“Strive for our dreams, live a wonderful life and be ourselves……I’m Leo Chen. I’d like to represent myself.”
That was how Chen Ou concluded a TV ad in 2012. The minute-and-a-half monologue turned out to be a marketing miracle. What seemed to be self-promotion helped to turn his firm into China’s leading online seller of beauty products, including brands like Calvin Klein, Estee Lauder and Elizabeth Arden. It also led to Chen becoming one of China’s youngest billionaires.
Born in Sichuan in 1983, Chen got a scholarship aged 16 to study computer engineering in Singapore. Before graduation in 2005 he co-founded internet game firm Garena. In 2009 – aged just 26 – he then became the youngest Stanford MBA graduate from China.
Afterwards Chen and two classmates started another venture, Reemake, that ran ad spots in online games. But it struggled to make money and Chen switched tack, restructuring it into a group-purchasing website for cosmetics. It subsequently became Jumei in 2010, growing into more of a B2C platform for cosmetics and concentrating on better-known brands.
Jumei battled with more established rivals such as Vipshop and Chen began appearing on reality TV shows about young entrepreneurs to win attention. He also networked furiously, persuading Xiaomi’s charismatic chairman Lei Jun to become one of his mentors.
Chen’s efforts helped raise his profile and venture capital firm Sequoia Capital made a $9.5 million investment. Then came the highly successful “I am Chen Ou” campaign in 2012. In a month Chen’s weibo following climbed 50% to 1.5 million fans, while Jumei’s online traffic more than tripled. Chen said later that the 99-second ad was worth hundreds of millions in advertising spending. But he also says he is aware of the dangers of being high-profile. “In China, we have a saying abou ‘shooting the bird that takes the lead.’ Personal branding can promote a company as well as ruin it. Nowadays my words, appearances and even my private life may affect the reputation of my company,” he warns.
Jumei went public on the New York Stock Exchange this month, raising $250 million. Its market capitalisation reached $4 billion at one point, giving Chen a net worth of $1.4 billion. Detractors were soon claiming that he owed his success to his family connections. But he hit back on his weibo. “Since I was a kid I would be beaten up by my father if I didn’t come first in exams,” he claimed. “I jumped a grade in high school because I came first among all primary school kids in my city. And I didn’t use a penny from my family as I got a full scholarship to study abroad. My father doesn’t know a thing about the internet but I wouldn’t be myself today without him. My character is the biggest fortune he has given me.”
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