Robert Sawatzky
Oct 2, 2017

From corporate to startup

How Bessie Lee’s career has changed since leaving WPP.

Bessie Lee
Bessie Lee

Life is very different for Bessie Lee these days. After 27 years of corporate life, climbing the WPP ladder via GroupM to become the holding company’s chief executive in China, she gave up the C-suite to build her new venture startup firm, Withinlink, from scratch.

The corporate life may be hard to leave behind, along with its army of staff and resources, but one of the obvious benefits of starting fresh is the ability to affect change quickly and pounce on market gaps that open up to an experienced eye. “Running your company means that you can take on that opportunity right away, you can put together a JV… you can just make it happen.”

And Lee is doing just that. She founded Withinlink in 2015 but was only able to devote part of her time to it until she left WPP in May. After raising an RMB 55 million (US$8 million) fund, she is launching a US$30 million fund targeting US firms looking to break into the Chinese market. Now she’s already busy planning a second RMB fund.

Cultivating young companies

About half of Lee’s energies go into helping the 11 portfolio companies of investment arm Withinlink Capital. These run the gamut from mobile advertising to big data, social media and internet of things. In her first fund she explained Withinlink’s investment was for five years plus a two-year extension, with an exit strategy of either IPO or acquisition. Lee doesn’t interfere in day-to-day operations, but advises founders on larger strategy, connects them with clients and creates ‘horizontal’ collaborations between them. 

The acquisition and incubation process at Withinlink is quite different from the one she left behind at WPP, which only bought mature companies with annual revenues of US$5 million or more. Those acquisitions were then thrown into operating companies to form another arm of that portfolio, whether for GroupM or Ogilvy. 

“The theory is then you become that operating company’s responsibility to grow it,” Lee told Campaign. “But that in a way sort of limits that company’s growth to only clients that operating company is servicing. No other companies will volunteer to help you grow.”

From ad tech data firm Fugetech to AI-based creative platform Kuaizi to the mobile ad specialist Pingcoo, Lee sees a wealth of talent and technology that could be deployed. “If I would go in with all of our companies under our investment arm in a client pitch, I could probably put together an integrated offering without working with any agencies,” she said, underlining she does not want to build her own agency.

But Withinlink does have a consultancy service as well three marcomms joint ventures formed only this year that require hands-on management and assistance. These take about another 30 to 40 percent of Lee’s time and energy.

Bringing Chinese and US companies together

In the remaining 10 to 20 percent of her time, Lee travels to conferences like Dmexco and Spikes, where she was last week, serving as Innovation jury president. Not only does she want to raise awareness for Withinlink and its portfolio firms, but she also wants to see what non-Chinese companies are doing and how she can help them enter the Chinese market.

From her vantage points inside and outside of China, Lee sees the differences in startup cultures. In Silicon Valley they’re very fragmented and tend to go deep into their niches, while remaining open to collaboration with outside companies to move beyond their expertise. Chinese startups, in contrast, said Lee “tend do want to do more under the same roof and do more of it themselves”, an attitude made evident by the large omnipresent platforms of Alibaba and Tencent. 

But while more mature Chinese entrepreneurs want to do more in-house, Lee sees a younger generation of startups led by 20-somethings who have a much more open attitude toward collaborating with other companies.

The old ‘made in China’ stereotypes are fading away by the pace and energy of new creative entrepreneurs. “I want to convey the message that there are a lot of original innovations in China… moving away from copycats to innovation that is leading the world already.”

Bessie Lee presented a President’s Masterclass “From Corporate to Startup” at the Innovation Stage at the Spikes Asia Festival of Creativity.

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