Bruce McLaughlin says the biggest problem faced by foreign investors entering the mainland is that they do not do enough market research. It is an oversight, says the founder of private investigation and research firm Sinogie Consulting, often fuelled by visions of grandeur and excitement as investors get carried away. 'They make assumptions about the size of the country and are disappointed when 1.3 billion people don't rush to buy their products,' Mr McLaughlin says. 'Many assume that customers in China will want the same product as those in, say, America and are surprised when no one is interested. 'And some assume that the people they're going to do business with are honest; they don't carry out even the most basic background checks. And then they're shocked when business partners run off with their money.' The services the Briton's company offers are all founded on common sense: a studied look at the target market combined with a thorough analysis of potential partners. But time and time again, both at Sinogie, since its launch in 2001 and for five years before that in his previous position with the in-house consulting operation of a law firm, he has witnessed easily avoidable mistakes. 'You'd never try to enter the US or French market without doing any market research, without checking a potential business partner about whom you know nothing, or without even checking whether your investment is legal. But investors - even the most conservative multinationals - just seem to switch their brains off when they go into China, maybe blinded by the huge economic potential.' Mr McLaughlin said some also put too much emphasis on guanxi (relationships): 'Yes, guanxi's important - as it is in most markets - but it's not everything. Being a legitimate company and having the capabilities to live up to your promises are important too.' Mr McLaughlin, a Putonghua speaker, has dealt mainly with the mainland, although a few investigative projects have required work in Hong Kong and Asia. 'The reason I've been able to offer such comprehensive services has been through long-standing partnerships with mainland companies,' he says says. 'For corporate investigation, we need to be able to visit local government offices in any city in China within a day of the client requesting a company search. As I can't get to a distant town in a day or conduct market research by calling thousands of people personally, I use local specialist firms who give me the reach. They work to very specific guidelines that I've established, and I monitor their work constantly.' Company searches account for 40 per cent of Sinogie's business, market research for about 30 per cent and media monitoring for about 30 per cent. 'Media-monitoring ties in with the other services,' Mr McLaughlin says. 'We have to keep up with the latest business news in China and across the region so that we can offer the best services we can to our clients. 'This can be a service in itself: we can keep our clients up to date with what their rivals are doing, how their clients are behaving and how government policies and market conditions are changing in China and in the rest of Asia.' Sinogie has captured clients through its website as they research China-related business sites online. Repeat customers, though, are common. Mr McLaughlin says: 'Several clients are service companies - law and accounting firms, foreign corporate investigators or marketing consultants - so they come to us whenever they have new clients who need our research services.' And, naturally, repeat clients also recommend. Much of Sinogie's business comes from Hong Kong-based China or regional offices of multinational firms, mostly from Europe or North America. One-off business also comes from companies that do not have a presence in the region. 'Sometimes we investigate companies that have ripped off our clients or our clients' clients,' Mr McLaughlin says, 'or source local distributors or agents for clients that don't have international operations but want to get into China; these requests come from all over the place.' A growing need for such services coupled with Mr McLaughlin's experience inspired his venture. His previous job enabled him to develop an effective network of mainland contacts. Since opening two years ago, Sinogie has carved out a reputation for providing the type of informed reseach that can save a new business from expensive pitfalls. The challenge now, Mr McLaughlin says, is convincing new clients that hiring a research professional can be a worthwhile upfront investment. Mr McLaughlin is about to take on two staff for his Hong Kong office as foreign business enquiries are on the upswing.