A reader tells us the New York Times company (NYT) is looking to sell the Chinese version of About.com, Abang.com. We have no idea if this is true, but it’s certainly plausible.
Though it’s as unglamorous as you can get, the search engine-friendly About.com is a nicely profitable site for the New York Times — probably the best digital investment it has ever made.
But breaking into the Chinese market as a foreign company is tough enough even for companies not as desperately in need of cash as the New York Times is now.
Still, in a January 10 interview, About.com China general manager Matt Roberts painted a pleasant enough picture of the current corporate structure:
The advantages that we have with our current structure are that we get the best of both worlds: we’re both a start-up and a mature, thriving business. When we started building our China operation, we had pretty much free rein to build a product that serves users in China. We weren’t tasked with extending the reach of the business in the U.S. We were basically given a free remit to go out and build the business that China needs using all of the resources at our disposal. So it’s very much a start-up mentality. We are a Chinese team. I count myself Chinese sometimes, as I’ve been working here for my adult life, But we are focused on what it takes to serve the Chinese Internet user.
On the other hand, About.com is a thriving company, very successful, 12 years of experience, growing very rapidly, doing very well and that gives us a lot of strength and some deep pockets so that we can focus on long-term value. We don’t have to worry so much about quarter-to-quarter survival, and we can focus on growing what needs to be grown.
Is being a foreign-invested company a liability in this market? Frankly, I think there has been a little bit too much hype around that. Number one, your definition of what is foreign and what is local. I think in many cases there are stereotypes of foreign companies being slow, being very bureaucratic, having to get approval from an office in New York, but I have seen Chinese companies that have similar bureaucratic problems. So I think what really matters is not whether you have raised money on a New York stock market or whether your founders were born in Beijing or New York, but how you set up your operations. I think to be successful in this market you have to be nimble; you have to be close to your customers; you have to understand what they need, whether it’s the users or the advertisers, and be able to deliver that. It’s a moving target. I don’t think we are necessarily at a disadvantage for our structure. In fact, I think it works well for us.