Marine Ma is not yet 30, but he's already on his third company.
Currently, he's the CEO of EFriendsNet, a social-networking company that also functions as a dating service. EFriends claims to be the market leader in China for Internet dating, in both membership numbers and revenue.
Marine and I first met in late November of 2005 at the Asian Ventures conference organized by Dow Jones, where we were both making presentations.
Recently, I sat down with Marine to talk about the ins and outs of starting an Internet company in China, the future of Internet dating, and the various issues surrounding censorship.
Q: The last time I talked with you, you told me about Fanso, the first company you started.
Marine: That was from...1999 to 2001, founded by me and some alumni from Tsinghua University. We focused on providing information such as news, (and) music downloads to the students in universities in China.
It was the first company in China that was run by students that was given permission to operate by the Chinese government, right?
Marine: Yeah. In the past if a student wanted to do some business in the university, it was...illegal. At that time the Education Ministry wanted to change something. They (had heard about) Microsoft in America (and how) Bill Gates quit his course while in university to start the company. So, we were lucky enough to get the chance.
What kind of music downloads did Fanso support?
Marine: It was all free music--illegal--but at that time no one cared. The Internet industry was not mature, so no one came to us saying, "Hey, your music is illegal." I think the basic reason is we did not charge the users.
So what was the downfall of Fanso? What was the problem?
Marine: In 2000 and 2001, the bubble of the Internet burst, and no more VCs came to China--there was no more money; we'd run out. But I think another reason was more fatal: That is, we had never done business before, so we did not know how to do business.
How much money did you raise?
Marine: Six million renminbi (about $750,000). It's not big bucks, but it's big bucks for students.
How many partners did you have?
Marine: We had five. We used to have nearly 80 employees within Fanso, but we didn't generate any revenue, and the worst thing is that we didn't think generating revenue was necessary.
How did you get along with the other founders?
Marine: I think every time people start up a company--at the very beginning everyone is a good guy, an angel, but when you are facing pressure, facing difficulties, problems will appear. We had a chance to sell the company for 10 million renminbi (about $1.5 million). We set up a board meeting to discuss it. After a long meeting--six hours or more--we discussed and we quarreled, and finally we decided to refuse it.
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