Internet & Tech

Studying online

A new course in Yiwu teaches how to be an internet tycoon

Studying online

Follow my lead: the Yiwu students worship entrepreneur Jack Ma

Yiwu has been described as the biggest city you’ve never heard of. Others talks of it as the starting point on the modern day Silk Road. And it’s certainly a major hub for China’s modern day exports: half a million products find their way to 212 countries from its convention and exhibition halls, with thousands of overseas buyers travelling to the city to source goods for their home markets (see WiC9).

Part of Yiwu’s appeal is its energy – it’s a place that is always looking for new ideas on how to make a quick buck. So perhaps it’s appropriate that students at the Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College are learning how to become China’s next internet tycoon.

More than half of the school’s 8,800 students now major in Taobao entrepreneurship, a course teaching students how to operate a profitable online store on Taobao, China’s largest consumer site.

School officials say the students are already generating at least Rmb25 million in online revenues every year.

The rationale for most of those studying in Yiwu? Source goods from the hundreds of thousands available on their doorstep, and then sell them nationally, through Taobao’s online shop window.

Take Li Xinmiao, who is something of a campus hero. Operating from his own warehouse not far from the school, the third-year college student has been ringing up at least Rmb20,000 in sales a day – one of the best performances in the entire student body.

“The only thing I think about is how to make money,” Li told The Bund, a magazine. In his downtime, he says he rides his bicycle around the city to find cheap bargains to sell at his online store.

His first success came from selling the vuvuzela, the massively annoying horn that became popular during the soccer World Cup in South Africa. While others watched the tournament, Li was pulling all-nighters in his dorm room to fill his order book. Since then his business empire has extended into stuffed toys and undergarments.

Like most students in school, Li sells products sourced from the local marketplace. It helps that Yiwu is the world’s largest wholesale market for small consumer goods, and a major distribution centre for everything from Christmas ornaments to cosmetics.

Grades in this particular class don’t seem to depend on participation or exam results. Instead they focus on how much students make at their online stores. To get the highest marks in the past, students had to make at least Rmb8,000 a month, although as competition on Taobao grows more intense the school has lowered the threshold to Rmb5,000. By graduation, the school says every student is expected to have reached Rmb120,000 in annual sales. In many ways the school is a case study for the entire Taobao supply chain: around campus students are taking orders, packaging products, and sorting through inventory. Posters in dorm rooms (which often double as storehouses) display words of wisdom from Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group, which also owns Taobao.

Rather than award academic scholarships to promising students, the school offers Rmb100,000 as seed money to its best performers to jumpstart their businesses. Li and his fellow students speak with admiration of school graduate and previous winner, Shi Haojie, who now owns six companies, and made more than Rmb10 million last year.

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