Chinese Women Catching Startup Fever Too

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Startup fever is going global as young Chinese women come down with the itch to start their own companies.

By Lin Guo

For most college students, the summer of junior year in all about GRE preparation, summer internships, summer courses, traveling, etc. But in the summer of 2011, Jessie (Jiasi) Wu, a former business student from the University of Pittsburgh (who later transferred to University of North Carolina), made a different decision—she decided to start her own company in her hometown, Hangzhou (one of the most important regions for startups) in China.

Today 80 people work for this online marketing startup, Be Found (Bi Fang) Technology, which generates almost 30 million RMB ($5 million dollars) in annual revenue.

A Lifelong Obsession

Returning to Hangzhou and starting the company was the execution of a decision Wu made long before her junior year: “Growing up in a business atmosphere, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. My past summer internships in the U.S gave me many ideas to work on. As my junior year was winding to an end, I thought it was time for me to really do something instead of thinking all day long. I picked my junior year in case my company did not workout, I could always go back to school.”

One of Jessie’s friends recalls that “during college, I barely saw her take her mind off business. Even when we went to watch a musical she could not stop talking about the business project she was looking to work on.”

No Shortage of Difficulties

Like many entrepreneurs, Jessie’s success did not come easily. "When we were first starting out, we had a very hard time hiring the right people. Many people were reluctant to join us because we were small. But we kept going by providing better benefits to attract people," she says. According to one of Jessie’s friends: “Staying up until 2am in the morning is like her normal schedule.”

Unlike most startups raising fund through investors, Jessie got her $2 million RMB (about $330,000) seed funding through her supportive father, who was an entrepreneur himself. It saved her a lot of time and enabled her and the team to focus on the business.

However, securing funding and working hard did not stop many more difficulties from occurring that prevented the Be Found team from moving forward. “The biggest challenge we faced was the original business model I learned in the U.S did not work for the Chinese market. It literally took me six months to figure out what works for the Chinese market,” Wu explained.

In order to gather business insights, Jessie immersed herself in online marketing and found that “most Chinese small local businesses were not aware of empowering their business through our service and the profit margin was lean working with them. Therefore, we changed our target customers from small local business to big chain companies.”

This switch was a breakthrough and laid a better foundation for the team to build upon. “We also found that our customers were not willing to pay a fixed service fee, which motivated our second transformation—to charge by effectiveness using “Pay-per call” as our measurement. From that time, our balance sheet started to turn positive.”

Hang on Tight

Running a startup company is like being on a roller coaster—you face lots of ups and downs.  Bonding with friends was a good way to smooth the road. Jessie emphasized the big role her team played throughout her business adventures. “I feel so appreciative of my team. They were very enthusiastic and wanted to make something happen. The team spirit strengthened my faith towards our company because I really don't want let them down.”  Jessie’s initial team was made of one technical co-founder who was introduced through a mutual friend she met in Pittsburgh. She also re-convened a few entrepreneurial friends who she met in her Chinese college where she studied for half a year.

Although being a young entrepreneur herself, Jessie highly recommends that people her age gather some experience first before starting up. “My biggest disadvantage was having almost no experience working in China. I did not know the Chinese market well and barely knew anyone who worked in the same industry, so it took me quite a while to explore everything on my own. It would be much easier to start a company with more accumulated resources in terms of industry contacts, market information, etc.”

Speaking about her plan to finish her undergraduate degree in the U.S, she seemed more excited about a new business plan. She is also considering expanding her company in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, four of the major cities in China where most of her prospects are located. She considers the expansion as the third transformation and envisions her company’s future as an Alibaba (The biggest e-commerce business website in China) for education.

What are some other female founders worth keeping an eye on in China?

Lin's headshotAbout the guest blogger: Lin Guo (@linguo13) is a writer focusing on the startup scene and what women in tech are accomplishing in China.