When should you reply to an email from China? Now!4th Mar '16
Bonzun is an e-health app for pregnant women. Founder Bonnie Roupé tells Sophy Buckley how it came about and why urgency is everything when launching in China
Company: Bonzun Trading in: China Sector: e-healthcare
When Bonnie Roupé was pregnant, she had some worrying symptoms. “I Googled them, but nothing came up so I did nothing. Then when I went for my check-up the midwife took one look and sent me straight to hospital,” says the Swedish founder of Bonzun, the e-health app for pregnant women that she launched in China last year.
Roupé was suffering from pre-eclampsia – when pregnant women have high blood pressure and high levels of protein in their urine – which can be fatal to mother and baby. Her experience revealed the stark limitations of Google searches – without the right search terms you don’t get what you are looking for. This gave her an idea, and so Bonzun was born.
“Our app condenses the Swedish healthcare system for pregnancy. It takes seven years to train a midwife and we have all that in an algorithm on our app, all in accessible terms,” she says. “It’s like we’re exporting our healthcare system.”
“I targeted a group of Chinese experts to make sure that my idea translated... I had to be very humble”
The Bonzun app has been downloaded more than 800,000 times in China since its launch just over a year ago in February 2015 – which amounts to about five per cent of pregnant women.
“I picked China because it has a high birthrate, high internet access rates, and one language is spoken across the whole country. All that plays well to a digital product,” she says.
The company, which has headquarters in Stockholm, a base in Shanghai and programmers in Nepal, was founded in 2012, but it took three years to find the right product and launch the app. At first Roupé was thinking about a website, but Chinese internet searches mostly bring up paid-for adverts, which undermined her business model.
“China is very different from the rest of the world and having an internet business is a zero-sum game. The first 10 pages of a Chinese search result are paid-for listings so you’re paying for ads to sell ads. Also, everyone was moving to mobile devices, so it felt we were becoming obsolete,” she says.
Roupé had never worked in China, so she spent a long time researching and visiting the country, holding focus groups, building up relationships and forging partnerships.
“You need help to navigate officialdom, penetrate the market and find out how it all works. I targeted a group of Chinese experts to make sure that my idea translated and was practicable,” she says, adding that it was important to realise that as a Westerner she knew little. “I had to be very humble.”
She took advantage of knowing a Swedish academic who had worked on a Unicef project in China in the 1980s. This contact introduced her to Chinese academics, who in turn introduced her to more.
“I think our contact with the Chinese hospitals and authorities has been possible thanks to our network. Otherwise it would have been impossible for a foreign company to get so deep into the Chinese healthcare system,” she says.
Local government in Beijing and Shanghai helped to set up a partnership with the obstetrics department at a Beijing hospital. She also won a prize from Shanghai for being the best social business launch, and is hoping for official endorsement from the city, which would bring further recognition.
Time spent on research has helped her to understand how Chinese business operates.
“You need a local team that can react quickly,” she says. “Things happen very quickly in Asia and if you rely on a European team to process everything it will slow you down and you will miss out. For example, if an email arrives late on a Friday afternoon in Sweden you might leave it until Monday. That’s not okay in China.”
Bonzun has also used its successful partnerships, nominations and awards to get plenty of press coverage, helping to raise awareness.
Revenues are currently “tiny”, but Roupé plans to forge relationships with partners such as doctors and insurance companies that go beyond selling them advertising.
“We aim to take a cut of any business we drive their way,” she explains. She is expecting growth to accelerate, predicting that 20 per cent of her market will be downloading her app by the end of the year. Roupé now feels confident enough in Bonzun’s Chinese base to have moved back to Sweden after four years in Shanghai. However, she still visits once a month, taking her own advice about maintaining strong local links.