People-focused entrepreneur Benjamin Sun's successful business ThinkChina emerged from his ability to forge cultural connections between China and Australia, merging lessons from his own Chinese upbringing and early business ventures with his experiences as a student in New Zealand and Australia.
As the co-founder and managing director of ThinkChina, a digital marketing advisory agency set up in China and Australia in 2013 to help companies negotiate the pitfalls and benefits of achieving a foothold in the colossal Chinese marketplace, he promotes the importance of transparency in business dealings.
In little over three years, the award-winning company has grown substantially, opening a second office in the city of Qingdao, in China's Shandong province and gaining an industry reputation for its focus on eliminating the difficulties of Chinese market entry.
Sun is also a prolific public speaker with close ties to Australia's entrepreneur community, and because his own business experiences began in China and then – through postgraduate study – he became immersed in Australia's business community, he brings some strong insights into traversing two culturally different worlds.
Education and Breaking out of China
Sun was born in Qingdao, China and admits that school was challenging for him. Stressed by China's education techniques, which involve constant memorising of material, he underwent long hours of tutoring from both his parents in maths and Chinese to get through. Sun loved the idea of exploring new cultures, and on moving to New Zealand at the age of 17 study communications at the Unitec Institute of Technology in Auckland, discovered an ability for critical and logical thinking in his undergraduate years, a skill that helped with his entrepreneurial insights in later years.
Sun - the only Chinese student in his class to learn Maori – was surprised to discover similarities in family hierarchy and attitudes between the Maori culture and his own.
“You have to believe in yourself and go ahead regardless"
Valuable Lessons from First Start-up
Back in Guangzhou, China in 2006, Sun set up an international trading company that specialised in the export of LED products. When the effects of the global financial crisis kicked in and client orders dropped off, he sold the company. Sun recalls the whole experience as a valuable learning opportunity as it immersed him in the complexities and procedures of Chinese export. He also learned the importance of protecting his company's intellectual property, keeping sales and supply staff separate to prevent employees leaving to start their own company, and safeguarding vital sales leads and contact information.
The route to success
Always keen to continue with higher education, Sun then did post-graduate work in China Studies at the University of Auckland in 2009, then, moving to Australia, studied Public Policy and then did a PhD in Chinese business cultures at the University of Sydney. Here he met his future business partner, Johnny Wong, a commerce/law graduate.
The pair set up ThinkChina in 2013, aiming to simplify market entry to China for Australian companies, especially in digital marketing. Sun leveraged his own Chinese experience in both language and culture, and with Wong's help soon identified the technical and operational challenges involved. Early detractors warned he'd never compete with the big consulting agencies, such as PwC, but Sun persevered.
“You have to believe in yourself and go ahead regardless," advises Sun.
ThinkChina started small – the pair began their company began in an apartment living room, with a table, one phone and two computers. But the size of the agency didn't bother Australian clients and ThinkChina soon branded itself as an expert in its niche. Their first client led to another … and before long, the company could fund a Sydney office with ten key staff members.
Sun says that being fully transparent about their size and constraints has also paid off. After freely admitting to L'Oréal that he couldn't manage flexible credit terms because of cash flow issues in their start-up phase, L'Oréal helped Sun solve the problem with fast-track payments. Sun says the businesses he dealt with appreciated his candour.
Today, ThinkChina's national and international clients include Bayer, L'Oréal Australia and Australia Post.
Expansion in China
In 2015, ThinkChina opened a second office in Sun's hometown of Qingdao. Returning to China, though, Sun says he initially felt like a foreigner, outsider . He was unused to doing business as a Chinese company, but he says that further expansion in China is likely, and an office in Shanghai is already in the planning stage. The future looks bright for the company and in the past year, revenue has grown by a factor of 13, with Sun aiming to triple revenue growth in the next year.
Secret to Success? Surround yourself with good people
Sun says that one key to his success is having business partner who, though reliable, doesn't agree with every proposal. He says that Wong generally takes a more conservative approach, serving as a counterpoint in discussions where Sun might be more enthusiastic.
“Trust is key and finding a good business partner is not easy,“ warns Sun. His selection proved insightful as Wong recently won a young entrepreneur award at the 2016 Sydney City Regional Business Awards. ThinkChina also won an award in the “Excellence in Export" category. The company is also one of five finalists in the 2016 Telstra New South Wales Business Awards.
Sun is very proud of all these awards and credits overall company success to the efforts of a talented team.
“Make sure that you have a good team. Sometimes the idea is less important than talent. Sometimes lots of great ideas never work out but a general idea can lead to something great when pushed by professionals," he says.
Beyond his team, Sun's wider network also plays a valuable role. “Entrepreneurs face many of the same challenges and networking can often lead to finding business partners, excellent employees or indeed clients," he says. He found plenty such leads through his participation in the Australia Business Forum where he met like-minded business operators, and was offered valuable assistance - and in return would sometimes offer his expertise as a speaker.
As a university visiting speaker, he offers advice on specialisation. He tells students and future entrepreneurs not to concentrate on getting a distinction in every subject. “Focus on something you are good at and that no one else can do in your area," he says. His own leadership style enables specialists – he says he's not a fan of micro-managing.
From China to New Zealand and on to Australia, Sun's journey proves that despite competing services, intimate local Chinese knowledge, entrepreneurial spirit and a talented team of like-minded staff can lead to rapid success for those with the determination to solve problems as they arise.
Writer: Michael O'Dwyer
Photographer: Brendan Fitzpatrick