Unlocking Business in China

Berlin Lee, Chew Kok Yong & Chong Zhe Wei

From pigeon messengers to the world’s fastest 5G network, their rapid transformation took the world by surprise. 20 years ago, one would not have imagined that China would become the tech powerhouse it is today.

Since China’s reform and the implementation of an ‘open door’ policy in the 1970s, its economy effectively doubled in size every eight years. With over 1.4 billion citizens, the People’s Republic of China also serves as one of the largest consumer markets in the world.

Shenzhen in 2000s
Source: Flickr

Chinese business culture is unlike any other; coupled with numerous red tapes and an unspoken social decorum, cracking into the lucrative Chinese market is easier said than done. Despite his eventual success, it was not an easy journey for Berlin. It took some guts, a never-say-die attitude and years of misadventure.  

It was the early 2000s when Berlin embarked on his first venture into China, spurned by a dubious business lead for Formwerkz Architects. Details were vague and he wasn’t even given the exact location of the site. Unsure but hopeful, he bought tickets to two different cities. Just in case, the first destination was wrong, he’d just travel to the next one. However, the trip was an unfruitful one and he returned to Singapore empty-handed. It was a rough time for foreign entities in China, as corruption was rife and innovation was unheard of. Everything was a copy of a copy. There was much for the Chinese to learn, after being closed off for so long.  

Following his first endeavour, it took Berlin a couple more tries before he was left disappointed. Born and bred in the stable and sheltered Singapore, he was unable to thrive in the chaos and capriciousness of China back then.

Anhui in 2000s
Source: Flickr

Yet, the allure of elusive China never dimmed. It only intensified with the constant news of an increasingly thriving economy, the emergence of Chinese tech disruption and freshly minted smart cities all over China.

“I wanted to go back there. Like an afternaut, I wanted to explore their space, I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew one thing – I was running out of time.” - Berlin

He returned to China in 2016 with a renewed hope. The Chinese no longer heavily relied on foreign expertise, what they needed now was a hybrid – a trusted gatekeeper that would bridge the gap between them and the international community. Berlin wanted to be that man and Afternaut was to be his vessel.

Remarkably, what got Berlin’s foot in the door was not his years of experience or the million-dollar projects he has done. He recalls his first encounter with one of Afternaut’s most strategic Chinese clients, one that he will never forget. He formed a Singaporean consortium and went into the meeting armed with four portfolios, one of which was his own. At the last moment, he decided against presenting them. Instead, he did away with the conventional sales pitch, selected a few key projects that embodied his vision and winged it, with a genuine interest to understand how he could assist and address the client’s pain points. What was supposed to be a short 15-minute chat turned into a conversation that lasted for four hours. By the time Berlin was out of the room, he was completely exhausted. The next day, he woke up to a generous contract.

“It was one of those moments where you had to be yourself, be truthful when delivering what you’re good at and bring value to the table. He could have easily approached anyone else, so why me?” - Berlin

As the Chinese saying goes, “heaven will not fail a sincere person.” His success wasn’t credited to traditional metrics but his conviction. He sold his values and a vision. To make a difference, one must believe in it, act on it and sell it.

Almost two years later, Afternaut has left its mark in a multitude of China cities across China. From conceptualising man-less convenience stores to erecting an entire first-of-its-kind tech fest, China is truly a place where innovation could flourish and firms like Afternaut could do good work. As far as exciting opportunities go, they show no signs of stopping.

From left to right: Berlin, Kok Yong, Zhe Wei
The team behind ZeroOne Tech Fest

“Exploration is ingrained into the very DNA of Afternaut. Back then, we have never done a ZeroOne tech fest or rather, we have never created an event before. Yet, we were given a chance to try and be successful at it; resulting in this wonderful portfolio we have with us today.” - Kok Yong

That’s the beauty of doing business with the Chinese, they offer a platform whereby the impossible can and will be implemented. Besides having an abundance of resources, they also possess a futuristic vision to progress at a rapid speed.

“With a certain vision and a little bit of willfulness and the ability to do anything, they (the Chinese) can get things done.” - Berlin

Afternaut for Singapore

After implementing various innovative projects in China, Afternaut is turning its attention back home. In line with Singapore’s impending future of becoming a Smart Nation, Afternaut co-founder Chong Zhe Wei strongly believes that it is crucial that Afternaut comes back home to break traditional silos and help local enterprises achieve digital business transformation.

“We mustn’t forget that we are a Singaporean enterprise. Coming back here to our home ground and doing national service is something we should work on as well. Doing well there (in China) and bringing the essence back so that our local enterprise and the government will reap benefits.” - Zhe Wei

*Berlin is a founding partner of Formwerkz design collective. In 2016, inspired by burgeoning digital technologies, Berlin spearheaded Formwerkz’s digital transformation and founded Afternaut.

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