Pioneering innovation has characterized the success of e-commerce platform founder and chief
(MA XUEJING / CHINA DAILY)
In the early 2000s, a social experiment was done in China, where people were kept in a room for 72 hours and the only thing they had access to was the Internet.
Just one person lasted the entire duration. Everyone else gave up because they could not find access to food, water or entertainment online.
This is an anecdote Diane Wang Shutong shares to describe the beginning of the e-commerce market more than a decade ago.
If that same experiment was repeated today, not only would the participants be able to stay past the requisite 72 hours, they could probably also earn money while doing so.
Wang is the 49-year-old founder and CEO of DHgate.com, an e-commerce platform she established in 2004 in China.
It allows businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to trade across borders and is the largest digital trade platform in China that focuses on the business-to-business, or B2B, segment.
This places her at the forefront of the evolution of Internet-based activities in her home country.
“In the past 13 years, we have enabled over 1.4 million SMEs to access over 10 million international buyers from 227 countries and regions,” she said.
Wang has built DHgate in such a way that innovation is one of the company’s core values.
Annually, it hosts a series of internal innovation competitions. Teams made up of members from different departments come together to cultivate new ideas and create prototypes.
“We then select three ideas, giving the winning teams funding to implement them on a company level,” the Beijing-based ‘technopreneur’ said.
One of DHgate’s proudest innovations was to enable the entire transaction of buying and selling to be done online using a “commission on successful transaction model”. This keeps the costs down for SMEs and allows them to go global.
DHgate was also the first cross-border e-commerce company in China to provide an Internet financing service — based on big data analysis of risk — to its sellers.
This allows them to access short-term financing with no collateral or guarantor, to scale up their business.
Innovation has enabled DHgate to score firsts in many different areas.
“We were the first cross-border e-commerce firm in China to launch both a seller- and buyer-side mobile app, a trust and safety department, integrate over 50 logistics providers, and to integrate GS1 (global standards for business communication) tracking technology into our platform,” Wang noted.
DHgate’s activities also complement the Belt and Road Initiative, launched by China’s President Xi Jinping in 2013, to revive the ancient Silk Road trading routes.
In 2015, during the G20 Summit, the company initiated and facilitated China’s first bilateral agreement on cross-border e-commerce, between China and Turkey.
“President Xi of China and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey witnessed the signing, which aims to enable more SMEs in China and Turkey to leverage cross-border e-commerce to conduct bilateral trade in a more efficient manner,” Wang said.
The following year, during the APEC CEO Summit — a business event for executives from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum nations — DHgate facilitated a similar agreement between China and Peru.
With these agreements, more favorable policies will be carried out in areas such as customs clearance inspection and quarantine, currency exchange, tax and tariffs.
The industry, though, is not without its challenges. There is the need to constantly adopt new technology and embrace changes to provide the best trade experience.
“For example, we just started providing cloud-based services and now we are integrating AI (artificial intelligence) into our platform to create the next generation of our marketplace,” Wang said.
Another hurdle is localization. With buyers from 227 countries and regions, Wang learned that “technology can take you everywhere, but to speak directly to the hearts of local consumers you need to know them on a cultural, economic and societal level”.
Her solution is to set up local offices in their target markets. DHgate has launched an online-to-offline commerce venture called Digital Trade Centers.
Looking ahead, Wang predicts three trends.
“We call the first trend ‘online or offline, there is no line at all’,” she said.
In China, she has seen more and more offline stores provide online services to their clients for a more timely, convenient and efficient experience, and to improve customer satisfaction.
Meantime, increasingly, Internet-based companies are starting offline display, service and marketing centers to provide a more tangible experience to enable clients to “feel” the product.
The second trend she sees is “buy and sell globally”. Digital platforms today enable enterprises to integrate into the global value chain.
Any enterprise can source products from anywhere in the world, and sell their products to any place globally. Digital platforms will act as the bridge.
The third trend is a platform-based service. With digital platforms, not only will goods be traded freely, but services too.
In the past, cross-border traders had to deal with multiple government agencies, in multiple locations, to obtain the necessary papers, permits and clearances to complete the processes.
Today, with the implementation of a single-window system, international traders can submit all the regulatory documents at a single location and through a single entity.
As these trends take shape, Wang is determined to get DHgate ready for what she called the “international trade revolution”.
She is steering the company to integrate more international trade services online, such as customs clearance, tax return and currency exchange.
Wang’s digital experience is not limited to DHgate. Immediately before, she was the cofounder and CEO of Joyo.com for five years.
This was China’s first business-to-consumer, or B2C, e-commerce platform, started in 1999 — the same year as Alibaba.com. In 2004, it was bought by Amazon, which had ambitions to enter China.
With the Joyo.com deal locked in with Amazon, Wang looked for something “new and exciting” to do.
“When I left Joyo.com, and was about to start DHgate, I was inspired by three key words that kept running through my mind: Global, Internet and SME,” she said.
“B2B had not been tapped at that time, it had more potential. I wanted to combine these three words and do something for SMEs. My dream became to enable SMEs to buy globally and sell globally through our platform.”
She remembers the early days as challenging, having to grapple with doubt and disbelief from people around her.
“It took us months to get even a few suppliers online. Finally, we generated our first order, a computer bag sold to the US for $6.14. Then the orders started coming, and we grew like crazy.”
Wang also sits on a host of committees and associations.
One that Wang can take credit for is the APEC Cross-Border E-commerce Training or CBET platform, initiated in 2014.
The program has trained more than 3,000 SMEs from 20 economies across five continents.
Said Wang: “The whole world is experiencing trade reform, and we want to be a part of this process. We want to empower SMEs through e-commerce with our knowledge and experience.
“The biggest barrier to getting more SMEs online is actually their lack of awareness of the opportunities and tools at their disposal. Without training, digital is a foreign concept to them.”
Diane Wang Shutong
Founder & CEO, DHgate.com
1991: Bachelor of radio and telecommunications, Beijing Union University
2016-present: Chair of APEC Women Leadership Forum
2004-present: Founder and CEO of DHgate.com
2014-present: Co-chair of B20 SME Development Task Force
2011-present: Co-chair of APEC Business Advisory Council MSME Working Group
1999-2004: Cofounder of Joyo.com
2011-16: China Entrepreneur magazine’s Business Mulan Award as “One of the Most Influential Chinese Female Entrepreneurs”
2011: New Champions magazine’s China Top 10 Female Commerce Leader Award
2010: Asia-Pacific Entrepreneurial Chamber of Commerce’s Top 10 Chinese E-commerce Growth and Innovation Annual Figures Award
2009: Business Weekly’s Top 25 Most Influential Figures in the Chinese Economy Award
2002: China Women Union’s Outstanding Women of China Award
You are an advocate of women’s empowerment. How does the human resources policy at DHgate.com reflect that?
At DHgate, we do not take gender into account when we make human resources decisions — they are all made based on ability and accomplishment. We have many creative, innovative and capable young female leaders at DHgate. At management level, we have an equal representation of males and females.
What do you say to aspiring women entrepreneurs who dream of making it big like you?
First, I had a dream, stuck to it and thought about it all the time. Second, I accepted that choosing entrepreneurship was the long and tough way to success. Third, I was not afraid of taking a tortuous path; I didn’t fancy overnight success. Last, I keep myself out of my comfort zone and constantly test my limits.
Year of birth: 1968