Find here the full China paradigm episode 40. Learn more about Ashley Alvin Foo’s story in China and find all the details and additional links below.
Full transcript below:
Matthieu David: Hello everyone. I am Matthieu David, the founder of Daxue consulting and its China marketing podcast, China Paradigm. Today I am with Alvin Foo. I have been interacting with you through LinkedIn because I saw your post about the digital landscape in China and so on. You are the managing director of Reprise Digital for China and you have been involved with digital marketing strategies in China for a long time since 2006 in China. First as Head of China for Nokia interactive, then Head of Mobile for Google, before Google left China.
After that, you have been involved as an advisor for many companies like SXSW, a big conference of US, and Bitcurate, and you have advised on the ICO for NOIZ. Currently, Reprise Digital is in more than 42 countries, 72 offices, with almost 3000 employees and 200 awards. Thank you very much for being with us, Alvin. Could you tell us about the size of Reprise Digital in China and how you differentiate yourself as an agency providing digital marketing strategies in China compared to others?
Alvin Foo: Thank you very much. Thanks again to invite for coming on board on this opportunity to speak on this China marketing podcast, China Paradigm. Reprise Digital is a very young company, but not young if you have included its time as a business unit under the IPG Mediabrands. As a company, it has been around since 2003.
Before it was acquired by Interpublic Group and subsequently became a business unit, a year ago, it went independent. Right now, the entire company is actually part of the IPG Mediabrands with slightly more than 100 people, mainly all digital savvy, because it was the first agency within IPG Mediabrands that is actually designed, made and structured as an agency of digital marketing strategies in China, such as serving all the digital channels like paid search in China, E-commerce in China, social and what have you. Everything that was part of IPG Mediabrands and we were serving as a business unit is now actually parked under Reprise Digital. It is actually handling all the digital marketing strategies in China for clients across at the IPG Mediabrands.
Matthieu David: What do you call a network agency? You are describing Reprise Digital as a network agency. What is a network agency?
Alvin Foo: When you look at part of a group called the Interpublic Group, one of the 4A’s in the global communication industry, we also have competitors like WPP group, Omnicom group. Omnicom is a company where I came from before IPG. In France, there is a very big agency called Publicis. Every one of us is part of a very big group, which has got lots of these agencies below, some serving credits, some serving PR and like us we are purely in the digital landscape in China. All these are actually part of the entire Interpublic Group. Reprise Digital is actually parked under the media part of the IPG Mediabrands group.
Matthieu David: On the website of Reprise Asia, it is mentioning that compared to all the digital agencies in China, you are not doing silo marketing. You are going from one platform to one other being consistent in terms of message and using different platforms in the digital landscape in China, not in a Silo. Could you explain to us more on why you insist so much on the website about not doing silo marketing?
Alvin Foo: Even when we were looking at online advertising strategies in China before, online advertising in China has always been just looking at one channel. It could be looking at just purely SEO in China, purely social, purely traditional media and so on. In the past, everyone has been looking at it separately. What we have done within Reprise was to then put everything together and look at it holistically. At the end of the day, advertising is advertising. When you look at all the different channels that we use from search, from programmatic advertising, from social, still part of advertising, whether it is a TV commercial that you see on TV or on YouTube. We have got different businesses serving different channels. That’s where I use the term “silo,” because when you look at the marketing standpoint from a marketer, what E-commerce in China really want is someone who can advise them when they say, “I have a business objective and I need to achieve this business objective, what digital marketing strategies in China should I use?
What online advertising strategies in China should I use?” That’s where we want to come in, being able to explain and also guide our clients in terms of looking advertising holistically, not looking at just silo and talking about just the search or even social. The technologies we use like AI, blockchain, are purely just a tool that we use for digital marketing strategies in China, but the most important thing that we need to look at is the objectives. So, objectives first, then channels later.
Matthieu David: Could you describe a couple of cases, one or two cases that illustrate your digital marketing strategies in China are not a silo, not only SEO in China, Facebook, social, programmatic but connecting them for being seen by the audience and understood by the audience. Would you have a Chinese example in mind?
Alvin Foo: I wouldn’t want to quote the name of the company, but I can tell you it’s a very big Japanese global brand, electronic brand. We are handling its entire digital marketing strategies in China for this company. What we basically did for them prior to that was we used to handle everything on traditional. They have actually gone from very traditional advertising into digital, but it has taken them at least three years to move from traditional to digital, becoming more digital savvy. From digital, it took them like another two to three years to go from really entirely digital and e-commerce. It was previously a company really focusing on traditional, but right now, they are becoming more and more centric in E-commerce in China. We have gone into providing more and more solutions for E-commerce in China. It’s not about what we want to sell them, what we want to position them in, it is where their audience is. If their audience is looking for them or searching for them more on E-commerce in China, we would then strategize or even plan in a way that their ad cost in China is being spent on E-commerce in China. Many years ago, they used to spend 100% on traditional media, back in the TV days and the print days.
Now, almost no spending on traditional and now it is very geared towards digital marketing strategies in China with 70% of ad cost in China on E-commerce in China like Alibaba, JD. Platforms like these are now a major spend of ad cost in China. The ad cost in China used to be on digital, before going into E-commerce in China, so you see the transition of how we move from one end to the other. It’s a result of where we think our audience is. Now when you look at how we plan is that we don’t plan as buying from this publisher or that one. Now it becomes very audience-based centric. Where is your audience? If it is on e-commerce, so we put more money on E-commerce in China.
Matthieu David: The way you are going to work is to first identify clearly where your audience is, then identify the touch point with this audience. Are they more on Weibo, WeChat? We have so many apps and you are reaching out to them because the audience is over there. If the audience is on TV, you would go back to TV, right?
Alvin Foo: Obviously. I am not discounting the fact that there are several clients are still spending ad cost in China on TV, not substantially, because a lot of ad cost in China on TV has gone into smart TV like the OTT, the OTV. If you look at the transition of TV in China now, nobody wanted to watch TV because it was a dumb television box and it was not interactive. But from the last two years, people have gone back to the living room again becauseTV now becomes more interactive, the content gets better, and the TVs are connected. The dumb box has now become smarter, encouraging and motivating the family to get back to the living room.
Therefore, people are actually still spending money on TV, just in an OTV format and the smart TV format. If you ask me from my context in online advertising strategies in China as a marketer, you should be spending your ad cost in China where your audience is. You should engage with them where they are, whatever touch points that they are actually using, Weibo or WeChat. If no longer by channeling them to all, we spend ad cost in China because of its publisher based. Now it’s really has gone into engaging where your audience is, and creating that passion and desire for them to really engage your brand.
Matthieu David: What level of regularity will you use in terms of platforms? You would think about WeChat, Weibo and so on or would you even think about partnering with a specific app, KOLs? We talk about influencer marketing in China and KOL, what level of regularity, meaning level of precision would go in terms of defining the audience?
Alvin Foo: When you use the term precision, we use the techniques like programmatic for audience targeting. We also use influencer marketing in China or the more popular Chinese term, KOL in China. It’s the one that we use a lot because it’s actually very effective and because the nature of the Chinese consumers is based on herding, following someone, and we use that a lot. Influencer marketing in China is actually very powerful and coupled with the fact when you combine them with other digital marketing strategies in China like leveraging Toutiao, Douyin, short video, and live streaming.
These are very technical. Once you decide where your audience is if it’s on a specific platform, how do you then use that platform? Some of the platforms like Douyin is very social-based and very driven by influencer marketing in China, and that goes very well in terms of using influencer marketing in China instead of just a regular banner. The way that we plan digital marketing strategies in China is audience-based. We decide where your audience are and we target them using respective channels and then the granularity will always depend on all these technical things. There are various possibilities and then we will decide with the client, which are the best opportunity to take.
Matthieu David: Douyin is pretty new, known in the west as TikTok. You mentioned that the way to interact with Douyin is not through banners, but through influencer marketing in China. Could you tell us about a more comprehensive way of interacting with Douyin through influencer marketing in China? Is it the display of the product in a video? Is it creating a video with influencers? How do you leverage Douyin? A lot of brands don’t know yet how to leverage Douyin, because it is not as simple as spending ad cost in China on Weibo or WeChat now.
Alvin Foo: We have a couple of clients that have actually tried and so far from the performance that has been presented, it’s actually very encouraging. Because Douyin has gone on to become a very popular platform, especially for people living in a second, third and fourth-tier cities. As you know Chinese people has got ample of time and they are engaging within Douyin. When you look at Douyin, it’s actually very contagious. When people will start to look at it, you will keep on watching it, nonstop. It’s also because they are powered by AI and also personalization, which is really the key on the ByteDance turf. You will be continuously served with a lot of the content that is actually very relevant to you. When you go into influencer marketing in China, the KOL selection would depend very much on the kind of brands that you’re working with.
There are some KOLs who are specifically good, but we need not any KOL to work with our brand. We need to find that affiliation. Once you find the right strategies of influencer marketing in China, then we will recommend KOL that’s actually with Douyin. Usually, when we work with Douyin, Douyin would also present to us the selection of potential KOL for influencer marketing in China. We would then work out the content together with the time for a short video because Douyin is a short video platform. And then we would create those videos and the hope that video eventually could be very driven by E-commerce in China and also a very a viral video to be shared. So again, depending on the objective, usually we work with Douyin and then leveraging their KOL resources for influencer marketing in China, and then deliver the message to the audience.
Matthieu David: I understand the infrastructure and influencer marketing in China are the key to work with Douyin. The process is Douyin also suggesting some KOL you can interact with or do you find by yourself or do you have a software, like we interviewed ParkLu some time ago, which is a software to assess different KOLs for influencer marketing in China.
Would you use the software? Could you be more precise on this because there is a lot of mystery on how do you find the accurate KOL for influencer marketing in China? It’s easy to find the top, people who are very famous. But the people who are very interesting and, in the middle, they are not as expensive as the top and still, they have an audience. How do you make sure that you get the accurate ones for influencer marketing in China?
Alvin Foo: I mean, call it KOL selection, and search and selection is a lot better than before because it used to be a black box where nobody has an idea, usually you would have to depend on your agency to help you do the influencer marketing in China in the past. But it’s better now you have companies that you mentioned just now, PARKLU, and Robin8. In fact, the more popular one is actually a tool that is actually offered by Ad master. There you can do KOL selection, and the other one is the one that we are using in our agency, a tool that we work with Tencent.
So, Tencent has a KOL selection tool because Tencent has access to WeChat. We have access to so many KOLs on their platform and through the tool that’s actually provided by the Tencent, we can then search a specific KOL for our influencer marketing in China. We can put in the requirement, search a KOL and it will provide all the data allowing us to build insight on influencer marketing in China, to build that information to help us survive and justify why we select this particular KOL for our influencer marketing in China. Tencent marketing tool has a tool that we’re using right now to help us to select KOL. We have picked Tencent simply because they have got a massive reach in terms of all the KOL.
Matthieu David: Your assumption is to say that influencer marketing in China that will be necessarily big on the digital landscape in China would be necessarily big on WeChat. WeChat is a right proxy to assess influencer marketing in China, because anyway if it’s big on Douyin, it will be also sizeable on WeChat. This is your assumption, isn’t it?
Alvin Foo: Yes. That’s how it’s summed up. We can’t be going out to buy all the tools available in China for influencer marketing and trying to get a size up in the market. We picked this particular tool for influencer marketing because we think it has credentials, and then obviously Tencent has access to a big tool. If you ask me from my standpoint when you work with Weibo, Weibo has its own platform for influencer marketing in China as well. Depending on the requirement, but usually, we would rely on one tool for influencer marketing that we have, and then when we work with partners like Douyin or Weibo, we work with the team, so we can leverage their team resource in terms of helping them do the influencer marketing. Influencer marketing in China is unlike the old days when we wanted to work with only the big KOL, but these days there is fatigue.
Maybe in the past, their trust level was a lot higher before, but now because there is fatigue. So many people and brands are leveraging influencer marketing in China. We have gone from focusing on large KOL into what I would term as micro influencer. These are KOLs who have a lot smaller base but are very laser-focused and talk about a specific topic like supplements. When we work with some of our clients from B2B in China, we use a lot of micro influencers, because we think you know micro influencers, while they have a very small reach versus the big influencer who has got a thousand and millions right. We work with them because from performances that we have seen the results so far, they maybe are small but the conversion or engagement is a lot higher than big influencers or even celebrities.
Matthieu David: What is the internal size? What is a small or medium KOL? Is it 1000 or is it half a million, is it 10,000 people following?
Alvin Foo: Everyone has got different definition, but for us, a micro influencer has 30-50,000 followers. This definition varies with people. Some think that people who have got 3,000. But easily 30-50,000 and then we will work with like many 30-50,000 influencers, not just one. We pick like maybe 5. It could be added to 250,000 but very laser focused.
Matthieu David: You mentioned B2B client. I think it’s very interesting to see that B2B is also using such a digital marketing strategy in China in order to convert into sales. Would you mind mentioning a couple of cases on B2B marketing using influencer marketing in China?
Alvin Foo: We have this client who is actually selling industry tools for the factory. Their audiences are the factory managers. When you look at B2B, for digital marketing strategy in China, even in B2B you’re still talking to the people. whether it’s B2B or B2C you’re still talking to the people, the only difference is in B2C, you’re talking to the mass digital landscape in China, but when you’re talking about B2B, you have to be a lot more laser-focused because you’re talking to a factory worker, factory manager, general manager of a factory.
Therefore, when you talk to these people, they are still your consumers like B2C, but they are more focused in terms of what they look at. We need to use the right influencer, the right media. The B2B is also leveraging the WeChat. They have an official account. We will pick an even a smaller group of influencers like someone who is very good at that specific area, maybe like industry product. He is like a Google or an expert in that area. That kind of people has actually got a huge influence and we will work through them to retarget audience. B2B target is a much smaller group, but it’s actually very high value because the items in it are big-ticket usually.
Matthieu David: You mentioned a client you have that is selling industry machines. What kind of strategies for influencer marketing in China would you use in this case? Is it like an engineer who is writing a lot about the machines? Is it someone in the factory industry. Could you speak of specific cases of influencer marketing in China you may have used for them?
Alvin Foo: We usually find them from the publication. When we go to the publisher of a specific side because it’s very hard for you to reach out to this one guy who is an engineer and fascinated within that particular industry. Usually, we access them from some of the media that we are working with, and then they will then recommend to us that there are these two or three KOLs who they have worked with before and who write content, like a micro influencer within this category. That’s how we usually pull. A lot of recommendations come from the media, because it’s very hard to go and find this one or two guys who are really good at what they do in that specific area. It’s not like using macro influencer marketing in China that we already know, but the best way to go and find them is to talk to some of the B2B media and I am sure they would have access to some of these writers and also content makers.
Matthieu David: You may go through a specialized magazine to find some people writing articles because you identify them as influencers. You talk a lot about the digital landscape in China and influencer marketing in China, but you rarely mention search engines in China. It’s on your website, you have specialists of SEO in China, you have SEM specialists, but you haven’t mentioned so much about search engines in China. There’s a question I often have from people who are interested in the digital landscape. Are search engines in China dead? Can we rely on Baidu for digital marketing strategies? Which industries can rely on Baidu to do SEO in China or it’s really now the marketplace business and the media should be spending on E-commerce in China, plus social media? Because if you look at where to spend ad cost in China, there are search engines which may be the oldest places and more programmatic displays. There are E-commerce platforms like Taobao, TMall, Alibaba if it’s for B2B and influencers leveraging social media. But search engines in China seem to be lagging behind compared to the west. What’s your opinion?
Alvin Foo: I want to make one point actually, we started as a company specialized in SEO in China. We are very strong in search engines in China. In fact, our major revenues are actually from doing SEO in China. A big chunk of revenue that we build within the company is working with Baidu. Obviously, there is a local 360 and all that, obviously Baidu is a big chunk. Now number 1, search engines in China are not dead. In fact, search engines in China have grown a lot bigger but have gone vertical. People are still searching in general. Who isn’t? You are searching on WeChat, you are searching on CTrip, you are searching on Dianping, you are searching on Baidu as well. The only thing that Baidu hasn’t done well enough is it didn’t go vertical, as in capture, but it has not been effective in capturing those traffic that has gone vertical.
Baidu is still very relevant to us. In fact, a lot of clients are spending their ad cost in China on Baidu. Some may have really shifted their ad cost in China, but in general, a lot of our clients continue to spend. We are still doing a lot of SEO in China and SEM for our clients. So, the business of search engines in China for us is growing. It is a growing concern that a lot of those search engines in China have gone vertical and they have not managed to capture them. That’s why when you see the online advertising strategies in China going a lot on Alibaba versus Baidu, where its ad cost in China is a lot. Because in the past, if you look at the behavior of the users, they will search on Baidu and then Baidu have them linked to E-commerce in China. These days, all that has disappeared because everyone just searches on JD or even Alibaba.
The impact on Baidu is actually great, but it is still very relevant, in terms of the other kind of SEO in China for B2B, they are still very relevant there. But search engines in China are in a very dangerous zone, because the one thing that now is that, websites are no longer very relevant because they are not enough now. In fact, when you look at the latest numbers, the numbers of the website is actually dropping in China. That’s dangerous because search engines in China are based on crawling websites. If the number of websites is not growing or not being updated, then the relevancy and the quality of Baidu search drops tremendously as well. That’s why the recent quarterly earnings of Baidu dropped tremendously. Its stock was dropped by 50%. Baidu has a lot of issues that it needs to go and fix as a search engine in China. I think moving forward I think it will be very challenged. There will be some segments that it will continue to do very well, but to compete in the same league with Tencent and Alibaba, I think it has disappeared a long time ago. In fact, I always say that the BAT in China, the B is actually ByteDance, it’s not Baidu.
Matthieu David: Interesting. Why do you think Google is still doing so well even though it is worried that some of the ad cost in China is being on Amazon now? That’s one of the reasons why Google invested in JD, but still, Google is predominant in the online advertising strategies in China and its SEO in China is very strong still in the west compared to Baidu where you say, it has its challenges. How do you analyze the differences?
Alvin Foo: The big difference between Baidu and Google is that the quality of SEO in China on Google is many, many times better. You can do a concurrent search, taking Google versus Bing, Bing versus Baidu. You will see the quality of SEO in China on Google is many, many times better.
Matthieu David: Even in Chinese?
Alvin Foo: I’ve tried in Chinese. It’s actually not bad on as Google as well. Baidu is obviously better in China because of its ability to crawl much better than Google because it’s blocked in China, but it’s not bad. If you do an English search or other languages, Google would trump anybody on earth. When we look at the quality of search or the transition of search engines in China going vertical, Google is very good in providing a search result. People in general globally still are very search-centric and very reliant on Google. Even when they are searching for travel, some people might go and search on Expedia, but because of the ability of Google to be able to crawl everywhere and still land you on those assets. Because I said these companies depend on search engines in China for their growth and skills. The websites are still growing globally, unlike China. Google has got a great ability to crawl these websites very well, so that’s why when you search travel or food on Google, Google has got the ability to pull any kind of stuff, anywhere on earth, quite quickly to you, and then reconnect them to you, because they’ve got a website.
But, in China, you can’t, because any competitor of Baidu will block Baidu, so Baidu has no access as a search engine in China. Baidu could only leverage its own expertise and resources like building its own product. Baidu will need to have its own online video, travel company because if it doesn’t have its own travel company, it will not be able to get travel information because CTrip would not allow me to crawl on it. Compared to Google who has access to crawl anybody, even when I search on Expedia, I always start my search on Google. But in China, you automatically go vertical search engines in China. I want to search for food, you will use Meituan. I know there’s Yelp and OpenTable, but you will still search on Google, and then Google will help you connect to OpenTable and Yelp as well. So that’s a huge difference.
Matthieu David: I believe some people are going Google and typing Amazon as well, to go on Amazon.com, that’s how people are dependent on Google in the West.
Alvin Foo: But I must admit that what Google is going to face some challenges as far as Amazon is concerned because Amazon actually got into online advertising strategies in China a lot later. This was a business that Amazon could have creamed much earlier like how Alibaba creamed the online advertising strategies in China. Amazon only came into online advertising strategies in China 24 months ago, so that would give Google to feel that pressure. That’s why Google has gone into Google Shopping, because I think you will see a situation where they’re going to compete so hard that you cannot cross from each platform to another, just like China. Once you get into a situation where you compete so hard, I’m very certain at some point Amazon will not allow Google to crawl and then vice versa, same in China, with Alibaba and Tencent, you cannot crawl each other right. That will happen, and I think that’s going to be a lot of pressure and if you see the growth of ad cost in China on Amazon, Amazon is literally just eating into Facebook and Google for sure, because all your searches of E-commerce in China are going to prioritize to Amazon.
Matthieu David: When you want to buy Google Home devices, you cannot buy it on Amazon. I think that is a signal as well that they are splitting the Internet in some way.
Alvin Foo: Obviously heading that direction. A lot of people say the digital landscape in China is unique. When I look at the world, I mean eventually they compete down the track it will be very similar, they will block each other for sure.
Matthieu David: Do you have any information about Google coming back to China as a search engine in China? What’s your idea of what it is going to do? Is it going to become a censored search engine in China compliant with Chinese law and so on? What’s your idea on this? Cause you have worked with Google; you should have some visions, right?
Alvin Foo: It was getting a lot of disagreement and dissatisfaction from its existing Googlers, hoping that the company will not take on that route because it doesn’t go hand in hand with Google’s philosophy. Earlier this year it decided that it will not come back to China as a search engine in China, and I’m not sure whether it would want to come back again in the future, even though I think, the digital landscape in China is a very important market for Google.
For whatever reason, it has decided in 2019 that it has forced it to leave China. Coming back to China, while it definitely opens up the opportunity for Chinese Internet users to access Google as a search engine in China, but I think for Google to be really successful, it will really need to redefine what digital marketing strategies in China are successful in China before it’s already too late. You have seen so many companies along the way, that has come to China, including Amazon. For Google, the time has passed to grow in the digital landscape in China, especially in an area like a search engine in China and also E-commerce in China. Alibaba and Tencent are no longer a company that is the size of a 10th of Google or a 10th of Facebook. These companies are very sizeable and they need to even move the needle.
Matthieu David: I’m seeing two aspects that Google is strong and has been successful in the digital landscape in China. Android is used in China, as an operating system and the export online advertising strategies in China. Because a lot of Chinese companies actually are paying Google or Facebook for advertising. That’s something I would be very interested to have your opinion on. Are you seeing Chinese clients coming to you saying, we want to do advertising in the West and to use programmatic and Google search, or Facebook for their digital marketing strategies in China? Do you see a trend in it?
Alvin Foo: It is a trend. When I worked for Google in the past, the export trend actually starting in 2011, but the trend was driven largely by what I would call as gaming companies, mainly getting their apps promoted in other parts of the world like in Asia, like in the US. The reason was very obvious because they were able to get people to pay. There was this paying behavior outside China. In China, there was no playing behavior. People want everything for free, but the rest of the world, in America, in Europe, even in Asia, people were willing to pay like people in Hong Kong and Taiwan have got this tendency to pay something, so they were targeting. The trend in export has started then really.
The last three years, the trend has moved beyond just gaming companies, has gone into E-commerce in China that’s actually promoting outside China. Now you’ve got several other brands like equipment manufacturers such as Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, and Huawei, who are very dominant in China and want to promote. Now, the trend shifting is because China has gone from domestic to becoming a global champion. Taking the footstep of companies like Lenovo, Huawei, Tencent and more confident in themselves and they are more ready. In the last 3 – 5 years, a lot of these companies have actually gone beyond China. The trend is becoming bigger and bigger and there’s this huge requirement because it’s very competitive in China. What happens when there’s a competition? When there’s competition in China and needs to grow beyond that, the only thing we need to do is to go beyond China. A lot of companies are actually being pressured. That’s why the export trend is becoming more obvious for many companies in the digital landscape in China. It’s not just Oppo, Vivo, Huawei. I even expect the smaller brands who used to be local champions in the digital landscape in China, to go export.
Matthieu David: Where will they go first? South East Asia? The US? Europe? What is dominant?
Alvin Foo: My view is that always try and target the nearest to you, and usually countries that speak Chinese first. That would be the first step. Going after countries where there are a lot of Chinese like Hong Kong and Thailand. They will be your first tier to do digital marketing strategies in China and they are also nearer to you and easier for you to manage right, not like going outside and attacking the American market or the European market. Try somewhere very close and if you want some guidance from digital marketing strategies in China, following Tencent and Alibaba. They started with South East Asia and India. Southeast Asia as a region is very sizeable for businesses in E-commerce in China with a billion users or customers.
Matthieu David: You are a member for the board of advisors of SXSW, an ICO advisor at NOIZ, DropChain and also at Robin8 actually you mentioned it before, a social and content platform providing digital marketing strategies in China. How do you become an advisor for so many entrepreneurs in China?
Alvin Foo: It goes back to my passion. In my early part of my career, I was actually an entrepreneur in China. It’s not that I’ve always been working for other people. When I was a kid, I always dreamt to become an entrepreneur in China. People asked me, what would you want to become when you grow up, I’d say I want to be an entrepreneur in China. God knows why but maybe it was like fashionable and also sounds good to be an entrepreneur in China. In fact, when I came up from university and worked with people and immediately I went to start my own entrepreneur adventure. Obviously, the first two trials weren’t very successful. I didn’t make it and I failed, but of all these failures obviously, there was a success at the far end. It was because of my initial love for entrepreneurship in China that even after coming to China, I continued to be very active in entrepreneurship circles.
Either I go to a mentor company or start a business or invest in an entrepreneur in China, help seed a company, which I’ve actually seeded several companies. Because of my background in entrepreneurship in China that has helped me have some understanding of how you build companies right and eventually getting into space, helping entrepreneurs in China and also get myself dirty in terms of actually starting up. Because by having been here for years, where I continue to work for big companies, I have actually lost so much ground in terms of starting my own business. I thought maybe instead of starting my own company, it’s to work with founders. These founders are a lot younger. If you look at most of the entrepreneurs in China are actually very young people in their 20’s and 30’s. I’m not so young. I don’t think I have the stamina. I certainly do have a bit of grey hair. Maybe if I don’t have the stamina, if I have grey hair, I can use that grey hair for a better purpose. Tell them and if there’s an opportunity to invest in them and grow with them, and that’s how I landed myself into several of these entrepreneurship adventures and mentoring and also advising them in specific areas. I spend a great deal of time talking about blockchain, not because I happen to talk about blockchain, but because of my belief that blockchain is the way to go in terms of actually building a more secure platform for the digital landscape in China.
That was how I got into the blockchain, but again it was just an area and obviously, I continue to look into. That’s why when you look at my profile, I’ve always been very passionate about emerging technologies in the digital landscape in China. It could be blockchains, artificial intelligence which I talk a lot about, and at the same time whatever I see emerging because I think all these technologies have an impact on brands, has an impact on digital marketing strategies in China, has an impact on businesses. They will be game changers. A lot of these emerging technologies will also potentially disrupt the existing E-commerce in China like how the internet has disrupted E-commerce in China. My love for technology has always been looking at how that would disrupt E-commerce in China and how entrepreneurship in China will then disrupt an old way of doing things.
Matthieu David: If an entrepreneur in China wants to have you as an advisor, what should they consider and how should they reach out to you? They should consider paying your services or inviting you for lunch? For dinner? What should they consider?
Alvin Foo: I don’t have a checklist, but usually most people contact me through recommendation, or either through China Accelerator or SparkLabs, then they will connect with me and chat. The initial part is really just chemistry that at least we don’t hate each other. There’s some level of trust that I like his business model and think he’s a survivor in the digital landscape in China. If you ask me, what do I look for in an entrepreneur in China? I don’t think any idea is amazing until you execute them and you really need a true survivor digital landscape in China and all these very successful companies are still here because of how these entrepreneurs in China are able to die and survive, die and live.
So live and die, live and die. You need to continuously reiterate and if I can see in that I usually want to work with entrepreneurs in China because I want to find someone who will inspire me, right, and I can learn a lot from them. So, when you ask me why I continue to do this? It’s not so because I want to make more money out of it. Making money is actually a bonus, but more importantly that I can create a relationship that is mutually beneficial for us. I can learn from you and also at the same time I can impart something to you as well. I value that a lot more, because if you ask me, what is the best way to learn? I can no longer go back to the age of these entrepreneurs in China, but the only way to go back in time is to work with them. When you work with entrepreneurs in China, they will give you a lot of ideas that you cannot imagine. That’s how I continue to stay in the entrepreneurship scene, that’s one way that I’ve been doing to stay relevant in the digital landscape in China.
Matthieu David: How do you interact with them? Is it like a monthly debrief? Or is it on demand, when needed you can schedule a time with them? How do you work with them?
Alvin Foo: There are times that I also work with some of them that I meet them once every two weeks as well. It all depends on the requirement. Usually once a month and also if there is a need be, they can always call me. We can always use WeChat. So, it’s actually very fluid.
Matthieu David: You are from Malaysia, and I’ve been to Malaysia one year ago, with an organization called EO, entrepreneur organization. I saw a lot of entrepreneurs in China over there. It was very impressive and refreshing. Do you have any plans sometimes to actually contribute to the digital landscape in China or in Malaysia? Do you have any plans to go back to Malaysia to contribute to this growth in this ecosystem?
Alvin Foo: I have actually thought about it. I started my career in Malaysia, so it’s a country that I miss to go home to. The good thing about Malaysia is that compared to the digital landscape in China, the cost of operation is actually a lot lower. I have actually invested into a company that was initially based in Shanghai who eventually we decided that because of the cost of operation, we actually move it back to Malaysia. This startup has relocated the entire operations back to Malaysia to take advantage of the lower cost of people.
You can easily get the same people like engineers but for at least half the price and the cost are actually very appealing and the infrastructure in Malaysia is very good, the access to the broadband and the global network. Malaysia is actually a very good place for entrepreneurs in China if you are looking for a lower cost hub to really run a business. If you ask me if I have plans in the future, yeah maybe, very likely because I would at some point return to Malaysia because that’s home and it’s also a very good spot for any entrepreneur in China who wants to start something with access to people who can speak multi languages like Chinese, Mandarin, English and also Malayan as well, the same language that’s being spoken in Indonesia. It’s actually a very good location.
Matthieu David: Thank you very much for your time Alvin, on a Saturday morning, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I hope everyone enjoyed the talk, thank you for the audience to listen to us and talk soon.
China paradigm is a China business podcast sponsored by Daxue Consulting where we interview successful entrepreneurs about their businesses in China. You can access all available episodes from the China paradigm Youtube page.
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