I just returned to the United States after a business trip to China. It was an eye-opening experience.
Asia has a reputation for being a difficult place to do business: That there are meetings upon meetings. That prices are some sacred topic only to be discussed in hushed tones. That people say the opposite of what they mean. That things move slowly and decisions take years.
Toss everything you thought you knew about doing business in Asia out the window, because those rules no longer apply.
Recently, Harvard Business Review China invited me to Beijing to give a keynote talk on Big Data at “The New Revolution of Industries” conference. While there, I spoke with officials, business executives, investors, professors and economists.
Here’s what I learned:
5. Multiply every metric by 1000 per cent. It’s easy to say China is a big market. It’s hard to appreciate just how big until you experience it for yourself.
Just how big is 1.35 billion people? It’s skyscrapers in every direction the eye can see. It’s 10 lanes of bumper to bumper traffic at 10 at night.
50 seats at a restaurant? Try 500. Think you’ll have 500 attendees at an event? Try 5,000. Going to sell 50,000 copies of your new book? Try 500,000. That’s China Big.
If a dinner discussion I participated in on big data and mobile with executives from Tencent and China Broadband Capital Partners (CBC) is any indication, there are entrepreneurs in China thinking about technology and talking about their ideas.
From building entire new phone companies to using technology to improve the food supply for a billion people, these entrepreneurs think big — really big.
4. China is changing fast. “Beijing is changing so fast that the maps are outdated from one month to another. Sometimes even we don’t recognise it, and we live here,” one businessman told me. Sure, he was being dramatic, but there was a lot of truth to his statement.
The last time I visited China was 18 years ago. I did what tourists do and climbed the Great Wall. I toured the Forbidden City. I ate duck. My impression was of a country that was thousands of years old.
Fast forward to today and the city is modern and international. The government ministers, business executives and university professors I met were sharp. They were extremely well-educated and a number of them were bilingual. They had deep thoughts about how to transform entire industries.
3. Find a reliable local partner. In my case, the staff of Cheers Publishing and HBR China introduced me to business people and reporters.
One evening a colleague of a friend took me to dinner and ordered all the right food for us to try. Whether you’re dining out or doing business, having a local host makes all the difference.
2. Words matter. If you think communicating with your management team or employees is challenging when you all speak the same language, try using an interpreter. Speak slowly, use pauses and get your points into bullet form. These tools are no substitute for being bilingual, but they can sure go a long way.
Actions may speak louder than words, but it’s critical to communicate your background in China. Let people know your title, accomplishments and, importantly, your educational credentials.
1. Business is transacted quickly. Prices are not some sacred topic. Contracts can be negotiated rapidly. You can meet and make decisions right then and there.
My advice is that all business leaders should visit China ASAP. China is changing fast and there is no better way to understand how fast than by experiencing it for yourself.
David Feinleib is the author of Big Data Demystified, the Chinese edition of which is due out next month.
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