Andrew Collins: China left a burning flame in the back of my head

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Andrew Collins sits at the helm of Mailman Group, a Shanghai-based technology agency that manages the digital presence of international brands in the sports, entertainment, and travel industries.

One of the first agencies to enter the digital Chinese market, Mailman is a content-producing machine – delivering over 90% of original content for their client accounts. It also pioneered many of China’s early technology and social media initiatives and aided the growth of international brands on Chinese social media by allowing brands to pull content from Facebook and Twitter and publish directly onto Chinese social media.

A bona fide entrepreneur from a young age, Andrew’s story of how he landed himself in Shanghai is a remarkable one. He recently shared with Advance how he acquired his business acumen, the ways in which his business has transformed and some extremely valuable advice for budding entrepreneurs.

Interview by Molly O'Brien

What’s your coming-to-China story?

My first exposure to China was when I was 23, as part of an international student delegation of entrepreneurs. Swinburne University asked if I would like to go to China and Singapore for ten days for a Global Leaders in Tech Symposium, where universities throughout the world nominate their best entrepreneurs to travel to China – there were about 60 of us altogether.

I realised a couple of things on that trip. One, was that Shanghai is an electric city – unlike anything I’d seen before. Two, was that I could compete with other entrepreneurs at a global level – I'd never been exposed to entrepreneurs other than the Australian community in Melbourne before.

I came back to Melbourne after that trip, but China left a burning flame in the back of my head. A couple of years later, after backpacking by myself for a year, I returned to Melbourne when I was 25. I had no job but decided I wanted to go to China because it was a huge challenge, and I was young and dumb enough to give it a go.

I spent the next 18 months building a plan in order to get back over there and build a company. My original idea was to buy a magazine company. I started looking for a joint venture partner, which was advised to me at the time to be an easy way to get in.

On the fifth research trip over there, my business partner and I met the company that owned Mailman. We developed a friendship over the course of six months and then agreed to buy his business. Shortly after, my partner quit – but I wanted to persevere.

And I did. I moved over here permanently in 2007, and that was the starting point for me – being in China with a small media consulting business that I'd bought.

Was it China that appealed to you, or your desire to be in a bigger entrepreneurial culture?

I was definitely excited by China and I also felt pretty bored in Melbourne – I didn't feel like I was being challenged enough at that point in my life. And having just gotten back from backpacking from around the world, I had a little bit of the travel bug going on.

What got you into the entrepreneur journey at such a young age?

I've got a twin brother. That helps.

How so?

Because everything growing up was a competition! We also have a brother who's only fourteen months older than us. We were always competing for everything when we were younger. Breakfast cereal, attention, TV time, Nintendo, girls, car keys. It built an internal resilience and an "it’s-okay-to-compete" mentality.

Additionally, my dad is a pure-bred entrepreneur. He ran his own business and was self-employed. From early on he instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in us. I remember we were always looking for ways to make one or two dollars when we were kids, whether it was selling door-to-door canned beer, or taking movie posters from the local movie store and selling them at school the next day, or trying to arbitrage football cards to selling things on the street.

How did your company transform from a traditional advertising business to where you are now?

When I first arrived, we were a PostKard media company. That was our only source of income, really just selling space. By about the end of 2009, the market had really turned and no one was really buying PostKard media. The great thing about Mailman as a company is that it’s still very similar to what it was back in the day. It still has the same entrepreneurial culture; family-style communication, willingness to try new things, willingness to fail.

Some of the contracts you have are immense in size and have huge global positioning. Who was your first client?

Before we started focusing on sports, our first client was American Airlines. We signed the AFL in 2010, and then Liverpool Football Club, and then Manchester United, and then it just went from there. We're now at about forty-five global sports properties under management across digital media partnership, activation, e-commerce, merchandising.

The messaging that you deliver for them here in China, is it different to how they deliver their message in their own local market?

It’s pretty different. Here, it's a lot more about finding a way to build an audience that's relevant to the market. Different sports have different maturity. For example, Manchester United have a corporate fan base here. It's about getting those messages out there, making sure that the club is building a stronger bond with that audience. Another part of our business is helping them find ways to monetise that audience. For example, we're doing the NHL games in Shenzhen and Beijing this year, so we'll be responsible for selling the tickets and all the marketing and communication with media.

What do you see now as the complexities of doing business in China?

There's a bit of cultural challenge in doing business. Regulation-wise, we're pretty much in the safe zone because sports is supported by government and we don't do anything overly controversial. The challenge of being a foreigner who runs a company with a lot of different personalities and different cultures is about finding a cultural point that can work for everybody. That's really hard. I was actually working on a contract today for one of our clients and just getting a straight answer from them and respecting the terms of the contract was difficult. So, things aren't necessarily right or wrong, they're just a different way of doing business.

What do you see as top tips for foreign companies who are looking to fundraise in China?

First of all, to get fundraising in China you need a successful business. Secondly, it's important to be able to put your business in a box that is on the upward trend in the industry that has active investors in that category. So, for us being in sports and digital, we had access to investors in the sports category and there weren’t many sports digital-focused companies that had a successful track record. So it was easier for us to attract investment.

I'd say get a successful business and then identify what your category is, and make sure that your category works in a Chinese market. It doesn't matter how small it is, as long as there is a capacity to be successful in a few years with your money.

What do you think is some of the lessons for Australian companies trying to break into Chinese markets?

If I was doing three-minute consulting to an Australian company, I'd ask them the following questions: Is this your problem to solve? Do you need to come into China? What is your motivation to come in here? And if it's to grow their business in China on their own, they’d better have an unbelievably competitive business and product. And in the absence of that, then what other role could it play in China's development. It's not always about just doing it yourself, it's about finding a joint venture partner for a category. It's China's problem to solve and you're just going to play a role in helping them solve it.

And that's our role for domestic sport here. We don't want to tell them how to do things, we want to help them so they can do it better. Whereas global sport, we want to do it for them here. So I would tell an Australian company: if you are a good technology or a good business, and you think you can win customers here, be clear about if it’s your problem to solve. And if it is, and you're in a unique position to solve that problem, go ahead, but I would still be looking to find a joint venture partner.

Just jump in and go for it. It's hard to say, we're all at different stages, but I was no better at 23 than anyone else. I'm not even that much better now. So, just go for it!