By defying norms and sticking to his vision, the founder of a leading mobile advertising firm scored some hard-won gains in a few short years.
How many 28-year-olds do you know can boast of doing business with China Mobile and Alibaba?
Chen Di is the schoolboyish-looking, plain-dressing technopreneur who has been cutting deals with the two technology giants. Featured in Forbes China’s “30 under 30” two years ago when he was just 26, Chen founded Youmi Media, China’s first mobile advertising company, in 2010. He still heads the startup as CEO.
Today, the Guangzhou-based firm is one of the country’s biggest mobile ad players, providing ad solutions to application developers, and with more than 80,000 apps and some of China’s biggest internet companies using its ad network covering 600 cities.
Impressive as his current achievements may be, for the young Chen, this is probably just the beginning. CompassLoft traces his startup journey so far, in a bid to grasp and share the ingredients to his success.
Envision the future, act on it now
Chen was a computer engineering major at the prestigious South China University of Technology, whose graduates usually get snapped up by multinationals like P&G and Baidu.
Chen, however, chose to start his own business with some classmates. In a tiny rented office near campus, about 10 of them worked around a table covered with mobile phones from different manufacturers.
This was the time when Apple and Android smartphones were starting to enter the mass market and ushering in a whole new lifestyle. In China, the trend caught on especially, as more and more people turned to their smartphones for purposes beyond calls and messages. Chen and his team smelt business opportunity. Now was the time – the sooner the better.
Chen did not know where to begin, but he had to start somewhere. In 2007, he started a mobile apps development studio. After all, smartphones were flooding the market and apps were needed. But that did not work out as the team lacked expertise.
Chen then tried creating a game app. The problem was, Chinese users refused to pay for apps. In the first month, the team earned US$60.
The team was forced to find another way. That was when they came across the idea of providing ads within apps. They ran with it.
In April 2010, Youmi was born. It would go on to become one of the biggest mobile ad networks in China, amassing over 20 billion ad impressions, with an annual revenue of US$66 million and profit of US$6.6 million.
Today, Chen advises: “Have a clear vision of the future, and capitalize on the opportunities.”
A team that sticks with your vision… and with you
In those early days, Youmi was accumulating costs every day and Chen was determined to acquire funding to help pay the bills and advance the business.
He vividly recalls one particular incident. It was a contest of pitching business ideas, in which the winner would be awarded US$450,000. Wanting his team to focus on work, he went alone to Suzhou to compete.
After a long arduous commute, he still had to walk a few miles to reach the venue.
Despite all his efforts, he went only as far as the top eight.
“I remember the moment I left the venue, walking back alone feeling demoralised and not knowing what the next step was. It was like, I have a family of 22 (22 employees), and I would return empty handed.”
Instead of expressing displeasure, his staff encouraged him.
“Which business became successful just by winning a prize?” they asked him.
And everyone went back to work.
The team was strong and focused. But as the business grew, Youmi had to attract talented and experienced developers, many of whom were from other big Chinese Internet companies. With more staff coming on board, Chen emphasised all the more on keeping the team close-knit and united like a family.
Add value to society
Chen’s story teaches us two main lessons about entrepreneurship: Have a clear vision that you stick to, and a team that sticks to your vision.
But more than just making money, he wants to ultimately contribute to society, counting as his role models Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka Shing.
And as Chen moves on to his next adventure, he hopes that we too would embark on ours: “In a lifetime, there are not too many opportunities.”
With the start of a new year, perhaps there is no better time to begin.