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3/8/2010 - After the recent publication of her new book China Entrepreneur, co-authored with Juan Antonio Fernandez, Laurie Underwood talks about how the idea for the book came about.  More than 50 entrepreneurs in China were interviewed for the book, giving it a very real, hands-on feel to it.

Laurie Underwood: This new book is just definitely a follow on to China CEO, which came out in 2006. But China CEO was the basis for the first book, and it was a set of interviews with 20 foreigners – non-Chinese – who were heading up operations for multinational companies in China. They were 20 different China CEOs – for Bayer, for Seimens, for Airbus, for Microsoft – a very wide range of different companies. Each of them had in common being foreigners, coming to China, and having to head up a huge operation.

So it was a very personal book. We just asked people what did they learn personally, what did they have to change about their management style in order to succeed in China? I was thrilled with the response. I’m used to being rejected by people when you ask for interviews with the very top dog of within the organization. But this, because it was a book project I think, or because backed by CEIBS, and because once I had a couple of interviews, everybody in the interview pool wanted to know what the others said. It worked out really well. We got every interview we wanted to get, with one caveat. Originally we wanted to have American companies (North American companies) European companies, and Japanese companies, in a 30:30:30 ratio. But the Japanese companies were extremely hard to get. In the end we only had the head of Sony. But it was very interesting to have one Japanese company, because they had a completely different perspective.

Janet Carmosky: So what made you want to do China Entrepreneur, and I’ve written this review and I’ve read China CEO and I liked it a lot, but I identified with China Entrepreneur much more because it’s people who are like me: people who love China and want to be there and become better business people in order to be able to stay. And choose to do business in China because the Chinese are so good at business and we think it’s going to make us better business people to learn how to work with them. What was the process like after China CEO and before China Entrepreneur? Did you just feel there was a different market, or did you think there were stories that weren’t being told?

Laurie: Actually it came directly from feedback like what you just gave me, from people who had read China CEO but felt it doesn’t really relate to me because I’m a small business person, I’m an entrepreneur. So the advice given is really for someone heading up a huge army of employees and also someone with huge resources. So I did definitely not have any plan to create a second book, but it was after we started speaking about China CEO and that a number of people who are in similar situation to yours that said I would love to have a book with a similar interview style, but talking about my issues, which are I’m a small business person launching a business facing CEOs don’t face, or I just simply can’t use their solutions because I don’t have a huge multinational backing me.

So it came from the ground, and that was really wonderful. Once we started, it just really took off. We planned again to do about 20 interviews. We ended up interviewing 50 people. It just was one interesting person led to another must-interview people, and at the end, we had more than 50 people.

Janet: We have this thing called The China Business Network interviewing you right now, and the reason I started it is that I feel first of all, China’s economic interactions with the west are far too important and the stakes are way too high for anyone who wants to get traction there to make rookie mistakes. There’s just too much collective wisdom out there that there’s no excuse for making mistakes anymore. And also people weren’t really finding the resources that they needed to help them implement their business plans in China. I’m talking about people who don’t have a lot of experience in China going into China with what I consider the wrong advisors. I came to this idea, and I want to ask you to comment on it. It really takes three things to be a successful business person in a culture that’s not your own.

#1 – you have to have the right mindset. Which is to say, you have to know that they way you’ve traditionally done things in your home culture is not necessarily the right way or the best way, and to be open to observing way things are done, and to be open and flexible in changing it.

#2 – you’ve got to have a really good map to know how the industry sectors – I’m sorry how the industry structure works, who the big players are, what’s pushing the evolution of the world that you’re doing business in, whatever sector or region it is.

And third you have to know how to find and calibrate and manage the resources that are going to help you execute because we all need a lot of help. Now, one of the reasons I love China Entrepreneur was that, unlike most China business books, which kind of focus on “Part 2: The Map,” this really tapped into the entire thing – the mindset of not knowing what you don’t know and accepting and continuing on in the importance of being able to identify and being able to manage the right resources.

What that in a certain sense what you set out to do, or was that just the way that the wisdom that all of these entrepreneurs had collected in their own adventures kept coming forward because that sort of 1-2-3 structure is so clear in every interview here.

Laurie: I think we went into it with, you know, we learned a lot of things in doing China CEO that we didn’t expect. I wanted to approach the interviews with the entrepreneurs with the same blank slate, and let them talk and set up a situation where each interview was very in depth, about 2 or 2 ½ hours. So gives them a lot of space so that we would be able to listen and hear things that they might say in passing that are actually really interesting so that we could really tap into them and get a good feeling for all the challenges that might face.

Oftentimes, when you’re in the middle of it you don’t even realize that it’s even interesting anymore. We wanted to keep it very open ended set of questions and give enough time we could hear everything. And because I have an academic professor as my coauthor – he’s very rigorous and very thorough – so I try to have a good balance between getting the full story and also not bogging it down. Let’s face it; people who read this book are going to be people who want to be entrepreneurs in China. That means by nature they’re super busy, they have limited time. I just have to pick out the best bits and pieces and present it to them.

So we left the slate open, and I tried to cover everything from deciding whether you should come to China, to practical issues that you will face in setting up your business, to how to work as your business start to grow and what issues you might face as you become successful. Like, you might face competition within your company. Your employees might want to go and start a competing business. So I tried to take it through the whole gamut of setting up a business and watching it succeed.

Janet: I feel like there’s a lot that’s universal, not just for entrepreneurs, but for anyone who is coming into China from any other culture in China Entrepreneur. Between China Entrepreneur (which is for adventurists, people who want to be in China for their own reasons) and China CEO (for the corporate bigwig who gets sent there), is there a third book that’s going to come out, like China Mid-Level Manager?

Laurie. I don’t know. There will be another book, but I need to find – I need to explore a little bit and find out what that book is going to be. I’m thinking possibly of looking into the second and third tier cities.

Janet: Well I’ll definitely be looking forward to it. Thanks so much for talking to us. China Entrepreneur – it’s a good book. And thank you, Laurie.

Laurie: Thank you!

Laurie Underwood manages CEIBS media outreach, internationally and domestically in China. She also oversees the website content, function and design, as well as the content and quality of TheLINK bimonthly alumni magazine. Laurie heads up the Development Team which handles CEIBS's 40 active corporate partners and their donations.


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