What can you do for me tomorrow?

American dealmakers pressure a counterparty by asking, “What have you done for me lately?”   Chinese dealmakers say, “What can you do for me tomorrow?

Chinese and American negotiators have differing views towards opportunity and sunk costs. Americans spend time, money and energy vetting deals and counterparties at the start of a negotiation, so once they decide on an investment they stay committed for as long as it makes economic sense. Abandoning one deal to search for another usually involves a significant loss – particularly when they are far from home. Chinese negotiators, however, spend the early phase of a deal focusing on relationship-building and learning about technology and business models. Until recently, they have invested relatively little in the way of cash – often putting up non-cash assets like production capacity, land, staff, and non-tangibles like distribution channels, connections and know-how. If they pull out of an agreement the opportunity costs are generally a lot lower – and if they have learned your business or acquired your IP in the early stages, may even be negative. (Think of negative opportunity cost as an incentive to move on to the next deal.)

A Chinese negotiator, therefore, has a greater range of motion than his American or European counterparty. This is one of the ways that Chinese negotiators shift the balance of power very effectively midway through a negotiation. Your assets are sunk and losing value – theirs assets are fluid and growing (now that you’ve taught them a business).

What does it take to hold on to a Chinese partner?
When structuring deals in China, if you want to hold on to your partner make sure there is a rising payout – and that he can make more working with you than working against you. If you can’t offer those terms, you have to seriously reconsider whether you want an equity or strategic partnership with a mainland Chinese counterparty.

Often the question is a simple one – would you rather own a minority stake in a money machine or a controlling interest in a broken down jalopy?

Do it the Disney Way
When Disney did their Shanghai deal, they didn’t play cat and mouse with the Chinese authorities.  Walt Disney Co. handed over about 57% of their cheese to a couple of SOEs representing the Shanghai government.  Sounds like the mouse got trapped — but you can bet that no one will be selling Disney knock-offs outside the Shanghai subway stations. This is a self-reinforcing deal, because the Chinese partner feels like the brand is working for them. Disney’s apparent weakness – its minority stake – is actually a strength. Shanghai now has something to lose if the partnership goes bad.

The key consideration is that Disney has a unique and highly recognizable brand that their key Chinese market is already clamoring for. If you don’t have that, then you’ll have to make do with money, technology or other assets. Your Chinese partners don’t just want a lot – they don’t just want a growing return. They want more than YOU are getting. For the Chinese side, sometimes one of the deal variables is out-dealing the foreigner – so plan accordingly.

But I Don’t Want To Give Up Control
If you’ve looked at all the angles and majority control is still your one and only choice, then plan accordingly and prepare for the tough times. That doesn’t mean you should act tough – just the opposite. You have to look patient, while keeping your options open and protecting yourself against an army of counterparties who feel that they have nothing to lose by trying to swipe your technology, business model, key people and markets. Here are a few of other things you have to do:

  • No exclusivity talk. The Chinese will ask for it, and some Americans think they are being clever by playing coy and dangling exclusivity in front of their counterparty’s face like a carrot on a stick. Bad move. You are guaranteeing that you and your non-partner will have a damaging conflict. He may not win, but you’ll certainly lose.
  • No partners. If you want to play the lone wolf, then be the lone wolf. Assuming that a Chinese partner will be satisfied with a perpetual subordinate role only works if you are A) over-paying, B) working with a stupid partner, or C) all of the above. Build nice, cordial relationships but be clear that you are paying for transactions – not offering an equity stake. If the Chinese side indicates that this isn’t what they are looking for, then for God’s sake, pay attention and move on! Don’t twist their arm into learning your business model and technology when you know they will eventually be dissatisfied.
  • Have multiple counterparties for key functions and service chains. It’s not efficient, but you don’t go it completely alone in China for efficiency. Always be ready to move on to your next best option. This means that you have to build in plans and budgets for continually expanding your range of connections – and you can’t rely on the network of the people you may be leaving behind. When Partner A helps you hire internal staff and find your service-providers and suppliers, you have a problem dropping him in favor of Partner B – because the first guy now has conduits into your business.
  • Safeguard your IP. If it’s any good, someone will make a play for it. Protect everything (with your own lawyers – not a partner’s) and only bring in what you can afford to lose. Even if you register and copyright everything, they will still copy and backwards engineer whatever they want to use. It won’t prevent you from using it in China, but you will be competing with your own designs.
  • You have more to lose than money or technology. Apple is finding itself tied to some very unsavory labor practices, and it can’t disengage even if wants to. It’s brand image is going to be battered, but it has no choice but to stay involved with partners that make it look as evil as any other sweatshop operating, worker-killing, child labor exploiting factory boss.
  • Be ready to walk away when the time comes. For some westerners, this is the hardest part. If you can’t do it, though, then you will never maintain full control over your own business.

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