Had a long conversation today with a longtime client on the pros and cons of doing business in China. His is relatively small, but very international company that is being pushed hard on prices by competitors that are much farther along in China than my client. My client is convinced he needs to take his company into China to compete on costs. At the same time, he is rightfully concerned about maintaining a quality product (which is what got his company to where it is today), rightfully concerned about hooking up with the right/wrong companies, and rightfully concerned that he does not know China business.
My conversation today reminds me of a (somewhat recurring) conversation I had a few weeks ago with a number of very experienced China people on the difficulties SMEs (Small and Medium sized Enterprises) have in getting into China, as compared with the behemoths. I advanced the theory that many of the smartest companies going into China were SMEs and proceeded to brag about some of my clients’ China successes. We each then contributed stories of massive China mistakes made by massive companies, but then wistfully noted that all of these big companies seemed to be thriving in China now. We then agreed that what the big companies have over the small companies is the wherewithall to survive what seem like big and costly mistakes. The big company can lose $10 million and shake it off. Indeed, oftentimes there is no real shaking to be done since the $10 million was already budgeted.
The small company that suffers a big mistake is done. Finished. The small company simply does not have the same margin of error as the big one.
I talked a lot with my small company client today about the risks of China and what his company can do to minimize those risks, all the while emphasizing there is no way to wholly eliminate them. Towards the end of our conversation, he said, "it sounds like you are telling me I should not go into China." I then told him I was actually telling him the opposite, but as his lawyer I felt it my job to highlight the risks and focus on minimizing them. I then went on to say that based on what he had told me, the biggest risk of all would be to not go into China even though it had become pretty clear that failing to do so would likely eventually mean the end of his business.
Only a few hours after this conversation, I read the China Business Blog’s post that nicely encapsulates what I had sought to convey to my client.
‘China is a train coming down the track fast. You can either get on, or stand in the way and get mown down.’
Moore then goes on to say that SGAI Tech did "get on" the China train and has benefited from having done so, despite all the challenges. Jeremy Gordon of China Business Services says at the end of his post that "China is going to have an impact on most businesses in most places, and in some cases the competition may indeed signal the end for some that will not, or can not, adapt. On balance, the risks involved in getting on the China train seem acceptable. Even if there is only space in the hard seat [wooden bench] section!"
For those who have ridden Chinese trains (or even for those who can imagine them) this is a great analogy and one I am sure I will use the next time I am speaking with a client contemplating China.
Update: Just came across this post, entitled "Warts and all," on uber-marketer Seth Godin’s blog, on how we are wrong to think of big companies like Apple and Starbucks as being perfect; in other words, they do make mistakes.