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These Five Chinese Proverbs Will Help You Run Your Business Better

Living in China can teach you some valuable lessons in business. Here James Poyser, co-founder of inniAccounts, offers the five Chinese proverbs that shape his entrepreneurial ethos here in the UK.

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Living in China can teach you some valuable lessons in business. Here James Poyser, co-founder of inniAccounts, offers the five Chinese proverbs that shape his entrepreneurial ethos here in the UK.

Opinions

These Five Chinese Proverbs Will Help You Run Your Business Better

Living in China can teach you some valuable lessons in business. Here James Poyser, co-founder of inniAccounts, offers the five Chinese proverbs that shape his entrepreneurial ethos here in the UK.

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In October 2009 I found myself in Beijing with a visa to live and work but with nowhere to live and no work. Though my arrival in Beijing wasn’t totally unplanned - it was part of a world travel sabbatical - I admit I hadn’t expected to stay for so long, two years in all.

With over 20 million people, contributing to and witnessing the rise of a new super power, Beijing consumes you in a way you can’t explain, and before long you find yourself looking for ways to stay.

I was there when China was on the cusp of an extraordinary change in its economic history. And certainly in the two years I was there, I could see just how important it would become.

During my stay I started inniAccounts with the mindset that I could achieve my goals no matter where I was in the world. Technology knows no boundaries and it was clear that I could develop the product with my co-founders back in the UK just as quickly and more cheaply than I could if I returned home.

Beijing

Beijing has come up a bit in recent years...

There was a strong ex-pat community and the expertise to help me determine the business model and build the software was all around. It made sense.

But I learnt very quickly to apply a filter to everything I heard and saw, and it taught me some principles that I never expected I would need but are vital if you want to retain control of your business idea and its future. It can be summed up with five Chinese proverbs.

‘A hedge between keeps friendship green’

Translation: Pick your partners wisely and get a contract.

China is full of opportunity, and it is also full of opportunists. It's not uncommon for western business owners to leave China empty handed after local business partners have exploited their knowledge to unfairly take control of the business.

I saw it so often that my daily mantra for life in China was "It's not wrong, it's just different". It was the only way to rationalise the way business is done.

It’s a lesson in how important it is to have a lawyer, and that when starting a business with partners, no matter where, it's worthwhile having frank conversations up front about expectations, and how underperforming partners will be managed. And whatever you do, get everything in writing in a manner that's right for your jurisdiction.

‘A single conversation across the table with a wise man is worth ten year's study of books’

Translation: Value connections and relationships.

In China, personal connections, known as Guanxi, are at the heart of business. To get ahead you must build a network of contacts that can be called upon when needed. It's considered a two-way street - if you ask a favour, you will be expected to return it in the future. Building your Guanxi is extremely important despite how long it may take.

This is in contrast to the West where there's a distinct line between healthy networking and nepotism (think Bullingdon Club), or corruption (think cash for questions).

Guanxi

Guanxi: Scratching backs is big business in China

I think there’s a lot to be said for China’s approach. It’s in line with Caildini's Six Principles of Influence and in particular his reciprocation theory - if you make the first move and do someone a favour, they'll feel more compelled to help you in the future. So if you’re not doing it already then start working contacts and helping people. The future payoffs can be significant as I have learnt to my good fortune.

‘Wisdom is as the moon rises, perceptible not in progress but in result’

Translation: Don’t waste time on ideas that have no future.

In China opportunities are abundant, but finding the real gems is hard, especially in a context of corrupt and precarious economic development. I learnt that I needed to be ruthless about evaluating ideas and quick to do the business case to evaluate the potential and risks.

It’s something that I really value now. If there's too much risk or the rewards aren't there then I reject it and move on. Don’t get me wrong, I still get excited about new ideas for businesses and apps, and I do allow myself the time to indulge my thinking because I believe it's very healthy to explore ideas, talk to experts and sketch out plans for a dream product or service.

But I'll take a realistic look at the effort versus payoff and reject 95% of them. You won’t survive if you don’t have such an approach.

‘Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without one’

Translation: Be thankful for rules.

We all like to have a pop at the EU for its rules and regulations, but as I business owner I find them extremely helpful. I know exactly where I stand - be that on taxation, regulation, or employment. I know what I must, or must not do to stay on the right side of the law.

This isn't the case in China. A business owner in China once told me that the local government's mantra was "let the pig grow fat before slaughter". They would happily let businesses violate all manner of rules and regulations to grow. Once it was large enough, and deemed a cash cow, they'd go in, point out the infringements, issue exorbitant fines and seize the business’ assets. It’s therefore not hard to see why we should never take for granted the structures we abide by here.

‘A man grows most tired while standing still’

Translation: Don’t make life hard for yourself.

Business is hard, full stop. Unless the payoff will be substantial, why make it any harder by operating in an unknown environment? As I already said, with my tech background, the opportunities for me were just as great at home as they were in China, but crucially I could be even more successful if I didn’t work in an environment of unknowns. It’s a lesson in learning to think about where your finite energy is best invested, and making a conscious decision to focus efforts accordingly.

I realised about 18 months in that I could make things happen faster and make the business a success sooner if I left China. This influenced my decision to return to the UK, and it was probably one of the most pivotal business decisions I made.

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These Five Chinese Proverbs Will Help You Run Your Business Better

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