Startups depend on community. It doesn’t matter whether your company is selling to businesses or consumers, whether your focus is local or global.
The need to build and engage with a community of people who share the same values and identity is more important now than ever before – especially if your audience is Gen Z.
They seek personal and emotional connections in all areas of life, including their career, the products they buy, the lifestyle they lead; they want to make an impact.
Over the past 18 months many countries around the world have turned inwards, reacting to border closures and travel restrictions, pursuing a greater resilience and self-reliance. But this will not be a permanent state of affairs, and startup founders and entrepreneurs who maintain their connections to local, regional and global communities of interest will be the best positioned to succeed over the coming years and decades.
My career so far is a testament to the power of international communities. It was born almost by accident, out of a kind of reverse culture shock. I came to Australia to study and stayed for eight years.
Compared to a lot of Chinese students I adopted a lot of Australian culture.
Of course I am still Chinese, Asian, a woman. But I am also a citizen of the world.
When I returned to China I wanted to help people who had passed through cultures in the way I had to establish their careers. I started a business helping people develop their careers in cross-cultural settings.
This was followed by other ventures including building the craft beer community in China, and Ladies Who Tech, a social enterprise that’s focused on changing the status quo in STEM industries. Today we have more than 30,000 members in 11 cities throughout Asia.
The lessons I have learned on this journey are deeply applicable to our present moment. It is likely that we will not return to the level of international business connectedness that we had before COVID until at least 2025.
Preparing for a post-pandemic world
In the meantime, there are some crucial things that entrepreneurs and business leaders should be doing to prepare for the post-pandemic world.
The first is to recruit, train and hire women.
Over the past four years, my work at Ladies Who Tech has involved speaking to traditional and internet-based companies; local Chinese companies and MNCs. All have shared a similar stat: more than 75% of consumer purchasing decisions on digital products in China are made by women. But the IT/digital teams are still 90% male.
We see a lot of talk at the macro level about relationships between gender representation and GDP, board diversity and profitability. The problem with this kind of rhetoric is that it doesn’t speak to the people on the ground, actually doing the work.
What we need is a more personal, direct connection between team leaders, team members and customers that will bring cultural change between and within individuals. The companies who can master this task will connect better with faster-growing markets and become winners in the next decade.
A similar approach is also useful for cross-border and cross-cultural connections. Too often international commerce is discussed in terms of relationships between governments and institutions.
But most entrepreneurs are not in a position to influence large-scale macro relationships like these, and focusing on them (while important) might not be productive. In order to see creative solutions, it’s far more important for entrepreneurs to focus on things that are nearer to home for them – the things that they can control.
How to network in Asia
For example, Australian entrepreneurs looking to scale into Asian markets should take advantage of the international relationships and networks that they have access to. Become part of the trading communities that already exist. Contribute to those communities and benefit from the knowledge they contain.
Partnering with the right people who have a deep, granular and dynamic understanding of the purchasing culture of your target market, whether it’s a south-east Asian market like Indonesia or a north Asian market like China, will deliver far greater benefit to your international expansion plans than even the most detailed briefing on international affairs ever could.
Until recently, the best way to do this would have been to put boots on the ground in these markets and to see and experience them for yourself. For most companies however this is not currently an option. Entrepreneurs should engage with the next best thing – digital channels and expatriate communities.
Look for networks that already exist for market entry into Asian markets. Recognise that you cannot have the same strategy for each country, or even for cities within a country.
For example, Beijing consumers are very different to those in Shanghai or Hong Kong. These are different again from markets in Indonesia, Vietnam or Singapore. The more completely you are able to become part of the commercial cross-border business communities in your target markets, the more successful your scaling activity is likely to be.
Though we do not know exactly when it will happen, there will be a resumption of international travel and the commercial activity associated with that. When that happens we are likely to see a surge at the beginning as years of pent-up demand is unleashed.
Business owners who have prepared for this surge by engaging the right staff, the right partners and the right communities will be able to take advantage of it.
- Jill Tang is a serial entrepreneur, community builder and Women in STEM advocate.
- She is a principal speaker at the Future Founders Festival (July 15-16), a place for international students and budding entrepreneurs to learn, gain confidence and have fun with their ideas, hosted by State Library Victoria’s StartSpace and Study Melbourne.