The PIE: So tell me about Sinorbis, what does it do and why did you decide to start it?
Nicolas Chu: Sure. Sinorbis is a marketing platform that allows Western businesses to create measure and optimise their digital presence in China. The main reason why we decided to form Sinorbis was that not a long time ago, we were trying to crack into this market.
“I said if it is difficult for us [to crack the Chinese market], I can’t imagine how difficult it is for smaller companies”
I used to work for Expedia, the online travel company and Orbitz as well, and we led the market entry for Orbitz into China. And despite the fact that we were a multi-billion dollar company, it was quite difficult for us.
So I said to myself, ‘you know, if it is difficult for us, I can’t imagine how difficult it is for others, for smaller companies’. I thought that it was crazy that no one had tried to crack through technology and help companies by offering software that will reduce the barriers to entry to zero.
The PIE: How does your platform actually work? I know it can be difficult to be present in China with a website, for example...
NC: When you try to go after China, you usually face three issues. The first one is a lack of understanding of the market, business, culture or language.
The second one is the technical barriers to entry, or what is known as the Great Firewall. Not only has it limited access to those popular websites but it has also furthered the emergence of a completely different online ecosystem. So really the second problem is that we don’t know about this ecosystem. And usually, when we try to [understand it] and spend a lot of money, we’re facing the third issue, which is a lack of visibility or lack of control.
So what our platform allows you to do is to address those three points. We give maximum insights into where you get a lot of markets, we reduce the barriers to entry to zero by optimising everything that you’re doing for this ecosystem. We allow you to have a fast loading page in China, completely optimised for all the search engines in China.
For example, you don’t have Google, but you have Baidu. You don’t have Facebook but you have WeChat. You can manage your whole WeChat account offshore. You can do all this through our platform by, you know, either integration with local technology or by optimising what we’re producing for this ecosystem.
The PIE: And why did you decide to then work with education if you’d been in mainstream travel?
NC: So I have always been involved in the education sector. I’m actually a professor of practice at the NSW Business School as well.
I realised how important it was for education institutions to go after this market, but how difficult it was as well. So on the one hand, you had this huge opportunity, huge demand. Chinese students are the largest source market in terms of international students nowadays, but it’s also very difficult for those institutions to actually push their messages towards Chinese students.
“I realised how important it was for education institutions to go after this market, but how difficult it was as well”
So when we launched Sinorbis, I knew that education would be a very important sector for us. I knew we would have to be able to address this problem because it’s really difficult for universities to have a legal presence in China, for instance.
Without a legal presence, you can’t have an entity, without an entity you can’t have a licence, without the licence, you can’t have a website. So I knew that if we could address this problem that would resolve a big issue for universities.
The PIE: Essentially, you are helping institutions sidestep the legal presence requirement?
NC: Yes. What we do is that we allow institutions to create a presence outside of China. But this presence is 100% optimised for China and visible in China.
So take any university, for instance, its English website or the Australian website will take two to three minutes to load – which is the same as not being visible. What will allow them is to create the same site, but 100% optimised and relevant site for a Chinese audience.
The PIE: I’m assuming that these sites are in Mandarin, so do the institutions need to have a Mandarin speaker running these platforms for them?
NC: Yes, they are in simplified Chinese. We would recommend if you really want to invest and you’re serious about this market, it would make sense to have someone who speaks Chinese and Mandarin. But our services are such that you can actually do everything by yourself if you have the skills or resources to do it, or we can do a part of it. We can set up all this for you and then you can manage it.
“We allow institutions to create a presence outside of China”
In the education sector, we have smaller universities that will ask us to do everything; bigger universities that have teams; and Chinese teams that can manage the whole thing but they want us to set it up, so we do that. And we also have universities that are doing everything by themselves from scratch.
The PIE: How big is your team?
NC: We have three offices in Shanghai, Colombo and Sydney, and we are now around 40 team members.
The PIE: Do you have any competitors who are doing what you do?
No, we don’t. We are the only platform in the world [doing what we do]. I mean, I was looking to invest in such a company in 2015, I did a kind of a roadshow, but couldn’t find any. So I decided to launch one.
The PIE: Who are your clients in education?
NC: We have a lot of boarding schools, international schools, but also in the ecosystem, so for example, student accommodation. So we do have a variety and broad spectrum of clients in the education sector.
Education is definitely our main focus. Consumer goods is [also] big because everyone wants to sell to the Chinese. It’s just that it’s very difficult for most companies to actually do so.
The PIE: You spent a lot of time in China. Were you always aware of Chinese students having a real demand for education overseas?
NC: Yes, and demand is not declining, but destinations are changing and evolving. The US market has always been the primary market in terms of international education. And as you know, the demand has changed recently, especially because of the trade war between China and the US.
“Education is definitely our main focus”
The demand is there, it’s just dependant on the environment, the macro environment, that might shift from one country to another one. But I don’t think the appetite to study overseas is going to reduce.
The PIE: Okay. And did you have to build all the tech yourself? How much investment was put in to actually developing the platform?
NC: A lot, like any technology company, you have to spend a lot of money before getting any money. We raised money, we went through three rounds.
I’m obviously investing in the company as well, and my co-founders too. But we raised money straight away – actually when it was just an idea and when we were about to launch. And then one year after launching the platform. So three rounds so far.
The majority of investors are from Australia. We have some investors from Asia as well and from Europe.
The PIE: And what are your hopes then for Sinorbis for the next few years?
NC: We would love to be able to really address the various needs for education providers to go after the Chinese markets. Right now, we allow them to create that digital presence, the web, social, but there are other things that we could do as well.
So we’re working on how we could integrate better with legacy systems of universities or institutions. We just released a new feature that allows you to integrate whatever you’ve built through Sinorbis with China, with your marketing automation or your CRMs, which is very important for lead generation for universities.
We also developed another feature that allows universities or institutions to create some events in China – for the open day week, for example.
So, we would love to see us in a few years being able to offer all those different services into one integrated platform and make it easy because, you know, we always say: digital marketing in China is difficult – we make it easy.