One Billion Customers – Book and Idea review

The wet dream of every retailer – a single market with one billion craving customers – is shredded to pieces by McGregor in his witty account of his own adventures during twenty years as journalist and business leader in China. The concept of a “market” as it is traditionally used implies that it is easy to move goods around at a low cost and that the customers are a somewhat homogeneous group. China is more like a continent with vast cultural, legal and physical differences which makes the unity of the market an illusion – a fata morgana luring at the horizon with uncountable riches.

McGregor experienced from the frontier the intense power struggle between government agencies, the party, market actors and local chiefs. All scrambling to get ahead and to increase their influence. His accounts of his own experiences are the most hilarious and warmhearted parts of the book. However, the many likely hiccups are not explored in great detail. I think it is a difficult dilemma while writing a book like this. On the one hand, including personal weaknesses and failures makes the book more interesting. On the other hand, the author wants to look like a leading expert and resourceful adviser – the book serves as advertisement for his own consultancy services. We all want to believe that the advisers we hire are fault-free and perfect, after all the fees are substantial…

I wonder what I would choose to present in an account of my own adventures near and far? Would I dare to include the intimate shameful moments of my own weaknesses? The mistakes and fiasco’s? Wasted money and time and naivety? I am not so sure. Probably I would pretend that everything was well planned and went smoothly.

One million Chinese visitors at the World Expo in Shanghai the same day as we went.

McGregor weaves into the story the larger sweeps of modern China and a handful of illustrious examples of winners and losers in the wild-east era of the last decades. The story behind famous (in China) brands like Wahaha and Unicom gives a wonderful account how government relations can help and hinder but that the market pull is the real force today. It also shows that the organizational maturity of most companies today are in a similar position as the companies in the west were fifty years ago – completey dependent on the founder/leader. It is a lean and fast way of running a company, but with a single-point-of-failure, it is not robust. It is the startup-model.

An inspiring book and I am excited to experience first hand collisions with bureaucracy and government activities in Shanghai!

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