A food safety factory shutdown has Americans hunting for baby formula. Readying themselves for a covid-19 lockdown, Chinese in Beijing emptied store shelves. Emerging from lockdown, some in Shanghai are visiting well-provisioned markets. U.S.-China agricultural trade is booming, but many are still being left hungry. Food security, sustainability and safety remain issues.
Q&A with Lawrence Tan, Chinese Entrepreneur in America and Founder of Miibox.com
With products as diverse as animal-themed facial masks and bite-sized ramen snacks, the online shopping website MiiBox.com has carved out a relatively untapped market -- that of young, overseas Asians residing in the U.S. Lawrence Tan is the president of Mii Strategy Inc. and later the founder of MiiBox.com, which sells diverse and sometimes hard-to-find wares in an innovative "O2O" or online to offline format, meaning online customers are directed to physical stores. Inspired by an increasing demand for authentic Asian products in America, Tan founded MiiBox.com in 2014 and soon opened a Miibox brick-and-mortar store in San Gabriel. Tan shared with US-China Today some of his secrets to success in business and the differences in operating businesses in America versus China.
What inspired you to found a business in America?
I have always wanted to do something I am truly passionate about. I started Bizright in 2010 and later established cooperation with a few American retail giants. Online shopping has been popular in America for a long time, but online retail businesses that target Chinese consumers are rare. I have seen a lot of overseas Chinese living in America asking their family and friends to mail Chinese specialty items to America, which is quite inconvenient. Strengthened US-China relations, active trade, and increasing numbers of Chinese international students further motivated me to create MiiBox.com.
How is the process of setting up a company in America different from in China?
Setting up a company in America takes a shorter amount of time compared with in China. Generally it takes only two to three days after registering in America to set up a business, while in China it takes two to three months. In China, you probably have to go through more organizations or bureaus. I think this difference is attributed to the two countries’ different orientations in market systems. America has been based on a market economy with its government offering more freedom to business within the frame of law and regulation. China has had a tradition of a planning economy with the government believing it has a bigger role in supervising and managing business operation.
The cost in setting up and operating a company here in America is also much lower. Government tax and regulation are much more business friendly, as the American market in general is more mature. However, China has more great business opportunities nowadays, as its market is expanding so fast.
What is the competition like for the ecommerce industry in America?
A niche market is the key to success, with industry knowledge, experiences, and tailored services to targeted customer segments as well as well-trained team members, all of which create a very unique shopping experience.
MiiBox uses the O2O method, which is online to offline commerce that directs online users to physical stores. Consumers are attracted by products online, then ideally visit physical stores. They are more likely to purchase products they want after interacting with the in-store shopping guides and examining the products themselves. Customers can also return to the store any time if there is ever a problem with their purchase. This O2O innovative model ensures the quality of our goods, post-sale service, and increases customer satisfaction.
MiiBox is the first O2O business created by a Chinese entrepreneur in the Los Angeles area. Consumers can not only enjoy the convenience of online shopping but they can also get beauty and fitness advice from our in-store staff. Besides the fact that our shopping guides are responsible for giving the best shopping advice, we also have professional teams in mainland China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong that select the most qualified supplies. By utilizing an efficient data collection and analysis model, we are able to track and learn consumer behaviors and try to benefit consumers as much as possible in making business decisions.
Can you speak to the differences between marketing in the U.S. versus China?
I’d like to pick a typical example here, which is customer behavior. From my perspective, understanding customer behavior is one of the keys to success. Chinese and American consumers have different consumer behaviors. For example, Chinese customers like comprehensive-looking shopping websites, which offer a big variety and selection of products with a lot more details. Also, Chinese consumers enjoy the process of thoroughly comparing products.
On the contrary, American customers prefer what they wanted in mind to be exactly represented in the first page view, meaning they are more targeting in the shopping process. They prefer a website with clear categories and easy guidelines that aid them in finding the ideal product. Chinese consumers aren’t easily bothered by overwhelming options, while American consumers pursue a time-saving and streamlined shopping approach.
Your target audience is Chinese consumers living in America who don't have access to familiar Asian brands. Do you plan to broaden your target audience to reach American consumers as well?
For online shopping, the answer is yes. However, broadening my audience to reach American consumers with physical stores won’t be as easy because MiiBox stores are specifically located in San Gabriel, where the largest Chinese community is. Location is crucial for operating business.
Your website predominantly sells Asian brands, have you thought of setting up any partnerships with American brands?
Absolutely, I hope to export excellent American brands to China, especially functional cosmetics and makeup tools. With more and more young Chinese interested in beauty and fashion nowadays, I would be happy to see more Chinese consumers embracing more leading American skin care brands. It still takes time and effort for a Chinese cosmetic brand to be well-known worldwide.
What has been the biggest challenge for your company since its establishment?
Finding the right partners with similar goals, positioning the right company culture, and developing proper and efficient structures within the company have also been my considerations since the company was established.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of operating a business that bridges both America and China?
I think the advantages come from utilizing resources from both countries to achieve reciprocity, and managing assets across locations and time zones. For instance, America has lower tariffs, taxes, and a more mature credit system and banking support, while China has more opportunities since some industries are newborn or not mature enough. The disadvantage mainly lies in the culture gap. It is especially important to optimize the company culture to ensure that each employee from different cultural backgrounds is happy and motivated in the office.
There are many individuals who have the ambition of starting their own business. What advice do you have for them?
I would like to emphasize the significance of collaboration. The two most important things I want to mention are to find the right partners who share similar goals and ambitions with you and strive to meet your expectations. When you meet the requirements above, you can make a very strong team.
What is your primary goal for the company in the next 10 years?
In the next 10 years, I believe that there will be more Miibox stores opening in most major American cities by continuing the model of combining physical stores and online retail. I also hope to achieve a wide range of cooperation with more American brands and export their products to China. I would like to keep everyone in the company motivated and to expand my business so that it can spread the joys of convenient online to offline shopping to more people and facilitate their lives as much as possible.
To read the article on the US-China website, click here.