Find here the full China paradigm episode 38. Learn more about Charles Bark’s story in the Chinese elderly care market and find all the details and additional links below.
Full transcript below:
Matthieu David: Hello, everyone. I’m Matthieu David, the founder of Daxue Consulting, and this China marketing podcast, China Paradigm. Today I am with Charles Bark. Charles, we had met a long time ago already, about 5 or 6 years ago, even before you started your current business HiNounou that we are going to talk about today. You are a true serial entrepreneur in China, at least two businesses and a lot of other initiatives, being co-founders or you had been involved with.
You have begun with ChinPass, a language solution to learn Chinese. Now you are the founder and CEO of HiNounou, a solution-based device to provide healthcare in China for the elderly. So, you provide a Home Wellness Kit, including a scale and other devices to understand the health of the seniors and an app as well to provide any kind of Chinese elderly care. HiNounou is already more than five years old. You have been endorsed by President Macron and active within the ecosystem of entrepreneurs in China like the French Chamber of Commerce in China, also overseas. You have been very active on media, at the same time as you build your company with a lot of rewards. I’d like actually to understand how you have been able to manage all this, both the PR and building your product and software. Thank you very much,, Charles, for being with us. I am very excited to know more about HiNounou. I realized when I went to your website to prepare the interview, what I saw two years ago when we met next to my office has changed a lot. The product has changed and evolved a lot. The first question is where this stage is now? Where do you stand in terms of revenue, the size of the team, and product? Could you give us an idea to the audience where you are in terms of your development?
Charles Bark: First of all, thank you for your interview. It’s really a pleasure to be interviewed with this China marketing podcast, China Paradigm. It’s a privilege and an honor because you have good visibility in China. We are really happy to share our experience in your podcast. HiNounou is a result of twelve years, four countries in the world, America, Canada, France, and China. Officially, we launched our headquarter in Hong Kong in 2016, a branch in Shanghai in 2017, and another company in Singapore. Today, we officially register in three regions, Hong Kong, Mainland, and Singapore. We also had two rounds of fundraising. Our market capitalization today is 25 million dollars. We have a team of 15 employees, most of whom are located in Shanghai, where we are the most active because we are mostly based in the Mainland China, but we also have remote colleagues in Canada and Italy and of course in Singapore and Hong Kong.
The main vision of HiNounou is to help seniors in China not only live longer, but also healthier and happier with a nursing home in China, and bring the peace of mind to their children who live far away from them. It started with my own issue of China’s aging population. You said I’m a serial entrepreneur in China, and when I look at the basics of my companies that I founded, it was always based on problem-solving that I had to face personally. Six years ago, I was calling my mum, a retired doctor living alone after my father passed away. She is living far away from me in the other country. When I called her and asked how she was doing, she said “I am fine. Don’t worry.” But then, my older brother called me and said that she fell down and went to the hospital. Then I realized I don’t have any visibility of her health at home, and how is it possible to take care of our seniors in China when we are not living close to them, as an expat worker living in Shanghai? Because our loving parents don’t want to give us any burden, so they will not tell the truth about their health. But when in the future we are going to have the visibility, we have to rush like a fireman to see what we can do, but it will be too late. I didn’t want to be at that stage because I had to face the situation myself first in 2013 and I didn’t want to get another bad experience. When I was thinking of my situation, I am not alone. We have more than one million expat workers in China like you and me. When we think even deeper, we have half of the people living in Shanghai are not from Shanghai. They are immigrant people, mostly from different provinces of China. If you think around 25 million Shanghainese, it’s a big number, more than 12 million people coming from other cities. Beijing is almost the same, and you think of Shenzhen, 100% coming from outside.
When we think of these issues of seniors in China when we think Macau, we have around 200 million seniors over 60 years old, and when we look at those numbers, we think that it’s very predictable because 30 years from now in 2050, those 200 million will become half a million. And I know that you know very well those numbers because Daxue Consulting already had this wonderful research paper on aging and the problem that we solve in China. When we look at those numbers, the scariest fact is not only that we will have a growing number of elderlies that will become half of the population within 30 years, but also that most of the seniors in China already today among the 200 million, are living alone, like 60%. When we are not Chinese, we think Chinese and Asian families are very closely-bond and live together, which is true. But due to the new lifestyle and urban migration, most of their children are in different cities, not only for study but also to get work. So, the matter of fact for today is that most of them live alone. In Chinese, we call that “empty-nest seniors,” and the big question is how is it possible to take care of seniors in China when we are not close to them? Now when we think of the solution, today there is already a lack of 10 million professional givers for Chinese elderly care.
As you already know, healthcare in China is not mature at all. We are in infancy in China for one major reason is that this entire Chinese elderly care is not like a language. It’s the Chinese way of thinking of the family, like culture. You don’t want to take your parents, send them to the nursing home. It’s completely against the way the traditional Chinese think about the family.
Matthieu David: In Chinese culture, they would have it at home.
Charles Bark: Yes. The westerners are more independent in terms of generation and western countries have a much more advanced maturity on this solution on the way to take care of the seniors. But here we have an incredibly new market of Chinese elderly care to address, and the question is in terms of the number of professionals, there is a big shortage today of 10 million.
Now the question is, how is it possible to cope with this shortage of professional human givers of Chinese elderly care? Is there a way to rethink about the usage of the connected device with biotech in China, what we call IoT Medtech? From the IOT Medtech, is there a way to bring the hospital at home, because you have a specific situation in China where you don’t have a family doctor? All the healthcare in China is centralized in the hospital with three categories, and many people are rushing to the best one, level three. We cannot have any medical meetings in advance and schedule any doctors in advance, so we lose around 4 or 5 hours per day to get a diagnosis from a doctor. In the end, when we look at the situation, the healthcare in China as a whole is not adapted to help the seniors in China live longer and healthier at home. It’s not HiNounou; it’s not Charles Bark telling that, if we download the report of China’s aging population from the World Health Organization, it’s written black and white that the existing professionals working in healthcare in China are not adapted to solve this issue of China’s aging population. Because healthcare in China in the past was only addressing a situation when it’s already too late, it is purely treatment-based, but we cannot wait that these massive seniors in China are coming every year on the market of healthcare in China. We cannot wait until they have an issue, otherwise, it’s demanding in terms of professional Chinese elderly care, and it’s also very costly because you wait until they have a chronic disease. So, the whole question is, is it possible to reshuffle the game? Using more digitalization, robotics and AI to cope with the lack of shortage of human professional Chinese elderly care providers, we have to think carefully because we are talking of human beings, fragile people, families, and at the end, happiness.
So, we should be very careful on the way we deliver the solutions for China’s aging population. We believe that it should not be a black and white solution. We know that there are some professionals who are really facing to face, nurse, doctor, or other professional Chinese elderly care providers. On the other hand, all these kinds of biotech in China want to digitalize healthcare in China with a value proposition, which is using digitalization. HiNounou more believes a Yin and Yang between these two worlds. We don’t want to get opposition.
Matthieu David: You mean human being and also artificial intelligence in China and tech basically?
Charles Bark: Exactly, so what we decided is first, the gravitational center should be human. There is a shortage of human professional Chinese elderly care providers, so we cannot just count on human providing services. There will be a bigger gap in the future when every year there are millions of seniors in China coming in healthcare in China. Now doing a Yin and Yang with MedTech, ensure tech, and biotech in China, all in one, connected in an AI-based preventative platform, should help us more align with the needs of the seniors in China. There is also a Yin and Yang between the way we address the medicine. We have two schools of medicine in the world, the western school, which is more cure-and-treatment based, post-accident, and Chinese traditional medicine, more orientated in prevention. Because I am the third generation working in healthcare in China, my mother went to France for a .D.Ph.D. and became a doctor in a French hospital, and her father has the biggest pharmacy in Busan, Korea. So, my childhood was in-between these kinds of Yin and Yang, Western medicine in France with this family background and traditional Chinese way of thinking in terms of the prevention.
As an engineer from France, I was trying to think of how is it possible to bring this biotech in China, the best technology that we have in the western world and combine all of them with more Chinese traditional way in prevention. Because as we learn on the report delivered by the World Health Organization, I was very surprised to learn that 60% of the chronic diseases and 40% of cancer can be preventable if we trigger the risk factors. When we look at chronic diseases and cancer, the main risk factors are our lifestyle, nutrition, fitness, and sleeping habits. Most of the chronic diseases, for example, diabetes type II, is just because we eat too many calories. We are not doing as much fitness as we should do, like a few thousand steps a day. In the past, when the society was much more in an agricultural mode, people were more physical, but today we are more white collars, and we don’t practice that much. All those variables bring more and more chronic diseases that can be preventable. How can we have this data? How is it possible to collect as much as data possible, that will give us visibility of what happens to our fragile seniors in China when we are not living with them?
Matthieu David: Before we go more in depths into the solution, I’d like to go back on what you said about the size of the business in what you are already doing. You said value of 25 million US. But to produce what you do, which is IOT-linked to devices, it requires money. How much money did you raise?
Charles Bark: I raised so far more than millions. I cannot go too much on the detail, because we are now in the third round of investment. Our lawyer asked us to be cautious because we are under due diligence in China.
Matthieu David: More than one, less than five?
Charles Bark: Yes. It came first from the benefit that I had from my first company, Chin Pass.
Matthieu David: So, you invested yourself. It was not external rounds of investment.
Charles Bark: At the beginning, most of the investments were personal. Then at a certain extent when I didn’t have that many resources, I need to go to chase some investments. So, we got two rounds so far.
Matthieu David: You talked about some sales volume. Would you be able to share with the audience, where you are in terms of the sales volume, types of the contracts you have, types of way of selling? Can we buy HiNounou online? Is it more for hospital or companies? Could you elaborate a bit more and give us a sense of volume? An idea of what’s going on?
Charles Bark: Officially, we launched last year in China, after all those years of preparation.
Matthieu David: When you say officially, what do you mean? You ship the product, or does it mean that you were able to have a prototype?
Charles Bark: Officially, we were able to sell, to release our product.
Matthieu David: To deliver the product.
Charles Bark: In the market of healthcare in China. Last year we signed our first deal in B2B in China, because our business model is B2B, not B2C. The Bs are distributors that are either insurance or players in healthcare in China or companies in the biotech in China. Last year we signed a deal of supplying 3000 packs with a turnover of 21 million RMB, which gave us around $2.5-3 million. This year, we have more deals flowing on our pipelines, not only in China but also in different countries, southeast Asia, and even in Poland, Europe. We have a multi-million dollars deal flow currently for our packs. Today, we have around more than 100,000 orders of packs.
In the pack, we have three different components inside based on the evaluation of the top ten risks for the seniors in China based on the World Health Organization data. So, we have a DNA test pack here. This is DIY at home; we collect here from the saliva. You put saliva in the container and ship to us. After we get the report of the top ten risks for the seniors in China like cardiovascular disease, diabetes type II, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson. Once we get the evaluation of the top ten risks, we go to the mobile-connected device with IOT connected with healthcare in China. We have a mobile phone here, a dedicated phone for seniors in China with an SOS button to ask for help. Instead of looking for numbers of my son, you just press this button, and it will connect directly to three caregivers. You don’t even need to say where you are, because they will automatically receive your geo-localization. This phone has bigger icons as well. We partner with the third largest telco in China, who produced this phone called ZTE, and they preload our app directly in their factory. Everyone who buys this phone will have our app already built inside. We have 20,000 preloaded apps that are already in the market of biotech in China. We have a different function, the devices connected with healthcare in China like blood pressure, oximeter, connected scale. We also have this kind of ECG.
Matthieu David: What is ECG?
Charles Bark: Electrocardiogram. We have not only the ECG but also the glucose meter, for those who have diabetes type II. All these kinds of devices connected with the healthcare in China have the same quality as the hospital because they are all medically certified by China’s CFDA as well as a CE mark. We collect the data at home, which nobody has done before, and then the data goes to the cloud. Every caregiver of these seniors in China, including the family wherever they are, is able to receive and look at the data.
Matthieu David: How many devices in the kit?
Charles Bark: We have six devices. Three are devices connected with biotech in China, with the mobile phone it will be four, and we have an optional glucose meter and the ECG.
Matthieu David: So, four to six devices in a kit. Because with $1 million or even $10 million, you’re not able to build all of them, you have to find partners for a startup in China. Could you tell us more about how you assemble this solution? Actually, you are bringing a lot of values to healthcare in China by interconnecting all those devices and assembling them. Some people say that Elon Musk, most of his job is to assemble existing technology and make SpaceX more accessible and cheaper. Actually, there’s a lot of values and innovation in it. So, could you explain to us about how you have been able to find partners for a startup in China and work with them? If someone in your team would like to do something with factories like a product that is too expensive to develop but already existing, how should he do?
Charles Bark: As an entrepreneur in China, the most important thing to understand is what is our value proposition and what is already existing in order to avoid reinventing the wheel. Because when we are clear on our value proposition, which is this AI, preventative platform that combines different devices like the DNA testing with the biotech in China together, we need to think about what is already existing in the market. In term of this connected medical device, HiNounou, we didn’t want to recreate the wheel. The challenge we had to face was to identify the right partners for a startup in China, the right factories that are able to provide that and to avoid the go-between as much as possible. Once we get the screening properly and we identify the right partners for a startup in China, the challenge for me was how to convince them to work with me when I didn’t have any MOQ, Minimum Order Quantity at the beginning.
Matthieu David: How much is the MOQ? How many should you produce to be able to work with them? 50 – 100 – 1000?
Charles Bark: It depends on the factories and the size of their volume production per year. Some said 1000 and some said lower, for example, this ECG is not as popular as the weight scale connected with the biotech in China, which is massive and popular in the healthcare in China. But they can reduce this MOQ of this ECG device, a niche device, too much lower, like a 100 – 200 devices. Then my challenge was, a partner for a startup in China who has this, is it possible for me to you to work together and avoid all those go-betweens? Because the factory doesn’t want to waste a lot of time with different small players like us, it prefers to relocate us to its distributors. The first is into the negotiation, meeting those people face to face and saying that, “I know you don’t want me to work with you because you don’t want to waste time for small quantity. You want me to work with a distributor. When I increase my volume, maybe you want me to work directly with you.” This is the number one challenge that we have, and I don’t have any secret recipe to do that.
Matthieu David: How did you find partners for a startup in China? Did you go on Alibaba?
Charles Bark: Alibaba was one of the sources, but the problem that I had with Alibaba is many are cheating. They pretend to be the factory, and you think you’re talking directly with the factory, whereas it’s not the factory. It’s a distributor who pretends to be a factory to attract more people. We found Alibaba by experience that it can be a good way to screen partners for a startup in China, but a lot of time wasting because at the end it’s just a phone call and we have to rely on what they said, which is not always the truth.
Then, we need to go to the ground. The number two solution was to go to the biggest event where all those partners for a startup in China are exhibiting their products. One of the biggest advice that I give to your audience is to go to CMEF, China Medical Equipment Fair in Shanghai. We went there, and we spent a few days there. We went booth by booth and asked only two questions, “Are you CFDA-approved,” and because many of them are not devices connected with biotech in China, “What is your technology behind that.” If with the first screening of the first question, you can remove around 90 – 95% of them. It took just five to ten seconds.
We then focus on the only ones who have this medical certification. Because if you want to be professional and collect the data, all those professional givers of the healthcare in China, doctors, insurance, they will ask, “How much can I believe those numbers?” So, we have to be straight, and we need to be professional, making sure all those equipment is FDA approved or even better, CE Marked in Europe. Then these partners for a startup in China will help us because on our prospection we were also thinking, of course, to move to Europe. Once we selected those partners for a startup in China that match our criteria, we have to visit them in their factories. Most of them are located in Shenzhen, where you find a lot of production there. We visited one by one, talked to them, and gauged them on our dream. The way to convince these big partners for a startup in China to work with a small potato like us is only to drive them on our dream. The reason why these partners for a startup in China accepted to work with us is because of our dream, to make a better society.
Matthieu David: Did you speak in Chinese with them?
Charles Bark: Yes.
Matthieu David: You were speaking yourself in Chinese. So, do you think it was a game changer?
Charles Bark: Yes, definitely yes. Because speaking in Chinese in China is the best way to touch their heart and emotion.
Matthieu David: I think that’s what an asset you had, to be able to speak Chinese. A lot of foreigners cannot do that when they go to China. They cannot go to Shenzhen to sell the dream, because they are not able to communicate in Chinese. At the end of the day they have their P&L statement, and they need to be careful of the cost. Do you think there was another factor for your ability to develop your dream? They believe in you being backed by the event and all those people who endorsed you. Do you think that played a role?
Charles Bark: Yes, this is very correlated because my dream is to have the seniors in China to live longer, healthier, happier. In Shenzhen, they are all liberal people.
Matthieu David: Yeah, young people.
Charles Bark: Young people and those owners of factories all have their seniors in China. When I talked to them about my issue of taking care of my mother, who lives far away, it might be the same case for you. They all say yes this is my case because my hometown is far away and I said, we have the same issue. If you want to correlate with healthcare in China, you think of China’s aging population. Everybody knows that China’s aging population is growing. It’s very predictable. The number of China’s aging population is massive, and everybody knows that this is an important issue to solve. Those partners for a startup in China of medical devices know that what they produce will have a bright future in healthcare in China that we are in, which is the silver economy. They were touched personally because this is what they face. The prospection of the market of healthcare in China is an incredible opportunity. The question for them is, how can I be players in this growing market of healthcare in China with a very good future in terms of perspective?
Matthieu David: The factories may not lose money with you by being partners for a startup in China, but they may actually waste time because there is less scalability. Am I correct? So, you have to convince them that the future of healthcare in China is bright, but then you begin with a very low margin with me, not making a lot of money, but the scale could be big afterward. Isn’t it that, that we are also seeing?
Charles Bark: Yes, exactly.
Matthieu David: Because even if these partners for a startup in China believe the product, they won’t sponsor your product, because they won’t make a profit out of the prototypes and they don’t see the scale in the future. But you were able to sell the future, to sell the story, so they could project themselves in a higher world for the future and are willing to waste a bit of time in the beginning but believe in the product.
Charles Bark: Yes, exactly. I want to relate that to our contests in China and everywhere in the world. This is also part of the story that helps us convince them because the question is, why do we need to go through those contests. Why do we, as entrepreneurship in China, need to go everywhere like that? If you look at HiNounou and you go on our news and look at our milestones, you will see a lot of contests, and I want also to explain why. This is also kind of story that helped us convince those very huge partners for a startup in China to work with us. The big dilemma that I had think of HiNounou, we are not like Amazon, Medtronic, Philips Medtech, we don’t have any branding equity in healthcare in China. We have a big ambition to have the seniors in China to live longer, healthier, and happier at home. We want to be the game changer in the world. When they think of Chinese elderly care, I want them to think of HiNounou like when they think of electric vehicles, every people thinks of Tesla. The dilemma that I face as an entrepreneur in China is that our core business is all big data in China. The more we can collect using biotech in China, the more valuable will be our company HiNounou. When we think of the big data, the dilemma as entrepreneurship in China like HiNounou is how to engage as much as possible with A-level partners for a startup in China that have a big customer base in order to collect the big data. Because a small potato cannot collect a lot of big data, it will remain small and die at the end. When I look in our financial resources, we need to market and build our brand equity in order for the other entrepreneur in China to work with us and convince that we are the right partner even if we are small. The only way to achieve those branding equities was to apply those international or national contests. This is the best way for me to have brand visibility in China for free.
Matthieu David: When you went to the factory, in order to showcase everything, in terms of branding, contests and so on, did you use a PPT, a video, a brochure or just speak with them? How did you materialize this? What were your tactics? Could you be a bit more in detail? We understand selling the dream, selling the future, selling the scalability. But then during the meeting, what did you have?
Charles Bark: It’s important to have at least a working prototype. We had not just come with a PPT because those guys are really down to earth and you cannot come with ideation. It will not work just ideation with a PPT.
Matthieu David: Who made your prototype, if it’s not a factory?
Charles Bark: We made it with our team, and we also had a chance to partner with one of the fantastic engineering schools in Shanghai, which I was educated in France, UTC – University Technology of Compiegne.
Matthieu David: The students of this university helped you build a prototype. That’s very interesting. Because in my mind those products from the university most of the time don’t work because the students and the companies are not involved enough, but here in your case it worked actually, to partner with students and investors.
Charles Bark: Yes, it’s a fantastic story. I’m very thankful for those academia, the professors. Also those deans at the university, one of which helped us wonderfully called UTSEUS. If you go to my website, you will see them, the partnership between three engineering schools in France and the engineering school of Shanghai University. For many years they have provided engineering students for us to build our prototypes. We also partner with EDNA, a design college with a program in Shanghai. When you look at those designs, we had 10 students working in our UI and UX design, even the product design. We had a major business school helping us like HEC. It’s kind of give and takes. I’m a lecturer in the innovation and entrepreneurship major with a few of them, and in exchange, they also provide their resources as many as they can. We had also partnered with École Polytechnique. We organized a hackathon with them and HEC students, here in Shanghai. We also had SCP students and together with a big firm like Ernst and Young, AXA. We did this hackathon, mixing academia professor students, startups, a big firm like AXA and also other schools like marketing. We are not professional in marketing, so we have another school called MBA DMB with MBA students focusing on digital marketing in China.
Matthieu David: These connections with the university and students was useful, right. You got experience out of it and the students, of course. You got proof that the prototype worked. But I feel when you talk about it, it was also from the professors, not really the student and the product, but mainly the professors for the prototype. Then you had some hackathon for the software. Why did École Polytechnique do hackathon in Shanghai? Do they do it in Shanghai?
Charles Bark: Yeah, we organized a hackathon with polytechnic and HEC students here in our office.
Matthieu David: Okay in Shanghai. There are a few students from École Polytechnique, isn’t it?
Charles Bark: They come here on the modular program, and then professors were contacting us, because they heard about the innovation of HiNounou and they are really keen on bring their students in the most innovative companies like Alibaba, but also with entrepreneurs in China, to see what is the life of French entrepreneurs in China. Thanks to our innovation, we had a lot of demands from those brilliant professors who wanted to bring their students to our office. We don’t want to deliver boring PPTs to smart students, and the best way to understand what’s going on in China is to organize a hackathon. They will work with us for a dedicated problem solving, and we give students 12 hours. Believe me; they will never forget what they learn here.
Matthieu David: But students from École Polytechnique are not developers, how can they do a hackathon?
Charles Bark: They are engineers, and HEC is business schools, so we give them a topic that matches their skills. Because we are in the ICO, Initial Coin Offering, raising funds from our blockchain and developing this fundraising, the hackathon we deliver to École Polytechnique and HEC was, what are the do-and-don’ts to market ICO and there was much more financial related than engineering and product development.
Matthieu David: I see, so it’s not really a hackathon to code. It was a hackathon to find a solution to a challenge.
Charles Bark: The development of the product itself was more with the engineering school who brought these Megatronics engineers, developers with UTSEUS and Shanghai University.
Matthieu David: Going back to the factories, the dream you said, the future, the prototype, to come with a prototype, and certainly the fact that you had done a lot of PR, contests, but they had to trust you because you don’t come with a video, a PPT, you don’t come with proof that you did all this, it’s you telling them that President Macron, and so on right. You don’t come with a marketing kit right to the factory; you come with a prototype and a speech.
Charles Bark: Yes. And also, the fact that I’m based in Shanghai, I’m living in China. So, the value proposition that we bring in China is just written black and white. So, it helps seniors in China. I don’t come to them and say that I want your product and I will ship it to another country. I’m here, and you will be a game changer yourself. Our dream is to help seniors in China to live longer, and one piece that we don’t have is your value proposition with your factory. If you look at this story, you are a wonderful player that I need to make this story true. The question that I ask you is, do you want to be part of the Chinese elderly care? It’s down to earth, making a profit in helping the world become better. You are already delivering these products related to the healthcare in China. You already have this mind that you want to help the society and seniors in China because you are not producing bicycle or iPhone, you are producing biotech in China, so those people are already oriented in helping the world in a way. They are not just only money makers. This corporate social responsibility in China is why they choose to do the business in healthcare in China. Why not come with this dream? It’s aligned in some way with what they’re doing. So, it was not that challenging, frankly speaking. Their own issue is exactly the same as my issue, which triggers their interest because it’s based on their existing problem. The way to solve this problem using their own biotech in China to solve in some way their own issues and also million other people’s, was very appealing to them and resonated with them. Frankly speaking, it was not hard to convince them because they want to be part of Chinese elderly care, part of this dream and this dream team, to be a player and to say, “I’m not just factory 1.0. I’m a factory 4.0 walking in the future and making a better life for myself because, within 30 years from now on, I will be the one who will need Chinese elderly care. The best way to prepare the future is to do it now.
Matthieu David: It can be a very complex solution to provide healthcare in China or prevention as you said, for the elderly. We talk in business and in working with biotech in China, we talk about MVP, minimum viable product. I believe you have thought a lot about how to enter healthcare in China in a not expensive way, because its hardware is expensive, so you have to be careful and still remain your space in the market. What was your thinking of how to do brand marketing in China? We understand the reason why you thought about this product; you have a personal experience. We understand the use because the numbers also give you credit to say China’s aging population is going to be an issue. Seniors in China are going to be more and more. But then as an entrepreneur in China, how did you position yourself?
Charles Bark: The brand positioning was number one, being clear on the benefits that we want to solve and bring. We are not product-oriented like digital-oriented or AI. The most important thing to do brand marketing in China, is defining the right strategy, market segment, with the right value proposition. When it’s very clear, we come up with the tools.
Matthieu David: How do you know when it’s very clear? It makes sense in your head, or is it you validate topics? Did you have a specific process of experimenting?
Charles Bark: It was much more experimenting in business. Trial and error. I cannot claim that I just waked up and had the right answer for that. When we met at the beginning one or two years ago, in 2017, I was very involved in the robotics in China. My idea at that time was I really believed in this companion service robotics.
Matthieu David: Which is not in your pack now anymore, right? Is it not in your kit anymore?
Charles Bark: Yeah, because we invested a lot to do the working prototype. It’s also currently under invention-disruptive innovation patenting in China. We have to patent under registration. But I realized while launching that, it was crazy in terms of cost. Burning my cash made me realize that if we go on that way, we will die soon. In terms of MVP, the minimum viable product, that’s why we turned with this box and assembled different biotech in China, aligning with the same value proposition, which is helping seniors in China live longer, healthier, happier, but reducing the scope and ambition of the technology — downsizing from the intelligent robot to assembling that biotech in China in our pack. For me, there is no failure if there is learning at the end, but from this first experience and the fact that it will be bad if we continue in that way, we reduce our ambition with minimum viable product based on that, and then we shift the strategy into brand marketing in China, earning some money, being the first mover. From this revenue and also brand marketing in China, we will gain more attraction from the investors. From the new money that we raise, we will be able to go back to the previous intelligent robot HiNounou and then be able to do more brand marketing in China. First is to launch that and then after gaining some more traction and money from the market of healthcare in China, then we will be able to deliver on the second phase, the robot that will replace the mobile phone.
Matthieu David: I see, which is a typical tactic for entrepreneurs in China, like Jeff Bezos beginning with selling books on Amazon, where he had a much bigger vision from day one, which was to sell everything on Amazon. I’m pretty sure he had that kind of thing in mind, but he began with books. The same with Elon Musk who began with publishing on the Internet, disrupting the publishing industry to build something that was very much larger in the future. I understand now. You had begun with this MVP, but it was too hard to sustain, so you find another way to enter the healthcare in China, and it is successful with many orders in B2B, and you have one foot in the market. You talked on your website about Ping An, AXA. I recently talked with someone who used to be at Carrefour, and he told me a very interesting story that Carrefour actually never partnered with Tencent. They said they would partner with Tencent and literally, the contract was not finalized. They spoke too early. That’s the thing when I see those big partners for a startup in China, Ping An, AXA and all the names, how do you partner with them? How do you make it work? They are huge; they are big, you are an entrepreneur in China, is it a contract? Is it that you come into their pipelines, so you are one of the partners for a startup in China, one of the clients? How do you make sure that you are really taken care of by these partners for a startup in China?
Charles Bark: Okay. This is a signed a contract to answer your question. All the partners for a startup in China that you see on our website are signed contracts. The question is how to trigger their interest to partner with us. It’s based on the human, on those sides. I had the great privilege to meet these visionary leaders of those partners for a startup in China like the chairman of Bayer, Selena Chu, the founder of AXA lab front division and other fantastic C-level players. They’re not only visionary on their new business solutions, but also want to shift the existing core business into a new business solution. Wherever you’re big or small, those c-level people in those large partners for a startup in China, for example, AXA told me that if they continue to run their business with the traditional way of selling the underwriting, they will be the next Kodak because it’s not matching the new needs and lifestyle of the Chinese millennials. They cannot continue on the same traditional way of releasing their core businesses in healthcare in China. Those c-level players or the board know that they need a new business solution, an innovation that can shift into a new business revenue and match more the demand for Chinese elderly care. So, insurance wants to shift into what we call dynamic pricing. They don’t have any clear vision of risk assessment. That’s why they need those digital startups to bring these fresh innovations, a new disruptive way to engage with seniors in China and collect more multi-touchpoint data than just signing insurance papers. Pharma industry knows that its existing business model is at risk because the new pipeline of molecules is almost dead. They have a hard time to find a new molecule, and the existing molecule in the pipe will become public, so the existing revenue will go dry when the molecule goes to the public. Those pharma industries also want to be closer to seniors in China as much as possible, not just selling peels. Seniors in China also have a broader knowledge of their health of the issue. They go to Google, and those big players in the healthcare in China also have new competitors, like Google Health, Amazon or other big companies are turning into health, also Alibaba turning into insurance themselves. They deliver this insurance policy, so those existing traditional A-level players, they know that, first, they need to re-shift and do a game-changing on their traditional core businesses to adapt to the new lifestyle of the customers, and secondly, that’s why they need entrepreneurs in China if our value proposition is matching their strategies in terms of new brand marketing in China, they welcome people like us to partner with. The challenge is to come at the right moment and meet the right people. The only way for us to do that was contested. Those organizations are organizing contests, or even they create their own labs. For example, AXA has three innovation labs, one in Silicon Valley, Paris, and Shanghai. Bayer engages in grants4apps, its own innovation contest. Ping An has its acceleration program called Ping An Cloud Acceleration. This ecosystem of innovation is the right door to come through and meet those people where those game-changers in those large partners for a startup in China, and share our dream.
Matthieu David: It was not like contacting them directly on LinkedIn. It was contested where the key to access to them.
Charles Bark: This is the key. Number two is also our alumni. Before we were talking of the partners for a startup in China from our engineering school, business school, and this is also something we need to leverage. You, me, many entrepreneurs in China are graduated from Ivy leagues engineering’s schools, business schools, and we need as an entrepreneur in China to leverage as many as possible those alumni.
Matthieu David: But how do you reach out to them? You send an email across to them saying I’d like to talk about my product, to get some advice? How do you introduce yourself in those cases?
Charles Bark: To be as much active as on our alumni.
Matthieu David: To be at the events, so a bit informal and then you can talk about what you do. I see that you are a board member and advisors of other companies as well. How did you become a board member, and how does it work exactly? Do you have to go to the meeting every year? Every six months? Every three months? Are you paid for that? Are you asked to do something for them? On your profile, it’s a publishing company called LID Publishing that you are a board member, but you also have many advisors, including a lawyer from Baker McKenzie, other entrepreneurs in China from big companies like Sodexo.
Charles Bark: For myself, it is a way to share our experience. LID Publishing is one of the biggest publishers in the world, lead publishing in business books. Martin Liu, who is the GM of this organization, wanted me to join because he needs this kind of entrepreneur in China in innovation. This is a way to contribute to this organization by bringing this kind of expertise or sharing experience on innovation in one of the most promising businesses, which is a silver economy. This is the way we can share with other board members like academia related, like Columbia University or MBA DMB in Shanghai is more into innovation and entrepreneurship in China. Since HiNounou has now collected many most prestigious awards in biotech in China and the world, those organizations would like us also to be part of their board, to share our experience in innovation and entrepreneurship in China. Because in those Ivy League universities, they are also very concerned in teaching this innovation and entrepreneurship in China. Our advisors of HiNounou include, for example Anne Quenedey from the biggest law firm Baker McKenzie, Laetitia Daufenbach from Sodexo, a fantastic lady who’s working in silver economy in the world, Frank Desvignes, two fantastic entrepreneurs in China, Yaroslav Belinskiy and Alexa Busarov, who are our investors, a banker Philippe Torres from L’Atelier BNP Paribas and Professor Theodore Zeldin who used to be the dean of Oxford Saint Antony’s. He used to be my professor and mentor from 13 years ago when I was at Oxford University. The way to get those fantastic people on board in my dream team as an advisor, was just because of my dream, not because of me, frankly speaking.
Matthieu David: What do you do when you meet with them, and you tell them over lunch, would you like to become my advisor, and then they may say what do you expect from me, right? What do you expect from them? For example, the lawyer Anne, do you expect her to advise you on legal issues? Do you expect your professor to advice you on specific topics, what do you expect from them?
Charles Bark: I expect them to bring their own expertise in their own domain, that I don’t have. They are clever than me in what they’re doing, and this dream of helping seniors in China live longer requires a lot of expertise because it’s complex. If we want to be qualitative end to end, we need those experts and smart people. I cannot pretend to have all those expertise, but I need the best in my dream team. The way to engage them is not lying in what you’re doing. Look at my dream. The problem that I’m solving for me might also be your problem. That’s why you are involved in your expertise, and I would like to have this dream team together to find a solution. In Chinese, we have a saying, a hero is a product of three helpers. Could you be one of them? For the sake of bringing a better life to the seniors in China that we cherish, and by the way, you already in some way involved in bringing a better life with your existing core competency, a better society, a better life. Those visionary leaders are not just making money for the sake of money. We’re very enthusiastic about being part of Chinese elderly care. Because HiNounou is not about just delivering IoT’s, you know. It’s about bringing a better life. So, those humanistic leaders were all in.
Matthieu David: Do you offer some privileges to them as well, like access?
Charles Bark: It’s not about money, relationship.
Matthieu David: So, no shares, no privileges, no investment from them.
Charles Bark: It was all about are you aligned with our humanistic dream. By the way, if we talk at shares, money, and everything, we are not on the good track from the beginning. Because we are talking of entrepreneurship in China, you are not talking about Microsoft. I’m not asking you to be a board of Microsoft. It’s just about if we are fit together in this dream. Those corporate leaders are already involved in corporate social responsibility somehow, within those organizations, so instead of going in NGO type, why don’t we go also spending some time in these humanistic startups rather than NGO. They have two kinds of incentives, frankly speaking. One is if we go big, somehow HiNounou will contract with them. For example, Anne from Baker McKenzie, if we get some, why we should find another lawyer if she’s there. That might also be a good potential investment for the future. BNP Paribas could be the same. Now we are about to sign a fantastic contract with Sodexo because they are one of the biggest worldwide redeem coupon, so there could also be a profitable business for us if we go big too.
Matthieu David: I see. Okay, thank you very much for your time, Charles. You see we said that it would last 1 hour. I think it’s more like 1 and a half. Thank you very much for sharing that much. Congratulations on everything you achieved. I realized actually when preparing the interview how much you have achieved, you have changed as well your product, and I have to say, I’ve been very impressed when I was looking at the changes over the last two years. So, congratulations again and I hope everyone enjoys the show, thank you and goodbye, everyone.
Charles Bark: Thank you so much for your China business podcast, and thanks also for my dream team and my partners.
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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