ASIAN DREAMS

There’s loads of money, squil­lions of con­sumers, but cul­ture is key to do­ing busi­ness in Asia, says Sin­ga­porean adoptee Hugh Ma­son.

Exporter - - CONTENTS - By Les­ley Springall. Les­ley Springall is an Auck­land-based free­lance busi­ness jour­nal­ist. www.linkedin.com/in/les­leyspringall This ar­ti­cle was first pub­lished in the March is­sue of NZBusi­ness mag­a­zine.

There’s loads of money, squil­lions of con­sumers, but cul­ture is key to do­ing busi­ness in Asia, says Sin­ga­porean adoptee Hugh Ma­son.

On the screen are three pic­tures: a cow, some grass and a chicken. Which is the odd one out? The chicken? A smat­ter­ing of hands go up. The grass? Arms ex­plode up­wards and pre­sen­ter Hugh Ma­son looks crest­fallen. The well­heeled au­di­ence of an­gel in­vestors and early stage com­pany ad­vis­ers at the 2013 An­gel Sum­mit in Dunedin had just fan­tas­ti­cally dis­proved Ma­son’s hy­poth­e­sis. Nor­mally, more than 70 per­cent of Western au­di­ences put the chicken and the cow to­gether, while Asian au­di­ences put the cow and grass to­gether be­cause of the “re­la­tion­ship” be­tween cows and grass, says Ma­son. “In Asia, re­la­tion­ships are ev­ery­thing.”

Ma­son, a Bri­tish-born, for­mer To­mor­row’s World tele­vi­sion pro­ducer and suc­cess­ful en­tre­pre­neur, says like most people he was lulled into a false sense of se­cu­rity when he first ar­rived in Sin­ga­pore in 2008. “On the sur­face it looks very west­ern­ised. They’ve got Star­bucks and WiFi. It’s in­cred­i­bly easy to be se­duced by that and think you’re deal­ing with people who think the same way. But people in the East have thou­sands of years of cul­ture that’s dif­fer­ent, so they think dif­fer­ently.”

Ma­son is co-founder of JFDI Asia, Asia’s leading busi­ness ac­cel­er­a­tor which boasts a stag­ger­ing 60 per­cent suc­cess rate for de­vel­op­ing ideas and se­cur­ing fund­ing for its en­tre­pre­neur­ial grad­u­ates.

Fun­da­men­tally if you want to raise cap­i­tal or do busi­ness in Asia, “cul­ture is key,” says Ma­son. “It’s a very face-to­face cul­ture. Com­pared to the West the trust lev­els are much lower so it takes a lot longer to es­tab­lish so­cial proof.”

To es­tab­lish these re­la­tion­ships and prove yourself wor­thy of a long-term busi­ness re­la­tion­ship with an Asian part­ner, there are sev­eral of­ten sub­tle but ab­so­lutely fun­da­men­tal con­cepts that need to be grasped, says Ma­son. Pri­mary among these is the con­cept of ‘face’, which roughly trans­lates to mean dig­nity. "For ex­am­ple, if you’re in a taxi and the taxi driver does some­thing wrong you can be­rate them all you like

“Don’t as­sume that the same things that make your prod­uct or ser­vice ap­peal­ing in your home mar­ket are go­ing to be the same in an Asian mar­ket.”

if you’re on your own. But if you’re with an­other per­son as well as the driver you mustn’t make the driver ‘lose face’ be­cause the other per­son you’re with will worry you will do the same to them one day."

So if you need to be frank with some­one, do it in a one-to-one meet­ing, says Ma­son. But don’t as­sume they’ll be frank back. The ‘face’ cul­ture is so in­grained that rather than say ‘they are not in­ter­ested’, your po­ten­tial Asian part­ner will of­ten sim­ply not re­ply or get back to you. It’s not rude, just a dif­fer­ent way of do­ing busi­ness, says Ma­son.

An­other con­fus­ing as­pect of busi­ness in the East is the vast num­ber of mid­dle­men who prom­ise the earth but rarely deliver as they are not even close to the per­son who re­ally makes de­ci­sions. If you’re se­ri­ous about do­ing busi­ness in Asia, you have to visit; you have to find out for yourself who owns the fac­tory, says Ma­son.

Oc­ca­sion­ally people do pull off a deal with limited con­tact, but this of­ten means they don’t re­ally un­der­stand why; what so­cial need their prod­uct or ser­vice is ful­fill­ing, says Ma­son. “Don’t as­sume that the same things that make your prod­uct or ser­vice ap­peal­ing in your home mar­ket are go­ing to be the same in an Asian mar­ket.”

To il­lus­trate this idea, Ma­son tells the story of one busi­ness which sells “essence of chicken”.

“Ba­si­cally it’s chicken stock marked up 1,000 per­cent and pro­moted in a way you couldn’t do in the UK with a whole lot of bo­gus crap about how it will help your kid pass ex­ams. It works be­cause it fits with Asian mythol­ogy that chicken soup is good for your kids, so here is bot­tled, con­cen­trated chicken soup.”

Asians care deeply about mythol­ogy and there is some­thing very mag­i­cal about New Zealand for many, says Ma­son, but not in the way many of us think about our home coun­try. “They are not in­ter­ested in re­cy­cling or ‘green’ is­sues, but they do care about pu­rity and do­ing the right thing for their chil­dren; boost­ing their brain­power and stuff like that.”

Then there are the tools and rules of do­ing busi­ness. These vary greatly from coun­try to coun­try and be­tween dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties. For ex­am­ple in In­dia, a con­tract is nor­mally just the be­gin­ning of ne­go­ti­a­tions, says Ma­son, while in In­done­sia there’s still a lot of power tied up in re­gional war­lords, who you re­ally, re­ally don’t want to up­set!

“So pick your part­ners care­fully. Don’t take any­thing for granted. Visit and spend time.”

Hugh Ma­son

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