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A serial entrepreneur with a focus on e-commerce

John Skalin’s company Sino E-tail is offering e-commerce and logistics services to foreign companies that want to enter the mainland China market.

TEXT: Fredrik Agmén, SwedCham Hong Kong
18 OCTOBER, 2019

For Swedish retail companies, the prospect of getting access to over 900 million potential customers is a thrilling one. The Chinese e-commerce market is a powerhouse in its own right, providing brands with the potential to earn huge revenues overnight. However, the barriers to entry are high, both in terms of the necessary paperwork and understanding the average Chinese consumer. This is where John Skalin and his company Sino E-tail enters the picture.

Skalin is a serial entrepreneur who, since graduating from school, has been self-employed and is constantly on the lookout for new challenges and ventures. Starting at the age of 18, Skalin’s first company offered marketing material and photography to real estate agents in Sweden. When he subsequently exited the company a few years later, 11 per cent of all private real estate that exchanged hands that year had at least one marketing item supplied by his company.

He moved on and founded Sweden’s first fashion brand centred around an influencer, “Style by Tyra” in 2009. It was a move that was ahead of the curve, predating even Instagram.

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One year in China is almost like 10 years in the West, says John Skalin.

Finally, some years later, he moved to Hong Kong to start an e-commerce packaging business and has stayed in South China ever since. He is constantly on the lookout for improvements to his business and working towards becoming the obvious choice for a brand looking for a commercial partner to expand into China with.

In 2015, when Skalin was living in Shenzhen, he founded Sino E-tail. The company offers guidance and support within two distinct areas. Coordinating logistics with a focus on business-to-consumer (B2C) orders, both within China and worldwide, is one of them. The other is e-commerce agency services for Western companies that wish to enter the Chinese e-commerce market and require support and extensive market knowledge from start to finish.

Until recently the company was based in Shenzhen but due to rising prices the headquarters relocated to Zhongshan on the other side of the Pearl River Delta. Zhongshan is like Shenzhen 10 years ago, with skyrocketing production of goods and new buildings springing up. The city also has the full support of the Chinese government and in 2017 it was upgraded from a tier-4 to a tier-2 city.

Skalin currently employs over 20 people at the Zhongshan, Hong Kong and Japan offices, ranging from logistics specialists to photographers, copywriters, web designers and online marketing experts who help Western companies with localisation of their product listings, tailored for Chinese e-commerce websites.

“While Western companies are used to having maybe four or five pictures of their products, the Chinese e-commerce market is much more demanding, sometimes needing up to 30 pictures of a product showing all design details and usage examples,” says Skalin.

I find it much more exciting to represent a brand I really believe can make an impact on the Chinese market rather than accommodating everyone that contacts us.”

But times are changing. “One year in China is almost like 10 years in the West,” he says. Specific fashion trends arrive and depart almost overnight and Chinese e-consumers are becoming adventurous in their choice of channels. They are venturing from the giant websites such as Tmall, Taobao and JD to new challengers such as the start-up Pinduoduo, which is now the second largest e-commerce site by number of users.

Sino E-tail has the luxury of being able to choose customers from a constant stream of inquiries. Skalin’s philosophy is quality over quantity. Instead of growing Sino E-tail by cooperating with more companies, he prefers to grow with the companies and their operations in mainland China.

“I find it much more exciting to represent a brand I really believe can make an impact on the Chinese market rather than accommodating everyone that contacts us,” he says.

If he were to give one word of advice to people who want to do business in China, Skalin underscores the importance of learning to speak Chinese. “Learning Chinese is going to be a super power for the coming 50 years, that is for sure,” he says.

But, he adds, longer term, simply knowing the language is not enough; you also have to live in China and interact with people and the place to understand the various customs and traditions to be successful in your endeavours.

Skalin is motivated by what he calls “making good business” and a belief that the journey is as valuable as the destination. He should know. His life has been a journey and now he is in the middle of yet another one.

John Skalin in brief

Age: 35
Hometown: Täby, Sweden. Now living in Hong Kong.
Education: Upper secondary school in Sweden, self-taught.
Hidden pearl in the Greater Bay Area: “Zhongshan is awesome and growing like crazy with a good environment and many opportunities for business. There is a lot of green areas, mostly blue skies and not that much pollution.”
Recommended book: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. “An ode to capitalism. The book is about how people with grit and those who take responsibility are the driving force of society.”