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My friend has a recipe for online success, but he’s not feeling the love

Making money from online content – no matter how colourful – has its challenges

After a few wintry days in Beijing, the sun was warm and blinding and clumps of birch pollen the size of table tennis balls floated through the air. My new friend Bin and I were enjoying the cold, dark interior of an old-fashioned restaurant around the corner where they serve up simple food in big portions at low prices.

Over steaming dishes of beef with onions and peppers, fried green beans and broccoli, Bin told me about his fledgling business selling food online. He showed me his accounts on Douyin, the domestic version of TikTok, and the social shopping app Little Red Book, with images of preserved fruit, dried meat and honeycombs.

“None of it has any additives, it’s all natural. It’s really for mothers who want good healthy nutrition. But not many people like it,” he said.

Now in his early 40s, Bin studied architecture and planning but the meltdown in China’s property market saw his work start to dry up before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. He picked up a few small jobs as a consultant but spent most of his time pursuing his passion for historical Chinese architecture.


He visited imperial palaces all over the country, making short videos that told their story and highlighted the most interesting architectural and decorative features, which he posted on social media. But after two years he had only 1,000 followers and although he still makes architectural videos, he switched his focus two months ago to the food business.

The son of a factory worker and a teacher from the Hebei province near Beijing, Bin has an older sister who always came first in her class at school and now works as a notary. I asked him what his family thought about his new venture.

“My mother and my sister support what I’m doing. My mother said that nobody in our family has ever been involved in commerce but that I could be the one,” he said.

Bin admitted he still had a lot to learn about the world of ecommerce but he told me he had a number of talents, including for singing. He sang a few bars of Can You Feel the Love Tonight from The Lion King in a breathy baritone, followed by the first verse of John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads.

He said he also had perfect eyesight and had applied to be an airline pilot but was rejected for being too short, adding that he was also ineligible for military service because of his height. I asked him how tall he was.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

A couple of days later, I was talking about Bin to another friend who has been trying to make a name for himself on social media. He interviewed me for one of his videos a few months ago but the sound didn’t work and the subtitles were incomprehensible so it made little impact.

After I disappointed him, he tried to turn his mother, a retired judge, into a social media star with short videos offering advice to the public. She looked pained and uncomfortable in the recordings he showed me and the project ended in discord when she refused to follow his command to loosen up and dumb down.

His next idea was for a series of 30-second Chinese vocabulary videos for English speakers which he hoped to post on international TikTok. The first showed him in a food market, gripping a chicken by its feet, poking a fillet of pork with his finger and holding a basket with a live fish flailing around in it while the words he pronounced leapt out in giant, dynamic graphics.

His latest project is more ambitious, a collaboration with a singing teacher in his hometown in Inner Mongolia who already has a considerable social media following. My friend was about to go there for a week or two to help the teacher record a course of 10 lessons which they would sell on Douyin for RMB200 (€26).

Douyin takes a cut and keeps a grip on the data so the plan is to persuade satisfied customers to sign up for more expensive, personalised courses on WeChat, which offers a better deal for vendors. The singing teacher was putting up some resistance to a number of his directorial ideas but my friend was confident he would come round.

“He has the talent, but he needs my expertise,” he said.