Investing in InnovationWritten by Catherine C
Former CEO of WPP China Bessie Lee is starting her second act as an entrepreneur, transforming decades of experience and knowledge into fuel for the next generation of innovators.
In the competitive arena of marketing and advertising, Bessie Lee has risen to the top. She headed GroupM in China for seven years, before transitioning to becoming CEO of WPP China where she managed over 14,000 employees and generated over USD 1 billion of annual revenue. Still, she felt that she could do more. Withinlink, her new entrepreneurial endeavour, now allows her to utilize her deep understanding of the Chinese market while helping revolutionise media technology along the way.
A native of Taiwan, Bessie had been with the WPP group for over two decades when she felt that it was time for a change. “I actually wanted to leave the group, just to sort of explore things,” she says. She felt a dynamic entrepreneurial atmosphere in China, and she wanted to see what she could do, whether it was starting her own business or helping budding startups find their way.
Thus, Withinlink, a startup incubator focusing on what Bessie knows best – marketing technology – was born. At first, it wasn’t a full-time thing. WPP’s founder Martin Sorrel didn’t want to let her go so easily, so they agreed to a 60-40% time split. “Pay split as well,” Bessie adds, laughing. But with the rising success of her entrepreneurial project, she decided to resign from WPP last year to focus her efforts entirely on the company.
Founded in 2015, Withinlink is “a strategic angel investor with a boutique portfolio, but a heavy incubation model,” explains Bessie. The company invests in early-stage startups that are developing technology to address pain points in marketing, advertising and media in China. Its investments include FugeTech, a marketing collaboration platform that enables transparency in workflow, price and quality, Pingcoo, using research and data powered by AI, its proprietary marketing eco-system offers relevant content, reach and innovation to create effective marketing and brand growth, and RABBITPRE, which tracks user engagement on digital creative. Not only do Withinlink provide funding, they also provide a lot of consultation. “We differentiate ourselves from other financial investors in the market by getting a lot more involved in our portfolio company’s overall strategy formation, business development, public speaking, opportunity facilitation, even sometimes back handling,” says Bessie.
One other crucial detail that sets Withinlink apart from their competitors? Their team. Comprised of seasoned professionals, it is one armed with the sort of wealth of knowledge of their industry that can only come from years of experience. This experience, explains Bessie, allows them to be extremely connected with what’s going on in the industry, giving them the ability to use that insight to help fine-tune a startup’s strategy. This level of knowledge has attracted waves and waves of startups who want to work with the company. “Most of our portfolio companies came to us … not for money, but for strategic resources and guidance that we are able to provide. And that guidance and resource is nothing that other financial investors can provide,” Bessie states confidently.
Currently, Withinlink only has fourteen companies in their portfolio, but they are already seeing early success. One company specialising in online survey technology has already expanded to cover three hundred cities in China and 22 countries across the globe, despite being less than a year old.
Yet even with the success she has had in China, as well as the current startup boom, Bessie still thinks that surviving in the Chinese market is a formidable challenge for entrepreneurs and one that should not be taken on flippantly. “First of all, you need to know that China, for some reason, is always filled with anxiety. Whether you’re running a big business or you’re running a startup, everybody’s anxious. And that anxiety can sometimes kill you.” Even CEOs of multinational corporations, who are not only equipped with abundant resources and numerous employees but have also had experience running the European or North American markets, have told her that they have never encountered a market as draining as China. On top of this, startups often need to prove that they have reached a certain scale in order for them to attract funding. Without reaching a certain bottom line of daily or monthly users, “people won’t even lay eyes on you,” she cautions.
Therefore, her advice to global outfits looking to enter the Chinese market is cautious reflection. “The fundamental question is; do you have to come to China? Because, if you don’t, then put your focus elsewhere. Because China is a difficult market to crack.” If a startup team does feel the need to take on the challenge, she suggests setting aside a significant amount of resources in order to get it right. And since it will take time before one sees success, to have two portfolios, one for China, one for the rest of the world.
On the bright side, Bessie says that government policies in the past three years have helped the startup ecosystem in China to flourish, citing President Xi as the main influence. His slogan, ‘大眾創業 萬眾創新’, which means mass entrepreneurship and innovation, has started a national movement since he broadcasted it in 2015. Moreover, “he made it a mandatory KPI (key performance indicator) for all the city-level governments to come up with a way to incubate startups,” says Bessie. Though the government may not necessarily have funding, they can offer tax incentives and convert government-owned land into startup-friendly coworking spaces. “All of a sudden, you’ve got startup culture sprouting out everywhere.”