The 'Marxist Old Lady' founder of Mama Meng's Living House
- 22 December 2011
- From the section Business
The strong economic growth that China has experienced over the past few decades has been accompanied by the creation of a multitude of new enterprises.
But entrepreneurship in the world's second largest economy is not just a game for the young. Meng Fang Ning is in her 60s and owns and runs a successful online business selling snacks and other products to customers all over China.
Ms Meng worked in the human resources department of a state-owned enterprise for many years. She retired in 2005, but then became ill with cancer.
Whilst recovering from treatment for the disease, she came to live with her daughter's family in Beijing and occupied herself with looking after her granddaughter. But when the little girl was old enough to start attending kindergarten, Ms Meng found herself at a loose end.
She became intrigued by the computer games her granddaughter was playing and decided to try playing some herself. She quickly became hooked. But Ms Meng's daughter, Meng Yingqi, recalls that her mother wasn't a very good player.
"She became a bit cranky because she kept losing. Sometimes she would stay up till 2 or 3am, just trying to win back the points she had lost," she says.
So Meng Yingqi and her husband decided to encourage her mother to take up a more productive computer-based activity - such as launching an online business.
Communism versus capitalism
The only problem was that Ms Meng was very proud of her membership of the Communist Party, an organisation she'd belonged to for many years.
She says that when her daughter first approached her with the idea of starting a company, she told her: "Your mum has never done anything remotely related to business ever in her life, you are asking me to set up an internet store - you must be kidding!"
"I grew up in a planned economy, where society taught us that 'the good things in life should not be enjoyed just for oneself, but must be shared with others'," she adds.
"But when do you business, then you are taking money from other peoples' pockets and putting it into your own - so the psychological change that I had to go through was pretty tough."
Nevertheless, Meng Yingqi continued to push the idea of founding an online company, telling her mother it would be a good way to keep active, make new friends, and speed up her recovery from illness.
Ms Meng eventually decided to give the plan a try, and settled upon the idea of selling snacks and health food products online. She remembers the excitement of making her first sale.
"The deal was only for a few dozen yuan, but after I had finalised the sale, the satisfaction was overwhelming. I was so happy - it was so much more interesting than playing games. So I thought I should carry on doing it," she says.
At first she only sold a small number of items but today the range has expanded to include more than 200 products, including things such as dried dates, Lingzhi mushrooms, and dried hawthorn slices.
Ms Meng managed to not only find a way to reconcile her values with the realities of running a business - she found a way to celebrate her personal beliefs as well.
She says she tries to follow the teachings of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who spoke of crossing the river by touching the stones. "When the old lady opens an online store, she goes forward by touching the stones too," she says.
Ms Meng chose the screen name of 'Marxist Old Lady', which she says makes clear to customers and business partners what her values are, one of the most important being honesty.
The honesty policy
It's not all been plain sailing. Ms Meng says she tries to maintain a high standard of customer service, but things don't always work out the way she would like.
Her store is hosted by the huge Chinese e-commerce site Taobao, which operates a feedback and reputation system for both buyers and sellers. She remembers how one customer in a remote part of the country gave her a bad feedback rating of eight black flowers, because of a delivery delay.
At first, she says, she was angry, because she had worked hard on the order, trying to find a local delivery company who would promise to ensure the goods arrived on time. But she adds, "when I calmed down, I thought, if I was the buyer, and I needed to wait for so long for the products, I would be angry too".
She wrote at length to the customer, apologising and explaining the steps she had taken in trying to get the delivery to him, and giving him a good feedback score. To her surprise the customer wrote back saying that now that he understood the situation, he would change his feedback for her from negative to positive.
Ms Meng says she had a lot of encouraging comments about this from other customers, because it can often be difficult to get negative feedback reversed.
'You have to work hard'
Ms Meng says she is often asked for advice on how to set-up an online shop.
She says that many retailers forget the simple fact that whilst "everyone is a buyer, only a small amount of people are sellers". If you want to succeed, it's vital to keep in mind your customer's point of view.
She adds that one should also not be daunted by the effort involved.
"Whenever you want to get something done, you have to work hard for it… Cakes won't drop from the sky... Success might not be with you for your whole life, but obstacles and hindrances definitely will be."
"Only when you have overcome all the obstacles will you be able to enjoy prosperity and success in the end."