Product Strategy

Three Underestimated Barriers to Collaboration

Why you need to travel to, or live in, China.

Alex Christodoulou

December 7, 2015

There are two types of mobile product managers that need to visit China:

  • If you’re involved with product in connected devices or hardware-related (or Internet of Things-related) companies, or
  • If you’re working on an product that services users from China, or your company is about to break into the Chinese market

If you don’t fall into one of these buckets, then you can probably skip this post. (But you might find this one interesting!)

That’s right, you need to be there in person.

Here’s why.

Culture greatly influences the success of a product. A perfectly functional product, when designed without considering or understanding culture, will fall flat on its face. Even some of North America’s most successful companies have failed in China, often because they didn’t account for the differences in culture.

Adapt to Culture

China is obviously a potent market (particularly for Apple and iOS apps). In order to properly build products that delight people living in a different geography from the one you grew up in, you have to adapt to their culture. The best way to do so is firsthand — by living there.

Immersing yourself in a different culture provides a better opportunity for you to leverage it as well. It could be as simple as tactically understanding certain meaningful moments for your product to connect with users. For example, you could combine your understanding of tradition and technology to create interesting user acquisition campaigns.

In Q3 2014, WeChat processed just 10% of payments, while Alipay processed 83%. However, during the Lunar New Year of 2015, WeChat partnered up with state broadcaster China Central Television (their New Year’s Eve gala is the country’s most-watched TV show) to offer a chance for users to win free cash gifts, and also to send traditional “red envelope” (hongbao) to family and friends. WeChat conducted over a billion transactions (compared with 240m sent on Alipay). Alibaba founder Jack Ma called it a “pearl harbor” moment for his company.

In theory, you could have read all this information and maybe even connected the dots to do a promotion on Lunar New Year. But these types of opportunities become a lot more obvious and apparentwhen you share a common culture with your users.

Questions such as, “How do we structure this promotion?” and, “Who do we partner up with?” and, “What might a partnership deal between us and this television channel look like?” would be very hard to answer without knowing people with their feet on the ground or an understanding of what locals will respond to.

Local Clients and Management

Not only does every company need a product to sell, they also need customers and a team.

If you were considering building a company in China, you have to get to know the locals. It’s very difficult to find people who are willing to uproot themselves and move to China to work (we’d suggest connecting with people originally from China who want to move back).

That also means understanding social norms. For example, it’s common for people in China to work crazier hours, despite the marginal productivity increase that comes with it.

In North America and the western world, phones are considered an interruption to an in-person meeting. If your phone rang, you would silence it or turn it off and apologize, unless it was an emergency. In China, the default is the opposite — people almost always take calls while they’re in meetings. (This is an observation, not a suggestion).

In many Chinese companies, each person is working on a small thing and making sure that one thing is great. In North America, you can always find small, overambitious, teams building bigger products.

Even if you’re thinking of keeping your headquarters in North America while outsourcing manufacturing to China, you should still understand the way business is done on these basic levels. You should know the right factories, and the right prices. And the best way to do that is to be there in person.

If you don’t speak mandarin, it’s going to be difficult for you to negotiate with Chinese manufacturers. Despite the cost and time savings, Skype calls won’t be a good replacement for this in-person presence. Even though the client Connected Lab works with is mostly English-speaking, we still find being there in-person to skyrocket our project team’s productivity.

Understand Usage

From afar, it can take years to get a decent understanding of culture. In contrast, it takes just a few months of regular observation to better understand how people around the world use their phones differently. Although it seems cosmetic, even this level of tactical detail is really important when figuring out details in your user experience or how to position your product.

Alex getting fresh squeezed orange juice from a vending machine (paid for with his phone).

For example, people in China already rely heavily on mobile payments. They use platforms like WeChat or AliPay for nearly everything. If they’re trying to order fresh orange juice from a vending machine, they can load up WeChat, scan a QR code with the machine, and the machine will produce fresh orange juice in a matter of minutes. In North America, the credit card (and *gasp* coins) is still our main medium for transactions.

If you were building an NFC based payment app for China, you might have a harder time with adoption because there’s no urgent need for it — everyone is used to the current infrastructure for mobile payments.

In China, WeChat is a hub for everything. Practically all apps work through a WeChat extension (which is basically a webview wrapped in a WeChat interface). You can buy plane or train tickets in WeChat. You can order a cab. In comparison, in North America, we tend to unbundle all of our apps and features into smaller single purpose apps (for example, the division of Facebook and Messenger).

When targeting the Chinese market, integrating with WeChat could be a quick way to get discovered. (See Andreessen Horowitz’s post on WeChat).

China: The Hidden Valley of Innovation

Look, technology companies already have a really high rate of failure, but choosing to spend a bit more time in China can significantly increase your chances of success. China provides lessons you can bring back to headquarters in North America. Although Shenzhen (located in Southeastern China — a ferry ride away from Hong Kong) might’ve been primarily known for its hardware and factories, Inc. magazine recently called Shenzhen an innovation hub.

There’s something big that’s happening in China. You can choose to either acknowledge it, or keep your blinders on and miss out.

Connected Lab works with the world’s most ambitious companies to deliver the best connected experiences across multiple platforms, including mobile, web, smart TV’s and VR/AR. Our clients come to us for our transformative approach to software development, rooted in Extreme Programming and Design Thinking, what we call the ‘Connected Method’.

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