It’s new, exciting, captivating, somewhat intriguing, and even a little sexy. It’s taken the world’s attention and firmly positioned itself as the new frontier in business.

It is China.

For over ten years now I have been traveling back and forth to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taiwan and each year it becomes more and more advanced in business, and savvy in the way of the western world. And the interesting thing is that we in the western world of business simply don’t get it.

Through the many contacts I have set up throughout China it still amazes me when they tell me just how many business people from all over the world think that they can simply jump a flight, turn up, put up a shingle and succeed based on the pure fact that China is booming and there are a billion people ready to purchase their product or service.  And I am here to tell you, it just doesn’t happen.

A simple case study is a gentleman I know that has a successful chain of bars and restaurants, an American expat, that has ‘done good.’ On face value, given the meteoric rise and success of his business in the last 3 years, you’d think he arrived yesterday, opened the doors and BOOM, in came the cash. The truth of it is that he’s been there for 15 YEARS chipping away at the market, and has learnt the value of how to do business in China. And here are some takeaway tips he shared with me over lunch on a recent visit.

  1. Learn the language – China has quiet a range of dialects, and it depends on which side of the street you live on (literally) as to which one of them you speak. You can be surrounded by locals speaking Mandarin, walk two blocks and all of a sudden it’s Cantonese. If you are to do business there, serious business, then the easiest way to not have the proverbial wool pulled over your eyes is to understand what is being said around you in meetings.
  2. Find a local you can trust – this one does not happen overnight. Chinese are typically guarded, cautious of outsiders and non-trusting of anyone that did not grow up there. But if you want the ‘in’ with local government officials and serious business people then you’ll need some local heavyweights to help you open some doors.
  3. Ten years too late – those that have been on the ground in China will tell you, ‘you should have been here ten years ago, you’re too late.’ And in part that is true, expats that have put in their time are well and truly ahead of the ‘Johnny come lately.’ And if you are thinking of heading there now, you can expect that you’re already entering a fiercely competitive environment, and a market that will be just as tough to find a market position as any other in the world.
  4. Pick a number and triple it – all of the expats I have spoken to there will tell you, time alone is key to their success. And whatever they had budgeted for in relation to development time in China they were all way out on their estimations.
  5. Be present – we’ve seen a number of global businesses arrive in China, in particular Shanghai, and do well. But the ones that have done the best are the ones that have set up camp in the city and shown they mean business, serious business. So many companies attempt a move into China only to retreat with their tails between their legs months and years later as they have taken the country for granted by thinking they can drop in and out at will. And the Chinese know it, and they mock it.
  6. People do not mean profits – Just because there are hundreds of millions of humans crammed into a relatively small space it does not mean they are all consumers of your product or service. You’ll still need to research the market for the real deal on who your target is, and to understand if there are enough of them there to sustain your business model and to purchase your product or service.

For over a decade now we’ve been intrigued by the country, and for over a decade we’ve been scratching our heads as to how it really ticks and what are the key things that make it tick. And while the world looks at the changes China is going through and the growth and opportunity that it offers, experienced business consultants stand ready with one foot firmly planted on the accelerator, and with one hand on the handbrake and the other on the steering wheel as we try and navigate our way, steering around the roadblocks and ever ready to pull on the brakes to avoid the impending accident.