Entrepreneurs lend a friendly ear

Updated: 2012-01-06 07:45

By Yao Jing (China Daily)

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Entrepreneurs lend a friendly ear

Casper Johansen, the president of Entrepreneurs' Organization Beijing, says EO is underrepresented in China. [Provided to China Daily]

Meetings give business owners opportunity to sort out issues

Kasper Leschly, the Danish founder of the footwear brand D:Fuse, goes to a confidential forum in Beijing every second Tuesday of the month in Beijing. The four-hour meeting gives Leschly a chance to talk about problems he has encountered over the previous month.

"We have the same issues and frustrations. It's such a great help to improve your business," Leschly says.

He was introduced to the Entrepreneurs' Organization by a business partner who joined the group last July. He had also heard about a similar group in Mexico.

The Beijing group has 33 members whose annual sales total more than $900 million. The five EO chapters in China have 100 members, and EO has a global network of more than 8,000 business owners in 40 countries and regions.

The organization, keenly aware that three-quarters of the businesses belonging to EO Beijing are run by expatriates, is trying to attract more local businesses.

"I'd like Chinese entrepreneurs to have the chance to see what EO is and to see if there is also something they can benefit from," says the president of EO Beijing, Casper Johansen.

At the end of last year, EO Beijing launched its first public recruitment event at Kai-Fu Lee's Innovation Works, aiming to triple its membership over the next three years.

By and large, entrepreneurs in other countries know about EO, so little needs to be done to raise awareness of the group, unlike in China, Johansen says.

Leschly set up his company, which is based in Tianjin, in 2007. The company's first footwear shop was opened in Shanghai with an investment of 250,000 yuan ($40,000, 30,500 euros).

A little more than four years later, D:Fuse has 200 outlets around China, and its annual sales volume is triple when compared with 2008.

As with many domestic brands, D:Fuse products are targeted at the middle class, but Leschly reckons they are trendier.

"Most of the fashion happens in Europe first, and I think we can spot that better than most domestic designers."

Since the brand is European, Leschly acknowledges there is learning to be done in understanding what Chinese consumers want, and some designs need to be adapted to make shoes more comfortable for Chinese people.

"You start selling and then you get the sales data, you analyze them, and try to understand which is the most popular."

Being competitive does not hinge on the price, he says. "It definitely on the design, and on trend."

However, it's always difficult to start something new, and Leschly says he and his partner had never been in the shoe trade before. The hard part was understanding Chinese consumers, getting into department stores and finding suppliers, he says.

Leschly, 39, first came to China in 1995 as a student at Beijing Normal University. Having a great interest in Chinese culture and people and speaking fluent Chinese does not exclude him from personal and business problems now and then.

"Sometimes there is only you, and you have no one to talk to about it."

In his EO eight-member group, he can talk to peers who are confronted with similar problems.

"What (has) been said can only stay in the forum. It's a very safe place to talk about very intimate problems, personal or business ones, and you get very good feedback," he says.

At present, EO Beijing has four groups; one with both Chinese and English speakers, and the others are for English speakers. It would like to set up Chinese-speaking groups.

"We've got big presence in all the major economies in the world," Johansen says. "In China, we are underrepresented."

Johansen has been a member of EO Beijing since he moved to Beijing from Hong Kong in 2009. He became president six months ago.

EO Beijing is five years old. In the first three years, the organization grew very little, but Johansen says, it is attracting about 10 new members each year.

In the meetings, members talk about the recent highs and lows of their business and personal lives and elicit advice and help from others.

As an experience-sharing network, it has strict flows and processes for how you interact and what you can and can't say.

EO is also highly selective about who can become members. Those wanting to join have to be accepted by every other member and run a company with an annual turnover of at least $1 million. The annual membership fee is $1,500.

Zhang Shuxin, who introduced Esquires Coffee to China in 2009, does not see that fee as onerous.

Moving back from New Zealand to start a coffee business in China, she encountered various problems. When she talked about her difficulties with her brand's consultant in a marketing forum, the consultant recommended EO Beijing.

Zhang joined the organization in June 2010. The biggest obstacle for her in her business, she says, was loneliness. She could not talk about her business problems with her investors, staff members or family, she says, as her role was always to cheer them up.

"You can share 95 percent of your daily life with your friends, family, and other people you meet everyday. However, besides those popular topics, the rest of the 5 percent of your life is always intimate and challenging

"When I go to the forum to talk and listen to others, we just open up our heart. I realize we are easily (able to) help each other get out of troubles."

In addition, Zhang takes an active part in learning events held by the organization on issues such as human resources and corporate mergers, and she often takes her husband and son on members' family outings.

"We are not aiming to develop business partners in EO. It is more helpful on a spiritual level and very useful to reduce my stress."

Zhang's Esquires Coffee now has six shops in Beijing, one in Tianjin and one in Kunming. Her first shop is located in The Place, a popular shopping destination in Beijing, and had a turnover of about 300,000 yuan a month last year, an increase of 40 percent compared with 2010.

She also plans to open more shops in unsaturated second-tier cities in China over the next three years.

Confronted with competitors such as Starbucks and Costa, which have steady and loyal customers, Zhang says Esquires Coffee still has a long way to go to build an awareness.

"I really know how tough and how lonely it is in operating a business."

As for EO Beijing, it has a lot of growing up to do, Johansen says. "A lot of things are immature. If you check our website, it is still in English, and we are in the process of translating it. Even basic things like that are extremely important."