Derek Ling, CEO of Tianji, Talks On Professional Social Networks In China

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Derek Ling, CEO and founder of Tianji

Derek Ling is the CEO and founder of Tianji, the largest professional social networking site (SNS) in China with over 6 million registered users.

Prior to Tianji, Derek was at Motorola to lead the company’s market entry strategy and business development in Greater China. He also served as Apple’s Director of Business Development for Greater China and was responsible for building iPod and education markets in China. He was also the former Vice President at Sina. In this interview, Derek shared with us about Tianji and also the professional social network market in China

1. In your view, what is Tianji and why should people join your network?

Tianji provides Chinese people with a platform to build and maintain their professional networks and to look for career and business opportunities. It’s a place to build their professional identities and to promote themselves, so that opportunities find them. We don’t want it to be simply a site for people looking to get something, but rather somewhere that people can be part of a community.

Most of our members are mid to upper mid-level professionals, ranging from 25 to 40 in age. We have a younger target audience than you might find in other markets. For comparison, LinkedIn’s average age is 43. However, in China, people above 40 are generally less Internet savvy and thus not our ideal target market.

2. What inspired you to create Tianji in China?

The original inspiration came from a realization that professionals in China, unlike their U.S. counterparts, get very little help throughout their career development. Tianji was created to help young professionals connect with like-minded elites of the business world.

From my experience as a VP at Sina, I could see that there was tremendous potential for the Chinese market. We understood that there was real value in a Chinese-focused platform that could help professionals keep in touch and leverage a broad base of relationships. The problem was that nothing in the Chinese market could provide this kind of value. It’s been truly exciting building a base of six million users, and the future looks even better.

3. Do you see yourself as the “LinkedIn of China”?

We feel that the best way for us to succeed in such a unique market is for us to be ourselves. We make great efforts to ensure that our services are specifically tailored to the needs of Chinese professionals.

China is traditionally a connection based society. Everyone knows about the concept of “guanxi,” but it means something totally different in the modern world than it did even 20 years ago. People understand that having three close friends who are well connected, and going to bars and KTV with them is not enough to succeed in modern China. We have worked hard to ensure that Tianji provides our users with a solution for a better way to stay connected in an increasingly complicated and geographically diverse landscape.

4. How does Tianji differentiate itself from similar services?

The value of a professional social networking is the quality of the users and contacts that you can make. We have 6 million registered users, more than any other site in China, and our monthly increase of new users has doubled since the start of the year to 200,000. Our users have access to a broader range of professionals than any other site can offer.

In addition, we target people who already have a few years of working experience. In fact, 90% of our users are age 24-40. We believe that these professionals are best positioned to provide and take value from the site. What I mean by this is that Tianji users are at a stage in their careers where they have something to offer to their peers—adding value—but are also eager to make connections, which draws them to the site—taking value.

The strategy has been highly successful, with 58% of our network reporting that they are management level.


Tianji's homepage

5. What are the obstacles you faced while building a professional social network in China?

It has taken some time for Chinese users to get comfortable with social networking sites that require real identities. When we started in 2005, Chinese users still treated the Internet as a virtual environment and were very hesitant to publish their real names and identities. Only in recent years have users in China begun to get comfortable with the idea of their real identity being on the Internet, which has been largely spurred by the gradual maturation of social networking services.

Professional social networking sites have taken a little longer, but the recent growth has been tremendous. The best analogy is China’s e-commerce sector. In the U.S, Ebay and Amazon were already widely used in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, it is only much more recently that the big sites in China have taken off. However, once people got used to the idea of e-commerce, the sector has been on fire.

While professional SNS is taking hold later than e-commerce, Tianji is now seeing a huge ramp up in new users and we are experiencing hockey-stick growth.

6. How many total registered users and active users are on Tianji now? Are there any non-local users using Tianji?

Tianji has six million registered users, significantly more than any other professional SNS in China. About 15% of the users are active, as defined as logging in at least twice per month.

Part of the value of Tianji is that we really focus on the local market and work to create a product that is particularly appealing and useful to the Chinese professional. This means that we have focused our energy on the Chinese-speaking audience exclusively. We want to make sure that we have a Chinese platform that does what it’s supposed to do, so that’s been our emphasis.

Having said that, we definitely also have Chinese speaking professionals in our network who live and work in other markets.

7. We understand that Tianji is part of the Viadeo Group. How does the partnership work for Tianji? What are the benefits?

It was a great opportunity for us in 2009 when Viadeo Group purchased us. The company has an excellent global track record and is the leading professional SNS company for non-English markets throughout the world. Viadeo has been revenue positive since 2009, which has given Tianji the opportunity to focus on growing our user base and the quality of services. It has been a truly great experience.

8. What is the business model? Is the company profitable?

Tianji is part of the Viadeo Group, a professional SNS, which globally has more than 35 million users. Viadeo Group is the biggest global professional SNS company for non-English markets. You’ve probably seen the Viadeo button in the space for SNS sharing links on the bottom of articles for the Financial Times and other prominent outlets.

Viadeo Group has been profitable since 2009 by tapping into three different avenues of revenue. The first source is subscriptions, which has been highly successful and brings the largest percentage of our revenue. Our two other sources of revenue have been advertising and recruiting, which have also performed quite well.

9. LinkedIn recently went IPO and could be expanding into China. Any thoughts?

It’s great to see that people are finally recognizing the massive potential for China’s professional SNS market. Since we first started operations in 2005, there have been at least 20 professional SNS platforms that have come and gone. We are proud that we have emerged from this early period of fierce competition as China’s market leader.

10. Tianji is the largest professional social networks in China with 6 million users. What steps do you plan to maintain the lead and growth?

tianjiSix million users is a great accomplishment, but that’s really just a baseline for us. We have exciting plans for new ways to allow people to find relevant connections and to grow our user base even faster. We’re seeing 200,000 new users a month now, up by 100% for the beginning of the year, and we only see that acceleration going forward. Tianji will continue to create a better experience for our users, which will help us reach our target of 10 million users by the end of 2011.

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