Building a Digital Bridge to China: Techboard speaks with Nicolas Chu

Nicolas Chu is the CEO & founder of Sinorbis — a ‘cloud based marketing platform that enables western companies to do digital marketing in China.’ Sinorbis is seeking to both accelerate and capitalise on the rise of Asian consumer markets — working to create a bridge between the world and 751 million Chinese internet users that sit within a unique, highly regulated and difficult to crack online ecosystem.  Founded at the end of 2015, Sinorbis has raised $3.9 million in two rounds of funding and is entering a period of exponential growth. Robin Block from MitchelLake sat down with Nicolas to understand the opportunities and challenges in the Chinese market, and the solutions on offer at Sinorbis.  

Nicholas is speaking at B2BRocks Sydney on 28 September 2017.  Read more about or book tickets to B2BRocks. Techboard has partnered with B2BRocks and will be bringing you more interviews with some of the great presenters who will be presenting at the Conference. Sign up to make sure you don't miss out on some more great interviews

Nicolas: “The name comes from the Latin roots Sina and Orbis — meaning, China and the World. Our broadest ambition is to connect China’s demand with the rest of the world. Fundamentally, if you want to be a global company and don't go after China, you are only targeting 75% of the global online population. While China is by far the world's largest market, it is also the most difficult one to crack. We are working to reduce the barriers of entry to zero.”

Robin: Where did the idea for Sinorbis come from?

Nicolas: Over the past 10 years I was many times on the frontline of cracking the Chinese market - Both as President of the international businesses at Orbitz, as well as working for Expedia. I experienced, first hand, how difficult it was. Obviously, you have all the usual things — language barriers and a different business culture. But, on top of that, the usual marketing channels just aren't there. There is no Google or Facebook. The extremely regulated and confined environment has favoured the emergence of a different online ecosystem. You have to really start from scratch.

With the explosion of demand in China for overseas products and services, there is a real demand to ease the process of market entrance. Sometimes you see an opportunity and think it's crazy no one has done that — this time, instead of just continuing to say it was crazy, we decided to do something. That something was founding Sinorbis.

Robin: Can you give more detail about the challenges you help companies overcome?

Nicolas: You have to look at this problem from two sides — technical limitations and content limitations. When it comes to content, our hands are relatively tied. If you are on the Government's ‘Black List’ — you will immediately be blocked and there is nothing we can do. On the technical side — we solve all of your problems. Creating a website for the Chinese market goes beyond translating it into Chinese. It has to be accessible from China. That means it has to be developed in a way that is optimised for China, adapted in terms of UI, and without scripts that will be blocked by the ‘Great Firewall.’ Our tagline is, digital marketing in China is difficult — we make it easy. With only a few clicks, we enable companies to create a responsive website that is fully optimised for China — we aren’t the only company to do that, but we are the only one that guarantees to meet the technical requirements necessary for visibility in China. We also allow you through our platform to track your performance across the 4 major Chinese search engines (Baidu, Sogou, 360 and Shenma) and optimise your content accordingly through AI.

I think that having high standards is quite important — especially when you are a start-up. There is sometimes a pull to sacrifice quality for speed to market. I think you can combine both. Our white papers, for example, cost us a lot of resources and time — but this goes with everything we do — we want to do everything at its best. That hasn’t really changed since day one.

Robin: What has been your growth/marketing strategy and how have you approached building your team?

Nicolas: When you build a start-up there are really three stages. The first is to prove that you are able to build a ‘cool’ product. The second is to prove that there is a market for it. The third is to show that you can scale your model.

We have focused on authoritative and inbound marketing. To be technical, people are already quite high in the funnel — it's not worth spending money on paid media when it is a better use of resources to educate and then convert clients through nurturing programmes. The demand is there, it’s simply about education. We launched a programme called Sinorbis Academy specifically to meet these ends. We send speakers to conferences and publish a lot of white papers. Content has allowed us to position ourselves as experts in the industry.

Growing the company has been an interesting experience. A lot of the initial hires on the management and leadership team came from my personal network — people I worked with in the corporate world. I knew Allen Qu, my co-founder, for years — the same goes for Dandan Cheng, our COO or Dhruv Parashar, our VP of Technology.

We have recently expanded into hiring people beyond that network. When you work for big names — like Expedia — it's quite easy to attract people. With Sinorbis, I realised that it's a harder task when you don't have a brand behind you. At the beginning, I had people come into interviews simply because they were intrigued to understand why I left my old job. After a year and a half, Sinorbis has finally gotten to the point that the brand is starting to outshine my reputation. Establishing yourself in the market as a reputable firm that is doing innovative and important things is a crucial point any start-up needs to reach.  

Robin: What has been the most challenging element of building Sinorbis, and what is your vision for the future?

Nicolas: The most challenging thing for me is not getting too emotionally connected. It’s a good thing, and that is where a lot of my passion comes from. However, I think retaining an emotional distance is important when negotiating — this was something I came to understand in the corporate world. But, it’s much more difficult when it is your baby. I am a big fan of using a combination of exercise and acupuncture as a means of keeping my mind focused and unaffected by the stress of running a business. I believe that it is all about balance, you can’t just do one thing to be happy. I am passionate about what I'm doing, but I am also passionate about my family.  

I think this comes out in my approach to leadership. It is important to lead by being yourself. This is something I learned quite early. If you are yourself, people are working because of you and with you — not because you represent something. It also ensures a degree of stability in your leadership style. I am a demanding person — but I also give back. When there is a trusted relationship between me and one of my colleagues it goes both ways. This is probably the reason that I had people that used to work for me come back and take a risk moving to Sinorbis.

We have also faced challenges is staying focused. We are often approached by clients that have been happy with our service in China who ask for help expand into other markets. This is something I have always insisted on turning down. I believe that focus is key to a successful start-up.   

My grand vision for the future is for a world in which we simply call China huge — rather than huge but difficult. If we can contribute, even in a small way, to making the Chinese market accessible, that is a success. There are bigger companies like Alibaba engaging in that, but this is a transition that is going to take lots of hands enabling people across the spectrum to make China as accessible as it deserves to be. If in ten years, people don't even think about China as having peculiar difficulties, I will look at what we have done as a success. I believe it is something we can do and I believe it will improve the lives of people in both China and across the world.

Robin Block is Head of Engagement at the MitchelLake Group in Sydney. Robin explores the human stories behind digital transformation and how they are changing the future of business.