Yao Ming just backed a $23 million round for an Australian entrepreneur who introduced China to AFL and NFL online

Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets Picture: Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Melbourne man Andrew Collins was fascinated with China from the moment he first set foot in the country.

“First time I came to China, I was 23, part of an international entrepreneurship delegation,” he told Business Insider.

“After experiencing a week in China, I fell in love with the place. It was the first time that I’d experienced a lot of international people, as part of the delegation, and also got an opportunity to experience a real taste of business in China.”

Now, 13 years later, he is living the fast life in Shanghai running his own digital startup that’s just raised $US18 million ($22.8 million) in a series A round, including a substantial contribution from Yao Ming’s venture capital fund.

“My Mandarin is terrible. [But] my life is great. I have two kids. I have a Chinese wife, and I’ve just got really great people I work with. I’m really quite blessed to have what I’ve got.”

Collins is the chief executive of Mailman – a digital agency that helps professional sports teams and leagues achieve a presence in the vast and lucrative Chinese market.

Although he is called the “founder” by his staff, he technically acquired the business after moving to China permanently in 2007. But functionally you can’t deny him the title, as what the business now does is completely different to the niche media consulting firm that he bought 10 years ago.

“It was losing money. I put pretty much every dollar I had in the company… $US175,000 – that’s what I paid for the company.”

After two years of hard slog trying to turn the business around, he came up with a brilliant idea to completely change what Mailman did for a living.

“We decided that digital was gonna be the future, and China was gonna get very aggressive in sports, eventually. Sports was gonna become a big part of the culture here. I grew up in Australia sports-crazy… playing tennis, footy, everything else, and I figured it offered a lot of value to myself, and other people that I knew, and would do the same in China.”

Since then Collins has managed to bring in some of the biggest brands in world sport to the Chinese digital audience – the AFL from Australia; the NHL, NFL and UFC from the USA; Manchester United and Liverpool soccer clubs from the UK; plus the Bundesliga, AC Milan and Juventus.

But above all, Collins told Business Insider that Mailman’s intellectual property lies within the technology.

“We’re underwritten by awesome technology that we’ve been building over the past four years. It helps manage, grow, analyse the data in China, and helps our teams make better decisions about what content to create, what works in China, what doesn’t work in China.”

The series A round has come this year in two tranches — $US15 million was wrapped in January, while last month $US3 million came in, with half of that coming from Yao Capital – the venture capital firm founded by perhaps the internationally best-known Chinese athlete of all-time, retired basketballer Yao Ming.

The capital raising valued the company at ¥450 million ($85.6 million), which is not surprising considering the venture is well in the black – net earnings last year added up to ¥20 million ($3.8 million), according to Collins.

Even after all the investors coming on board this year, Collins still owns 60% of the venture – more than $50 million worth of equity.

While the world’s biggest nation has endless business potential, Collins suggests Westerners looking for opportunities there to think long term.

“Any sort of young entrepreneur that wants to come to this market, I think if you play the long game, and you have laser-like focus, and you adapt to the culture — not necessarily to the language, but to the culture — that gives you a higher probability of winning here,” he said.

“China is still a very complex, and challenging market, and it still is, even with all the news that I’ve told you today. If anybody comes into this market and wants a quick fix or a quick dollar — anything less than five years — it’s almost never going to happen. “

For Mailman, a series B round is expected late this year or early 2018, but the Australian already has a goal in mind beyond that for his thriving 110-person company.

“Our plan is to go IPO in 2020. That’s our current roadmap, but a lot of mountains need to be crossed between now and then.”

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