China is well and truly on the map for the majority of Europe's big businesses. .But what can be done for Europe's 23m small and medium-sized enterprises, many of which want to engage with China but lack the contacts and do not know how to start?
To provide a solution to this common problem, two online business networks, Europe-based Viadeo and China's Tianji, have teamed up to create a new online networking platform, Euro China Link that seeks to bridge the distance — and the culture gap — that separate the two business worlds.
Derek Ling, CEO of Tianji, was recently in London to officially launch the new initiative and he told EngagingChina about his plans to create a dedicated “business platform” for SMEs with an interest in China.
Europe has surpassed the US as the number one trading partner with China and we want to unleash the power of Europe's entrepreneurs. The big problem, however, if you are an SME in Europe is knowing how to begin to approach the Chinese market. Euro China Link allows European SMEs to reach prospects and businesses in China with a simple mouse click.”
Ling , who has a Masters degree fron Stanford Unviersity, is keen to distance Tianji from MySpace.com and the similar consumer-oriented social networking sites in China. Tianji does not have “cute girls and cool dudes flashing in your face” and it does not cater for teenagers seeking dates. Instead, it helps more than 700,000 professional people in China “leverage” their network of relationships in the online world.
Sociologists argue that the chain of social connections required to connect one person in the world with another is actually quite short. Supposedly, only five intermediaries or six degree degrees of separation are needed. The theory has achieved newfound fame with the growth of social networking technologies such as blogging, and one of the pioneering blogging platforms, Movable Type, was developed by a company called Six Apart.
In China, those much-vaunted guanxi, meaning the use of personal connections to achieve business goals, can also be studied from a social network approach.
Ling says that guanxi are one of the most valuable assets in career-building in China and so one of the most popular uses for theTianji site is to find a better job.
Back in Europe, Viadeo has been performing a similar social networking function for European professionals and today it has around 1.25m members across its six national-language sites. Again, people seem to be most active on Viadeo when they are looking for a new job and that has made it particular popular site for recruitment agencies, who pay to advertise on Viadeo.
Viadeo, which began life in France as an offline business club, has purchased a stake in Tianji to help cement the alliance.
Ling says that the combination of the two sites in Euro China Link will bring together the Viadeo and Tianji user bases and allow European businesses to forge China-related business links with new prospects, employees and clients, irrespective of whether they are in another part of Europe or eight thousand kiliometres away in China.
One obvious issue is language. The experience with Viadeo shows that users prefer to network online with others who share the same language, although Peter Cunningham, Viadeo's UK MD, says that the majority of Viadeo users are comfortably using English even when its not their first language.
Indeed, some users maintain online profiles in several languages so as to leave no stone unturned in the search for a better job or business contact. For the Euro China Link, English will the adopted language, and a search engine will allow users of either online community — Viadeo or Tianki — to search, in English, across the two platforms and so develop their own online network of China contacts.
While it is early days for the Euro China Link — the site is not yet operational — the initiative offers a novel and cost-effective method for SMEs to learn from the experience of others in China, as well as make some potentially valuable contacts. We will watch its development with interest.
More on European businesses and guanxi in this earlier EngagingChina story.