|Gong Haiyan [hc360.com]|
As one of China’s most prominent female entrepreneurs, Gong Haiyan is as famous for founding China's biggest matchmaking website as she is for having overcome poverty to become a successful entrepreneur.
Gong was born into a poor rural family in Taoyuan County in central China's Hunan Province in 1976. She showed an entrepreneurial spirit from an early age and in junior middle school, began selling ice-cream each summer holiday to earn her tuition in the following fall semester and some extra pocket money.
Gong was a good student and was set to enter a key high school when a tractor accident tragically changed her life. In August 1992, she was selling ice-cream as usual during the summer holiday when the tractor she was in fell into a ditch and she was crushed underneath. In order to pay for her medical treatment, her family had to go into debt. As a result, they struggled for the following years to regain financial solvency and Gong had to drop out of school.
Gong persuaded her father to borrow 3,000 yuan (US$ 490.5) to open a stationery store beside the local primary school. She ran the store herself, making a profit of over 7,000 yuan (US$ 1144) within a year. The experience taught her that it was not difficult to make money if one used hard work and ingenuity.
The next year saw a huge wave of internal migration as rural Chinese flocked to the big cities in southern China to find work. Gong joined this wave and soon found work in Zhuhai in south China's Guangdong Province. In her absence, her mother took over the running of the stationery store.
Life became much easier for the family after that. Accustomed to a frugal lifestyle, they managed to save more than 200,000 yuan (US$ 32,720) in the following years.
However, in 1996, a talk inspired her desire to resume her studies. She met up with a former high school classmate who was studying then in a university in Guangzhou, capital city of Guangdong Province. The classmate told her that more than half of her former classmates had entered university. Hearing this, Gong became determined to finish her education.
That November, at the age of 20, she enrolled at Taoyuan No. 1 High School and finished just in time to apply to university, since, at that time, China did not allow students older than 24 to take the university entrance exam.
To everyone’s great surprise, Gong attained one of the highest scores in her county in the exam and in 1998 was accepted into Peking University --- one of China’s top universities.
Gong graduated in 2002 with a major in Chinese and went on to the prestigious Fudan University to study media management at the university's journalism school. Despite her lost time, she has said that the years she spent out of school benefited her greatly and taught her many life and business lessons she could not have learned in a classroom.
Road to Success
As she had dropped out of school for three years, Gong was older than most of her peers and her family urged her to find a prospective spouse. Gong’s mother was especially worried, since in China's traditional social environment, women over 27 are often dubbed 'left-over' women.
After signing up with a few matchmaking companies who cheated her out of her money, the idea came to her to start her own matchmaking company to provide better quality services.
"I didn’t expect it to develop into such a huge business. I just wanted to leverage my media management experience and give it a try,” she said.
She started off with a capital of 40,000 yuan (US $ 6,540) of her savings. After spending 1,000 yuan (US$ 163.5) on creating a simple website, Shijijiayuan, she recruited customers among her friends and classmates. The first two customers were a woman postgraduate student in Tongji University and a male PhD. candidate in Shanghai Jiaotong University.
Gong’s customers increased rapidly and she soon had more than 10,000 people signed up to her matchmaking network. While the developments made her happy, the best thing to come out of Gong’s business was her meeting her husband.
"He was one of our customers and we met through one of the activities that we organized. We fell in love almost immediately and got married a month after meeting each other,” says Gong, a wide smile on her face.
New Stage of Development
In the next few years, Gong’s company expanded with the help of many venture capital investments, among which the 40 million yuan (US$ 6.53 million) invested by China's famous New Oriental School was the most impressive.
The money was from three of the school’s founders, Xu Xiaoping, Wang Qiang and Qiang Yongqiang. In May 2005, Gong had a meeting with Qiang Yongqiang. Although they did not sign an agreement, Qiang ended up investing two million yuan (US $ 326,800) in Gong’s company.
The investors had conducted thorough market research on the company and found that Shijijiayuan's website viewing statistics were only lower than that of its American counterpart Match.com and surpassed a French counterpart Meetic.com, according to the Alexa traffic ranking. This was also despite the fact that Match.com had already entered the Chinese market by buying eDodo, another Chinese matchmaking website.
Perhaps more importantly, the talk with Qiang had boosted Gong’s confidence in a time when she was unsure about where her company was headed. She and her husband had invested all their savings into the company and she spent longer and longer hours handling her business.
The investment allowed Gong to rent offices in the Xuhui District of Shanghai, which is the most commercial downtown area in Shanghai. She also set up departments to oversee design, technological support, customer services, and marketing.
In 2006, Gong's company became a cooperative partner of the MSN friend-making project of Microsoft China. The following year, the company established strategic cooperation relations with Sina.com, a very influential website in China and received 40 million yuan (US$ 6.53 million) in investments from the New Oriental School. In June 2007, the company received a further investment of more than 10 million U.S. dollars from Qiming Venture Partners.
Despite the rapid growth of the company, Gong has always kept her real purpose in sight: helping people find the right partner. This has been the company’s vision and purpose since its inception. This is also why so many venture capital investment companies have chosen to invest in it.
The website has always been vigilant about cracking down on fraud cases. The company’s staff members scour the network every day for any indications of fraud cases and any complaints lodged by members are investigated and dealt with immediately.
At present, the website now has about 10.87 million registered customers and over two million have succeeded in finding their partners. Gong has been dubbed 'China's No. 1 Matchmaker'.
In spite of her enormous success, Gong and her husband still lead simple lives. She gets up early every morning and goes for a run with her husband. As she says, "Good health is the true success."
(Source:qianzhan.com/ Translated and edited by womenofchina)
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