The following is an article that was on the back cover of the Irish Times Business News Section, Friday December 23rd 2011. It was interviewed and written by Joanne Hunt. To view the full article on the Irish times website, click here.

Shane O’Neill – Co-founder, Enter the Panda, Beijing

As seen in the Irish Times

“I WAS so sure I’d be back, I didn’t even visit the Great Wall,” says entrepreneur Shane O’Neill of his first visit to China in 2006.

Now a Beijing resident for more than five years and co-founder of Enter the Panda, a company that assists Irish and British SMEs doing business in China, the Dubliner says it was the country’s sense of scale and possibility that drew him in.

“I arrived in Beijing before the Olympics and there was massive development and great hype in the city. It reminded me of Ireland at the start of the boom, but on a much bigger scale,” he recalls.

“I just fell in love with the city and the idea of working here, so I came over and started studying Mandarin.”

Training in film in Ballyfermot College of Further Education, followed by a Fás course in new media and design, had led O’Neill to set up as a freelance web designer and strategist in Dublin. While business was good, he felt the work had become repetitive and so, aged 25, decided to take on a new challenge. Moving to China and learning Mandarin was just that.

“You have to completely rewire your brain when you are trying to learn the characters, it was tough. My reading and writing isn’t perfect now but I can certainly speak it very well,” he says.

Working at first on web design for a recruitment company while there, it was a meeting with Dave White, a young British entrepreneur also fluent in Mandarin, that led to the formation of their company Enter the Panda.

Light Reading

A bit of light reading (upside-down?)

“We got into a discussion about how hard it is for young companies and SMEs to get a foothold in China,” O’Neill says. “We saw a potential niche for us to support Irish and British companies to develop their products and deal with factories here.”Four years on and the pair have clients in Britain, Ireland and Latin America. O’Neill says having someone on the ground in the country can be critical to getting things done.

“A large part of doing business here, particularly dealing with product development and factories, is managing relationships with factory foremen – there are huge cultural differences and if you are not here applying selective pressure, shaking their hands and sometimes going for a drink with them, you can’t expect to stay top of their priority list. That’s where we come in.”

O’Neill says his days can range from auditing factories to overseeing the quality control of products to checking orders before they are shipped.

In terms of the business philosophy in his adoptive country, he says “you can get an awful lot done in a short space of time, you can basically work around the clock”.

An obstacle, however, is what he sees as short-term thinking.

“Very often, suppliers or factories would rather take a euro today instead of €10 tomorrow. They won’t see that you are bringing in business that might grow.”

Setting up his own business in an environment of ever-changing government regulations is something he describes as “a six-month-long game of poker”.

“There’s no systematic support for SMEs trying to launch a business here as there would be back home,” O’Neill says. “You have to be here for the long haul . . . most of the bureaucracy or visa issues you might come across in China are in place to weed out the weak to certain degree.”

While he misses the fresh air at home – “the pollution does get quite bad here” – he says the country affords him a nice standard of living.

“I love the culture and the food and I do generally find the country fascinating. I’m still finding out new things about culture and the people all the time and in that sense, it’s very exciting.”And with western economies in the doldrums, does he feel lucky to be away from the tumult at home?

“It does sometimes feel like we are in a safer place here,” he says. “But China and Europe are so intertwined and have been for so long that it’s not in China’s interest to see the West crumble. It’s in their interest to see trade between China and the West continue.”

Of his company’s name, Enter the Panda, he says it gets a laugh from most people.

“There’s all this iconic imagery, some good and some not so good about China. The panda represents a much softer side of Chinese culture and we wanted to make it not so scary or difficult to do business here. If people have a bit of a chuckle and remember the name, it’s no harm.”

For Irish small companies struggling to bring their costs down, he believes China presents an opportunity.

For young emigrants thinking of following in his footsteps, he advises that Mandarin lessons will go a long way.

“China is certainly a place of opportunity if you have the guts to go and try and do something for yourself.”

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