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Looking Abroad: The Challenges of a Chinese Start-up

SAIF MBA explains why innovative services don't always appeal to Chinese companies

By  Rob Kirby

Fri Mar 11 2011

When he was an English Literature undergraduate, Scott Shi studied Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. The opening words, he claims, still echo in his professional life.

“They describe today's China very well: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...'”

And, as a graduate of SAIF (The Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance) and Managing Partner of an innovative start-up which provides services for major companies, Scott can speak with confidence.

In 2007, after several years in PR and advertising, he helped set up ChinaBiz Speakers. The company provides a one-stop solution for companies wishing to organise talks by prominent figures.

Major clients have included Ernst & Young, British Telecom, Richemont Group, Accenture, and business schools like Insead and IMD; but Scott doesn’t mention any Chinese names at all.

In fact, all of Scott’s current clients are foreign, despite the fact that a large proportion of ChinaBiz Speakers’ events involve Chinese speakers – such as economists Fan Gang and Andy Xie – speaking in China. Why?

The answer comes that, in an age of wisdom and foolishness, Chinese companies are slow on the uptake.

“As the pioneer firm in this sector,” Scott says, “the biggest challenge for us is to create a market in China.” When he originally helped come up with idea, it was the first of its kind in the country. “Speaker arrangements were usually carried out by PR firms back then, so we thought this could be a good chance.”

But there were immediate barriers to selling themselves to domestic companies. “We have to do a lot of work to educate potential clients, as well as speakers themselves, on how we can help them.”

In the end, he explains, the company’s big idea was to restrict their work to big foreign corporations who already do business in China. Although this has limited their list of possible clients, it does mean that everyone they approach is already comfortable with outsourcing events – and has a bigger budget set aside for their services.

The future of ChinaBiz Speakers nonetheless looks positive. Having already hosted talks from figures such as Rupert Hoogewerf, publisher of the influential Hurun Rich List, ChinaBiz Speakers are looking to expand by working with foreign partners. They've already secured an agreement with US equivalent Washington Speakers Bureau for mutual promotion, and so a huge opportunity to expand abroad is coming up. 

But, for now, Scott believes that the best of times for innovative B2B ideas in China are yet to come.