When the internet was booming in the mid ‘90’s, Ma did a search for “beer and China” and found no results. That’s when he first realized there was a gap in the market — eCommerce products for Chinese consumers.
After a series of failures, including rejections from colleges, being turned down for a job as a police officer and even being the only one out of 24 applicants to be turned down for a job at KFC, Ma decided that he was destined to go into business for himself. So he turned to that idea of creating an eCommerce solution to serve Chinese customers.
Even then, there were a lot of doubters. China didn’t have the credit card services or logistics that made eCommerce a good fit in other markets. But Ma really believed that it was something Chinese consumers wanted and that if he started right away, he and his team could make it happen eventually.
“If we do not succeed, someone else will,” he said.
So he built a team, attempted to gain some startup capital, and eventually started with about $50,000.
There were plenty of failures along the way. But those failures turned into lessons Ma has been able to share with other business owners. One of the most important lessons, which specifically relates to businesses looking to break into new markets like China, is to really understand the needs of your customers above all else.
“Investors may not like us. But if our customers like us, we can survive,” Ma said.
So for the businesses looking to explore opportunities within the growing Chinese market, capturing customer interest can make the difference between success and failure, Ma explained. You might have a great product that people in the U.S. love, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to automatically be a hit in China. But you may also just need to find the right partner or make a small tweak to your offering that can open up a whole new world of possibilities for your small business.
And there’s plenty of opportunity and demand. According to Ma, the Chinese middle class is currently at about 300 million people. And there are plenty of products, ranging from sneakers to baby food and even live lobsters, that consumers want to spend their disposable income on when given the opportunity.
Overall, Ma says that it’s important for businesses to be open to new possibilities, especially in the age of the internet. And he thinks small businesses are going to be at the forefront of changes in China and around the world over the next 30 years.
“The world is shifting from standardization to personalization,” he said.
So the companies that provide products created for a specific market are those likely to succeed. And small businesses are poised to do just that.
Gateway ‘17 is an event aimed at helping entrepreneurs learn about the growing opportunities for selling to Chinese consumers. The event drew 3,000 registered attendees over June 21 and 22 to downtown Detroit.
Shanghai Photo via Shutterstock
Jack Ma photo: Small Business Trends/Annie Pilon