Mainland guide lists two million phone numbers, addresses and e-mails
When he was a poor graduate student newly arrived in the United States 13 years ago, Don Xia delivered Yellow Pages directories from the back of his car.
Today, Mr Xia is helping create the largest Yellow Pages directory of Chinese businesses.
It is called ChinaBIG, and it is aptly named.
The Internet-based directory lists the phone numbers, addresses and even the e-mail addresses of more than two million businesses, mostly in the SAR and mainland.
'We want to help people worldwide conduct business with Chinese people,' said the 34-year-old chief executive officer of Unicom Media, which he describes as the 'content arm' of China Unicom, the mainland's second telephone operator.
ChinaBIG - the 'BIG' stands for Business Information Guide - was started by Mr Xia because he did not want to do a directory of Chinese Web sites, like Yahoo! figuring there were not enough mainland Web sites to justify it.
A directory like ChinaBIG, at www.chinabig.com, is the type of information service that seems a natural fit on the World-Wide Web.
For one, huge databases like ChinaBIG are too large to fit in a single phone book - one primary reason that ChinaBIG can boast 20 times the listings of the national Yellow Pages of China Telecom, the mainland's dominant Telco.
For another, the lack of an alphabet in the Chinese language has always made creating directories and dictionaries difficult.
They often have to categorise things according to the number of strokes of a certain character. It is not an easy way to browse.
However, with ChinaBIG, which is available in English and Chinese, users can type in the words they want to find.
ChinaBIG's directory can even account for differences in slang and usage between a mainland and a Taiwanese person, for example.
A person looking for computers can type either dian-nao, which is relatively slangy, and ji-suan-ji, which is formal.
Similar Web-based directories of Asian companies already abound.
TDC-Link, created by the Hongkong Trade Development Council, lists more than 600,000 businesses.
Asian Sources Online lists more than 7,000 companies, mostly Asian exporters or trading firms.
Asian Sources Media, the parent company, made US$3 million last year in revenue from the Web site, and expects to double that this year.
Another Web-based directory of Asian businesses was less successful. Launched last summer, inasia.com boasted listings of 700,000 businesses in 22 Asian countries.
However, inasia.com has been unable to draw many advertisers or viewers.
'It's pretty inactive right now,' said Ian Henry, director at the Hong Kong Web Connection, which hosts and manages the Web site. He said updating the content was difficult, too.
'Unless you have people directly on the ground in 22 countries, it's pretty hard to do a pan-Asian directory.' Mr Xia acknowledges this, which is why ChinaBIG is concentrating on just Greater China.
It has invested 'millions of US dollars' and employs 60 people in Beijing who update and verify more than 2 million phone numbers and addresses.
'The first two years are the investment period,' he said. After that, he hopes the service will be profitable.
Mr Xia hopes that ChinaBIG, at www.chinabig.com, will generate 'half a million to a million page views per day within six months'.
With that sort of traffic, Mr Xia figures that ChinaBIG will be able to draw plenty of advertisers.
All firms receive free listings. An expanded listing, which could include a 'hotlink' to the firm's own Web site, is US$80 per month.
Meanwhile, banner advertisements will be initially charged at a flat rate, but Mr Xia plans to charge advertisers based on how people see the ad.
ChinaBIG will feature other content on its site, including a news database of 50-100 mostly mainland publications.
Mr Xia plans to add Hong Kong and Taiwanese publications soon.
'This isn't politics so it shouldn't be a problem,' he said.
Though ChinaBIG is only available on the Web, Mr Xia says it plans to launch a CD-Rom and paper-based version next year.
To break down two million listings, directories could be separately printed per province or industry.
ChinaBIG also offers extra services to help a non-Chinese speaking businessman contact and communicate with his mainland counterpart.
For instance, many of the businesses listed in ChinaBIG do not have Internet access or e-mail addresses.
However, ChinaBIG will print out e-mail messages and either fax it to the company or mail the letter.
ChinaBIG will even translate inquiry letters from English into Chinese before sending them, using standard form letters.
ChinaBIG will even offer direct marketing services which can target any category of businesses or businessmen in its huge 20-gigabyte database.
When ChinaBIG has the ability to process real-time transactions, Mr Xia also hopes to make money through sales commissions.
He hopes to leverage his connections with parent company Unicom to offer Internet telephony.
'Ultimately, it has to be useful for business,' he said.