In Conversation With Shaun Rein

Aside from networking, LinkedIn is a great tool for exploring industries you're interested in developing further in or, entering. Based on you behavior, its analytic system pushes new content to your feed which enables discovery.

Which is how I ended up seeing Shaun Rein's books about China on my updates stream. Turns out Rein is also the Founder and Managing Director of management consultancy China Market Research Group.

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With an impressive track record as an author and entrepreneur, I decided to reach out to see if it would be possible for Rein to share his story. Keep reading for his in his own words account of how his career intuitively happened.

When you picked your education path did you already plan on coming to China? 

In the mid 1990s I spent time teaching at Trinity College of Quezon City in the Philippines. While I was there, I met many political and business elite who told me they were trying to figure out how to deal with China's rise. They were not particularly concerned about Japan's rise which was the country that preoccupied American thinking in the political and business establishment. 

I then went to South Korea to teach at an English language and also found the elite there echoed the opinions of the elite in South Korea. As a result, I decided that I needed to focus on China's culture and understand her people as well as possible. 

I did not know if I would become a professor or a diplomat or a movie star (I was thinking about doing action movies in the Philippines) but I knew that no matter what I did I needed to have on the ground experience in China buttressed by some academic knowledge. 

How did you make the jump from entrepreneur to research at a venture capital & private equity firm? 

I have always considered myself an entrepreneur. Working in a large organization never held much appeal for me. I always wanted to create something that no one else had and to push back against the naysayers and critics. 

I started an event planning company in Montreal, Canada that organized 3000+ person dance parties which did pretty well.  It was definitely a better experience than working at McKinsey or Goldman Sachs as many of my peers did. I also started an English training company in Tianjin, China which failed miserably. 

But failure was a great learning experience as well. 

After starting these two companies, I decided it would be fun to go into venture capital. At Inter-Asia, I was in charge of education and IT investments, as well as ran research and due diligence operations. I think to be a good venture capitalist it is good to have entrepreneurial experience as you can help the entrepreneurs running your portfolio companies expand easier if you have been there and done that. 

I quite enjoyed venture capital but missed working in a more operational role. I had also never really worked in a semi-large company so that that might be worthwhile. I saw WebCT and wanted to invest in it, but they instead asked me to run China, Taiwan and South Korea. I thought it was a great opportunity so decided to leave VC and join them.

In 2005 you founded China Market Research Group, where did this idea come from? What does the firm do?

After we sold WebCT to Blackboard, I was not sure what to do next. I thought about going back into venture capital. I decided instead to open CMR basically to do angel investing. 

China was still a relatively unknown quantity to Western firms at the time, so as soon as I set up the shingle for CMR, big brands started calling me for help to do their China strategies. Apple called. So did Lane Crawford. As a result, I decided to change CMR's focus from investing to strategy consulting (I ultimately spun off the investing part of CMR into a new entity called CMR Capital that takes care of my personal investing).

In other words, I did not set up CMR to become a consultant. Basically the market demanded my services. Companies were looking for more tailor-made, and more insightful strategies that those offered by McKinsey and BCG. They often had bad experiences with the big consulting firms. 

I saw that they had the money to pay and the demand and thus built up CMR this way. It has been a fun 13 years. 

You’ve written three books about China, The War for China's Wallet: Profiting from the New World Order, The End of Cheap China & The End of Copycat China. Could you tell us how you got in to publishing, what was the writing process like and how was the market reception? Any surprises? 

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Like with CMR, I sort of fell into publishing. I did not originally have a plan to do this. I wrote a few comments on blogs and then suddenly BusinessWeek called me and asked if I was interested to write a semi-regular column for them. I did that, and then ultimately for CNBC and Forbes, to get my ideas out and as marketing CMR.

Then one day a big publishing house asked me to write a book. I submitted a proposal 4 days later. They accepted the same day and then gave me a 3 month deadline to write the book - that is what became The End of Cheap China.

I found that writing a book is an incredibly solitary exercise - you write something in 3 months that people still review and think about years or decades later. That puts a lot of pressure to be clear and cogent. 

I love writing books. Because all the books have been successful I get engaged to give speeches around the world. That to me is amazing. I have spoken in South Africa, France, New Zealand, Canada, all over the place which has been great to meet people and see new cultures. I am very lucky. 

For a reception standpoint, typically the business community and those who know China pretty well have been supportive of my work, except for Silicon Valley who crucified me for my book The End of Copycat China where I predicted China would become an innovation nation. Well, now it is pretty clear my predictions were spot on and that China is 2-3 years ahead of Silicon Valley in terms of innovation.

I always feel like I am in the tech Dark Ages when I leave China to visit the US or Europe. 

For professionals who are aspiring to be an industry expert or enter the field of management consulting that you currently are part of, what advice or lessons learned can you offer?

The best advice I can give it to start your consulting career in a generalist role, don't specialize too early in your career. It is only after you have worked for a few years that you really start to understand what you are passionate about.

It is also critical to get a good mentor so make sure you know the training you would get in a consulting firm, typically bigger ones are better than smaller ones (except for CMR which I think has the best training in the industry). Make sure your boss is a good person who is interested in training you for the long-term.