It was in 2010, as an exchange student, that I had my first taste of China. Doing Business in China was my favorite class during study abroad at Peking University. It was there that we learned about the cultural components and unique complexities of doing business in China as a foreigner. From JV’s to IP issues to the role of 关系 (guanxi), there are myriad of layers to doing business here. And as complicated as it may sound, it was also where we saw the number of opportunities. While China may have 5,000 years of history, today’s China is young and still developing. It is the youth of the modern Chinese economy that makes it so inviting, temperamental, and exciting, and it is why it is a great place to lay the foundations for my and likely your own business empire.
Over the last four years of living, working, and exploring here, I have learned several illuminating lessons. One of the first lessons I learned about starting as an entrepreneur here is that there is no predetermined path that people prescribe here.
On the contrary, the road to business success in China from 20 years ago likely doesn’t exist today or has a much higher and costlier barrier to entry. Even the businesses that struck gold five years ago might not have the same luck if launched the same way today. For most people, that doesn’t sound like a good thing, but what I hear is that I don’t have to follow in anyone else’s footsteps to be successful. Instead, I can use my vision and my instincts and still have a plausible shot at success.
Without an instructional manual to follow, I am free to create a business that makes the most sense for me, my community, and the current environment and to shift as time and life dictate. This principle influenced me enough to co-launch BlackEXPO and B•e and expand to 3 cities in China and to push through whatever obstacles we have faced. While it can be daunting without a guidebook, it is also freeing to design your success on your terms.
Designing your path means that people will often ask you not only how you are doing but, more curiously, why you are putting yourself in such a precarious position. Without a “10 steps to win at business in China” guide, most people are afraid to start because they are afraid to fail and possibly be seen as a failure. Luckily, failure is almost guaranteed here. It’s less about if something will fail and more about maximizing how long if can succeed. Given the rapidly changing economic landscape, city planning policies, and shifting regulations, it is not easy to win in this game. However, the reward for trying is knowledge, experience, and insight, all things that you can not glean from an HBR or WSJ article. Once you know that failure is almost inevitable, you can stop being so afraid of it. You stop worrying about what will go wrong and focus on how long you can bring value, support your community, have sustained success, and bring others along for the ride.
Doing business here shifts your mindset from focusing efforts on feigning off failure and puts it where it should be, prolonging value and success. As a bonus, if you can push off failure long enough, you will see more success in the short term than what decades of work in older, slower, western economies could produce. It was this mindset shift that gave me the courage to start Tianmi Bakery and grow it from a pan of brownies for coworkers to events, catering, and cooking classes for the wider Beijing community.
Once you shift your mindset, your perspective and approach will also evolve. And while this is not unique to China, the main reason that I started my businesses here was that being here allows me to leave the mental confines of home and ‘how things are supposed to be’ and dig into the latent potential in what things can be. I arrived here with a clean slate. We all do. I had the chance to test if who I was at home is the fullest version of who I am, or if there is more to who I can be. Living in the fullness of what life can be, coupled with a business environment that says I dare you to see how far you can go, why wouldn’t I start my business journey here? What better place to start an empire (or even just the first tangible parts of a dream) than a bustling and challenging kingdom that dares you to try and rewards you even if you fail?
I am not sure how far BlackEXPO, B•e, or Tianmi will go or what challenges are waiting around the corner. But I know that I have learned and grown so much just for trying. If you were welcome to chart your course, throw away the fear of failure, and live in a reality where anything is possible if you work for it, what would you do? Now for the second question, when are you getting started? Because you have all of that right here in front of you.
Olivia Nadine is a baker and a social entrepreneur from Washington DC.