Meet the Chinese “Kylie Jenner” Who Just Rang the Bell at Nasdaq

An exclusive profile & interview with Dayi “Big Eve” Zhang (张大奕), fashion/beauty influencer and co-founder of a booming empire.

I recently had the privilege to chat with Dayi “Big Eve” Zhang, the internet celebrity and entrepreneur who just became the first self-made social media influencer to ring the bell at Nasdaq.

Ruhnn Holding, the multi-channel network agency and influencer incubator that Big Eve partners with and owns a significant stake in, was initially listed over-the-counter in China in 2016 and today announced that it has priced its initial public offering of 10,000,000 American depositary shares (“ADSs”), at US$12.50 per ADS, for a total offering size of approximately US$125 million at NASDAQ.

On the Chinese internet, the name Dayi is pretty much the equivalent of “Hottest E-Commerce KOL” as she rides the waves of the influencer economy and steps into the spotlight as a legend of China’s booming retail e-commerce. Owning four business lines covering women’s apparel, intimate wear, cosmetics, and home products, Dayi pulls in a staggering $220 million in annual GMV (gross merchandise volume) solely from digital channels.

If you have no idea who Dayi is, let me bring you up to speed real quick: 
– she was voted the №1 “Most Beautiful Face without Makeup” on Taobao; 
– she has over 20 million loyal followers on social media; 
– she probably has way more influence over Chinese online shoppers than Bingbing Fan or Kim Kardashian.

In 2014, Dayi’s women’s apparel store on Taobao rose to “Four-Crown Prestige Status”, totaling over 100,000 transactions within less than a year.

In 2015, her store was the only individually owned business that ranked top 10 in sales for women’s clothing on Singles’ Day (aka Chinese Black Friday) and reported over $44 million in annual GMV.

In 2016, Dayi tried live streaming on Taobao for the first time and instantaneously achieved a record-breaking view count of 413,000, which converted to $3 million in revenue within the first 2 hours.

In 2016 and 2017, her store was the fastest to reach 100 million RMB in sales on Singles’ Day two years in a row.

While other entrepreneurs and even established brands consider 100 million as an ambitious annual sales goal, Dayi only needs 24 hours to finish that piece of cake.

Five years ago in 2014, when Dayi reached her first million followers on Weibo, I was in New York, leading Michael Kors’ Digital Marketing in Asia. That year, I wrote an article comparing KOLs in China and the U.S. To be honest, I had mixed feelings about the growing influencer community in China at that time and even commented that “most Chinese KOLs are nothing more than just a pretty face.”

I was under the impression that many Chinese internet celebrities were superficial barbie dolls who promoted products of questionable quality. Lots of people shared similar bias, labeling social media influencers as fake, sell-out, talentless, and uncultured.

In retrospect, we indeed undervalued the real potential of the budding influencer economy in China.

Dayi, a controversial and often mocked central figure on Chinese social media, has come an incredibly long from a small online business owner to a key stakeholder in a soon-to-be Nasdaq listed company within 5 years.

In the same 5 years, I left New York to work for Alibaba in Silicon Valley, left again to join a fashion startup in Beijing as CMO, and recently quit to start my own venture. With elite education, an impressive resume, and years of marketing experience, I’m still nowhere near even a fraction of Dayi’s success.

Call it jealousy or curiosity, I’ve been wanting to find out what has shaped Dayi’s unique path. Just a little while back, I finally got ahold of Dayi and her long-time business partner Nikou via the “SHEconomy Institute” online community for women-focused businesses.

Ready for an up-close look at the real life of China’s top influencer? Buckle up and enjoy the long read.

“It’s just like slipping on a banana peel.”

I met with Dayi in Shanghai. She strode into the room wearing a hoodie from her collaboration with The Simpsons. She was just as tall and skinny as in the pictures but looked sharper and more poised than her “sweet girl” image online.

While we were breaking the ice, she checked her work phone from time to time to reply to messages and stay on top of things. She looked up and said, “Nothing excites me more than work right now. . . . It’s convenient that I happen to be single and have nothing better to do than working hard.”

I couldn’t wait to cut to the chase, “Big Eve, what do you think made you the person you are today?”

“Well, it’s just like slipping on a banana peel. I’m going wherever life takes me,” Dayi said half-joking.

(Are these slipping-to-success banana peels for sale or what? I’m gonna take a dozen, thanks!)

The first “banana peel” Dayi stepped on was her modeling career.

Dayi picked hospitality as her college major without too much thought. She simply wanted to become a tour guide who gets paid for traveling the world. During college, Dayi worked several part-time jobs as a waitress, flyer distributor, and promotional model. Her favorite gig was working as a promo girl — because of the daily paycheck.

One time Dayi accompanied a friend to what she thought was another interview for a promotional model position. It turned out that the job was modeling for a TV commercial, and Dayi was offered the part to her surprise.

With photogenic facial features and a sweet smile, Dayi soon became a rising star. But she wasn’t too ambitious about her modeling career and decided to focus on print ads rather than the more demanding TV commercials. Dayi was popular among readers as she frequently appeared in top-selling Asian fashion magazines such as ViVi, Mina, and Ray Li.

The second “banana peel” Dayi stepped on was the era of disruptive innovation in e-commerce.

Every new platform provided a unique window of opportunity. For Taobao, the world’s biggest e-commerce website, the golden age started 10 years ago.

In 2009, Taobao launched its inaugural Singles’ Day shopping spree with a GMV of only about $7.45 million. But the new concept soon attracted millions of sellers and hundreds of millions of customers and contributed to the platform’s explosive growth.

In 2012, the daily GMV on Singles’ Day reached a whopping $2.8 billion, over 350 times more than the sales volume just 4 years ago.

In 2011, Ruhnn Holding launched its first Taobao store “Sisy (莉贝琳)”. It quickly became the standard practice for women’s apparel stores on Taobao to hire models for photo shoots to showcase their products. The owner of Sisy spotted one of Dayi’s print ads and immediately signed her as the new face of the Sisy brand.

In addition to modeling, Dayi dabbled in Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, as early as in 2010 and attracted many followers who initially got to know her from fashion magazines. Dayi says it was fortuitous that her personal style coincided with what was most popular amongst Chinese girls at that time — girly and cute. Had she been a Goth then, the Dayi we know today probably wouldn’t exist.

As her followers constantly asked her to share links for her outfits, Dayi could no longer stay content as a model and started contemplating how to monetize her influence by starting an online business.

By 2014, Sisy already accumulated over a million followers and had risen to a top-10 women’s clothing store on Taobao, thanks to its cute models, inspiring lookbooks, and the platform’s incentive programs for original fashion brands. But Sisy’s growth started to slow down due to increased competition that drove away some of its traffic.

To break the bottleneck, Sisy had to either double down on pay-per-click ads or develop organic social media traction through KOLs’ personal charisma.

Although influencer economy was not really a thing yet in 2014, Sisy opted for the latter strategy — partnering with a popular, attractive girl to promote products on social media and driving traffic to a personal online store. Who could possibly be a better candidate than Dayi, a familiar face with 300,000 followers on Weibo?

The model seeking a career change and the emerging fashion brand eager for social media attention quickly joined forces to establish a subsidiary of Ruhnn and opened the now famous Taobao store called “吾欢喜的衣橱 (The Wardrobe I Like).”

Transitioning from a model to an influencer-turned-entrepreneur, Dayi started her venture with a lean team of only two people.

As the first-mover advantage on Taobao gradually faded with growing promotion costs, social media became the new battlefield for retail e-commerce. Trend-setting “E-commerce influencers” like Dayi started to bridge the gap by turning consumers of their content into consumers of their endorsed products.

Devoted to her e-commerce venture, Dayi quit her lucrative career as a professional model. Shortly after, she met her business partner Nikou, a veteran branding consultant with a master’s degree in economics who did not hesitate to join Dayi as her right-hand woman.

(Nikou speaking at a conference for e-commerce beauty retailers.)

When their store was just taking off, Dayi and Nikou handled all content creation tasks including copywriting and graphic design on their own.

“It was tough at the beginning. The two of us went to Turkey alone for a photo shoot — Nikou was the photographer. We couldn’t even afford car rental and just walked everywhere. We were forced to seek alternative accommodations one night as the place we initially stayed at caught on fire. Dumbfounded and scared, we wandered on foreign streets at midnight with all of our luggage.”

Dayi’s online business proved to be a huge success. Within 6 months of the grand opening of her Taobao store, Dayi’s Weibo followers increased along with her sales and reached the first million. Since then, Dayi has been steadily attracting several millions of new followers on Weibo every single year.

The success of The Wardrobe I Like inspired Ruhnn to pivot in a new direction as an influencer incubator. Eying the growing pie of KOL-led online retail, Ruhnn upgraded its business model into“influencer+incubator+supply chain.” Ruhnn continued to contract with aspiring influencers in hope of packaging them into the next Dayi.

In August 2015, Taobao put forward the concept of “KOL economy” for the first time and facilitated conversations between KOL-owned Taobao stores and high-quality manufacturers.

On September 22, Weibo officially launched its e-commerce influencer incentives program and mainstreamed “influencer incubation” at the nexus of social media and e-commerce.

On December 18, 2015, Alibaba’s CEO Zhangyong praised influencer economy as “a brand new e-commerce phenomenon rising on Taobao this year which plays a brand new role in the new economy.”

The tide soon started rising.

2016 was later referred to as the “inaugural of China’s influencer economy” with a boom of live streaming and short video platforms. That year, Douyin, Kuaishou, and Xiaohongshu emerged as the new playgrounds for social media marketing, where numerous influencers rapidly rose to fame.

Also in 2016, Tmall’s Singles’ Day GMV surged to $17 billion. Dayi’s store — The Wardrobe I Like — generated over 100 million RMB sales on Singles’ Day 2016 and ranked №2 amongst all women’s apparel sellers on Taobao.

With closed-loop supply chains and talent representation services, Ruhnn discovered, incubated, booked new KOLs and backed them up with endorsement deals, brand marketing, and vertically integrated production capacity. Ruhnn soon became the largest influencer incubator/agency in China and signed over 100 KOLs.

In 2016, Alibaba invested $45 million in Ruhnn and became its fourth largest shareholder.

As early as in 2012 when Dayi only had tens of thousands of followers on Weibo, she thought about promoting Sisy products with her personal account but didn’t expect that it would make a difference given Sisy’s existing popularity back then. Posting clothing items on Weibo to promote sales didn’t become a norm until Dayi and Ruhnn launched their new store in 2014.

“We should have started doing that in 2012. But it turns out later is better than never.” Dayii commented with optimism.

The Despicable KOL and Female Entrepreneur

Nikou kept shaking her head as Dayi touched lightly upon all the hardships she has endured throughout the entrepreneurial journey and chuckled at the unexpected twists and turns on a “banana peel.”

“Who says starting your own business is easy? I’ve gone through countless nights without sleep and finished numerous packs of cigarette. It was hard to be a KOL and hard to be a female entrepreneur — much harder to be both,” Nikou reminisced with a worried look.

Behind the glamour of entrepreneurship, there were anxiety, depression, all-or-nothing uncertainty, and endless controversy and despise.

The typical business model for KOLs is “content+e-commerce” as influencers get exposure on social media platforms under Alibaba (such as Weibo) and monetize through Taobao.

On Alibaba’s platforms, women are well-represented and reportedly make up 49.25% of entrepreneurs. However, female entrepreneurs in e-commerce tend to draw more controversies than their male counterparts.

“When a man accomplished something, all controversies disappear and every word of his turns into a rule of success. But when a woman succeeds in business, the rumors surrounding her only get worse,” Dayi sighed.

Many netizens look down on influencers and associate the word KOL with kitsch, scandals, plastic surgeries, and materialism. Some people even commented that most KOLs are “good for nothing but shady businesses.”

“She must get the financing as a favor from her sugar daddy.”
“Does she even have time to run the business after spending hours painting her face?”
“There are only two types of female entrepreneurs: bitches and beasts.”
“How can you take care of your family when doing livestreaming everyday?”
“Influencers get rich from doing literally nothing.”

This is just a short list of the mildest accusations that the Internet throws in Dayi’s face on a daily basis.

According to Nikou, “People send us curses, insults, and even death threats via Weibo’s direct message all the time. Fortunately, Dayi is a tough one. You need nerves of steel to be a good KOL. Otherwise, you’d just get lost in all this negativity without even a chance to explain yourself.”

In today’s complicated business environment, success is only a small probability event that requires resilience, diligence, determination, and extraordinary ability to cope with mental stress from various sources.

Benchmarking Against Clé de Peau Beauté

Kylie Jenner released her first lip products in December 2015 and soon launched her brand, Kylie Cosmetics, in 2016.

In the same year, Dayi also entered the beauty industry.

She launched an original cosmetics brand Rouge à Lèvres Vendue (“The Sold-Out Lipsticks”) as a response to her followers’ demand and sold 20,000 lipsticks within the first 2 hours of product release.

In 2017, Dayi’s beauty store on Taobao expanded to over 84 SKUs and hit $7.4 million in annual sales. However, as most beauty retailers on Taobao were focused on distributing existing brands rather developing original products, the odds were stacked against Dayi’s budding beauty business.

As many established brands and even globally well-known luxury brands started to open virtual flagship stores on Tmall, Dayi decided to switch gears. In 2017, Dayi closed her Taobao store that had accumulated over 500,000 loyal customers and re-branded her beauty line as BIG EVE, with a new slogan: “Dare to Be.”

Unlike Taobao stores that are owned by individual sellers (C2C, also called “C stores”), Tmall embraces the B2C approach and authenticates all sellers to be qualified business entities such as owners of brands and authorized distributors (also called “B stores”).

To meet higher expectations for quality, Dayi started planning for the re-branding a whole year before the official launch on TMall. She worked closely with top cosmetics original design manufacturers (ODMs) from all over the globe such as Intercos (Italy), Toshiki (Japan), Kolmar (Japan), and COSMAX (Korea). Before they eventually hit the market, all BIG EVE products went through multiple rounds of meticulous selection and testing, as well as blind testings performed by Dayi herself.

Transforming an individual C store into a flagship B store was just like putting a mom-and-pop stand into a department store. The transition to Tmall posed a huge branding challenge for influencers.

The challenge that Dayi was faced with turned into a full-blown crisis right before Chinese New Year in 2018.

In early February 2018, Dayi posted on Weibo as usual and shared the R&D process of her newest skincare product with her followers. With great enthusiasm, Dayi bluntly announced that her products “were best in quality and used Clé de Peau Beauté as a benchmark.”

Based on my experience as a skincare brand manager at a big consumer goods company, almost every new product is benchmarked against some existing product on the market. It is standard practice that consumer blind tests are often conducted with competitors’ similar products. However, no brand manager would publicly name the competing brands that they are going after.

( Dayi’s original post comparing BIG EVE’s facial cleanser with a CPB product. )

What Dayi thought was a harmless preview of her upcoming new facial cleanser turned into a huge scandal as her words were twisted and misunderstood:

So Dayi is now shamelessly producing a knockoff of the luxury skincare brand CPB? How dare she!

Dayi soon because of the target of public criticism. Her direct messages on Weibo were flooded with meanest insults and ugliest profanities, amongst all sorts of verbal abuse you could imagine.

Overnight, Dayi became an outcast on the Chinese internet — nobody wanted to be associated with the notorious “copycat.” As the scheduled opening date of her Tmall store was approaching, Dayi couldn’t find anyone who was willing to promote her first skincare product.

The whole team of BIG EVE felt devastated as they poured their heart and soul into the development of this product — their months of hard work was going down the drain just because of one Weibo post. Nikou couldn’t sleep or eat for days and survived on sleeping pills and cigarettes.

Dayi’s parents knew little about her career other than the fact that she owned an online store. But the huge controversies even prompted her mother to remind Dayi that she “must be more careful about what to put on people’s faces” and that “others say something fishy is going on with your products.”

Dayi replied calmly, “Sure. I understand. Everything is alright.”

She reflected that the misunderstanding came from her loose translation of the R&D terminology “benchmark” into “打版”, which could also mean “to prototype” or “to model after” in Chinese.

Soon after the Chinese New Year, Dayi flew her team and two of her followers to BIG EVE’s supplier in Japan and shot a vlog to show the R&D and manufacturing process of the product.

Until today, BIG EVE is still shadowed by the negative publicity arising from the CPB controversy.

On March 6, 2019, Nikou shared an article on BIG EVE’s latest collaboration with Marvel’s Captain Marvel but felt “bleak and helpless” as she read through the comments section. One comment says, “What kind of idiot buys stuff from BIG EVE? Do they not treat their skin as their own?”

“Some people seem to never recognize our efforts no matter how hard we try. But I still thank those who have doubted and belittled us — we will keep up with the hard work and continue to prove ourselves,” Nikou posted on Wechat.

Dayi, the Entrepreneur

“Can you even eat and sleep as normal when confronted with all this negativity?” I asked her.

Dayi replied, “I’ve never lost sleep or skipped a meal over this. It was Nikou and my team who got really depressed. So I made a decision to increase our order size with the factory from 5000 units to 35000 units.”

After the CPB incident, Dayi gave a pep talk to her whole team. From video editing to operations, from product development to customer service, the entire BIG EVE team worked overtime for a month in preparation for the big launch while Dayi herself live-streamed till midnight day after day to introduce her products to more potential consumers.

“I used to worry that others didn’t know that I was venturing into cosmetics. Now that everyone knows, I can cut my advertising budget.” Dayi laughed.

On June 1, 2018, the BIG EVE Tmall flagship store officially opened. Over 10,000 “Little Milky Foam” cleansers were purchased within 5 minutes after its release, so Nikou’s insomnia cured itself.

The the following 5 days, the gentle cleanser brought in over $300,000 sales for BIG EVE, so Nikou finally started to have an appetite.

With the phenomenal performance of the cleanser, the original controversy morphed into a conspiracy theory that Dayi was behind all this “publicity stunt” to grab consumers’ attention. “Why would I ever smear my own reputation? Do they think I’ve lost my mind?” Dayi shrugged off this groundless accusation.

Within the first month of BIG EVE’s grand opening at Tmall, it reached $1.2 million in sales with merely 23 SKUs. In Tmall’s “6.18” promotion, BIG EVE pulled in over 1 million RMB within the first 40 seconds.

Just recently, BIG EVE launched its first makeup collaboration with Marvel’s Captain Marvel, which included three lip glosses, two liquid eyeshadows, and a highlighter.

On March 4, 2019, BIG EVE’s Little Milk Foam cleanser was awarded “Influencer Brand of 2019” on Tmall’s Annual Golden Beauty Awards that is known as the “Beauty Oscars” in China.

Dayi was thrilled to receive the recognition and couldn’t help but brag on her Weibo, “Thanks to all the critics who can now stop attacking our cleanser. Your words sent it straight up to the podium.”

Well, she can be passive-aggressive when the situation calls for it.

Now Dayi divides her time among four separate business lines: apparel (Jupe Vendue), lingerie (Jupe Vendue Underwear), beauty (BIG EVE), and home (Bougie Vendue), in addition to content creation (shooting, filming, and live-streaming across platforms) — a true multitasker and overachiever.

“I often only sleep 4 hours per day,” Dayi told me.

“But what motivates to you trade the comfortable lifestyle of a traditional KOL for constant new ventures?” I probed with curiosity.

She replied,

“I really hate repetitive tasks, such as modeling. That’s why I entered e-commerce in the first place. I expanded my business from women’s clothing to beauty and then to home products because I’m always curious about fresh, unfamiliar things.

For those working with the internet, curiosity is the most important thing even if you are in your 60s or 70s. I believe curiosity is the only way to success, no matter you are an influencer or an entrepreneur.

I also like to have options, rather than being chosen by others. I was also being “chosen” as a model, but now I get to choose who I work with as an entrepreneur.”

“Where do you see the influencer economy in two years?” I asked.

“It’s already a survival game of the fittest for influencer-owned brands. Strategic branding of lead KOLs is definitely the trend. Moreover, the content creation process is becoming professionalized. We used to create scattered content on our own from filming to editing, but influencers will rely more heavily on agencies in the future.”

Redefining KOLs

As Ruhnn recently filed for a $200 million IPO with the SEC, its Registration Statement shows that the company generated $124 million in revenue from April 1 to December 31, 2018, compared to $112 million during the same period in 2017. In the third quarter of 2018, Ruhnn’s revenue reached $57 million, with a quarter-on-quarter growth of 62%.

As of the filing, Ruhnn had signed 113 KOLs with a total of 148.4 million followers and operated 91 e-commerce stores with a 39% repurchase rate. Dayi and her clothing and beauty stores are undoubtedly leading the pack.

In the race tracks of today’s internet startup ecosystem, KOLs are able to “takeover on the bends” with the unique advantage of self-generated traffic. Becoming a KOL seems to be the shortcut to success for both leaders of big corporations and entrepreneurs.

In 2018, even Mingzhu Dong, “one of the toughest businesswomen in China” according to New York Times, was accused of “being preoccupied with creating an online presence while slacking on the real business.” She responded with the following comment: “I AM a KOL. If I stop being an influencer online and stop being vocal, Gree Electric will soon be acquired by a competitor.”

Some people say that KOLs have a short life cycle and that their 15 seconds of fame is just a fad. But in my opinion, for KOLs who eventually accomplish things, fame is just the beginning but never an end in itself.

First of all, they need to be much more than just popular to succeed — KOLs have to become trend-setters with good aesthetics, bold sense of fashion, excellent awareness of future trends, personal charisma, along with creativity in producing various forms of textual and visual content.

Moreover, today’s KOLs are no longer positioned as Muses on a pedestal. Rather, they have become increasingly down-to-earth and tend to interact with followers frequently. As Dayi told me, she often gets product improvement inspirations from her followers’ community and considers herself as a liaison between her followers and suppliers.

The most effective influencers truly understand the demand of the consumers and are able to respond with precise product positioning, in-depth knowledge of the market, and constant adjustment in product selection and pricing.

While Kylie Jenner replaces Mark Zuckerberg as the youngest self-made billionaire in the U.S., I am glad to see that China’s Dayi is making her own way on the other side of the earth.

During the last five years as a KOL, Dayi has been spending 5–6 hours daily on reading comments and direct messages from her followers. For her, maintaining good looks is never as important as keeping in touch with her followers and customers. The number of followers, comments, retweets, and likes on Weibo can directly impact the sales of a given product and thus become key statistics to facilitate her decision-making.

Of course, there is a lot of criticism. Nikou vented, “It’s so sad that we can’t even put our clothes on sale. Isn’t this the most commonly-used promotion everywhere else? Even though malls do that all the time, we get so much pushback whenever we try to put something on sale.”

But Dayi has a big heart, “Although there are always haters, I still have a lot of supporters. Whenever I feel down, thinking of my loyal followers cheers me up.”

Every new era is shaped by a group of pioneers who bravely challenges the status quo with exceptional hard work and determination. KOLs like Dayi are the pioneers of this era.

Without any precedents to step upon, “no pain, no gain” is still the rule of thumb in today’s burgeoning influencer economy.

Jack Ma once said, “Men thought that they created the world — but it’s not necessarily a good one. Women fill their heads with ideas that make our lives more beautiful, that make the world a better place.” When women advance in business, they influence and empower others around them.

KOLs used to be denounced as “eye candies”, but we can only find out the real worth of a “candy” when she thrives in bitterness.

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