Rui Ma is an early-stage investor in technology companies with the global accelerator program and seed fund 500 Startups. Residing in Beijing, she is an active member of China’s bitcoin community.
The second time I met with Star (Mingxing) Xu, it was at the same office building in the Shangdi district of Beijing, not too far away from where rival Huobi’s headquarters are located.
However, this time he had moved to a different floor, having outgrown his smaller quarters. Everything looked like it had been moved in a hurry, including the doorplate, which still read the name of the prior tenant, and everything, Star told me first thing as he struggled to find me a seat in his conference room doubling as an office for four, was about to be moved again.
At 60 employees, he needed more space, as evidenced by the staff members sitting elbow-to-elbow everywhere I could see, and he was going to move to yet another unit in the same building.
It was a bit of a déjà vu moment for me as I’d had the exact same conversation with Leon Li of Huobi exactly two weeks earlier, almost to the hour.
It turns out that the two companies also have similar visions for expansion, except that Star might be on a slightly more accelerated timeline. His team, he claims, has already finished a bitcoin wallet product, ready with a merchant-facing API, and that it will officially be launched sometime next quarter.
Star was very emphatic about this, seemingly because he knew that Huobi’s Li had already publicly discussed his plans for international expansion to be happening in the second half of the year and not any earlier.
Through Star’s group of investors and friends, he already has convinced a handful to link up their services to the to-be-launched wallet, and is confident that he will be processing a significant amount of transactions very shortly after going live.
When I asked him which geographic markets he would target first, he said that they were going to go after all the countries outside of China with equal fervour, and that thanks to the funding raised, he has a whole team of lawyers advising him as to the regulatory concerns of each jurisdiction.
On the subject of funding raised, he had some interesting commentary to provide. OKCoin recently announced that it had raised $10m in a Series A led by Ceyuan Ventures, a fund led by Bo Feng, a famous venture capitalist. Apparently Bo is personally a great fan of bitcoin, and has been investing in the asset for a while.
“He gave me a verbal offer after just a ten-minute meeting. When I told him I didn’t need this much money, he told me that I should plan for the long-term, and that bitcoin is a decade-long endeavour. I must say I got very lucky he is such a big supporter.”
Star had met Bo in other occasions, but they hadn’t done any official business until now, and those prior interactions helped to build trust.
When I asked him to speculate which venture capital firm might be behind the rumoured $10m in funding that rival Huobi has supposedly raised but not publicly announced, he threw out the name of a famous fund.
“They gave me an offer as well, but since I already had a term sheet from Ceyuan, I asked them to match it. Unfortunately, their price was lower, and so I’m pretty sure that fund went with Leon. Good choice.”
Speaking of the competition, Star had a lot of good things to say. Whereas the air was palpably tense the last time I saw him and Bobby Lee of BTC China in the same room as part of an event I co-organized, apparently they are all on friendly terms now.
“We try to get dinner when everyone’s in town and Bobby is really nice to me now.”
As I learned later from Mr Jin, who produces and broadcasts a regular online video program that showcases bitcoin news and companies in China, it was supposedly Mark (Gang) Mai of VenturesLab, an angel investor in OKCoin, who got the heads of the exchanges (Huobi, OKCoin and BTC China) to get together on a somewhat regular basis and discuss the state of the market.
One of the first meetings, according to both Jin and Star, was to discuss the zero-transaction-fee model.
Star originally wanted to reinstate fees, but Leon of Huobi was adamant that his platform would be forever transaction fee-free, and so the situation has continued to today, where all the major exchanges do not charge transaction fees and BTC China in particular has wildly fluctuated its stance – much to the chagrin of Jin, who is tired of reporting on the subject.
For Star however, all that is water under the bridge.
While he agrees with his investor Mark that zero-fees is probably most hurtful for the small-time individual investor who does not have the ability to execute complicated bot trades, there isn’t much he can do to reverse what has already been accepted by the market as the norm.
“Leon has made his stance amply clear, and I am not going to go against it, because that would make our exchange uncompetitive. We will, instead, just have to find other ways to make money, such as through wallets, payments, and other value-added services.”
For example, the peer-to-peer lending product they have launched “makes money, and definitely helps defray our operational costs.”
Volume has not been the focus of OKCoin for a while, he says, because zero-fees distorts it by a “large multiplier, maybe 5 times, maybe 10”. When I asked what other KPIs might be, however, he wasn’t specific, and brought the conversation back to his grand expansion plans.
Talent and customer support
So here are Star’s thoughts on the core competitive advantages of OKCoin in the international market:
First of all, he believes that he has put together a stellar team that moves faster than anyone he has worked with before. Secondly, he believes that the level of customer service OKCoin provides is unlikely to be rivalled by anything in the West.
He said: “We have twenty customer service representatives in total working in three shifts of eight hours each, available 24/7. We resolve things in a matter of minutes or hours, with live, knowledgeable support.”
“It’s a totally different standard from what is offered in the West because of the lower labour costs here and how picky the customers tend to be.”
For English speakers, he plans to operate a call centre as well, but perhaps in the Philippines as well as China.
Thirdly, Star believes that OKCoin’s Chinese roots will help, not hinder him. For one, he thinks the customer base might be helpful. “There are those who think over half of all the bitcoins currently available are being held by Chinese, whether locally or overseas,” he said.
For another, there are a ton of cross-border opportunities that he feels would be more visible or accessible to a Chinese company than others. He gave me some examples but asked me to not disclose it in this article.
While this interview took place just prior to what is now being billed as the 3/21 panic caused by a false rumour that China was going to ban bitcoin, Star proactively acknowledged that the regulatory future is unclear, but that bitcoin still remains so niche that concrete policies may be a long time in coming.
This uncertainty is probably, I’m guessing, another reason why he’s so keen to expand internationally, though he left this unsaid.
OKCoin is actively hiring for an overseas team, and would not be opposed to acqui-hiring a small team whose skills complement those of the core Chinese team – you should feel free to get in touch if you are so inclined.
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