If I see another Chinese eCommerce startup, I may get sick

China flag

China flag

It seems like one in every three startups I come across these days — especially in China — is an e-commerce startup. I understand why this is the case. People look at companies like Alibaba and think, ‘holy cow, there’s an awful lot of money to be made here.’ Or they look at a company like La Miu working in a niche and think, ‘hey, there’s room for me in there.’ No, there isn’t. Also, I hate you.

I get that you want to do a startup, but China has e-commerce sites, both big and niche. Your idea for a “twist”? Someone has already done it. I can’t tell you how many sites I’ve come across (for example) that proclaim to be a niche boutique fashion e-shop… for men! “Oh my god,” I’m supposed to say, “no one has ever done that before! Finally men have a place to buy clothes on the internet!” Except, of course, that plenty of people have already done that.

Maybe it’s the fact that others have done it before that leads to the startup stampedes China seems especially prone to. That’s certainly what happened when suddenly half of China’s entrepreneurial community decided that group buying e-commerce was the next big market to get into because it seemed to be working in the US. More than 5,000 group buy startups were established in less than a year. And less than a year after that, most of them have crashed and burned.

I get that you want to make money, but please, do it in some more creative or interesting way. The people in tech who make big money are always the ones that come up with something new and different. And often, they didn’t start out with the goal of making money. Look at Facebook. Say what you will about the company’s stock performance of late; Mark Zuckerberg is still richer than you will ever be, and when he started his service it was a yearbook for Ivy League preppies. Zuck has previously stated that he didn’t start Facebook for the money, and while some cynics do doubt that, I don’t think he sat down in his dorm room trying to make a billion dollars, I think he sat down in his dorm room trying to make a cool product that fixed a problem (Harvard had no unified online face book for students to browse). Google, similarly, started as a research project to improve search engine results.

What problem is your e-commerce startup fixing? Most of them are fixing just one so-called problem: the founder’s bank account doesn’t have enough money in it. That’s not going to lead you in the direction of creating a useful and innovative service. And this late in the game, it’s not even going to lead you in the direction of success. The few e-commerce startups that I do like are ones that really are solving a problem, like Order with Me, which is helping small businesses source manufactured products in China.

So please, don’t do an e-commerce startup. Do something more interesting, more creative, and more useful. Having lots of money is nice, but if you’re in China, unless you’ve got a really innovative approach, you have probably already missed that train. Plus, money isn’t everything. Spend your time worrying about solving a problem, and then if the money comes, you can at least be satisfied that it’s money well-earned.

This article by C. Custer originally appeared on Tech in Asia and was published with their permission.



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