Startup Lessons Learned Scaling a Brand and Community in China

International expansion is not a straight forward process for foreign brands and companies. It’s tricky to pull off growth without a few hiccups. Expansion never comes without a lot of lessons learned, especially in a place like China.

I work for Techstars Community Programs (formerly UP Global). Our main community program is Startup Weekend. It’s a 54-hour entrepreneurship training and interactive learning experience. I initiated of our Regional Development in China a year ago. Since then, I’ve learned a lot of startup and business lessons.

The biggest lesson is that you have to control your brand and your business operations in China. To grow and scale in a sustainable way, you have to control it.

Once you have control, aim to create strong partnerships. The best plan is to seek mutually-beneficial partnerships with high quality Chinese companies. As an international company, you can’t survive in China without partnerships supporting you.

In this four part series, we will look at some tips and guidelines for controlling your brand and operations in China. Control your brand and you can grow and scale more intentionally.

In this first part, we will look at controlling where people get your main message.

Control Where People Learn About Your Brand

Are people hearing about your product from you or from some other source outside your control?

Most of the information about your company is from outside sources. The internet is not necessarily your friend in China. This is a challenge for new companies entering China.

Beyond simple language barriers, Chinese might not be able to access your main website. Standard social media accounts like Twitter or Facebook are blocked in China. There are hundreds of China-only sources telling people what they know about your business.

One of the first steps when you establish a China initiative is information control. It’s important that you establish your own portals of information. While social media shares your message, it’s critical your site is the final resource they reach. People need to hear about your product from you.

In our case, Startup Weekend local organizers promote their event through their own social media, videos and articles. Relinquishing control over the whole information meant there was some disinformation involved.

To combat this challenge, we setup our own China portal to share information about the events. This provided a unified message about what it is, the values and how it work. We also required organizers to use our website system. We vetted key informational points.

In the end, we give a lot of freedom to organizers to recruit and share the message of startup weekend. They post and share in their own way in different formats. We only control the final information website. This ensures the right messages gets out consistently to participants. We avoid problems, like misrepresenting sponsors, failing to include key information or breaking rules.

In today’s digital age, you never fully control the medium of your message or how people know about your product or service. That’s the risk and the opportunity.

That being said, you should still ensure a referential source about your business. If you don’t control the key information and messaging, then you risk misrepresentation. You risk losing control over your identity and your brand. Even worse, in the case of sponsors and partners, you risk breaking how they want to be represented.

Your business is too important to let others control what it means.

Check out Part 2 on Getting in the Right Place and Marketing Your Way