How 3 Entrepreneurs Built Businesses in China

Are you interested in starting your own business in China, but feel too overwhelmed to get started? We talked to three successful foreign entrepreneurs in China about their journey to making their dreams come true, from coming up with a simple idea to developing a business from the ground up.

Andrea Speranza - YEYU

Andrea Speranza is a native of Naples, Italy and was relocated to Shanghai in 2002 by the British company he was working for. In 2017, he launched the beta test of YEYU, a mobile platform that empowers community builders to manage online and offline events, connecting them with users looking for local activities, events and deals. After a year of beta testing, the app launched 4 months ago and currently has over 30,000 Chinese and foreign users, with over 100 active communities that focus on group sports, fitness and lifestyle.

YEYU's Origin
"For YEYU, I merged my two biggest interests: the digital world and communities. I quit my corporate job to dive into my own adventure. Setting it up was easy. Having lived in Shanghai for 18 years, I witnessed a huge urban and economic transformation and stayed on top of changes in legislation, so when the opportunity opened up I was able to get a WFOE. The Chinese system allows a very easy process for that. After getting set up we ran as a start-up, really taking the time to get to test our market. Even though this type of implementation requires upfront financial investment, it was a must for us, because we knew that what was correct in our mind might not fit our users. We also started off by engaging people with our own offline events, and our goal for these events was to understand the need we needed to fill, and the dynamics of the market."

Building the User Base
"Our first step was the development of the YEYU app. Like a baby, it will need to grow, be fed, and taken care of, to grow stronger and heavier. There is so much going on in big cities, but the information is not aggregated or structured well. We use algorithms and AI to help organizers connect with users, and help locals find stuff they want to do in their own area. We want people to be active and socialize. Social network platforms connect people, but they also confuse people and in some ways make them less social. We believe participation is key for the development of society. If you need to change something around you, you need to participate in person instead of just engaging in it online."

Find the YEYU app for iOS, Android and as a WeChat mini program.

Emmanuel Dean - Boomi

Emmanuel Dean (pictured above right) hails from Surabaya, Indonesia, and fell in love with Shanghai after doing a study abroad program in 2016. After graduating in 2018, he came back to Shanghai and started thinking more about sustainibility after his sister convinced him to stop using plastic toothbrushes. He started doing research and was upset by how much China, Indonesia and other SE Asian countries contribute to plastic waste. He started Boomi in October of last year, and their first product was a bamboo toothbrush. After receiving a positive response from the community, Emmanuel and his business partner Miguel Angel Zambrano Boy (pictured above left) continued to develop Boomi into an online shop and platform for products and events related to sustainable living. He quit his job three months ago to work full time on Boomi.

The Push for Sustainability
"Our mission is to empower people to find a balance between sustainable living and city living. Currently most of our customers are expats. The Chinese government is already pushing really hard for green energy, sustainable packaging, trash sorting, etc. so we want to become the one stop shop, ecosystem for anything related to sustainability when the Chinese market becomes ready to accept a more sustainable lifestyle. Outside of selling our products, we try to make an impact in other ways. We donate 8.8% of our revenue to planting trees in inner Mongolia, a collaboration with the NGO Shanghai Roots and Shoots. Our goal is to plant one forest by February, approximately 2,000 trees. Social media is powerful, but it's very crowded so we try to give value to all of the content we put out there. For our most popular post, we weren't trying to sell anything - we were just giving tips on how to be eco friendly while traveling."

Start Small & Keep Moving Forward
"We started by making a bamboo toothbrush because we thought it was the easiest thing to change in a person's life, something small that they use every day. I decided to make a WFOE because I didn't have any close Chinese friends, but I had a friend I knew from high school that was very interested in sustainable living already, so we partnered up. We leveraged WeChat and contacted many people to find suppliers, and then we went to the factory to make sure the bamboo trees were harvested sustainably. We found a supplier that has his own bamboo forest in Zhejiang province and cuts his own bamboo, so we know 100% where all of the materials come from. For other products, we send an auditor to check factories because now we have over twenty suppliers. We are trying to make one new product every month now, and it's been a very good learning experience for us.

Everyone always says this, but just start somewhere. We believe in incrementalism, the idea that you should keep continuously moving forward, no matter how big or small the step is. We celebrate all the little victories we have, but when we do fail we try to get back up as quickly as possible. I told our employees, 'I'm also young, I just graduated. I have 6 months of work experience. Everyone is going to make mistakes, so let's not waste time to blame each other and figure out a solution together.'"

You can find more information about Boomi and their products on their official website, or scan the QR code below to follow their official WeChat.

Kim Gilliland - Soapnut Republic

Kim Gilliland moved to China in 2008 as an expat with an Australian media company. She met her future husband Bobby soon after she arrived, and when it was time for her to repatriate to Melbourne in 2009 she decided to stay in Shanghai with him. Their three daughters were later born in Shanghai and the couple started Soapnut Republic in 2012. Soapnut Republic produces natural home care and personal care products, and their formations are powered by natural soapnut berry extract, and safe plant and mineral ingredients that are non-toxic, allergen free and biodegradable. The company sells across China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and will soon be launching in Denmark and Germany.

Inspiration Right At Home
"Our children are our motivation and the inspiration for everything we do. My husband Bobby accidentally drank bleach as a two-year-old, and we started Soapnut Republic because we wanted to make sure that our own children would never be exposed to that sort of risk. When I was pregnant with our first child we were looking for natural, non-toxic cleaning products, and we became really frustrated by the lack of genuinely safe products available. We found that a lot of companies market their products as being 'green' and 'eco-friendly' but many of these companies still use ingredients that are not safe for skin contact. Bobby and I decided that we’d create our own range of products that were first and foremost safe for the people using them, and safe for the environment too. We’ll release our personal care range in the new year, and we’re also working on baby and children’s care products."

Customer-Oriented Approach
"Bobby had been working in the manufacturing industry in China for many years and had an existing relationship with a factory in Hangzhou. We started manufacturing there, and it was a perfect fit for us in the early days when we were only producing in small quantities. For the first few years I participated in several sales and marketing events every week, talking to customers about our products and basically building the brand. The feedback I received from customers during that time was invaluable and helped to shape our progress over the coming years.

China is a great place to start a business, of course on the basis that you have a great idea. Shanghai is home to a very supportive entrepreneurial community, and we’re happy to be part of it. Starting your own business is not going to be easy. You’re going to have to work really hard, so make sure you find something that you love doing because if you’re not enjoying yourself it’s not worth it. Life’s too short."

Find Soapnut Republic's products on Baopals, and follow them on WeChat by scanning the QR code below.

Feeling inspired to start your own business? Baopals Business Services is our solution for expats in China who want to create and operate their own businesses, open online stores, obtain visas, and more. Please contact us today for more information!