The online entrepeneur

It’s always nice when reality rhymes like that.

I met up with Ben last week, after summer break. This time he came over to Tsinghua University, my new campus – twice as big as Beida, and with half as many girls. It’s all male engineers here, in China’s equivalent to MIT: my morning bike ride north into the heart of campus is a terrifying upstream against the current of hundreds of earnest-faced cyclists heading south for their science classes.

When I first met Ben a year ago, he wasn’t the easiest person to talk with, in either Chinese or English. Our respective unfamiliarities in the languages no doubt contributed, but even then his manner was too over polite at first, his laugh too nervous, to feel comfortable. It was an overeager friendliness which, combined with the slight hamster pouch of his cheeks, reminded me of Barney.

We’ve gotten to know each other much better now, and I’ve come to realise that one of the reasons for his initial ill-ease was that I am the first foreign friend he’s had – coming as he did to Beijing two years ago, from the countryside province of Shanxi. In fact, the solar ecplise of last July 22nd marked the two year anniversary of the founding of his online ladies clothes store on TaoBao, the Chinese eBay.

Ben was telling me in Tsinghua about his ambitions for the years to come, now that his online shop is reasonably well established – enough so that he’s currently advertising for a full-time assistant. Besides expanding his current business (a physical store, two physical stores, other Chinese cities, the world…), Ben has another bright idea. He hopes to start a ‘guide’ website for the best buys on TaoBao – renting advertising space for retailers like him, and offering advice to buyers. It wouldn’t be the first of its kind (there’s even an English language one here). But it’s potentially lucrative, and Ben surely has the most directly-to-the-point URL address, which he’s already nabbed: www.taogoodbao.com

Besides the ‘Chinese dream’ of business opportunity – move over America – Ben enjoys his schemes for their own sake. “I like to make new things”, he says. From what age? When he was a kid, six or seven, his father would buy bamboo to shore up the roof of his house with. One time, out of the left-overs, Ben made a bamboo birdcage, and caught two birds to live in it. (They died.) Then he made a bamboo gun with a weak firing mechanism to shoot little steel balls. (At birds.)

Passing over his intentional and unintentional sadism towards our flying friends, Ben describes this moment as the beginning of his wanting to go it alone: to be not a face in an office job but an entrepreneur (even if he’s never heard of the word) who makes his own things, takes his own risks and may wait a long time for those risks to pay off.

Ben, in a photo I took last year at Beida

Will Ben Win in China?

I just watched a new film about the Chinese reality TV show ‘Win in China’ (also subject of a cracking piece in The Atlantic by James Fallows). The show makes budding Chinese entrepreneurs jump through hoops to test their business acumen, eventually whittling over a hundred thousand competitors down to one winner. The total prize money dished out is over $5 million, to help competitors with their business ventures. And the wider impact is giving its viewers the know-how to make money in commapitalist China.

The documentary is a lot of fun, letting the interest of the show speak for itself. I met the director, Ole Schell, here in Berkeley, who got a good feel for the entrepreneurial energy of young China during his year in Beijing in which he shot the film. Here’s the trailer:

Ben is, as you might expect, a big fan of the show. He likes the Wolf, even if he agreed Song Wenming deserved to win. But his eyes were all for one of the celebrity judges, Ma Yun (or Jack Ma) – who founded Alibaba and TaoBao, where Ben lists his own online shop. Ma Yun is his idol, together with Huang Guangyu, who when he he started had nothing to his name (and now? well, actually now he’s under investigation for stock market manipulation, but still…).

Will Ben be the next Ma or Huang? “I’d like to be like them,” he says, “but it’s too far from me.” His ladies clothing website is ticking along with a nice profit, and his next step is to set up a store in Beijing – just like Huang did when he was as old as Ben (23, coincidentally the same age as Ma when he founded TaoBao). Ben estimates he needs close to 20,000 kuai (£1800) surplus cash to do this. Next time I see him I’ll suggest season 4 of ‘Win in China’.

Oh, and to give a little perspective: Ben’s father, as described to me, is every bit as hard-working and full of ideas as his son. Except he was young at a time when the word “entrepreneur” would get you and your parents into a real hell. During the Cultural Revolution, Ben’s father worked as a driver, carrying coal to his hometown. Now his son runs his own business online, turning over 500 kuai (£45) profit on a good day – a winner in China, I hope.

Q: What does the bedroom of a 24 year old Chinese entrepreneur who buys clothes from Guangzhou factories then sells them on the internet look like?

A: A Guangzhou factory.

That’s just one angle of a 12 square metre apartment … the other side is just the same, except with a bed somehow fitting around the clothes. Ben moved into this flat in April because his old one was, literally, too small. That it really does look more like a storage space than a lived-in room is a testament to either his work-ethic or his OCD, or most likely both. Here’s another shot of Ben with the catalogue he orders his clothes from:

Ben is the first entrepreneur I’ve met who’s never heard of the word ‘entrepreneur’. True: his English isn’t too hot, let alone his French. Also true: the New York Stock Exchange along with many others wouldn’t count an online clothing store reselling sweaters from a factory in Guangzhou as a company. But I was curious how a graduate from a no-name university in Shanxi got his own business running in a county still – on the tin at least – the ‘C’ word.

The answer? Good ole dad. His father – a salesman – gave Ben 20,000 RMB (£2000) when he graduated from university to try his luck in Beijing. It’s a gift which Ben has – unasked – ‘repaid’ roughly half of. A very Chinese act from a culture which values filial piety and regards supporting your parents when they’re old a crucial duty. So what has this 20,000 turned into, a year and a half on? Between 70,000 and 80,000, Ben tells me. That’s the communist spirit!

I asked this question especially in the light of the rising figures of graduate unemployment – expected to be 7 million next year and growing. Those 7 million will include less from Beida and Tsinghua than from the likes of Ben’s old university, but it’s a curve on a graph which will likely be on the minds of soon-to-be-graduates across China, especially in an economic crisis (which is discussed by students as much here as it is in the West).

One upshot of this: there’s more for a student to lose from any kind of political activity. That’s yet another reason to add to the bucket-full of why there isn’t and won’t be any outspoken sympathy for the Tian’anmen movement over its current twentieth anniversary.

By the way, that Economist article I link above mentions a new government loan of 50,000 RMB – £5000 – for graduates to start their own business. Ben had heard of it but thinks it applies only for Beijing students, not those from a countryside province like his. True or no, I think that speaks volumes for how those from the countryside view the prospect of big government in Beijing helping their little capitalist endeavours. And as a point of comparison, I guess that an English graduate in Ben’s position would have thought of a bank loan as his first option…

Ben goes undercover

Ben’s business is growing: he just hired his second assistant (his first, if you remember, was his little sister). She is a young Beijinger who was selling a few clothes online herself – on a much smaller scale than Ben (business-wise, I don’t mean she was selling tiny lederhosen for dwarves or something).

Ben noticed this and thought she might fit the bill. Her ‘interview’ was done in subterfuge: he pretended to be interested in buying an item, to feel out how her skills at dealing with customers. Satisfied, he broke cover and offered her a percentage of his sales which will amount to something between 1000RMB and 3000RMB (£100-300) a month. She’ll be starting in a week or so. Next … the world?

And, as promised, a photo below of a typical sweater Ben sells (with my cat as an entirely accidental model):

A typical sweater bought wholesale by Ben and sold on (with my kitten as an entirely accidental model)

A typical sweater bought wholesale by Ben (in this case from a factory in Guangzhou) and sold on

Ben phones home

Once a week, generally after 10pm as he’s so busy working before, Ben phones home. It’s been well over half a year a year and a half now since he left his hometown in Shaanxi province to try his luck in the capital. Like most Chinese (or those who can get train tickets), he spent a week home over spring festival, but otherwise he keeps in touch with his parents through these thirty to forty minute long calls.

Ben’s Mum is a farmer, and Ben is quick to remind me that Chinese farmers are a world apart from their English counterparts. “In England, a farmer has a lot of land which they own. In China, they only have very small land to farm.”* (And, of course, Chinese farmers don’t own their land.) His phone conversations with his mum consist mostly of her asking if he’s wearing enough warm clothes. This, needless to say, is unlike farming in that it’s something England and China have in common (yes Mama, if you’re reading this, I’m wearing lots of sweaters).

His Dad works as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company in a town 300 kilometres away from his hometown. This means he can only afford the time and money to visit his wife at home once a month. It’s a common story across China, where fathers from the countryside seek better paid work in bigger cities, by necessity leaving their families behind. When he started this job 20 to 30 years ago, he earnt 70 or 80 kuai (£7) a month. Now he earns 3000 kuai (£300). On the phone with Ben, he is eager to ask about the little details of how his son’s business is going.

Near the end of our chat, Ben made a point of mentioning that his father, 53, can’t work forever and that he himself is keen to start supporting his parents as soon as he can. This is also unlike farming in that isn’t, I’m afraid, the first thing on the mind of a young English graduate (I know this because I am one) when he’s considering the reasons he wants to start earning money.

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