The Chinese Internet: Why the “Copy Cats” Win

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Spooky sounds from your Telecaster

grow-black-hair-longAt first blush, it seems like Song Li is one of those stereotypical Chinese Web entrepreneurs. The kind who rips off successful US sites and hopes operating in the world’s largest consumer Internet market will magically create a successful company. After all, he made a good bit of money investing in ChinaHR—a job board site that sold to Monster.com for more than $200 million over two deals —  and right now he operates Digu.com, a Twitter-clone, and Zhenai.com an online dating site that could be the Chinese Match.com.

But if you dig a little deeper into that dating site, you start to understand how differently Li thinks, and how that thinking reflects an aspect of Chinese consumer Web sites that Westerners frequently miss. Where Chinese Web entrepreneurs shine is in taking an existing business idea – ripping it off, if you like – but then completely rethinking and reinventing that idea’s business model and process. This not only makes the companies more profitable faster, it’s a big reason why home-grown Chinese versions continually beat US companies trying to expand into China.

To a Valley entrepreneur taking someone else’s idea, improving on it and taking all the credit may seem unfair or even unethical. But Google didn’t come up with the search engine and Facebook didn’t come up with a social network. What mattered was execution. Put another way: Sure the Chinese can learn a thing or two about original Web ideas from the Valley, but the Web 2.0 generation can learn a lot about monetization from China.

So what does a Chinese Match.com look like? In Li’s own words, it’s very “practical.” China has a long history of matchmaking so just going online, finding someone you like and messaging them isn’t going to appeal to a lot of the population. The ones who are comfortable with doing that will just use social networks. For those who aren’t, there are already an established off-line alternative in some 200,000 very local, fragmented companies that specialize in matchmaking, charging anywhere between 2,000 and 60,000 RMB per six months—depending on the service. Even in comparatively cheap China, they’ve got pretty high customer acquisition costs thanks to all that brick and mortar and heavy placement of classified ads to keep bringing in new singles.

That’s where the Web should come in, but it’s a bit trickier than that. Here’s the rub in China: The entire consumer Internet—along with “old world” industries like consumer packaged goods and entertainment—are all growing and developing at in parallel. In the US, you could argue social networks are the Web 2.0 answer to the Web 1.0 online dating sites. But how do you build a profitable online dating company in a world where a million MySpace and Facebook rip-offs already exist?

Li has struck an interesting middle ground: A Web site that’s free to join and free to search, with revenues provided by a 350-person strong call center of real-life matchmakers. Once you find someone on the site you like you place a call to a matchmaker to be set up on a date. Using the service costs 3,000 RMB (roughly $430 in dollars) for a six-month subscription—about the low-end of a traditional matchmaking service – and at least one person going on the date has to be a paid subscriber. The matchmaker determines whether both people want to go on the dates, or suggests an alternative date from amongst the site’s 22 million registered members (growing by 40,000 per day). The matchmaker then sets up the date, and then follows up afterwards.

The matchmaker isn’t your friend—she is doing a job. If you suggest someone out of your league, they might, ahem, guide your expectations. “We just want you to be realistic,” Li says. And in the event of a rejection, Li’s team asks a detailed questionnaire to determine exactly why one party didn’t want a second date. And then they call the other party to explain – in precise detail – where they went wrong. “At least you know why and there are certain things you can fix next time,” he says. It may sound brutal but it gives the service clear value. Zhenai.com is profitable, generating about $2 million in revenues per month, growing at double-digit rates month-over-month.

It may also sound like labor-powered, innovation-free China, but it’s not. Li has built a specific CRM system from scratch to walk matchmakers through the matching process and he’s hired a psychologist to help train them on what questions to ask, and what to say to the lovelorn. Li himself has a PHD in finance from Cornell, where he also studied evolutionary biology and molecular genetics.

And then there’s the statistics. Not even Max Levchin—the PayPal and Slide founder who has graphed everything down to his past girlfriends’ bra sizes over time— could match Li’s love for charts and stats. All those brutally honest conversations about why dates succeeded or failed have turned into a trove of statistical data that matchmakers turn into pre-date advice.

A random example? 60% of women with long, straight hair get second dates—even when the data is normalized for Chinese women being more likely to have long, straight hair. The worst group? Short curly hair, which has only a 5% second-date percentage. (Note to self: Good thing I’m married.) “We’re not telling them what to do, we’re just giving them information,” Li says matter-of-factly. Men also like black pantyhose and shiny color-less nail polish. (Li blushes a bit when he tells me about the pantyhose.)

Li has also found that men are universally attracted to women with a .7 hip-to-waist ratio—something he believes is genetically hard-coded as a reproductive trait. “I can’t do anything if a woman is fat, but I can tell her to dress so it shows off her waist,” he says dispassionately. It works both ways, by the way. Women prefer dates wear a suit and because women are predisposed to look for “good providers” Li says he can track for every extra 1,000 RMB you make a month, statistically what percentage more attractive you will be to an average woman. “It’s a math fact,” he says. “I can build you a model.”

It bears noting that Li is not some fratty chauvinist pig. He’s a brainy, bespectacled former derivatives trading executive on Wall Street and Hong Kong, and, yes, he is married. He just likes to break things down into numbers and trends in an obsessive attempt to quantify the seemingly qualitative behavioral patterns of it all. And that makes him the exact opposite of any US consumer site trying to blindly “localize” a site for the Chinese market by just changing the language.

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