Have you ever been stumped trying to set up your Taobao account? We spoke with Daniel Worlton, co-founder of WeSecretary, a virtual concierge service based in Beijing that launched in May 2015 that may just be the answer to those tricky China questions. Daniel talks about how he got started in China by chance, but knew he wanted to stay.
How did you initially get involved with China and what kept you here?
My best friend, Alex English, had applied for a MAIS program with Concordia University Irvine that would send him to China to teach for a year, and I did everything in my power to convince him not to go. Luckily for me, he didn’t listen. I eventually came out to visit him and we went backpacking through Yunnan and Sichuan during Spring Festival 2008. All of my prejudices were blown away and even before I touched ground back in the States six weeks later, I was jonesing for my next China fix.
By the time I got my Master’s degree in computer science from UT Dallas, I had burned out and wanted nothing to do with the field. I was still trying to figure out what to do with my life when China came along, and suddenly everything became clear. The next year, after a 2-month grand tour of Southeast Asia, I crossed the Shekou Port at 3:45 pm March 12, 2009 with 40 dollars, a backpack, and a dream. I had no job lined up; I just knew I wanted to be in China. The first year was rough as it took some time to learn the language, build guanxi networks, and figure out my hustle. After about four years in Shenzhen working at my own private tutoring business, I knew I was ready to make a move, but wasn’t ready to leave China, so I signed up for a PhD program in Beijing.
What was the inspiration for WeSecretary?
Well, I really have to give credit to my friend and co-founder Dave Lancashire (of Popup Chinese fame) who pitched the idea to me when he was looking for a new project to work on this spring. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, I was on board. It seemed so stupidly obvious to do a WeChat based secretarial/concierge/butler service to help other expats in China.
It takes a lot of effort to become self sufficient in China, and the system is really stacked against foreigners. I certainly had experience both figuring things out on my own and helping others along the way. On my last half year long road trip through China, I ended up helping lots of backpackers book their next train tickets on my laptop from my dorm. Even Alex, who has been in China longer than I have, would regularly ask me to look things up on Taobao and teach him how to do online banking.
What has been your strangest request so far and is there anything that WeSecretary just wouldn’t do?
I originally thought we should limit ourselves to a few certain use cases, but Dave insisted we open ourselves up to see what the market wants. It shouldn’t be surprising that we get asked for escort services rather regularly, but that is clearly a legal land mine we want to sidestep. The strangest requests tend to come from the B2B side of our company, where we are asked to source frozen cooked and peeled crawfish for a restaurant, a vodka ice luge for an event at a bar, or the last minute delivery of rented camera equipment for a photo shoot.
How would you describe the start-up scene in Beijing? What elements do you think are unique to Beijing/China that have allowed you to develop this idea and this company?
My knowledge of the start-up scene and Chinese tech industry in general comes from doing freelance translation for Marbridge Consulting over the last year. I don’t really distinguish the start-up scenes from city to city, especially as Tencent (Shenzhen-based) and Xiaomi (Beijing-based) go out of their way to establish incubators in second and third tier cities.
The thing about China is that it sometimes seems like there is an unlimited amount of capital in search of a good idea. It makes me want to bang my head against my desk when I read about the insane amounts of money invested in what can politely be described as stupid ideas. We figured that it would be a no-brainer for angel investors to shower us with money, especially considering that similar companies in other markets have been given USD 9-digit valuations. We are still waiting on that.
I’m not really sure Beijing is the best place to start a business, as it is more oriented towards the political, media, and cultural realms. We would probably be better off relocating to Shanghai, which is releasing foreigner friendly policies to promote innovation, or Shenzhen, which breathes business and has a young labor market willing to take chances.
Tell us about some of your long-term goals for the company: where do you see WeSecretary in the future?
We want to keep growing WeSecretary so that we are not only the market leader among the Anglophone community, but also offer multilingual services. After that, our plan is to flip the business model, so that we provide solutions for Chinese immigrants and travelers to other countries, fully exploiting the built in network effect of WeChat as it marches across the globe. We see ourselves as more than just a lifestyle services company, but an all encompassing solutions provider for individuals and businesses operating in cross cultural environments.
What do you wish someone had told you the first time you came to China?
As I reflect on my time in China, I’ve certainly made plenty of mistakes and often had to learn things the hard way, but I think the best advice I could have received was just to get to China as early as possible. I didn’t move to China until I was 26, and I can’t help but wonder how much more I could have achieved with an earlier start and proper education.
Besides building a company and doing freelance translation, I’m also concurrently working on a PhD in Applied Linguistics at Beijing Language and Culture University. Being in a school setting provides a stark contrast on how my journey through China has gone. A lot of Beijing expats use a semester or two at a university as a launching ground for an interesting China career, while if I hadn’t started WeSecretary, BLCU may very well have been the pinnacle of my time in China.
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about China?
The view of China as a monolithic whole. China has as much diversity as the United States with strong regional cuisines, 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, and 11 major “dialects” spoken by the Han. For people who’ve never been to China, just coming here is enough to dispel most misconceptions, but for the expats who live here, China is so much more than just Shanghai and Beijing. It would be like summarizing the US with just New York and Los Angeles, while ignoring all the “fly-over” states. I strongly recommend that everyone travel more, but I would caution against the impulse to go looking for “the Real China” because there is no such thing.
What is one of your favorite or most memorable experiences in China?
On my very first trip to China backpacking with Alex, there are enough incidents to fill a book, but one I’d like to share is an out-of-body experience I had as I was drinking 8 RMB Tsingtao’s at The Sexy Tractor in Lijiang, Yunnan. Here I am in a place I had never heard of until a week before, drinking beers which I never liked before and chatting with people from England, Denmark, Italy, and Shanghai, whom I had never met before. We’ve all traveled thousands of miles to meet here by chance in a small bar run by someone from Holland. It’s natural for people to look for meaning in chance, but when you travel or live in China, it’s hard to escape those surreal moments where everything seems possible, and meanings of normal and exotic have completely flipped.
WeSecretary is looking for problem-solving interns to help kickstart the company!