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Startup on top, corporate on bottom: how a Singaporean company stays agile in China’s complex payments sector

jiaofeiyi 2

“This is not futuristic, it’s just necessary,” explains Ng Ming Liang, CMO of Sunway Technologies. “Because it’s necessary, it makes money.”

Sunway Technologies is China’s second largest maker of physical payment kiosks and the software that runs them in China. Additionally, its software (dubbed ‘Jiaofeiyi’) can be deployed onto almost any variation of hardware, like cash registers and card readers.

While mobile payments are starting to garner some attention for things like phone top-ups, utility bills, and transport cards, most Chinese people still go to either the bank or a kiosk to make such payments. The leader in the payment kiosk space is Lakala, which can be found at pretty much any 7-Eleven and other chains of convenience stores. But Jiaofeiyi is in a solid second place with over 1,000 kiosks in Beijing alone. Its own brand of kiosks are a common sight in a handful of other cities in China, and it also licenses its software and hardware to other companies, acting as a fulfillment gateway.

Ng admits the payment kiosk business is “increasing at a decreasing rate.” He says more kiosks will be installed for at least another five years, but the company is now looking to leverage its years of experience and networks to shift toward mobile payments.

To that end, Sunway Technologies will provide mobile payment solutions before the end of this year. It will start with its own mobile app, but Ng notes this is more to show Jiaofeiyi’s capabilities rather than trying to make a popular consumer product. Like its kiosks, the technology will be white-labeled and licensed to companies who want their own mobile payment platforms.

The biggest obstacle for mobile is “the nature of the legacy system” when it comes to payments in China. Ng says NFC cards, which include Beijing’s transport cards, have very restricted licensing, so NFC-enabled phones cannot be used to transfer money to them yet. Utilities are usually paid using IC cards, which smartphones simply aren’t equipped to deal with. This limits not only Jiaofeiyi, but all companies in the payments space. The progression of mobile has far outpaced the country’s payment infrastructure.

Many opportunities remain, though. Ng points to mobile top-ups as one example. A shop owner with a Jiaofeiyi app could instantly add credit to a customer’s phone, eliminating the need for scratch cards. In addition to a white-labeled app for other companies, Sunway Technologies is also building a WeChat official channel that can complete many of the same tasks as its kiosks.

Olympic standards

Sunway Technologies’ Singaporean founders broke into China’s payment scenes back in 2006, when the Chinese government was preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Before then, people were forced to line up at banks to make pretty much any sort of payment. China opened up to let private companies jump-start innovation in the sector.

Sunway Technologies was one of just a few selected by the government. Ng says most companies were looking to make a quick buck and “underestimated the complexity” of the countries e-payments sector. He says many people’s idea of doing business in China is predicated on guanxi – a common term for a person’s connections and social capital. But Ng argues it’s less about who you know, and “more about being familiar with how things work.”

Ng says in the company’s early days, the team was adamant about creating its own ecosystem. But now that sentiment has changed. “We’re a lot larger when we work with others and enable others, rather than taking on this market on our own,” he says.

The team’s startup attitude led them to beat their competitors, says Ng. After the Olympics, the government’s initiative to update payment technologies continued, and Sunway Technologies was on the frontier. Many rivals, like telco China Unicom, realized the huge amount of effort needed to develop in-house solutions and dropped out to eventually become clients of Sunway Technologies. It outpaced everybody else in the market, including banks. The government even used the company in a case study to show how quickly IC card readers could be integrated while banks were complaining about the time and costs necessary to do so. As years went by, Sunway Technologies went from a competitor to a vendor for several large corporations, and its kiosks are now found in many state-owned banks.

“It’s the equivalent of asking the government of China to pay you to put a machine in their facility,” says Ng, noting the level of knowledge needed to work in such a complicated and bureaucratic environment.

That’s why he sees his company as a top contender to break into mobile payments. Sunway Technologies already has the networks, know-how, back-end technology, and scale to be a major mobile payments solution and fulfillment gateway. All it needs now is an app.

Transition from startup to corporate

Eight years later, Ng doesn’t really consider Sunway Technologies a startup anymore. The founders, who all have entrepreneurial backgrounds, “have a huge startup mentality when it comes down to things like strategy, business direction, and execution,” he says. At the management level, there’s no top-down system. Everyone is relatively equal.

Among the rest of the staff however, the company looks much more corporate. Employees dress professionally and punch in every morning. As Sunway Technologies grew, Ng says the startup culture just wasn’t working out. “We learned this somewhat the hard way,” says Ng.

Ng points out a few problems with trying to run such a large company like a startup. “It eventually becomes an ill-disciplined unit,” he says. “It’s hard to work with government with a startup culture [...] It makes your company look frivolous.”

This startup-on-top, corporate-on-bottom style makes the company efficient, productive, and agile enough to keep competition at bay. However, it has led to some disconnect between management and lower-level staff.

“We move very quickly, sometimes too quickly for the Chinese staff,” says Ng. “It looks as if we’re changing our minds all the time, even though we’re not.”

BDSM

In addition to mobile payments, Sunway Technologies also wants to be an out-of-home (OOH) advertiser. Because its software is so common on both its own and other companies’ payment kiosks in public places, it effectively owns thousands of billboards. It can also take advantage of user data to better target audiences.

Originally, the English name for this service was called the “big data sales and marketing” platform. But the team recently realized the acronym spelled BDSM, so they’re working to come up with a new one.

Editing by Steven Millward

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