A global digital thought-leader, Nicolas Chu is the CEO and founder of Sinorbis, the multi-award-winning company that revolutionizes the way businesses and organizations enter the Chinese market through technology. He is an active mentor for a number of technology and digital initiatives in Asia Pacific and also serves as a Professor of Practice at the UNSW Business School in Sydney.
Prior to founding Sinorbis, he was the global President of HotelClub and Ebookers, two leading global online companies operating in more than 30 markets with an annual turnover of US$2.5 billion. HotelClub and Ebookers were part of Orbitz Worldwide, which was acquired for US1.6bn in 2015.
Nicolas also spent eight years at Expedia, holding executive positions in Europe and Asia Pacific. For several years he led the APAC retail and product strategy for the group and then was the Managing Director of Expedia Australia and New Zealand. Under his leadership, the company became the leading online travel agency in the region.
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Table of Contents
Welcome to your ValiantCEO exclusive interview! Let’s start with a little introduction. Tell us about yourself.
Nicolas Chu: My life, both personally and professionally, can be summarized in one word: international.
My family’s origins can be traced back to France, China, England, Italy, Germany and Canada. I was born in the UK, grew up in France, worked for American companies for most of my career and have been living in Asia Pacific for the past 15 years with my wife and two young daughters. I like to think that I have a passion for global connectivity — through business, technology and most importantly, human connection.
On the work front, I’m a product guy who has spent the past two decades in Digital and Technology for international businesses like Expedia and Orbitz. Since launching Sinorbis in 2016, I’ve been focused on helping Western businesses and organizations break into China (and soon, other countries in APAC) through our integrated marketing platform. In my spare time, I’m a professor at UNSW Business School. I really enjoy working on research projects and sharing my experience with the next generation of business leaders.
NO child ever says I want to be a CEO when I grow up. What did you want to be and how did you get to where you are today? Give us some lessons you learned along the way.
Nicolas Chu: When I was 8 years old, I wanted to be a gardener so that I could grow my own food and be independent! It turns out that I love growing businesses more than vegetables, but both require hard work to see the fruits of your labor. And I wholeheartedly believe that the key to success is taking risks. More than being a CEO, I have always wanted to build something from scratch, something that could become bigger than myself. I got to where I am today by always taking risks along the way.
I took a risk when I started my own consulting business when most post-graduates would join a management consulting firm. I took a risk (and a paycut) when I later joined a large company because I recognized that I still had a lot to learn. I took a risk when I joined Expedia in Europe, only to move halfway across the world to help the company expand in Asia, with no structure, no roadmap, no team in place. I took a risk when I joined a division of Orbitz that was losing millions of dollars every year and turned it into one of the fastest-growing divisions in the company. I took a risk when I started my own company, Sinorbis. While the journey is far from finished, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had so far. All of this to say: risk can feel uncomfortable and intimidating, but it’s the best opportunity for growth. Don’t shy away from risk; embrace it.
Tell us about your business, what does the company do? What is unique about the company?
Nicolas Chu: Sinorbis is a software company that helps Western businesses, organizations and universities simplify, streamline and supercharge their digital marketing efforts in China. Our one-stop-shop integrated marketing platform removes the common barriers to entry in this notoriously difficult landscape.
First, some context. As the largest population and second-largest economy in the world, China is too massive an opportunity to ignore. But breaking through from abroad is overwhelming. Chinese Internet regulation — referred to as the Great Firewall — has led to a completely unique digital ecosystem. Popular Western channels such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are blocked. Instead, Chinese netizens use Baidu, WeChat, Weibo, and Youku. International businesses that want to reach this market must adapt their digital marketing strategy accordingly. This often means starting from scratch with a dedicated Chinese website and a verified WeChat account as the foundation. That’s where Sinorbis comes in.
Sinorbis is a self-service platform that helps digital marketers launch, manage and measure their efforts in China. This includes:
- Web Page & Landing Page Builder for China
- Webinar and Lead Management for China
- WeChat Management Tool
- SEO & Web Analytics for China
There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that went into optimizing our platform for customers. For example, unless you have a business license in China and can obtain an ICP filing, it’s impossible to host your website in the country, have it load quickly and show up in local search engines. As for WeChat — a super app used for a wide range of daily activities like shopping and social media — there is a lot of red tape to create an official account, which is critical in terms of building trust with Chinese consumers. Sometimes businesses will hire a third party or agency to create their WeChat account, but in doing so, they forfeit ownership which can lead to problems down the road.
At Sinorbis, we solved these complex issues for our customers, allowing them to forgo the usual administrative hurdles, significantly reduce costs and gain greater control of their efforts, all while maintaining 100% compliance with Chinese regulations.
While Sinorbis is often compared to a Chinese digital marketing agency, we are a software company, not a service provider. Our goal is to give our customers as much control as possible over their digital presence in China and the tools they need to run their marketing activities themselves. This is something we tend to take for granted in other markets but used to be much more difficult to achieve in China.
How to become a CEO? Some will focus on qualities, others on degrees, how would you answer that question?
Nicolas Chu: I think this depends on whether you want to lead a startup or a large corporation. In the startup world, you need passion, drive, and most importantly, resilience. There are a lot of ups and downs, so you need to become adept at riding the waves. At a corporation, I think the most important skill is the ability to read people and the situations you’re in. In both worlds, you need to be able to define the strategy, align the company behind a vision and lead the team to achieve it.
What are the secrets to becoming a successful CEO? Who inspires you, who are your role models and why? Illustrate your choices.
Nicolas Chu: I wish there was a secret sauce, but there isn’t one, unfortunately! Do your best, surround yourself with smart people, and put one foot in front of the other.
I’m inspired by Jeff Bezos and Jack Dorsey in terms of how they manage their energy level every day. For example, Bezos sees his personal and professional pursuits more like a circle rather than a balancing act. Dorsey optimizes each day to make sure every hour is meaningful. Like them, I believe that the concept of entrepreneurs working 24/7 to be successful is outdated and ultimately leads to burnout. I also share their views on how living better makes you a stronger leader. For me, that means focusing on the basics: eating, sleeping, exercising, and breathwork.
Outside of the business world, Victor Frankl’s theory — that searching for life’s meaning is the central human motivational force — has always inspired me. It made me realize that the only thing you can really control in life is how you respond to a situation.
Many CEOs fall into the trap of being all over the place. What are the top activities a CEO should focus on to be the best leader the company needs? Explain.
Nicolas Chu: These are five core activities that any leaders — particularly CEOs — should do on a daily basis to stay on track:
- Be real. No one likes to follow someone who is fake! When you’re authentic, human, and self-aware, you build trust and respect from those around you…which is key.
- Think psychology. Learn how to read individuals and relationships. So much of business boils down to collaboration and connection, people and persuasion. Watch, listen, and understand the full picture at all times.
- Build cohesion. Empower your team and work towards common goals. This requires communication, enthusiasm, and transparency.
- Scan and scout. Feed the team with intelligence that they might not have access to. Knowledge is power, so what can you share?
- Practice storytelling. Inspire the organization, set a vision, and share important lessons. Go beyond facts and figures, and learn how to share information in a compelling way.
The Covid-19 Pandemic put the leadership skills of many to the test, what were some of the most difficult challenges that you faced as a CEO/Leader in the past year? Please list and explain in detail.
Nicolas Chu: A large portion of our business comes from helping American, British, and Australian universities recruit students from China. As you can imagine, border closures created an incredibly difficult circumstance for both Sinorbis and our customers. High political tension between China and the Western world certainly didn’t help in terms of overall sentiment. Most people in our orbit didn’t believe that our business would survive the pandemic, considering we had only five months of cash in the bank at that time.
Some of our investors called and recommended that we shut everything down, hibernate the business, and fire most of the team. While I appreciated their advice, I decided otherwise. We reduced our work week and increased our product offerings, and while all this was very difficult, today I’m proud to say that it paid off and we’re stronger than ever.
What are some of the greatest mistakes you’ve noticed some business leaders made during these unprecedented times? What are the takeaways you gleaned from those mistakes?
Nicolas Chu: When the world experiences a crisis like the pandemic, the immediate reaction is to go into survival mode, cut costs and just wait for the whole thing to pass. But here’s the problem with that approach: you might extend your runway but it doesn’t resolve the issue. If the crisis lasts for too long (which seems to be the case for this one), then your only option would be to eventually close the business.
While it’s difficult, I believe leaders must try to achieve both: do what you must to extend your life expectancy while still investing in your vision, company, and team. This is what we did.
In your opinion, what changes played the most critical role in enabling your business to survive/remain profitable, or maybe even thrive? What lessons did all this teach you?
Nicolas Chu: Finding our product/market fit (i.e. reaching a degree to which a product satisfies a strong market demand) early in the process was important. But even more critical was reaching what I would describe as Product/Market/Offer/Client Acquisition fit. This is really what allowed Sinorbis to navigate this difficult period successfully.
This involves not only having a product that satisfies a strong market demand but also having an offer and a client acquisition approach that allow your organization to increase your revenue without substantially increasing your resources and spending. If you have a great product and a strong market fit, but your cost of acquisition is higher than your revenue or your offer is not adapted to your market, you won’t be able to keep your business alive for very long.
What is the #1 most pressing challenge you’re trying to solve in your business right now?
Nicolas Chu: Finding the right people to grow our business, and quickly. This has been very difficult. Border closures for the past 20 months, combined with the current mindset towards work and careers in general, have significantly affected the pool of applicants.
You already shared a lot of insights with our readers and we thank you for your generosity. Normally, leaders are asked about their most useful qualities but let’s change things up a bit. What is the most useless skill you have learned, at school or during your career?
Nicolas Chu: Catching coins from my elbow. At a certain stage, I was able to catch up to 60 coins! I believe the world record is 328, so I have a bit of a long journey ahead of me.
Thank you so much for your time but before we finish things off, we do have one more question. We will select these answers for our ValiantCEO Award 2021 edition. The best answers will be selected to challenge the award.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make, this past year 2021, for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts?
Nicolas Chu: Some of our investors were pressuring us to temporarily close the business and ride out the pandemic. Of course, I respect and value their perspective; at the end of the day, we all want the company to succeed. But I didn’t believe that was the right decision, for both our customers and employees. So
I kept everyone but reduced the working hours to four days a week. This allowed us to keep executing on our strategy. We diversified the risk by going after different regions at the same time. We also started to offer more to our clients. More time, more support. So while we were theoretically working less, we actually had to do much more with less money! Fast forward to now and we grew by 140% and earned 65% market share in our original markets (Australia and New Zealand). We successfully expanded our activities in North America and Europe where we now have 40% of our clients. Today, our employees are back to 100% and we are hiring teams in the US, Canada and the UK as we speak!
Mike Weiss, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Nicolas Chu for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Nicolas Chu or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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