Bessie Lee leads Within­link’s startup fund­ing

China Daily - - BUSINESS - By SHI JING in Shang­hai shi­jing@chi­

Bessie Lee, 52, the first Chi­nese fe­male CEO of WPP China, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions group, quit last year to set up her own busi­ness. Fifty, she said, is just about the right age for ca­reer pro­fes­sion­als with en­tre­pre­neur­ial am­bi­tions to start up.

In 2015, even while work­ing with WPP, Lee founded Within­link, a startup in­cu­ba­tor and strate­gic ven­ture fund to fo­cus on mar­ket­ing tech­nol­ogy for China’s ad­ver­tis­ing, me­dia and com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­dus­tries. WPP al­lowed Lee to use 40 per­cent of her time for grow­ing her own busi­ness.

Now, Lee has all the free­dom to set the fu­ture di­rec­tion for Within­link. More im­por­tantly, she en­joys the op­por­tu­nity to share with the out­side world the ex­cit­ing de­vel­op­ments hap­pen­ing in China.

Hav­ing worked with the world’s largest com­mu­ni­ca­tions group for 27 years, Lee has de­vel­oped an abil­ity to dis­cern com­pa­nies that could be good tar­gets for in­vest­ment. In less than three years, Within­link has in­vested in 14 com­pa­nies whose to­tal mar­ket value has surged by over 10 times since.

“Our rule is to in­vest very se­lec­tively and seek deep in­cu­ba­tion,” she said.

The in­vest­ment choices made are some­how like “love at first sight”, for all of the in­vested star­tups have pro­vided tech­nolo­gies or so­lu­tions that can di­rectly ad­dress the in­dus­try pain points, Lee said.

Kuaizi, an ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence or AI-en­abled cre­ative plat­form un­der Within­link’s port­fo­lio, can pro­vide ad­ver­tis­ers with var­i­ous cre­ative plans based on users’ pref­er­ences. Ma­chine learn­ing is adopted in Kuaizi’s so­lu­tions that can sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce cost, which tra­di­tional agen­cies can hardly at­tain.

Quick­De­ci­sion Tech­nolo­gies, the mar­ket re­search plat­form un­der Kuaizi, has also ap­plied AI in its re­search, which can reach wider in­ter­vie­wees and come out with re­search re­sults faster. Its ef­fi­ciency has at­tracted even lead­ing fast mov­ing con­sumer goods com­pa­nies to give up long-time part­ners. And Quick­De­ci­sion man­aged to break even in less than one year.

To Lee, these are dis­rup­tive in­no­va­tions in the mar­ket­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try in China.

“Quite a lot of peo­ple still hold the stereo­type that Chi­nese com­pa­nies are copycats. But the fact is, China is now home to so much orig­i­nal in­no­va­tion. While I was in WPP, I was so eager to share with the rest of the world this fact. How­ever, there were lim­i­ta­tions on pub­lic speeches. But now, I am not bound any­more,” she said.

Tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ments in China have changed the land­scape in the mar­ket­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try in the coun­try so tremen­dously that a large part of the mar­ket po­ten­tial re­mains un­tapped yet, ac­cord­ing to Lee.

One ex­am­ple is the over 25 bil­lion yuan ($3.7 bil­lion) ad­ver­tis­ing in­come that in­ter­net gi­ant Ten­cent re­port­edly reaped from its so­cial net­works in 2017. This num­ber is likely to reach 50 bil­lion yuan this year. But, ac­cord­ing to Lee, these num­bers are not part of any re­port.

“Con­cerns have been ex­pressed that the ad­spend in China has been con­tract­ing over the past few years. It might be true if it comes to the tra­di­tional chan­nels like print me­dia. But the sur­veys have not in­cluded the num­bers in the dig­i­tal area like WeChat Mo­ments, where the fu­ture lies,” she said.

Smaller star­tups, rather than the large com­mu­ni­ca­tion groups, are quicker in re­spond­ing to the trend. So, large cor­po­ra­tions should have the sense of an im­pend­ing cri­sis to be able to re­spond bet­ter to the chang­ing sce­nario, she said.

“It seems that the large mar­ket play­ers are hold­ing a de­fen­sive at­ti­tude in­stead of an open mind­set re­gard­ing the changed land­scape. But the truth is, the smaller ones will not die be­cause of the big­ger ones’ de­fense. Ad­ver­tis­ers will even­tu­ally skip the large agen­cies and go di­rectly to the smaller com­pa­nies,” she said, sug­gest­ing that co­op­er­a­tion or even ac­qui­si­tion of smaller, niche play­ers with spe­cific ex­per­tise or spe­cial­iza­tion is the right way out for large cor­po­ra­tions.

On her out­look for the com­pa­nies in Within­link’s port­fo­lio, Lee said they might not grow into so-called uni­corns as most of them are fac­ing busi­nesses rather than con­sumers,. “Small rhi­nos” is how she would like to de­scribe the com­pa­nies that Within­link in­vested in.

“The rhi­nos are quite dash­ing. They are will­ing to team up with each other. I hope that our in­vested com­pa­nies can work to­gether and gen­er­ate the power of a uni­corn,” she said.

To be sure, Within­link has am­bi­tion. Over the next 10 years, there will likely be fur­ther con­sol­i­da­tion in the Chi­nese mar­ket­ing in­dus­try, which will see the rise of an allin group. And that could well be Within­link, Lee said.

Our rule is to in­vest very se­lec­tively and seek deep in­cu­ba­tion.”

Bessie Lee, founder of Within­link, a startup in­cu­ba­tor


Bessie Lee, for­mer CEO of WPP China, the com­mu­ni­ca­tion group, makes a pre­sen­ta­tion at a fo­rum in Shang­hai in July.

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