Com­pa­nies can profit from serv­ing for­eign­ers as ex­pat ar­rivals rise

The Pak Banker - - 6BUSINESS -

"Even if we are sup­posed to write for ex­pats, I had no idea of the dif­fi­cul­ties that for­eign­ers go through on a daily ba­sis," a Chi­nese col­league of mine re­cently con­fessed to me af­ter I pub­lished an ar­ti­cle about two star­tups that of­fered vir­tual per­sonal as­sis­tants for ex­pats in China.

The on­line concierge com­pa­nies I in­ter­viewed were help­ing for­eign­ers deal with sim­ple day-to-day prob­lems like set­ting up an Ali­pay ac­count, shop­ping on­line or order­ing food.

De­spite be­ing an ex­tremely sim­ple con­cept, it had never oc­curred to her that there could be com­pa­nies just fo­cus­ing on mak­ing life eas­ier for ex­pats.

My col­league then started ask­ing me how for­eign­ers could meet friends or even ro­man­tic part­ners and how they man­aged to do other sim­ple things like ap­ply­ing for a lo­cal debit card. "More com­pa­nies need to be set up to cover those is­sues," she said, aware that it is still an un­tapped mar­ket. Luck­ily, more and more for­eign and lo­cal en­trepreneurs are re­al­iz­ing that mak­ing the life of ex­pats eas­ier is a lu­cra­tive busi­ness op­por­tu­nity.

For­eign­ers rely on th­ese com­pa­nies to be­come com­pletely in­de­pen­dent here or to just sim­ply save time try­ing to un­der­stand how the sys­tem works for ex­pats.

China can be a daunting place for for­eign­ers be­cause we do not have ac­cess to the same ser­vices that are avail­able to lo­cals. Th­ese range from small things like not be­ing able to print tick­ets at the self­ser­vice ma­chines at train sta­tions to larger prob­lems like ap­ply­ing for a credit card in a lo­cal bank. This cur­rent im­bal­ance be­tween the ser­vices avail­able to lo­cals and for­eign­ers of­fers a unique op­por­tu­nity for star­tups to pro­vide spe­cial­ized ser­vices for the ex­pat com­mu­nity.

Af­ter all, it was not that long ago when for­eign­ers started to be­come an im­por­tant part of Chi­nese so­ci­ety.

In 1978, China em­barked on re­form and open­ing up. A cru­cial el­e­ment of this mar­ket trans­for­ma­tion was to al­low and wel­come more for­eign­ers to work in the coun­try.

Through­out th­ese al­most 40 years, the num­ber of qual­i­fied work­ers will­ing to re­lo­cate to China has been steadily in­creas­ing. Nowa­days, China has be­come an im­por­tant desti­na­tion for many young for­eign work­ers look­ing for bet­ter ca­reer prospects.

Mean­while, Chi­nese so­ci­ety has been un­der­go­ing a rapid eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion that is driv­ing the ex­pan­sion of the on­line ser­vices avail­able to its cit­i­zens.

None­the­less, this tech­no­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion has be­come a dou­ble-edged sword for the ex­pats liv­ing here.

Take on­line shop­ping as an ex­am­ple. Set­ting up an ac­count on Alibaba Group Hold­ing Ltd's Taobao al­lows for­eign­ers to have ac­cess to one of the world's largest selections of on­line goods in one sin­gle plat­form at very com­pet­i­tive prices.

How­ever, most for­eign­ers have prob­lems set­ting up on­line pay­ments in China like Ali­pay and WeChat wal­let be­cause the sys­tem is de­signed to sup­port Chi­nese char­ac­ters and not the Latin al­pha­bet.

This is an im­por­tant point since most might think that th­ese com­pa­nies only cater their ser­vices to clue­less for­eign­ers with no Chi­nese knowl­edge. This is far from the truth.

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