Much of China’s economic development in the past decade or so can be attributed to the remarkable growth of its digital economy, in which the e-commerce sector plays a significant role. In 2021, the digital economy’s contribution to China’s GDP was nearly 40%, and the country’s online goods retail sales stood at over a quarter, far above the global average of 18.8%.
Small businesses, with their ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit, are instrumental in shaping the contours of the e-commerce industry in China. In particular, it is young and diverse entrepreneurs that are front and center on the stage. In 2022, almost half of all merchants on Taobao, China’s largest e-commerce platform, are young people born in or after 1990.
Against such a backdrop, “Taobao Maker Festival” – held annually since 2016 – offers a venue for young merchants to showcase their potentials. By identifying consumption trends and championing small businesses on the platform, the Taobao Maker Festival could have a significant impact on the retail industry and the economy at large. It shows how China’s young entrepreneurs are tapping into the rising demand for personalized, creative, and quality products among Chinese consumers, especially the younger generations who are more willing to explore diverse lifestyles, which also indicates a huge potential market ahead.
Uncovering Infinite Lifestyle Possibilities
Revolving around the theme of “Uncovering Infinite Lifestyle Possibilities on Taobao”, this year’s Taobao Maker Festival is set to be the largest ever in terms of the number of participating cities and audience reach, with 10 cities hosting distinctive exhibitions presented by the platform’s most creative merchants, all free to the public.
In Hangzhou, China’s e-commerce hub where Taobao is headquartered, the event brings together artisans, designers, and their most daring creations, showcasing the intriguing sub-theme, “Wonder”. Participants can savor the taste of their life stories in personalized edible cold brew ink, bask in the intricate beauty of handcrafted wooden fish lanterns, and soothe the soul with captivating candle art creations designed to relax and unwind. For Taobao Makers, nothing is impossible as long as you are bold enough to imagine.
Connecting Like-minded Individuals
As a passionate chemist, Yu Haoyuan started researching and making colored ink in high school. In 2015, 18-year-old Yu made his first fortune-600 yuan-by selling self-made colored ink in college.
However, increasing use of digital devices has overshadowed ink industry, which is often referred to as a “sunset industry.” But founding members of StarryInk – all around the age of 25 or younger, including Yu- have managed to stand out as a “sunrise enterprise”.
The first thing they did was to find the target audience. Meng Yuqiao, StarryInk’s co-founder and marketing officer, noted that there is a large interest-based community surrounding pens and colored ink among young people in China. “We believe writing with ink and pen is a great tool for Gen-Z to build and express their self-identity, and they find like-minded people along the way.”
In practice, it is Taobao that bridged them with these ink lovers. Since its inception in 2016, StarryInk’s Taobao shop has benefitted from a series of continually evolving functions on Taobao. “In the past, Taobao had only a very simple search engine, but now it has built a robust product recommendation mechanisms, enabling us to engage with our consumers more precisely and convey our concepts more effectively”, explained Meng.
Now, StarryInk has over 400,000 consumers around the world, owning 26 technology patents. The brand stands out as a beacon of innovative thinking, providing a comprehensive suite of offerings that includes some of the most sought-after features in the market, including sustainability, customization, and aesthetics.
“Although it is just a small bottle of ink, it is truly a responsible ink for the planet: from research and development to production and sales, it doesn’t even generate any carbon emissions, living up to the social value our brand upholds.”
Rejuvenating Traditional Culture
While StarryInk’s success in the market is largely attributed to their accurate brand positioning and youth-oriented product innovations, other Taobao Makers have taken each of their own innovative strategies.
Handmade Creation of Wang, for example, offers a mix of traditional and modern product styles designed and handmade by embroiderers from rural China, unlocking the commercial value of traditional Chinese handicrafts through productization and marketing.
In her early twenties, designer Wang Danqing traveled through China and encountered many impressive folk arts in the countryside. She developed a strong interest in Miao people’s folk art but also witnessed the unfortunate fact that this traditional folk art had no successors. With this in mind, Wang set up her own brand “Handmade Creation of Wang”, and began establishing handmade artisanal bases throughout China’s southwestern regions.
In 2013, Wang opened her first storefront on Taobao. “We actually got our start-up capital from Zhejiang E-Commerce Bank, a banking partner of Taobao. That was probably the biggest favor we received back then”, said Wang, recalling the early days of her enterprise. “We have also learned a lot from Taobao Education, which taught us how to run an online store, conduct business, and communicate with different consumers.”
Now, “Handmade Creation of Wang” has attracted a total of 1397 female embroiderers from rural China to make all kinds of embroidery products, generating over 10 million yuan revenue each year.
“By selling our embroiderers’ handmade products on Taobao, we can help them get a stable income, allowing them to carry on the traditional culture of their ethnicity and become more confident and respected in the family,” said Wang proudly.
Serving Diverse Needs
Not far from Wang’s booth at the Taobao Maker Festival, and in a quiet corner, is “94oC”, an independent design brand aiming to address the emotional needs of Gen Z consumers. Their exhibitions, much like the brand and its artistic offerings, make for a cozy and intimate showcase. And their feature product? Wax painting.
29-year-old Hamlein Wang co-founded the brand in 2019. As a young artist, Hamlein is one of the pioneers to introduce the concept of wax painting in China. “We try to incorporate various media materials into wax artistic creation, expanding the diversity of candle art and creating artwork and trendy installation art that can be permanently collected.”
By combining the concepts of Art Therapy, 94oC’s wax painting product further helps their consumers relieve stress and improve their emotional well-being. “We try to present these artistic and cultural concepts in a way that is easy to understand, allowing complex cultural ideas to be transformed from ‘special hobbies’ to ‘skills for the masses'”, explained Hamlein.
Compared with StarryInk and Handmade Creation of Wang, 94oC represents an even smaller and distinctive existence on Taobao. But this is not necessarily a shortage, noted Hamlein. “Taobao has long been a stage for many young artists like me and keen to incubating niche brands like ours. Events like the Taobao Maker Festival also helps us reach a more specific audience.” Indeed, the Taobao Maker Festival’s specificity surrounding innovation and youth attracts those who are more likely to be interested in new and unique products, providing them with items not available elsewhere. This also allows merchants to gain more exposure in offline settings and connect with like-minded individuals. As a consumer on site, Xia Ye, commented, “The Festival is so much fun because we saw many things that we don’t normally see in shopping malls”.
For small businesses and individual entrepreneurs like Hamlein, Taobao provides a fast, convenient, and low-cost environment to grow. More importantly, as one strolls through the Taobao Maker Festival, it is not hard to realize that every store is about more than just financial gain – creativity and social responsibility are other defining traits of young Taobao Makers.
Championing Small Business Pioneers
As one of China’s most iconic events featuring innovation and entrepreneurship, the Taobao Maker Festival represents Taobao Tmall’s commitment to fostering an inclusive eco-system that encourages inspiration and interaction amongst new generations of consumers and merchants, generating innovative ideas that cater to the needs of an increasingly diverse consumer group.
The event is engaging consumers and merchants in collaborative efforts to create an industry marked by creativity, diversity, and inclusivity. As Meng Yuqiao from StarryInk concluded, “With its impressive technological tools and business partnerships, Taobao is consistently attracting a diverse range of consumers and merchants from various fields, while also expanding its footprint to different parts of the world.”
As exemplified by the stories of this year’s Taobao Makers and their success, Taobao Tmall has been leveraging its digital capabilities and ecosystem to empower these entrepreneurs with consumer insights, marketing tools, supply chain solutions and financing options. Its unwavering support for small businesses pioneered by young entrepreneurs in China will continue to foster a dynamic entrepreneurial culture and provide invaluable opportunities for growth in the e-commerce industry at large.