Tech-savvy youngsters aim to bridge e-commerce gap between East and West

Two tech-savvy young men are aiming to bridge the gap between East and West withtheir online marketing and e-commerce company, writes Etan Smallman

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 12:50am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 12:50am

He is otherwise reserved and unassuming. But Arnold Ma - who is just 27 and whose company is less than two years old - does not hesitate when he comes out with one big boast: that his firm knows more about how to make it in China than anyone at Google.

"It's a big claim, but I say we do, definitely," the tech wunderkind asserts from his office in London's Camden Town.

"Google is nothing in China, really - I think they have about 2 per cent market share in search engines. We definitely know more about Chinese digital than Google does because that's what we do; that's our bread and butter."

While US and European digital giants struggle to compete against the Chinese competition, Ma's company, Qumin, can proudly declare itself to be the "world's only full-service Anglo-Chinese digital marketing and e-commerce company". And its founder and CEO says he's calling his concept "the billion-dollar product".

We definitely know more about Chinese digital than Google does

Qumin sells Western brands to China, and will, in due course, be helping Chinese firms to break into the West. It offers a complete package of services, from search engine optimisation and pay-per-click expertise to web design, app building and social media.

With 25 staff in London and 20 in Shanghai, Ma says he is now recruiting about three or four people a month. On average, revenue has grown by 10 per cent every month since launch and Qumin already has a "well-advanced" plan to open an office in the US before looking to establish an Asia-Pacific base, followed by a presence in the United Arab Emirates.

When London mayor Boris Johnson's London & Partners hired Qumin, it became the first city tourist board to create a Chinese presence online. Other clients include Tesco, Eurostar, Kenwood and Skyscanner, while negotiations are under way with a German carmaker and Chinese superbrand Haier, the world's biggest white goods manufacturer.

It is all a world away from Ma's dirt-poor childhood in Shaanxi province - a contrast brought home when he found himself waiting for a business meeting in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Shanghai.

"The ceiling was as high as the sky, marble everywhere. And I was thinking, I can't believe that 20 years ago I was playing in the mud with literally flattened bottle caps. If this can happen to me, why can't it happen to everyone in China?"

Only 16 years ago, Ma moved to Colchester, to the northeast of London, after his mother won a scholarship to complete a PhD in fine art. Aged 11, he arrived at school as the new foreign kid donning an AC Milan shirt, clutching a dictionary and not speaking a word of English.

Learning the language came easily ("I could probably converse in the first month"), so Ma turned his attention to something equally new but more exciting: the internet.

"We didn't have computers when I was in China, there wasn't any electrical stuff," he says. "When I came here, my mum had a really old P90 90 MHz processor. I was just fascinated by the internet and on it all the time.

"I built my own fan website dedicated to anime and manga when I was about 12. The website started getting about 30,000 hits per month. And I was getting some money while I was at school from advertising."

Though Ma, an only child, says he was "pretty spoiled" and "a nightmare teenager", his youthful entrepreneurial streak was a sign of things to come.

After a degree in internet technology and network security at Essex University, and several internships and marketing jobs, he began laying the groundwork for Qumin.

But Ma says he was taken aback and "really lucky" to find next to no competition. The sense of surprise is explained by the fact that, in many ways, China's use of social media and smartphones is more advanced than in the West. Chinese e-commerce is bigger than the US and Britain's combined. Even in the poorer cities, people may have to time their dinner for when the electricity is on, but they'll be glued to their phones around the clock.

The platforms are way ahead, Ma says, "but the way that marketers understand how users use them and interact with them is way behind, because everything has moved so fast".

Ironically, he explains, the country's ancient culture is perfectly tailored for the age of "followers" and "likes". Guanxi is a central concept in Chinese society, with its notions of networks of influence, personal relationships and saving face all rolled into one.

"Say, you have a doctor in your network and you want to find a dentist - you'd go to your doctor for a recommendation," Ma says. "And even your doctor would be like, 'I like your shoes - who makes your shoes?'

"You can think of guanxi as like a 5,000-year-old social graph, basically. And Facebook is suddenly doing it online."

While peer-to-peer recommendation is the biggest impetus for buying anything in China - dwarfing television advertising - and e-commerce spending is worth hundreds of billions annually, no one is sure what the behaviour is based on.

Ma - who enthuses that "the Chinese digital industry is perfectly ripe for disruption right now" - is taking the sophisticated analytics used routinely in the West into China for the first time. Guanxi also helps Qumin in another way, as Ma's Shanghai-based business partner, Peng Yan, has what the company describes as "vital family and party connections".

"I don't want to say too much about this. Obviously, everything we do is perfectly legal, but we have an old saying in China: if it's a friend of yours, you'll go through hell on earth to do a favour for them. If it's not, you won't even lift your finger."

The name of his company was inspired by his overriding memory of his childhood in China - the smell of lamb skewers seasoned with chilli and cumin. Rather neatly, when translated into Chinese, it means "interesting people".

Ma, whose company is seeing the kind of growth any aspiring-Arnie would dream of, already has his eye on a life post-Qumin. He has a plan to exit the business in five years so he can focus on educating impoverished Chinese children. "I want to get to them before they get brainwashed that what they are is all they can be," he says.