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36 Under 36: What’s the secret behind the success of Chinese under-36 entrepreneurs?

Written by Low De Wei Published on     6 mins read

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Pioneers included in the 36 Under 36 list have paved the way towards new ways of serving consumers and helping workers

The unlikely rise of Pop Mart, a Chinese toymaker that launched its IPO in Hong Kong this month, is a typical reflection of the trials and tribulations of China’s young entrepreneurs. For Wang Ning, founder of the firm that opened the first store on the outskirts of Beijing ten years ago, skepticism had been par for the course.

Inspired by the ubiquitous Gashapon capsule machines popular in Japan, Pop Mart retails so-called “blind boxes” containing themed toy figurines for USD 8 each. However, critics doubted that such a concept would take off, and for a while, it seemed that naysayers prevailed. Wang struggled to find staff, while his store manager led a mass resignation at his first outlet, driving investors and partners away.

Yet, things turned around in 2017, as Pop Mart narrowed its focus on youth-friendly toys. Since then, demand has exploded, with the firm boasting 136 retail stores across 33 mainland Chinese cities, with more than 1,000 vending machines nationwide.

Wang is one of the 36 entrepreneurs featured in the fifth edition of 36 Under 36. The annual compilation, launched by 36Kr four years ago, spotlights investors or entrepreneurs who have surpassed their peers with their vision, business acumen, and innovation. Candidates eligible for 36 Under 36 have to be born after 1983, and deemed to have played a significant role in their companies’ technological and business development. Investors and entrepreneurs are featured on an alternating basis every other year.

Many featured entrepreneurs established their businesses between 2014 and 2016, and developed their companies thanks to the rapid growth of new technology and strands of new services, answering emerging demand patterns. The past decade had been, however, also a baptism of fire for many entrepreneurs, considering circumstances like the Sino-US trade war and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through it all, leaders like 34-year-old Ni Li, chief operating officer of Bilibili, had persevered. Together with co-founder Chen Rui, she shaped the video-sharing site into a social media powerhouse worth more than USD 21 billion. She did it by targeting teenagers and implementing popular initiatives like Bilibili’s New Year’s Eve Gala and collaborations with top-level video makers.

Here are some of the secrets behind the success of these 36  successful entrepreneurs:

1. Targeting the ‘spiritual needs’ of the Gen-Z

For Wang, the success of Pop Mart has been a validation of his belief: youths increasingly disillusioned by the frantic pace of modern society want little joys in life that he could provide with themed toys. Wang now hopes to ink a deal to sell copyrighted merchandise from the Disney franchise to ride the growing popularity of its animated characters.

Bubble tea has also emerged as another comfort item for Generation Z. Lita Peng, founder and chief product developer of fruit tea brand Nayuki, seeks to appeal to youngsters’ desire for exoticism with a line of eye-pleasing blended fruit teas topped with different ingredients like cheese foam, in an attempt to make tea-drinking not just a casual activity but a defining part of the customers’ lifestyle.

Other businesses have focused on the needs of today’s youths to express themselves. “Gen Z needs an outlet to express and share their thoughts and experiences with others in order to achieve joy,” said Yang Bing, founder and CEO of sneaker trading platform Poizon.

Like Poizon, creative industry businesses like Block 12 have carved out unique niches in competitive industries since its founding in 2014. By supporting the creation of over 300 animated cartoons, the entertainment company has positioned itself as the go-to choice for creators seeking new ways to monetize their work by producing merchandise based on popular series.

2. Kids from the 90s

More than a quarter of entrepreneurs featured in 36 Under 36 were born in the 1990s, with the youngest just being just 31-years-old. Many businesses are a product of technological and scientific innovations, namely the proliferation of the internet, which gained steam during the period. Up to 14 entrepreneurs in the list specialize in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) related subjects, while others possess skillsets in technical areas like engineering.

Nayuki, Japan, Osaka
Local consumers lined up for Nayuki’s first store in Japan. The Osaka shop was opened on July 4th, 2020. Photo provided by the company.

The youngest entrepreneur on the list, Liu Jingkang, founded Shenzhen-based camera company Insta360 just after graduation, focusing on the emerging field of VR panoramic cameras. The CEO of fitness app Keep, Wang Ning, also exhibits the ethos of a generation used to finding new solutions on the web. After losing weight from crafting his own workout routine based on information found on the web during college, Wang set up a platform to share workout routines and sell fitness equipment. Six years later, his platform had more than 200 million users with a market valuation of over USD 1 billion.

3. Rethinking consumer needs

For Wu Yuening, founder of Guangdong-based Chinese imported goods retailer Kuaike E-Commerce (KK Group), running an e-commerce store was not just about selling products. Instead, his firm had also set up physical storefronts across China while it had also launched an in-house makeup brand named The Colorist. By using big data to identify consumer trends, Wu wants to reverse the traditional decline in sales experienced by brick-and-mortar retail outlets.

Wang Peng, founder of real estate firm Julive, wants to help consumers with their house-buying decision. His platform employs big data algorithms to recommend houses to users based on their search behaviors. Other entrepreneurs have instead sought to rethink the supply chain, like Huang Shichang, founder of online platform Feiyu. The site matches demand for luxury bags with supply overseas, avoiding the waste associated with bulk purchases.

Bilibili’s New Year’s Eve Gala reached up to 82 million live viewers in 2019.  Source: Bilibili official

4. Prioritizing quality education and equal opportunities for all

Education is a key driver of upward mobility, as highlighted by the 36 Under 36 list, where 75% of entrepreneurs have graduated from university.

Like many Chinese that have forged a successful career overseas, Cathy Hsu was a model of success, joining tech giant Google after graduating from New York University. Yet, when she became a mother in 2013, she noticed a lack of quality online educations options for her children. After quitting her job at Google, she co-founded Jiliguala. Instead of sticking to normal online class templates, the platform seeks to encourage interaction by allowing students to interact with each other via video, while a pre-determined curriculum sets the tone for the class.

For Li Tianchi, co-founder of Shenzhen-based Codemao, the leap into the business world proved more daunting. Just months away from completing his graduate program with the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, he gave up a safe and predictable career path to launch a platform for children to learn coding. Five years later, his company has expanded to over 20 countries and has attracted over 31 million users, raising USD 198 million in capital from investors in its latest round financing round closed in November.

Photo: Codemao’s official web

5. Tapping technology to transform the supply chain

In 2013, the traditional textile industry was shaken up by Zhao Zhenhong and his startup Baibu, which connects textile traders to apparel firms. With an eye on reducing large costs churned up by textile mills due to misestimated demand, the Guangzhou-based firm has since found further success in other industries like steel and chemical production.

For Xi Lan, the inefficiency of claiming work expenses via reams of paperwork was a business opportunity. Her app, Fenbeitong, allows employees to file claims online with ease. Launched in 2015, the company raised USD 36 million in March this year.

6. Automation the way of the future?

Zhang Tao, a seasoned researcher in artificial intelligence, spotted an opportunity in employing robots to address labor shortages. He set up robot firm PuduTech in 2016, which produces food delivery robots that have been adopted by a variety of restaurants and catering businesses, including popular hotpot brand Haidilao.

Another example is Cambridge graduate Shi Hengzhi, who identified car-washing as another labor-intensive process that can be simplified by tech. His startup, Yigongli, allows users to get their car washed by automatic machines at any time of the day, simply by booking a slot on the firm’s app.

Pioneers included in the 36 Under 36 list have paved the way towards new ways of serving consumers and helping workers with the help of tech.

The original article was written by Huang Zhuxi for 36Kr.

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