls.
[F] Amazing book! The founder of the company wrote the book of the same name. Fun story, I connected with him on LinkedIn after reading his book! We’ve been sharing messages and insights on entrepreneurship ever since.
He first created “Promise of a Pencil” (he stepped down and hired a CEO) as a meaningful startup. He is now working on “MissionU,” a non-traditional university for minorities to learn and get knowledge. Last year, that company got acquired by WeWork and is now called WeGrow of which Adam Brown is still CEO.
My three key learnings are: Number one, Adam Brown used to be an ordinary person with a successful education. Followed by a consulting job at Bain & Company. One might say that it’s a straightforward career, successful path by society standards. Ultimately, he realized that his career and work environment weren’t the right fit for him. He started backpacking across the world, looking for his passion. Adam would ask kids he meets along the way some big questions around “what you want to achieve, learn, etc.”
When he met a local child in rural India who replied “I want a pencil,” Adam realized that he found a problem worth solving. Hence his first NGO – a structure that would aim at filling gaps that some developing countries have when it comes to education.
The second thing that I learned is the difference between startups, social enterprises, and non-profit organization. Having that clear distinction in mind can help social entrepreneurs realize their true calling. In the author’s mind, he doesn’t belong to any of these categories. Instead, he makes a stance for a fourth: “for-purpose organizations.” The company does things for the general good while making profits. It seems similar to B Corporation, but it inspired me a lot to look beyond labels and categories.
The third element is how Adam involved Justin Bieber as his ambassador. I like Justin Bieber’s talent, and the way they work together is inspiring. That’s the only organization for which Bieber spent a lot of time and resources.
It has been one of the books I recommended the most to founders I’ve been mentoring. The underlying goal is for them to understand that finding customers has techniques and frameworks. It doesn’t have to be magical and intuitive. The author provides a framework to help entrepreneurs find what works best for them.
Then, he describes different options and concretely, how to test them:
– Pick three channels to experiment, the ones that you hope would get the highest results.
– Spend your attention on these three and measure outcomes.
– The most successful one will become your benchmark against which you test upcoming channels. You keep running these experiments, always switching for the channel that gets you the highest results.
A few things to have in mind: channels will change over time as you grow your business or have access to more resources. You should keep testing and iterating, even as you become bigger or expand geographically.
[F] Can you elaborate on traction and who are the stakeholders responsible for the metrics?
[M] Once you’ve found your product/market fit and reached a particular stage, you want to focus on growing your business. At that stage, you may want to have your Growth Hacking Team.
Until then, you have to understand how to get customers and work on it almost daily. Investors would most likely want to ask some questions on your acquisition numbers.
[F] I just finished this thick book of 450+ pages!
Most people would recommend the Lean Startup or Zero to One book as the founder’s bible. I would say that Monkey Chaos is the one to go through carefully. It answers many questions that arise on the journey as an entrepreneur. It covers topics from early stage struggles to closing your fundraising, plus joining an accelerator, and getting acquired. It’s from the first-person perspective, somebody who stayed in Silicon Valley. The author was often described as a 200% asshole – playing with people, enjoying life too much.
This guy started as a regular joe, joined a startup after a career at a bank. Then, things changed and he uses the book to describes his new obstacles: getting sued, forming a co-founding team, visa issues, getting into Y Combinator, and so much more. I enjoyed reading cool terms about social media and digital marketing, definitely a book of choice!
[M] Do you think it would be possible to have such a lifestyle in Hong Kong, Beijing, or Singapore?
[F] The lifestyle presented in the book is intense! There is so much happening in each chapter; more than one would normally be comfortable facing. And then you realize that the time between two chapters might only be a couple of days.
I couldn’t handle having so many balls in the air or incidents happening at the same time. If you dare to become a badass entrepreneur, better get ready and learn how to handle this roller coaster.
[M] The third book that I have been recommending a lot but wouldn’t consider as a bedside read is titled “Venture Deals” and is written by Brad Feld. I know you’ve been hearing about him a lot when it comes to startup communities, but his insights on raising money are precious!
Don’t expect a storyline: there are many legal and accounting terms to understand. It will help founders raising money. Their angel investors or investors would most likely bring up some of the notions, and it’s excellent for founders to educated themselves on these early. Don’t make terrible decisions because you haven’t done your homework!
[F] The video course by the Kaufman Academy on Venture Deals is solid, a must watch! Venture Deals is a book for angel investors as well. You get a lot of definitions of important terms: cap table, founders agreement, etc.
[F] This book is written by the former Head of Design at Coca Cola. A product that we consume almost every day (not me!). It’s probably one of the truly global product, everybody with a chance to taste it.
The book talks about is scaling a company or brand more systematically. It comes down to standardization of the entire chain of production and making sure everybody involved is aware and adequately trained. Considering the product, Coca Cola is a soft drink. But looking at that product in Hong Kong or Japan, differences have visibly been made while ensuring to keep a similar look and feel.
It might be the packaging, the advertisement, distribution channels, etc. But when it comes down to the fundamentals: the color schemes, the tones of ad videos, you do see many similarities. That’s what the author wants to convey, how did the standardization happen. So from an entrepreneurs’ perspective, once you’re ready to grow into different markets, make sure that you have a clear policy to standardizing your products or services.
[M] How would an entrepreneur balance this need for standardization with iterations?
[F] Iterations come from data collection. When there is something that isn’t right or too slow, you may need to look into a new strategy or a new form of business operations. It comes down to the process, making a Scrum Board or else and look at smaller elements that you can iterate around for different cities or business units. And they mentioned Startup Weekend five times in the book! The author joined as a mentor and had a great time.
[M] The book that I’ll talk about next is called “Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies”, by Reid Hoffman
The book is hugely pragmatic, almost brutal. At the same time, it has a form of elegance. It’s the idea that certain startups create a mission to grow as fast as they can. And as a result, things are meant to be broken in the path of that startup scaling super fast. Blitzscaling comes from the idea of Blitz, which is like super fast in German, and scaling which is growing. So you try to grow as rapidly as you can. In the book, Reid explains why it might be happening, how it can happen, and what should founders do about it.
It’s super hands-on, with concrete examples on hiring, firing, finding your top executives and more. He’s explaining the pros and cons of being a founder of a blitzscaling startup or even being an employee. From my perspective, I took this as a lesson into things that we could do better with entrepreneurs in Mainland China and Hong Kong. For example, as soon as entrepreneurs have found product/market fit, they might struggle in looking for extreme growth and making it extra big.
There are Chinese startups that are blitzscaling obviously but how do we replicate these opportunities for Startup Weekend participants?
[F] Chris was a journalist and became an entrepreneur as he figured out he could make some money aside to cover his budgets. Eventually, that turned out into substantial revenues to the point where he wrote books about his experience and observations. His previous book is called The Happiness of Pursuit, and the most recent one is Side Hustle.
The $100 Startup is a great read for entrepreneurs, and for everybody following the emerging trend of becoming independent freelancers and digital nomads. These people may want to start a side hustle or run some freelancing consulting gig or e-commerce business.
Not a lot of rocket science but many valuable tips you can apply. How to sell your knowledge, trade something, or create a product people would want to buy. For example, after three or five years, you may accumulate some experiences or skill sets that you can sell. Get some passive incomes or become a public speaker.
It is helpful to more than just entrepreneurs. If there are people around you, you may want to take a look at it [chuckle]! I wasn’t good at receiving or giving feedback – reading the book gave me a good overview of how to improve.
Some items are hard to put in practice, but it works well. Being around entrepreneurs so much, I have observed a tendency of seeing the world a lot more positively because of what we want to build. But it’s also important to be grounded and honest with reality. It’s probably a good book to read in parallel with Radical Candor.
Thanks for the Feedback has a framework, canned sentences, and techniques to be better at giving and receiving feedback. Must read if you want to grow a team or when things are breaking around you.
They work on a one to one approach rather than broad organizational techniques. For example, it’s important to identify first if the person is ready to welcome feedback. At the scale of an organization, it’ll be a key factor of success to empower everybody (and not just managers) to better give and receive feedback. So information is no more navigating from top to bottom, but there’s an ongoing basis for sharing feedback.
What I would want to see is how applicable this American management book can be in Chinese cultures, in our part of the world. I would take a grain of salt and go slowly, but you can cherry pick what works and get on with it.
Ce n’est pas simple de m’exprimer dans ma langue natale. Surtout quand il s’agit de raconter mon quotidien ou parler du travail. Mes mots ne me viennent plus naturellement. Tout est en Anglais. Des anglicisms partout ! Malgrés tout, j’ai passé un très bon moment au micro d’Emmanuelle qui est super pro et très intéressante.
Au delà de ce podcast, ça m’a permit de me poser une question plus importante : alors que je travaille essentiellement avec la communauté Chinoise ou internationale (pas Française), dans quelle mesure est ce que je dois garder un pied dans la culture de mon pays natal ? Cette question n’a jamais été simple pour moi même si je reste fier de mes origines.
Pour garder un lien, je passe un peu de mon temps en extra avec mes compatriotes. Notamment en faisant partie de l’équipe de lancement de la French Tech HK et depuis mon arrivée à Shanghai, faire partie du réseau French Founders.
Pas simple et pas suffisant, mais je cherche des pistes d’amélioration – sans pour autant quitter cette état d’esprit qui me plait : un gars entre plusieurs cultures, qui a plein de choses à raconter !
Merci encore à Emmanuelle pour le Podcast En Eclaireur et voici les liens pour écouter tous les épisodes (à commencer par le mien 😁) :
For those of you who could only read English but made it so far, thanks for trying! This blog post was in French, considering that the podcast I was interviewed for was in that language. I don’t believe there’ll be a transcription + translation unless I get a good number of positive comments for it 😉
Stay tuned for more Podcasts on our own channel UPSTART
So Marian, can you please introduce yourself first?
My name is Marian, the founder of weHustle. I came to China seven years ago, first in a city close to Beijing and then in Shanghai, three years later. Not knowing people in town, I started attending many events around entrepreneurship including Startup Weekend. Over time, I understood that entrepreneurship is my passion. I wanted to know more. Doubling down on attending events, I got so inspired and excited by the startup ecosystem with events, pitches, and founders, that I decided to start my own company. That’s how weHustle got founded. It’s been three years now, and we work with many tech communities, startups, and founders. I’m looking forward to what’s ahead of us in the future.
Why did you start working on WeHustle? What was the pain point you tried to address? Why were you the person to solve it?
Initially, the company was called China Classifieds. Back then, I was sitting in my office, working for another company. And as a big fan of Kickstarter, I would order and support many projects on the platform. One that stood up was a USD 9 computer chip that I purchased. But to use it, you needed a monitor. For a USD 9 computer, I didn’t want to buy something new. Now, I’m from Ukraine, a place where you can easily find second-hand websites and buy cheap stuff for fun. I couldn’t find something similar here in Shanghai, and I thought to myself that many other people were probably facing the same challenge. That’s how China Classifieds got started. We added various categories such as apartments, jobs, event listings, and more. Somehow, it didn’t work with the audience, and they couldn’t see the value in China Classifieds to the point where they’d use it all the time. Plus, it was tough to push the strategy in different directions to test new markets fast. And people were confused about the concept itself – whether it was to find apartments, jobs, a platform for communities – it wasn’t clear. As my real passion was around entrepreneurship and innovation, we decided to narrow down our categories and simply keep “jobs” and “events.” We changed the name to weHustle to reflect the new direction, and we now have a platform that connects innovators from the region.
How is it going so far? What was the response from the community?
As we announced the rebranding, we got surprised by the number of positive feedback from people. So many private messages were telling us how they love the new name and positioning. Doing it was a smart move. Also, people associate weHustle with WeWork, so it helps me market the product. The word “hustle” itself is very trendy and a hot topic, for example, with Gary Vee talks or people fighting against the concept. So we can see many conversations around it, helping us get visibility. Plus, it’s way shorter than China Classifieds, so people remember our new name more easily. And since the rebranding, we’ve seen many companies that didn’t use our service under China Classifieds, now more willing to try our platform.
How do you see the evolution of that platform considering that now you have more user engagement?
As we have more user engagement, we can track how many people apply for jobs, how many people post events. The number is increasing. Now, we’re trying to create more sophisticated ways to track and to retain people on the platform.
So far, it goes well. We have some crazy ideas that we are working on right now, and that will help engage visitors.
If you had to boil down the business plan into a general concept, what is weHustle in a few words?
“weHustle is a recruitment platform with the community.”
How do you nurture this community? How do you make sure that it exists and helps you compete with alternatives?
We don’t say that we have “our community.” Instead, we work with many other existing groups like Slush, Startup Grind, AngelHack, Ladies Who Tech, Chinaccelerator, and Technode. These communities have their circles with active followers and events. We channel their and our activities in one place. So by following weHustle, people can stay up to date with the broad spectrum of upcoming events from different communities. In this way, we share an audience passionate about innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology. And that aggregated community is the audience that companies, startups, and organizations would like to get in touch to find talents, partners, co-founders, or clients.
Have you identified any differences with the Shanghai tech ecosystem? Is there something that stands out?
The Shanghai community is very dynamic, well engaged, and international. Shanghai has it all, communities such as Google Developer Group which has localized their content and attracts local geeks. Startup Grind which is also global but hasn’t localized that much and many foreigners and locals alike attending their events.
How do you see the future of tech and entrepreneurship in Shanghai?
Shanghai is growing very fast. There are more and more global communities entering China with Shanghai as the first landing pad. It is easy to test a model, adapt and then replicate in more cities. That’s the case with Le Wagon: they’ve been here in China just for a couple of years. Shanghai was their first city, and now they have a presence in Chengdu and more recently in Shenzhen. The same happened to Angelhack, we did three successful hackathons last year in big cities, and now we’re moving to other provinces.
How do you see your involvement as a volunteer for AngelHack and Startup Grind benefiting yourself, and weHustle?
First of all, I don’t see community building and engagement as a direct source of benefits. That’s the wrong attitude. Instead, join the community because you feel the passion and you like its mission. Once you invest more time and efforts in it, you’ll harvest some benefits in return. What you get is access to vast networking, you learn a lot from your teammates and speakers. For me, it helped a lot getting inbound connections such as: “I’ve seen you at Startup Grind, I have some questions…” and then we start a conversation.
We typically associate Startup Grind with inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs and AngelHack as a way to put in practice what you’ve learned.
Have you have you considered what would happen afterward for your participants? What are they supposed to do in Shanghai? What are the suitable solutions for them?
What we see are two options:
Work for big corporations. For example, running incubators, corporate innovation programs, or building bridges with local startups.
Create your startup;
Once you get inspired and motivated at events, you start your project with good connections and some knowledge obtained.
Last month, you announced TECOM to the world! Can you share why you considered starting a conference for community builders?
I’ve been following many of conferences recently, including RISE, Slush, TechCrunch, etc. And what I saw were VCs, startups, and pitches. After the event, you can tell that people were excited but didn’t get enough follow up. Sometimes, even if you have pitched to investors at the conference, you wouldn’t get the return on your time invested.
We have been working with many communities for a few years. We see that they provide a lot of support and value to startups and help grow the whole ecosystem. Why not put a conference for them?
I believe that a community should be the pillars on which startups can grow.
If you go to a smaller city like Suzhou or Hangzhou, you can’t find that many communities where to pitch your project or talk with peers.
I want to use TECOM to bring most communities under one roof and showcase their values, missions, and how they help the next generation. We will also talk about their impact, their challenges, their focus, and so much more. It will also allow communities to know and talk with each other. It will enable new people to join these groups, and we can foster best practices sharing among different community builders. For example, we will have one panel with four organizations that started here in Shanghai. They are small but are building a stronger presence quickly. They can learn from larger communities and can follow some of the steps.
Can you share some of the of the activities that will be taking place during TECOM?
TECOM is a day-long event, on March 23rd.
It has a main stage with over 30 confirmed speakers. There will be keynotes – deep dives – and two panels.
We will host three workshops:
One run by a digital marketing agency 31Ten to help community builders refine their WeChat strategy and how to leverage it to full potential when it comes to marketing events on WeChat.
Another one from Qalista that will focus on how to make your pitch interview with employers better. That’s for job seekers.
The third workshop will be run by nihub for startups to raise funds and improve their pitch.
TECOM will host the Digital Talent Job Fair. It feels important to support the best people that are looking for new opportunities. We are bringing 40 companies to exhibit their job openings. We will also have a Community Alley where the general public can find more information about participating tech and entrepreneur communities.
Why should somebody join TECOM?
If you want to know what’s happening within the tech and entrepreneurship ecosystem in town;
if you’re a community builder;
if you’re looking for a new job opportunity;
if you’re an innovator or entrepreneur, then you should join TECOM.
What did you like the most about creating TECOM?
My best moments are hearing “yes” replies from companies and communities once you’ve reached out to them. You pitch the idea, and they love it! Then you start building the schedule, confirming speakers, lining up partners – that’s another beautiful moment to reflect how you’re making something that didn’t exist before. It is now coming to life!
Were you surprised during the journey of organizing TECOM?
Yes, if we take the example of my conversation with Feiyue after reaching out to them. I was pitching the idea around TECOM and bringing the communities together, gathering motivated, international people together. They agreed to co-brand their shoes with us, and we’ll have awesome Feiyue x TECOM shoes for volunteers and teams. What a big surprise!
What’s your ambition with TECOM?
2019 is our first year, so it’s hard to know what will happen next, but the idea is to bring TECOM to different cities and make it a yearly conference. In this way, we can facilitate and strengthen the startup ecosystem in various cities across China. By doing this, we help startups have more opportunities to grow. At the same time, I’d hope to get support from the government to make it larger.
You’ve partnered with large organizations, what do they hope to get out of their involvement with TECOM?
These big companies are trying to get into the startup community. But if they target startups one by one, they’ll waste a lot of time and resources in the process. The easiest way for them is, therefore, to work with the communities and us and leverage these connections to identify good startups.
Finding a mentor is challenging. Making sure the relationship works is even more difficult. I tried being a good mentor and a mentee but failed at both!
As an entrepreneur and community builder, surrounding yourself with good people supporting your journey is more critical than ever. As part of my involvement with Startup Weekend Hong Kong – I have the chance to work with insightful individuals. And they are willing to share their experience!
For this first podcast, I’m discussing with Keith Ng. Keith is facilitator at Startup Weekend and a Director of Startup Grind Hong Kong. He has lots of hands onadvices that I’m excited to share in the transcription below
When should entrepreneurs find a mentor?
You want to start as early as possible – even before launching your product. If you anticipate being launch-ready within the next three months, it is an excellent time to find a couple of great mentors. I would even suggest starting conversations at the ideation stage. Be pro-active; challenges will arrive quickly. From team formation to finding product/market fit. You can benefit from tapping into your mentors’ experience and connections. That will help you avoid roadblocks and move faster. I have accompanied companies from zero till the first fundraising.
Where do you find the good ones?
Finding a good mentor is like finding a suitable date – it’s a lot simpler via personal connections and referrals. Spread the word around you early on.
I have been a mentor to high-school friends, participants of Startup Weekend and Startup Grind, and introductions from friends.
I have been mentoring startups between Singapore and Hong Kong. And to share a concrete example, I met an entrepreneur a first time in Singapore. We met again in 2017 in Silicon Valley as part of a conference. We stayed in touch, and soon he invited me as a mentor. A clear case of friendship well-nurtured, turning into mentorship. It’s one of the best ways to get started.
What kind of mentors should you work with?
There are two types of mentors: the Generalist and the Specialist. The Generalist is a mentor who has been through the startup journey themselves. They have many helpful connections and a profound understanding of what you’re going through. That’s helpful as you’re trying to find product/market fit, recruit your first employees, and try to sell to your first few customers. The Specialist is a mentor who has a definite technical specialty. I have been mentoring startups on UI/UX, prototyping, and customer acquisition. These skills may not require full-time staff at this stage. Instead, you can tap into the experience of somebody who’s been doing this with other organizations. If there is a good match though, the Specialist might become the head of a department or lead a team as you scale. Keep in mind that mentors might become your CXOs, early-stage investors, or member of your board. Look for well rounded and objective mentors – if they can invest, you hit the jackpot!
Keep in mind that mentors might become your CXOs, early-stage investors, or member of your board.
Any other soft skills?
Coachability. Can the mentor coach the entrepreneur? You’d want the mentor to understand you and your point of view. While not agreeing all the time, it helps to have someone on your side of the table and support your growth smartly. You’d want to get suggestions, best practices that work. You are not alone with your mentor – they can help you avoid burning out or feeling out of options.
You are saying that an entrepreneur may hire their mentors eventually, is that often the case?
Absolutely. You will want to surround yourself early on with great mentors. They will get to know you and see you in leadership roles. But they will also observe your first mistakes and how you rectify them. Most importantly, they will discover your operational style.
You don’t necessarily want to recruit them, but that can be an opportunity. If not, they can support you with long term partnerships or substantial introductions.
What is the impact that entrepreneurs can expect from mentors?
There are two kinds of mentors: the painkiller and the vitamin.
The Painkiller is a mentor that you can call (almost) anytime for (almost) anything! Obviously, it relies on strong trust and friendship. But when done right, they can help solve an immediate problem, suggest quick solutions.
The Vitamin is a long term mentor. They wouldn’t just provide encouragement and support but help you as your Chief Strategy Officer. They help you put in place your KPIs/OKRs, support the first hires, test your beta, etc. Typically, that can be a monthly coffee where you review progress and look at upcoming challenges.
How did you get started as a mentor?
The first real mentorship that I did was a few years ago already. I supported a friend who invited me. That was very casual at first, and I enjoyed it. I helped with their products, the first website, the social media presence. That helped me get more confidence and get an early taste of being a co-founder.
Then, as I learned how to better coach entrepreneurs during Startup Weekend, some participants invited me to help in a more structured manner. My style is like a friendship; I pay attention to getting to know them and having a good time too.
It often starts by helping them with their pitch deck. I help my mentees find investors and create the presentation.
Do you have mentors?
Yes and no. I don’t formally have mentors. But I do have support from certain people around me on an ad hoc basis. But I will most certainly reach out to possible mentors once I start my own business.
What do you bring to your mentees?
Most of my mentees have roughly the same age as me. We met at events or have been friends for years. Interestingly, they expect from me to be a combination of Generalist and Specialist: I will open doors (market expansion, introduction to investors), brainstorm with them (I wouldn’t be from the same industry but I have a much broader perspective and diverse range of opinions), and technical support like on their Product UI/UX, leads generation.
Each time I support a new entrepreneur, I bring all my previous experience to the table, and that helps them have access to resources that wouldn’t be readily available otherwise.
80% of my decision is based on the quality of the founders.
How do you work with your mentees?
I will do my best to remove distractions from them. Founders might spend too much time on the wrong battles. Typically, deciding who is the CEO early on doesn’t make sense. The entire founding team is working together, finding its niche, making things happen.
As a mentor, I help them rank their priorities and get them into the habit of weekly reviews.
We make assumptions; they get to work, we review a week later.
I can advise, but I won’t execute, that’s not my role.
How do you pick your mentees?
It is really like joining a startup as one of the first employees. You want to look at the team. 80% of my decision is based on the quality of the founders. I know this very quickly because my mentees are typically friends.
Then I want to look at the excitement factor. I want to learn something and feel full of energy while helping the team.
If they can allocate some shares or cash for me, that’s better – but that is optional. I am still willing to help pro-bono if the founders are mindful of my time.
I don’t have a checklist; I’d make sure my network can be useful, that my skills can be a good match, and if they can follow the lean model.
How long have you been involved with startups on average? How will mentees manage that expectations with mentors?
It depends on the founders. I typically don’t make the relationship an official right at the beginning. We would first get to know each other and see how things are progressing. It is very organic, but from my side, I’d aim for the long term.
By long term, I mean 3 to 6 months at least. Or an entire cycle with: testing an idea, building a prototype, and either failing or scaling.
Thank you for reading this interview with Keith. Do you have any questions for him? Post them below or reach out via the Contact form – I’ll make sure he gets back to you!