iTien Blog
Late to the blogging world but better than never

October 2007
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Guerilla Marketing
Filed under: Work, Shanghai, China
Posted by: Alan @ 4:02 pm

Guerilla Marketing.  Sounds good, right?  It sounds like “powerful word-of-mouth marketing on the cheap.”  Great.  So how do you do it?

Many of the big, successful PR events that you may have read about actually cost a lot of money.  In Mavericks at Work, the author describes ING Direct as a “master of bold publicity stunts and brash PR moves….In Boston, ING Direct paid for all the subway lines on the MBTA (know as the “T” among Bostonians) to be free one morning to rush-hour commuters - a high-profile stunt that the company dubbed the “ING Direct Boston T Party.”  This PR sounds wonderful, and it’s probably cheaper than buying an ad during the Superbowl, but it’s definitely not cheap.

I’m trying to figure this out for my company  At first, we tried to get bloggers to write about us.  We get a ton of blog coverage in the US because of founder David Sacks’ reputation from his being COO at PayPal.  However, outside of the US, Dave’s reputation is limited.  Sort of like how US PayPal executives couldn’t believe that users in China have never heard of PayPal.  Or how many of the big hotel chains from the US - such as 5-star Holiday Inns and Radisson’s - are trying to upgrade their brand in China because Chinese users have no idea how good or bad they are in the US. 

After cold-contacting many APAC bloggers, we got minimal response besides a few mentions in Singapore.  I felt like we had a compelling story about a new social networking site focused on families.  The bloggers in the US love Geni, raving about the UI and the virality.  However, we could not get much interest among the Asian bloggers, and I’m only talking about the ones who write in English.

In parallel, I tried to use my “guanxi” in Shanghai to get published in expat magazines.  It took a while but I have finally got a few mentions.  One was in the October issue of Shanghai’s American Chamber of Commerce’s (AmCham) magazine Insight.  And just yesterday, I saw my article published in the November issue of American Women’s Club of Shanghai’s (AWCS) magazine The Spirit.  That was a lot of work.

In Ad-tech Beijing, one of the panels was on Guerilla Marketing.  But the majority of the panel discussion was on how to deal with negative press, how large MNC’s often fail to recognize the powder keg of unsatisfied users on non-traditional media such as blogs and discussion boards.  When an attendee finally asked about how to do “proactive guerilla marketing,” one of the speakers (from, I assume, a PR company) said “Oh, it’s very hard.  Please come up afterwards and we can talk about such a project.”

I also got a proposal from a professional PR company - for a good chunk of change, they promise access to traditional media writers and bloggers.  My friends in China tell me that PR in China is completely a paid thing.  “Reporters” here are supposedly extremely lazy.  You have to write the story, provide all the supporting material (e.g., pictures) and pay them money for them to get your PR printed.  They are essentially gateways to media. 

As often is the case, the more you learn of an industry, the uglier it gets.

China Internet Monetization
Filed under: China, Internet
Posted by: Alan @ 4:35 pm

I’ve been talking to a lot of folks about why China’s internet sites aren’t monetizable.

I was first shocked to hear that a popular SNS website with 9 million users was not able to make any money on its users.  Why not?  Bloggers in US make money with much smaller audiences! 

Several folks have told me that only the top 4-6 websites in China (usual suspects of Sina, SOHU, Baidu, etc) make money from advertising, and they mostly sell a banner on the home page by the day - no “pay for performance”.  This implies the advertisers are just buying ads for branding purposes.

At first, I thought it was that the ad networks and affiliate systems were lacking.  No Adsense for China.  Google obviously has Adsense but maybe it was because Google’s share of the market was too small.  That is true; recent research on search sites suggest Google is climbing back up in popularity but most folks “in the know” say Baidu is still far out ahead, 80% plus market share.

But then I went to Ad-tech conference in Beijing ( and found out these networks exist.  However, the tools are immature relative to US, and the click fraud rates are outrageous (somewhat related: see this article on how China websites faked their Alexa data:  Seems like everyone in the industry is guessing; none of the numbers are reliable.  Don Schultz, Emeritus Professor of Northwestern University, told us not to look to the US for the right model of marketing; we have to forge our own way in China (although I find that he didn’t really have the answer as to how).  Brian Fetherstonhaugh, Global CEO of Ogilvy, tells us the 4 P’s of marketing (Product, Price, Place, Promotion) are now replaced by 4 E’s (Experience, Exchange, Everyplace, Evangelism);  Sorry, I’m on a tangent but I was very impressed by Mr. Fetherstonhaugh’s presentation, especially since I just had a mojito with him the night before at midnight.  Believe me, I was a bit surprised to stumble into the 9am keynote to see him on stage.

After talking to many folks, I believe head of China Redpoint David Yuan explained it best.  E-commerce isn’t ready yet.  Without mom & pop e-commerce sites, we don’t have paid search or affiliate ads.  Latest CNIIC report on China internet usage ( says: “In China…in shopping online, only 25.5% of Chinese Internet users do it yet it has become a universal action of Internet users in the USA”.  I believe the majority of these transactions are done either on the large e-commerce sites (e.g., Dang Dang) or on a C2C site (e.g., TaoBao, eBay - now run under Eachnet name). 

It’s not due to lack of payment options, although granted the players are all small: Alipay is the 8 lbs gorilla and the rest are baby chimps (including, alas, my baby “BeiBao”, PayPal China’s name).  Nor is it due to poor logistics options.  COD in China is very cheap with local couriers.  In large cities, it may be because of the ease of buying goods offline, but there are plenty of goods difficult to find in the non-Tier 1 cities.

No, I believe it’s due to lack of trust.  Chinese inherently don’t trust strangers.  That’s the number one argument I heard from any native Chinese while at eBay and PayPal against both models (online marketplace, online payments).  The brave 25% of Chinese internet users who have tried e-commerce are the vanguard of the most adventurous, risk-taking people in China already.  And they demand to use Escrow on TaoBao and eBay, or only shop at large e-tailers.

The internet consumers do not trust the mom & pop e-commerce site will ship the good, or if they do ship it, it’ll be fake or broken or wrong.  There’s also the fear that their debit PIN will be stolen (credit usage is almost non-existant).  Without chargeback rights of credit cards like in the US, it’s a “buyer beware” market.  Thus, if the internet consumers won’t buy from them, it doesn’t make sense for the mom & pop sites to advertise.  SME’s can’t afford to advertise for branding.  Therefore, only the big companies can afford to advertise.  Big companies don’t just sell one item, so their ads are for branding.  If they are trying to improve their brand, they only market on the trusted portals and search sites, where the majority of the users are anyway.

Frankly, the tracing of the difficulty of monetizing China internet sites with advertising back to the lack of trust isn’t such a huge insight, but believe me, I had to ask a lot of people to piece this together. 

Here are two good books to provide academic terminology and case studies to back up this obvious-to-the-native-Chinese assertion that Chinese do not trust each other.

Trust by Fukuyama:

Geography of Thought:



Differentiation is Good
Filed under: General, Work, China
Posted by: Alan @ 11:59 am

Here’s my response to Dean Bubley’s nice blog about how people are using FB for all contacts, not just friends.  He states, “I’m trying to come up with a reasoned criterion for someone being ‘Facebookable’.”

I’m the GM of Geni China.  We at Geni obviously believe that there should be differentiation among the circles of people you care about in your life: friends (FB), co-workers (LinkedIn), and a circle you didn’t mention - family (Geni).

However, in China, most of the social networkers here do not differentiate. They invite everybody they meet to their SNS of choice, and they accept invitations from everyone without distinguishing which circle.

I wish, like the Olympic “manners” campaigns where the Chinese government is trying to teach 1.2B people that spitting on the street isn’t cool, Chinese bloggers could reiterate what you’ve said, and explain the value and purpose of differentiation.  Not everyone can be your BFF.

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Destiny/Fate/Fortune: Do not go to Bali
Filed under: General
Posted by: Alan @ 9:37 pm

“Do NOT go to Bali.  Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200.”

If we read our trip fortune before October Holidays, it might’ve said something like that.

We had booked our expensive trip to Bali to attend our friends’ Joy and Jamie’s wedding celebration.  The night before our trip, we had friends over playing cards until 10 pm, so comfortable with traveling we were.  But at 11pm, we realized we had lost Kyle’s passport.  We spent 3 frantic hours searching the house and racking our brains as to where it might be, but to no
avail.  At 2am, we went to sleep in frustration; amazingly not in an argument.

At 6am, we got up to tell the driver he did not have to drive us to the airport, and then called our ayi in case she knew where it was.  “It’s in the corner table,” she said.  I excitedly flipped through the mess of paper and receipts, but only found Kyle’s old passport.

We went back to sleep, accepting the fact that we were going to miss our flight.  A few hours later, I was at the computer wasting time.  It was the beginning of October Holiday so we weren’t able to go the US Embassy anyway.  Then Kyle walked in, handing me his passport.  For a minute, I thought he had hidden it and only now was giving it to us, but he told me, “Mommy found it.”

Turns out Mae-Ling had hidden his passport when, a week earlier, we had our weekend getaway, because she wanted his passport accessible – outside of the safe – if anything had happened to us.  Unfortunately, she had forgotten she had done this.  And in our house search, I had looked in the drawer but missed it.

What’s passed is passed.  We looked forward and started re-planning our trip.  Mae-Ling rebooked us onto a 6pm flight to HK, and the flight to Bali the next morning at 10am, with only a 900 RMB change penalty. 

On the ride to the airport, Mae-Ling suddenly realized that we hadn’t packed Kyle’s asthma inhaler.  Now, not only did we have to get to her Aunt Rose’s apartment late at night, but we also had to stop by the hospital to get his medicine.  And I learned, Aunt Rose had her daughter’s dog in the apartment; both Kyle and I are allergic to dogs.

We got to the airport plenty early, stood patiently in the HUGE Dragon Air line, were pulled out because of Kyle to a much shorter line, checked in without having to pay the penalty, and made it through relatively short Customs and security lines.  Our flight was only delayed 15 minutes. 
Things were looking up.

We walked the length of the Pudong airport to go the Singapore Airlines lounge, but our UA/Star Alliance Red Carpet card wasn’t accepted.  I was pissed.  We walked all the way back to where we started for the ANA/United lounge, but sorry, UA’s Red Carpet doesn’t work here either.  I was REALLY pissed.  I really hate United.  It took me two beers at the coffee shop to somewhat calm down. 

Since our flight looked delayed – the time said TBD on the flight board, we sat down at an empty gate.  I watched FIFA soccer, US beating Norway, while Mae-Ling occupied Kyle with cards.  We heard our flight and the earlier Dragon Air flight to HK change gates several times, but since our flight’s boarding time was still TBD, we didn’t go to the new gate yet.  Mae-Ling went to check the board again, and heard from the passengers from the flight before us that our flight was already boarding!  We ran back the length of the airport and just barely got on board.  It was hard to get mad at them for not posting the time since everyone else was on board already. 

At this point, I started thinking maybe we really weren’t meant to go on this trip.

But we arrived in HK without incident.  Before exiting Customs, we went to the Cathay Pacific counter to pick up our boarding passes so we wouldn’t have to do it in the morning.  “Uh oh” the woman said.  Kyle was on a temporary passport, the result of an expedient decision made a few months back when we were going to the US and Kyle’s passport was going to expire.  Now, his passport was within 6 months of expiration again, and it didn’t have a full page left for the Indonesian visa.  She told me to go to the Dragon Air counter to find out our options.  Mae-Ling fought through other irate customers at the Dragon Air counter, only to find out that we had to ask our travel agent.

Resigned and defeated, we went through Customs, picked up our luggage, and consoled ourselves over Krispy Kreme donuts and free wi-fi.  After freezing Airport Express and taxi rides, we made it to Aunt Rose’s apartment at 1am.  I felt lame having the 2 Filipino ayis wrestle our 2 huge suitcases up 3 flights of stairs, but I was too tired to be manly.  Aunt Rose tried to make us feel better with some legal drugs – red wine – and we promptly fell asleep.

On Monday, with the US Embassy closed for the HK/China National holiday, Mae-Ling and I went to eat dim sum, leaving Kyle at Aunt Rose’s
apartment because he was too comfortable to leave.  Like so many other China meals, I got sick afterwards and had to rest in the renovated Mandarin Oriental hotel lounge.  When we got back, ML took Kyle to the hospital to get his medicine, while I stayed back for a nap.  I tried to somewhat redeem my vacation by watching Entourage DVD.  Poor Mae-Ling had to deal with all the cancelling and rescheduling while I checked out.

We basically gave up after that, and changed our travel plans to go to Macau instead.  We salvaged some of our vacation by staying one night in the new Venetian, and then moving to our comp’ed rooms at the renovated Lisboa (not the new tower, which isn’t finished yet).  We ate some great meals, especially at the stylish Wynn, and toured the empty Fisherman’s Wharf.  We didn’t even gamble a dollar.  After a long day of travel, Kyle and I made it home.  It’s still kind of strange to call Shanghai home, but it did feel good to be in our apartment.


So what does this all mean?

Just the other day, ML told me a story she had just read that I found prescient now.  This guy was commuting 2 hours a day.  He got up for work before his young daughter woke up; he returned home after his daughter fell asleep.  On a beautiful morning, he had an epiphany.  He decided to go to work late and have breakfast with his family.  So be it if he was going to be fired.  Turns out that day was 9/11.  The terrorist plane crashed into the floor of his office.  He was the only one who lived in his company.

I guess our story isn’t not really parallel since this guy chose not to go, whereas we were thwarted at every turn, but I find it similar in that it seems
like Fate or Destiny (or whatever you call it) didn’t want us to go. 

The older I get the more I believe in Destiny, not a Calvinistic Predestination, but more of a general direction in life.  I visualize Destiny as a luge track or a water flume.  It’s easiest to go down the track determined by physics, but you could fight it and go up the wrong side if you wish.  However, it gets harder and harder to fight the path of least resistance; in fact, you risk flipping over, or even flying out of the track and really getting hurt.  On rare occasions, you can exercise freewill with determination, and with some luck, you can drop into a new track, changing the course of your original Destiny, but in the process, finding a new Destiny.

I feel there have been a few times in my life where I fought my Destiny, staying my current course too long, and things just got harder and harder.  Too proud to switch majors, I made it through my BSEE degree at Stanford…but only barely.  I have not been able to find the energy to get any further degrees.  In my early 20’s, out of an overdeveloped sense of loyalty, I overstayed my job at WESTT, a small consulting firm, during the Internet boom.  I could’ve/should’ve joined Yahoo anytime over a period of 3 years and would’ve done quite well.  Instead, things at WESTT just got more and more unbearable, until I finally found the courage to quit.  (There was the side benefit of my starting M Society West though).  Years later, I stuck through 5 rounds of layoffs at Jamcracker.  Like my time at WESTT, I felt too guilty to quit, but this time, the decision to leave was a
bit harder because it was the Dark Ages in Silicon Valley, after the Internet bubble burst.  But like my EE degree and WESTT, it just got more and more painful, to the point where I was dreaming about work every night for the last 6 months of the job.  They weren’t quite nightmares but I did wake up disquieted.  Only when the worst boss of my life joined the company did I finally end the pain, leaping into the dark.  But Destiny’s track was waiting to catch me, and after only a few weeks of insecurity, I landed with PayPal.  PayPal started off great, but 5 years later, my job in China was incredibly frustrating because what started off as the company’s highest priority project became the company’s greatest embarrassment.  After millions of dollars of investment, we weren’t even close to the top competitor, and we didn’t see a way of closing the gap.  Finally, I saw the pattern in life, and despite a great expat offer for PayPal Singapore, I quit.

The other analogy I have to help me through the troubled waters of life is whitewater rafting.  I went on a Class 4 rapids and learned that in calm waters, we could row in the direction we wanted; when nearing rapids, we had to row hard to the right point; but when we were in the white rapids, we should pull in our oars and just hang on.  If we rowed in the rapids, we risked having the waves rip the oars out of our hands, or even worse, catching the oars in rocks and flipping us out of our raft.  Contrary to my instinct of rowing through it, it’s better to hope your preparation was enough, hang on tight through the worst of it, and hope your luck will carry you past.  So when things are good in life, establish a plan and work hard on accomplishing your goals, but when things are rough, sit back and relax.  Let destiny show you the

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