Going to China for Your Startup? Tips I Wish I Knew for Getting Around

It’s dark and quiet. The white noise of the engine fills the cabin as this hunk of aluminum metal carries me back to the red dirt of Australia while crossing the South China Sea. Sitting in the air, 35,000 feet above sea level I feel a sense of solitude and calm despite the 300+ people that share the flight with me. Its one of the main reasons why I love air travel. While many complain about the food, and the tight seats i relish in the opportunity to get away from our modern world of constant e-interruptions – here is one place that i’m forced to reflect, consolidate and integrate the whirlwind of experiences that usually go with my getaways.
It was only 15 days ago that I left the familiar shores of Sydney and went on an adventure to the Orient. This mysterious land with its 5000 years of culture, opportunity and possibility. It was only 35 years ago that Deng Xiaoping, changed Chinese foreign policy and started allowing travellers to enter the country. And many Chinese still find foreigners quite interesting and intriguing. Although not quite as mysterious as it once was to the world, it was still unknown to me.
For me there has always been an air of mystery around China from the first days that I started watching Golden Harvest Chinese Kung Fu movies when I was a pre-teen kid, to the days in high school when I met my first Chinese person (thinking all of them must know Shaolin Boxing :)) Nowadays, my closest friends and business mentors have been of Chinese descent. The growing power and influence of China intrigued me even more as I see this old world now transform itself to be more than relevant but also define the new world we live in.

I’m one of those travellers that don’t like to do the traditional tourist thing and visit the “tourist must see sites”. I don’t often stay in 5 star. I don’t take packaged tours. For me the joy of travel has not been to escape but an opportunity to bite of more of life and put myself in situations that i’m not in back home. The opportunity to be a noob! There is much magic in being able to see the world through the eyes of a beginner again and as we get older – that magic is an opportunity that can be elusive as we subconsciously put our old conditioning/programming into new situations which limit our perceptions of what is actually going on in “reality”. We all have a tendency to keep doing those things that keep us confident but often its in the magic of the beginner’s mind where new neural pathways begin to form that give light to new ways of thinking, possibilities and innovation.

So when my housemate Tim Salvador (a self confessed nerd, talented web designer and mobile app developer), said that he had a Kickstarter idea that was brewing in his head. An itch that needed to be scratched by visiting potential business partners in China, I knew I had to go. To use my annual leave to accompany him, follow him around and see what China could bring to the table!

We’d be like the new generation of Marco Polo’s – instead of spices and gunpowder– we’d be bringing back technology secrets, an understanding of business culture and of course an opportunity to breathe life into Tim’s Kickstarter dream.

We arrived in China on the 8th January, armed with a sense of fun, playful adventure, and intense curiosity. Let me take this opportunity to also clarify that when I say we visited China, we only visited Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Haizhu. Two important and significant cities in terms of the economy, and yet in terms of the Chinese population they collectively held Australia’s whole population, just over 20 Million.

We spent most of our time in Shenzhen. It is a purpose built, well planned city, clean and modern city. The easiest way to describe it would be to say its a very very big version of Canberra. The train system is called the metro and runs 20 hours a day with trains arriving every 4 minutes. High speed trains (travelling over 300km/h) connect Shenzhen to other cities in China like Guangzhou. The city is only 35 years old and previously was a poor fishing port but nowadays is a technology and financial hub.

A city that was purpose built for business to steer people away from Hong Kong and to mainland China. It is only 35 years old and it is modern. The majority of the workforce is a migrant one from other parts of China. I learned that while other Chinese cities are old and have an old boys club business network, Shenzhen has attracted enterprising ambitious individuals hoping to make a name for themselves, work hard and establish themselves in this bustling economy.

After visiting 12 factories in 15 days. Meeting about 25 people. Seeing the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou. I thought I’d write a few tips if you are considering going to China a few tips that may help you navigate a country where very very few people speak English. Its one of the first places i’ve travelled to where everything was in another language both in spoken and written word. I have to say it I liked the idea of a business “adventure”.

The first thing that I realised was that because of the Great Firewall of China – which basically is the Chinese government limiting what its populace can and can’t view with a complex set of rules of what it allows in and out of the country. So on our first day we was paralysed. Totally! Being tech dependent, Tim and I quickly realised just how pervasive Mr Android and Ms Google had made us. From the moment I wake up out of bed. Check my Google Calendar to know what i’m doing for the day, to Gmail, to navigation with Google Maps, restaurants, music and youtube – I am DE-PEN-DENT!

So… what did we do that first day to get around… we went primal… using body language… drawings on paper etc until we had our first business meeting and they showed us how to jump the Great Firewall! Okay… okay… its nothing special…no special CIA hack or anything as I was expecting. We learnt that, that everyone in China has a favourite VPN they use to get hack it. For us it was ExpressVPN! Thank god ! My google dependency lived on. What was strange was that Google Maps worked incredibly well for a country that they were actually banned in. It was our main navigation tool.

So let’s get started. Below are a few things things that I learned from this China Trip.

1. For Accommodation – Use Ctrip
Ctrip is where you will find China’s largest listing of hotels, ,motels and backpacker joints. Because we were visiting a number of factories in different parts of the city and Shenzen and Guangzhou are incredibly large, we chose to travel light and in different locations across the city depending on where we needed to be. So C-Trip proved invaluable. You can pay online or cash when you arrive. Has mapping features. Its the Chinese equivalent of

2. For translation – Use Youdao. Very accurate app which totally blew Google Translate out of the water. N.B there is no play store so you will need to download the apk from the website. This can be fiddly … but persevere it is worth it. We stumbled across the app by accident when the concierge of a C-Trip hotel used it with us. Up until then we were having getting by with Google Translate.

3. Jump the Great Firewall with VPN. Like I mentioned although the Chinese government has a firewall you can easily get through it by using a VPN. That means you get to access Facebook, Gmail and everything your used to back home. We used ExpressVPN but there are a myriad out there which generally come with a trial period or a relatively inexpensive.

4. Communicate, Connect and Pay – Use WeChat. OMG! This one app which I thought was just another Facebook is in fact so much more all encompassing. Everyone we met, whether business or personal, (in a mall or train) added us on WeChat! They were very open which was very different to how we protect ourselves on social media in Australia. Whereas in Oz you might add your business contacts on Linkedin and personal on Facebook and Instagram – the Chinese didn’t make the distinction. Or maybe they had some privacy setting i’m not aware of in the app.

If Google is all pervasive in the west, then WeChat was its equivalent in China.

Hustling is tiring business. Tim Salvador, after a long day with suppliers.

The most commonly used features we used were:

– Connected with people and used the in-app translation feature to communicate with people that could only speak Mandarin. It worked well. Not as good as Youdao but definitely fast enough to have basic conversations when ordering food, and directions.

– We used the feature of sending our location to the people we were meeting so they knew exactly where we were and how long it would take to get to them.

– Wechat has WePay which allows you to also send and receive money. So its also an alternate banking platform. I loved seeing a street vendor, with his wok and little gas tank for his travelling kitchen, selling 5 yuan dumplings but taking payments using a QR code that customers scanned and then showed them their receipts before collecting their food. It was a perfect mix of old and new!

5. Getting around – Use the Train known as the metro. Stations are clean, safe, trains arriving every 4 mins. Beats the traffic and you can see how everyday people get around. I had some great conversations while waiting on getting in and out of the trains. No need to burn money on expensive taxi’s.
6. Where the trains don’t go – Use DD.
This is like Chinese Uber. Much cheaper than a taxi and just as convenient. You will need a Chinese friend to use it though. I think you need a Chinese bank account or access to the WePay function on WeChat which is different to the version of the app that we get outside of China. But fret not – most concierges in hotels were happy to call a DD for us and then we payed them in cash.

7. Explore in safety. At least in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. We were out and about at all hours of the night and day. And I never felt threatened. The people we met were helpful and friendly. I’d even say curious to talk to us “exotic” foreigners. We were told by one factory owner that because China only opened its doors 35 years ago when visionary leader Deng Xiopeng decided to create relations with the west, that the Chinese in the mainland want to connect and learn as much about us as we want to about them. I didn’t see too many tourists even in the middle of the city.

8. Be patient and pay attention. The Chinese are generally non-confrontational. They will be polite and well mannered but do not mistaken that for meekness. It is easy to get frustrated because of the language barrier and the difference in customs. Stay calm and patient and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. They want to help you so resist the urge to turn into that arrogant privileged westerner. Take your time and just keep thinking about the outcome your after. I can tell you I had my moments 🙂 But Tim kept me chilled and on point knowing that things get done differently and we need to navigate the cultural differences which I could only grasp by paying attention and not imposing my own worldview on others.

Stop and observe the way things work. How people pay for things. How they wait in line. Understand the etiquette.

In a business context, we found Chinese culture often wants to save face so they may give you answers that aren’t correct or delay on a response if they don’t know the answer. It seemed to me that Chinese are more inferential communicators and communicate indirectly while us Western’s will often ask directly and expect for our answers to be taken literally. Often I found in a business setting, it was the context that I needed to pay attention to as well as the content.

9. Present your business card with two hands. It’s a sign of respect to acknowledge the card when you receive it. Unlike Australia where we hand our cards like we were dealing at The Star or Crown Casino 🙂 In China, like most Asian countries, the business card…also known as the name card should be presented with a slight bow and presented with the thumb and index finger in both hands to the recipient.

10. Take napkins when you go out. In restaurants it often costs money for serviettes. It’s not a Chinese custom to provide napkins in restaurants that you find in a food court. Also take your own wet wipes. Public toilets won’t have toilet paper and can often be squat toilets.

11. You can get by without a translator. We did. If budget is not an issue and time is critical then you can get a translator for $60 to $120 per day which you can find at Synotrip.com. We found however that most factories had overseas sales reps that could speak enough english to talk a deal through.

12. Form relationships with suppliers. Tim sourced all his suppliers first through Alibaba, added them on WeChat, formed a basic WeChat relationship and then went out to meet them. The reps of the firms were very hospitable even though we weren’t talking big numbers and we were in discovery phase. Half of them were happy to come and pick us up and take us to see factories. We had one guy who was a wallet manufacturer drive us from Shenzhen (because he happened to be in Shenzhen) all the way to Guangzhou, which ended up being a 3 hour ride ! So relationships do matter alot. Find out about their family, what their lives are like, what are they passionate about. With Chinese working 6 days a week and over 10 hours per day. Work and live is intertwined. There is no work life balance, only work life integration.

The Orient, with all its steep traditions, rich history and beguiling mystery coupled with its energy and buzz has made its mark in the last two decades as a significant business force.

I believe for any business, it would be wise to make connections, networks and partnerships where relevant. It’s not just about China having cheap labour. I found the large majority of people I met being hard working and hungry for opportunity in business. In fact, one chinese partner said that the two chinese past times were food and business! I couldn’t agree more 🙂

I believe we will no doubt in time see more  market disrupting startups come out of China and Southeast Asia. Its a readily testable market which adopts tech fast, and is willing to innovate with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Feel free to let me know how this article helped you on your trip and  if you have any further advice or tips.

Live. Love. Lead. 

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