To what extent does an entrepreneur’s gender play into their ability to identify an opportunity?
Women in tech is a hot discussion topic today for all the right reasons. We looked into How Women are Busting Open the Tech Industry in a panel during our PSFK Conference this year and was a general consensus that there still is a lot of work to be done.
What’s also clear is that this is not a US-specific problem; in fact, there was a ‘women in tech’ panel at a recent Tech in Asia event that echoed some of the same sentiments and concerns. To get a better understanding of the ground reality in China, we connected with entrepreneur Jing Zhou, who manages the all-female team behind a social app named elepon. The app follows a ‘by girls for girls’ environment which enables small groups to communicate about personal matters in a fun, game-like manner where expressing emotions are encouraged.
Our conversation with her offers a handful of insights into Chinese web and youth culture and the role of women within it. She also offers insights into how start-ups can fill in gaps where tech giants fear to tread, thus positioning female entrepreneurs at the cutting edge of digital innovation.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in China and got my MS degree in magazine publishing and business reporting at Northwestern University. Before I came an entrepreneur, I covered technology and finance as a reporter for BusinessWeek and other B2B publications in the US. In 2010, I raised ~$4million with my team in China to launch one of the first rich-media mobile ad companies. By the end of 2011, I took an 4x exit and immediately started my current venture, elepon, a gamified mobile social network targeting young women and their best friends.
How would you describe China’s digital culture? How does your app fit in the landscape?
China has a closed digital culture with a handful of giant local players. Companies like Tencent copy existing products and create more efficient clones. All the giants want to be a one-stop-shop platform (i.e. being Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp all in one). Verticals/niche markets are not their forte. Rather than differentiating themselves and attracting different users, they are going after the 1 billion Internet users.
It’s a very tough market for startups. When you do fundraising in China, the first two questions you get from VCs tend to be 1) Is there anything like this in the US? (They like startups that clone and tweak proven models for the Chinese market) and 2) What if Tencent copies your product? Tencent is notoriously known for copying products that have gained some market momentum and make better ones. Fresh thinking has never been encouraged in school and it doesn’t get better in the business world.
Another observation is that most digital products in China are designed and developed by male geeks, who have limited understanding about women’s psychology and behaviors. Emotional design is almost non-existent. In our user interface, the basic design metaphor for elepon is dessert. So all the details are visually appealing and triggers female users’ gustatory senses. For the user experience, women can use elepon’s voices and emoticons to express their feelings and emotions to their best friends. They can create goofy sounds and images just like they do in the real life. elepon’s gestural emoticons enable them to get offensively playful with each other, another trademark for how BFFs interact with each other.
Your app is targeted at female users who want to kill time or desire new ways to connect with their existing circle of friends. Tell us about the role of leisure and social gaming on the Chinese web.
The truth is that women are major consumers of digital products; about 60-70% of consumers for e-commerce and casual games, and social network users are women but most digital products are not designed for them. Because people have more time to kill, even when they are at work, it’s pretty common for women to browse Taobao (China’s eBay) and play casual games at work. Since most brands especially luxury products were not available in China until recent years, there’s been a huge hunger for material possessions. Not only young women, the rising middle class in general love to indulge themselves.
One key differentiator for us is that we’re an all-women team. Our junior talent are our target audience. While we don’t assume we know everything about women, we believe we know more about what women want than male engineers. We have constantly been doing user research for ideation, prototype feedback and iterations. When you see the excitement and joy users have while playing elepon with their friends, we know we are onto something.
Despite China’s reputation of being a copycat, it is at the forefront of innovative social gaming. Zynga’s Farmville, for example, is a clone of Happy Farm from China. Chinese women are willing to invest a lot of time in social gaming. They can also spend a lot of money on particular virtual goods, such as dressing up their virtual pets. E-commerce is very robust in China. It’s very common for women to browse hours on e-commerce sites for leisure and even during work hours. On Nov. 11th 2012, a commercial holiday for single people, Taobao (China’s Amazon/eBay) grossed $3 billion on one day.
Which big brands are succeeding in this digital culture?
Nike has been a leader in social media here. During the London Olympics, Weibo (China’s twitter) users loved Nike’s takes on contest results gave lots of retweets. Durex is another big winner of Weibo. Given the nature of the product, it always manages to come up with the funniest, most scandalous tweets.
Talk show hosts are big on social media, too. One interesting intersection is a wildly popular talk show Day Day Up now showcases mobile apps. After its pilot showcase, the apps from the show went on the App Store billboard, thanks to the popularity of the show. Very soon tech giants were very eager to join the show. Both Baidu and Qihoo 360 did a pretty good job entertaining the audience, as well as advertising their new products.
Check out elepon’s Facebook page