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Tapping Chinese brains: Wellington start-up looks to help Kiwi companies compete in China

If you’re keen to do business in China, the internet is full of can’t-fail tips like, “order a glass of warm yoghurt to look sweet and considerate in meetings”.

Yes, really.

However, if your idea of success doesn’t involve being laughed out of the boardroom, maybe you should speak to Bianca Grizhar instead.

Grizhar is the founder and driving force behind Dakai, a Wellington start-up looking to help Kiwi companies compete in China.

As everyone knows, China is a mind-stoppingly large business opportunity. A $10 trillion economy growing at 7% a year – and that’s in a bad year.

What Dakai wants to do is matching businesses wanting to investigate the Chinese market, with Chinese students in New Zealand who know the market, know the people, and funnily enough, speak the language too.

Grizhar says there are a huge number of Chinese students studying in New Zealand universities – more than 30,000 in 2014 – but nobody ever thinks to ask them for advice.

“These students have an intimate understanding of China, but they are often ignored because of cultural and language barriers,” she says.

“This is a huge oversight in terms of the ‘locals-only’ knowledge these students bring with them to New Zealand.”

“There are some very simple things. A company’s website might not work in China because it uses blocked applications like Google or Facebook.

“Chinese students understand this. They can translate what a business is doing on a platform like Twitter, and put it onto the Chinese counterpart.”

Image: Bianca Grizhar, founder Dakai.

Grizhar, 35, spent four years working in China’s ICT sector, before coming to New Zealand to work for Victoria University’s commercialisation arm.

She says businesses often underestimate what it takes to crack the Chinese market. 

“There are the companies who want to get into China, but are a bit naïve about how much work is needed. They think you can take a three-week trip there, and all of a sudden you understand this huge market.”

Other businesses see China a strange and intimidating place.

“There are a lot of companies who want to go there but it is too big, or they heard about other people failing, and they are too scared to try.”

There are more than 30,000 Chinese students studying in New Zealand universities – but nobody ever thinks to ask them for advice – Bianca Grizhar 

Working with students is a cheap way for businesses to decide whether it is worth taking the plunge into China, Grizhar says.

“Chinese students can help with market research, or website content, or whatever is required to understand whether an opportunity actually exists.

“They can answer questions like ‘Is there a market for this in China, and what would it take to get this product or service over there?’”.

Grizhar is working with Victoria University’s Chinese Students’ Association to get Dakai off the ground in Wellington. The first step is building a database of the 800 Chinese postgraduate students there and what expertise they have.

She is also working with innovation agency BizDojo to unearth some pilot projects – small companies keen to have a crack at China.

Pat English, executive director of the New Zealand China Council, says Dakai could play a valuable role helping New Zealand businesses with language and becoming “China-savvy”.

“Our number eight wire way of doing things has taken New Zealand businesses a long way,” he says.

“But in the current environment they need to be able to access a higher level of capability.

Image: Pat English, executive director of the New Zealand China Council

Meanwhile, Chinese Students’ Association president Grace Cheng believes Asian students will be keen to be involved.

“One of the biggest impacts Dakai could have on Chinese students would be the job opportunities it provides.”

BizDojo co-founder Nick Shewring says if New Zealand businesses can take off their blinkers, they will quickly see the benefits.

“New Zealand has some hugely talented international students, but a lot of businesses don’t see that,” he says. “Bringing in these skills is just what you need to do if you want to grow globally.”

Although Dakai is based in Wellington for the time being, Shewring says there is no reason it can’t spread to other places with large numbers of foreign students. 

“Dakai addresses a universal problem really. Once we get through the pilot phases, we can start supporting other regions.

“The potential is huge.”

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