Interview with Nicolas Ruble: Overcoming Challenges as a Foreign Entrepreneur in China

Have you ever thought about starting your own business in China? What would be the biggest challenge as a foreign entrepreneur in a country where its business complexity is so different from the Western one? We are lucky to have Nicolas Ruble, Co-Founder of Prodygia, to answer these questions and offer some useful tips based his own experience in China.

  1. Tell us about your background and why you came to China.

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Beijing in 2003. My plan wasn’t totally thought through at the time. After working in New York and Paris, I decided to leave my stable job in pursuit of field experience and opportunity in China, figuring the country’s future would be bright and that learning Mandarin could come in handy.

It was a simple calculation. But I had no local contacts, no previous China experience and hardly knew how to pronounce ni hao. People have told me that decision was visionary, others said it was a bit crazy.

Either way, starting over from scratch was exciting and tough. Back then there were no real courses or resources to prepare you for professional life in China before arriving, so I had to build my own ad-hoc ‘curriculum’ once I got here and learn everything on my own from trial and error, by going out and meeting people who had more experience. It was the ultimate training in personal growth and professional development, and I didn’t fully appreciate until recently how that period shaped me.

From those thousands of conversations, over time I was able to gain a set of references for how to navigate in this market as a foreigner. One thing you become better at with experience is picking up nuances and distinguishing between useful information versus what is just noise. Truth be told, I’m still learning every day, and I think most expats who have been here more than 10 years feel the same.

As for launching my venture in China, I didn’t come here with that goal in mind. The entrepreneurial spirit was planted in me early on as an undergraduate at Stanford, but, objectively speaking, I knew I wasn’t ready to be a founder yet, and anyway I first needed time get my bearings. I think that’s pretty obvious when you’re playing away from your home turf, yet you’d be amazed by how many Westerners miss that part. Once I found the right niche and partners, then I went all in.

  1. What is the story behind Prodygia? How did you get started?

The Chinese market moves extremely fast and isn’t as transparent as what you’re accustomed to in developed economies. As a result, it’s hard for Westerners to keep up to date, let alone develop an appreciation for nuances in the market, without local knowledge and expertise.

Business people who fly in for a few days of meetings every few months then head back home only really see the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. It takes time to build a network and learn the right lessons. Plus we tend to repeat the same mistakes when trying to do business in China.

My co-founders and I witnessed this countless times over the years and got to a point where we decided there should be a better way to learn about China in practical terms. Our solution leverages new technology to scale trusted, hands-on expertise to a global audience. International users gain access to a level of knowledge which previously was only really accessible from within China, and even then, would require significant resources to assemble. We’re doing the job so users can save time and money.

  1. What kind of service/product does Prodygia offer?

tablet_jpeg_resizedProdygia offers online courses and insights on business, entrepreneurship, technology and culture in China. Westerners can now delve deeper into China from anywhere, anyplace. For the millions who are unsure where to start discovering China at a more practical level, we’re building the platform which becomes their go-to resource.

Experts in the network are practitioners with front-line experience in China. Many of the international experts have spent 10, 20 or 30 years working in China and been through the trenches, so they know what they’re talking about. They include founders or CEOs, former directors at multinationals operating in China. They are authors, trainers, lecturers or advisors to Western organizations, already helping clients or students achieve their goals in China. What’s important is that they have both the big picture and operational views, meaning their insights are valuable at a strategic level plus they offer more technical guidance.

Our courses and insights are valuable for all expats coming to China or already here; for students coming to study and find jobs in-country; large Western company headquarters, where they need to get up to speed, or smaller companies that aren’t yet in China but considering to enter the market and not sure how.

  1. What are the main challenges you face as an entrepreneur in China?

The first challenge is shifting your mindset to China. At the beginning it’s only natural to try to apply the same template which worked well for us in our home countries, or other markets, and made us successful. But those templates can’t just be ‘copy/pasted’ to China and lead to results.

Hopefully sooner rather than later, you’ll wake up to what you don’t know about China, and then take steps to fill that knowledge gap – including engaging with experts on Prodygia – while still promoting the strengths you’ve developed elsewhere.

business complexity_jpeg_resizedOn this point, let’s not forget that it’s the same process in reverse for Chinese entrepreneurs coming to Europe, the United States or elsewhere; it’s just as challenging for them to understand local practices and adjust their models and processes. They’re doing their homework and benchmarking; we should do ours consistently as well.

Second, attracting and retaining strong local talent is invariably challenging because the labor market is extremely competitive and opportunities are everywhere. Human resources is an area where it’s particularly easy to make rookie mistakes which then limit the growth of the business.

Western executives, as good as they might be, aren’t automatically qualified to manage teams of Chinese, either. You’ll soon discover cultural differences in the workplace and unless those are addressed with deep understanding of what motivates and interests employees in China, it can lead to resentment both ways. There are Prodygia online courses exactly on this, with frameworks, tips and solutions.

The third obstacle is the language. Chinese is harder for Westerners to learn than English is for Chinese to learn, but it doesn’t mean that it’s that difficult or not worth even trying. Besides, picking up the language, even without fluency, shows your commitment to this market, and your Chinese counterparts will recognize you for it. There are short-cuts which can help you become fairly operational in the language within 3-6 months. Focus on pinyin, tones and vocabulary. Forget about writing characters for now, though it’s fine if you’re a student with plenty of time. If you’re a busy professional, then learn how to type the pinyin into a keyboard and recognize the character – this will serve you well and you only need to know a handful to start having basic conversations.

  1. What are the three tips you would offer to other entrepreneurs who want to establish their own business in China?

I could come up with a very long list!

But if it’s limited to three, then here’s some quick food for thought:

  • For many Westerners there are loads of pre-conceptions which get in the way of seeing the real China. Whatever the psychology behind it, you’re not expected to become an old China hand overnight, but there are some basics you can pick up relatively quickly to set you off on the right foot discovering China. Get over that initial hump. Spend more time in the country, if you can. Develop what I call a confidently modest approach, whereby you’re pro-active and outgoing but also humble enough to admit you don’t have all the answers, then listen well and take notes.
  • There’s good and less good in China, just like anywhere else. Avoid taking one or two examples and generalizing for the entire population or economy. You might think you know China because you have a good sense about Shanghai, but Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou or Chengdu, for example, represent completely different eco-systems, demographics and market opportunities. You’ll have to constantly get re-acquainted with your consumers because they’re changing so fast and probably very diverse.
  • Expect surprises. There are ups and downs in China like no other market that I, at least, have operated in. It can be exhilarating one week as you make the impossible possible. Then the next week you find yourself bogged down by something completely unforeseen. When things are so fluid, you can’t mitigate every risk but you can certainly become more adept at anticipating situations and turning them to your advantage. The Chinese market requires thick skin as well as a keen problem-solving ability – fortunately these traits are innate to entrepreneurs no matter their nationality or country they’re operating in.


prodygia_logoNicolas Ruble is Co-Founder of Prodygia. He was previously Head of Asia Programming and a Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum. He graduated from Stanford and earned Executive MBAs from INSEAD and Tsinghua.

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