Gifted: A French entrepreneur finds success in surprises

by Alyona Radina

“Spend time earning strong relationships. Don’t stay with people you don’t like. Change fast along with new technology. Be flexible. Don’t judge quickly. Have no strict opinions, no right or wrong.”

These beliefs helped Rachel Daydou emerge as the winner of the 2016 Shanghai Youth Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition.

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In her ‘day job’, Daydou is the co-founder and chief business officer of Lihaoma (礼好吗), a mobile gifting app, and a managing member of Startup Grind Shanghai, mentoring startups of French Tech Shanghai. In addition to all that, Rachel teaches and manages an entrepreneurship program at UTSEUS (University of Technology Sino-European University of Shanghai).

“These different activities – learning, doing and teaching – are extremely complementary and enable me to understand entrepreneurship in China in a very complete way,” Daydou explains.

Daydou has worked in China for seven years – four in Beijing, three in Shanghai – in four very different industries.

“I always say that a China year is like a dog year: one year here equals five years of maturity, experiences from back home,” she said. “I have worked in different industries at positions with great level of responsibilities for my age. I was able to learn about more myself, how it feels to understand nothing to understanding something.”

China Calling

Rachel Daydou grew up in Paris’ Chinatown neighborhood. She was always surrounded with Chinese culture, had Franco-Chinese school friends, and took martial arts classes with Master Zhang Xiaoyan (a seven-time Chinese champion). Rachel became French Kung Fu junior champion eight times. She was also fond of watching Hong Kong mafia movies.

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Rachel Daydou at a kungfu competition in France in 2004. Photo from LePetit Journal.

Daydou received her bachelor’s degree in business management and administration at Paris’ Sorbonne University. She studied global economy at the time when China was becoming a key actor.

Rachel had started learning Chinese before her first visit to China in 2007, when she came for a nine-month language internship. At that time, she studied at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economy, continued distance education at Sorbonne University and worked part-time for OpenMind Asia, an event agency in Beijing.

“I loved this city,” she said. “It helped me to understand traditional China, and I made many Chinese friends there.”

After going back to France for her Master’s Degree in Project Management, Rachel began work in the luxury business, organizing high-end events for the auction house Christie’s.

But in 2011, China called out to Rachel again. More specifically, her Australian boyfriend, who had finished his studies in China, found work, and wanted Rachel to move to China.

The Making of Lihaoma

Rachel spent two and a half months actively searching for job. She joined ABinBev, the Belgian beer brewer, as a product manager. During her three years at ABinBev, Rachel discovered the hidden Beijing, the culture of tea, calligraphy, the famous art district 798. Consciously spending time away from the French community, she made friends of all nationalities.

“I also learned a great deal about Chinese business culture, including how to survive in a banquet business and how to handle bribes to distributors,” she said.

In 2014, the CEO of the Beaumanoir Group, Stéphane Torck, offered Rachel a job in retail as a project manager.

“I was based in the store and had to bring a customer vision to Shanghai headquarters, training field staff to manage a new type of premium store and adjusting the headquarters processes to better support these new needs,” she said. “I ended up managing 20 stores all around China and launching the Bonobo brand on the Chinese market.”

Rachel’s life changed when her business partner Benjamin Clayes offered a chance to join startup Lihaoma as a sales manager.

Lihaoma is like Ni hao ma 

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The Lihaoma app is a mobile application that allows discovering gifts. The application is available on iOS and Android, in Chinese and English, and it is also a website. Users offer digital gifts that turn into real experiences.

Gifts can be unlocked by location (geo-marketing for new store or event), riddle (educative questions about product), timer (to build up tension for an event or new product, or instantly (for a quick and direct gift).

Since Lihaoma was founded, it has earned around 8,000 users, and sent 11,000 gifts of 18 to 5,000 RMB. There is no intrusive advertising, it is the consumer who goes to the brand.

“The idea is simple. We hate all spam,” she said. “In China, they take on delusional proportions and invade all the private spaces (commercial calls on your mobile, SMS, WeChat or emails). At the same time, consumers are looking to discover new brands but block advertisements. This is where Lihaoma comes into play as we turn advertising into entertainment.”

Lihaoma helps 350 brands such as Pernod Ricard, Budweiser, Dunkin’ Donuts, Hilton, Jameson, Main Yoga, Mr. Waffle, Rolex Masters Shanghai, Taobao stores and Feiyue to multiply the return on investment of their online advertising.

Lihaoma has a holding company in Hong Kong and a local partner company for operations in China. This assembly is the fastest and the cheapest.

“It gave us the flexibility to receive investments in dollars and yuan,” she said. “I would not do it any other way because it allowed us to start very quickly and avoid a lot of costs.”

Employees are both foreigners and Chinese. The downside, Rachel says, is that foreigners will never be able to fully grasp Chinese customer trends. However, Lihaoma has no hierarchy (unlike Chinese companies), so the company can move faster.

Wu Si Yu, a Chinese employee working in Daydou’s team, acknowledges that she enjoys their multicultural startup.

“From my experiences I can tell that foreign bosses are more approachable to employees,” she said. “I feel my opinions are taken into account more.”

“Lihaoma is innovation,” Rachel Daydou claimed. “It demands intensity because we work on the startup, innovative space, where things change fast.”

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Since Lihaoma was founded, it has earned around 8,000 users, and sent 11,000 gifts of 18 to 5,000 RMB. There is no intrusive advertising, it is the consumer who goes to the brand.

“The idea is simple. We hate all spam,” she said. “In China, they take on delusional proportions and invade all the private spaces (commercial calls on your mobile, SMS, WeChat or emails). At the same time, consumers are looking to discover new brands but block advertisements. This is where Lihaoma comes into play as we turn advertising into entertainment.”

Lihaoma helps 350 brands such as Pernod Ricard, Budweiser, Dunkin’ Donuts, Hilton, Jameson, Main Yoga, Mr. Waffle, Rolex Masters Shanghai, Taobao stores and Feiyue to multiply the return on investment of their online advertising.

Lihaoma has a holding company in Hong Kong and a local partner company for operations in China. This assembly is the fastest and the cheapest.

“It gave us the flexibility to receive investments in dollars and yuan,” she said. “I would not do it any other way because it allowed us to start very quickly and avoid a lot of costs.”

Employees are both foreigners and Chinese. The downside, Rachel says, is that foreigners will never be able to fully grasp Chinese customer trends. However, Lihaoma has no hierarchy (unlike Chinese companies), so the company can move faster.

Wu Si Yu, a Chinese employee working in Daydou’s team, acknowledges that she enjoys their multicultural startup.

“From my experiences I can tell that foreign bosses are more approachable to employees,” she said. “I feel my opinions are taken into account more.”

“Lihaoma is innovation,” Rachel Daydou claimed. “It demands intensity because we work on the startup, innovative space, where things change fast.”

Chinaccelerator

Rachel has been working in Lihaoma for three years and participating in the Chinaccelerator incubation program.

Chinaccelerator is a startup accelerator in China, a mentorship-driven program helping internet startups from around the world cross borders. Chinaccelerator offers three months of rigorous guidance, training and resources from mentors, partners and investors. The robust and supportive alumni network continues into the startups’ post-Chinaccelerator lifespan.

“Thanks to Chinaccelerator everything is structured in our business,” she said. “Accelerator is different from an incubator. We report about our progress to people outside of our company. We all need to do at least one weekly experience at our platform (up to three per week for founders), and immediately apply the lessons learned. We meet with our users weekly to better understand them. Thus, we can see an almost daily evolution of our activity.”

“Learning-teaching-doing” motto

In parallel, Rachel gets also involved in the startup community in Shanghai by organizing the Startup Grind events every month and by mentoring start-ups of French Tech Shanghai. There are about 3,000 members of the local Startup Grind, a startup community with global reach, which holds monthly events, and most are foreigners.

“There are increasingly more incubators, accelerators and networking grounds offered by both the government and companies, and local entrepreneurs don’t hesitate to share their experiences with foreigners,” she said.

Rachel teaches leadership, provides coherence of the classes, invites experienced entrepreneurs, and organizes study trips to Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

“A spirit of mini-incubator and mentoring, thirteen sessions a year, a dozen speakers, students of all nationalities, bringing projects to come to fruition at the end of each session,” she said. All these activities are very complementary to my Lihaoma project, they allow me to step back and keep moving forward!”

Going back to France?

Having lived in China for seven years, Rachel still has not adjusted to some facets of Chinese culture.

“Anything administrative seems to be 14th century in China,” she said. “Paper, document development is slow. Another important difficulty is the Chinese language and chengyu (idioms) though I hold HSK5 (the Chinese Proficiency Test, level five is equivalent to C1).”

Nevertheless, Rachel does not want to return to France. She prefers China’s optimism to the negative mindset of many French people, who think that tomorrow will be worse than today.

Rachel is another person. China made her flexible and free of prejudice. Her personal aims are to keep growing and being efficient at work, make it into Forbes 30 list, reach better balance, concentrate on family and boyfriend, travel, do yoga and read books.

“The cultural shock was intense, and this shock really got the best out of me. It made me adaptable, flexible, social, resourceful, curious, and non-judgmental. This experience gave me the impression that I can do anything I want as long as I put my mind to it, and that I can live and adapt to any culture in the world. I owe China a lot.”

 

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