Few things are more discouraging than a long steady sales decline — particularly after a business has enjoyed success. Xiaoning Wang knows this a bit too well.

In 1999, Wang was inspired to start her company, ChinaSprout, after noticing American parents with adopted Chinese children in New York City parks. She searched online and learned there were thousands of such families around the country. “These families so want to know about China and want their children to learn about their heritage,” she said. She began selling Chinese cultural products, such as books and toys purchased on trips to her hometown of Beijing, and the home-based business took off. After a year, she moved her inventory into a warehouse and hired her first employees.

By the early 2000s, ChinaSprout’s e-commerce website was humming along, as adoptions continued to rise. “Meanwhile, I started working with the schools at that time, too, because we were on the Internet, and the schools start searching books about China,” she said. In 2007,  Advanced Placement introduced a Chinese language exam, which helped Wang sell textbooks, soon the biggest category on her site. In 2008, the Beijing Olympics created another surge, as consumers turned to ChinaSprout for pins, bags, bracelets and other memorabilia. And then sales started a steady decline — and Wang, who still works seven days a week, said things have yet to recover.

The reasons for the drop-off were myriad. Starting in 2007, China began instituting stringent rules for foreign adoptions, barring people who are single, obese or older than 50 from adopting Chinese children. Then, the recession hit. Schools curtailed budgets and purchased fewer titles from ChinaSprout. And more recently, Wang has needed to fend off competition from big publishers and distributors, who are eager to tap the Chinese-language market and have the resources to offer schools — now Wang’s biggest customers — discounts and freebies.

Sales are off about 11 percent from 2009 levels, she estimated, although she still stocks more than 7,000 titles and sells about 50,000 books and materials a year to more than 1,000 schools nationwide. She has eight employees, and so far, she has not had to lay anyone off. She declined to disclose her revenue.

Now 52, Wang is taking steps to conserve ChinaSprout’s resources and promote her company’s attention to customer service. In November, she uprooted her operations from Manhattan and moved to Long Island City in Queens, effectively cutting her rent in half. Her new space is about 6,000 square feet, a bit smaller than what she had before. “At least our rent is not a burden,” she said. “I was thinking of the future.”

Wang, who stopped going to conferences for her company a few years back, now plans to step up appearances at trade events for educators and book fairs. She is considering hiring representatives in different states to help sell more books to school districts. She is also looking to improve her e-commerce site, using online advertising and more social-media marketing to drive visits to her site. Neither Facebook nor Twitter have been effective for her, but she said has had more luck using WeChat, the popular instant-messaging app developed in China. “Lots of Chinese teachers are on it,” said Wang, who said she plans to share more images, chat more with teachers and offer more personal recommendations for books.

She makes frequent trips to China to source materials and develop relationships with Chinese suppliers. Back in the United States, she curates her selections on her website, listing educational materials by grade level, language proficiency and topic. She often stays up throughout the night — which is daytime in China — to hammer out the details of orders with Chinese suppliers. “Teachers say, ‘You are the best’ — that is really encouraging,” she said.

It’s less encouraging, she said, when customers fill their shopping carts on her site or request recommendations and sales quotes from her directly — and then go elsewhere to place the order. “This is so not fair,” she said. But the majority of her longtime education clients are loyal, she said. More recently, she has been calling them to ask, “Is there anything better I can do?”

Wang hopes that interest in the Chinese language won’t drop off the way interest in Japanese and Russian did after the 1980’s. “It is so rewarding when I can introduce China, and Chinese culture and language, to a teacher,” she said. “It’s a meaningful business. I just want it to do well.”

Do you have any suggestions for Wang? If so, leave them in the comment section.

Read Full Transcript

Xiaoning Wang – CEO, ChinaSprout

Xiaoning Wang (XW): I really didn’t have any goal about starting a business. It’s really because I noticed there were lots of American families who adopted Chinese children.

Xiaoning Wang – CEO — ChinaSprout — New York, USA

XW: I realized you know, these families so want to know about China and want their children to learn about their heritage. And that’s something I always liked to do—to introduce China, to introduce Chinese culture to people.

I am Xiaoning Wang and I was born in China in Beijing.

CARD: Xiaoning grew up in the late 1960s- a time when China was closed to the outside world.
Her father worked in management at a state-owned company. Her mother was a university professor.

XW: My mother she was really liberal and she always, talking about the Western things, and I got a little bit influenced and so I learned to speak English when I was in actually high school. We didn’t have TV so I learned my English from the radio.

CARD: Xiaoning went to university in Beijing. In 1986 her English skills helped her land a job with IBM.

XW: IBM was one of the first western companies who had offices in Beijing. I had all these American colleagues who are still very, very close friends of mine.

CARD: Through her friends at IBM, she met a German student, Joachim Stroh.
In early 1989 they married and eventually moved to New York City.

XW: I came first time in 1990, just to visit as a tourist. And I really love New York. I just think this is one of the best cities. And so I always thought if I had the opportunity to live here, I want to come to U.S.

CARD: Xiaoning returned to school to get her MBA. In 1997 she gave birth to a son, Simon.
While spending time in city parks, she met families who had adopted baby girls from China.

XW: They’d keep talking about China, about Chinese culture, they want to learn things from me. At that time in 1999, there is not many products for children. And there’s not many books for the families who don’t read Chinese, who want to learn about China or learn Chinese language.

CARD: Xiaoning travelled to China and brought back books, clothing, and Chinese arts and crafts to sell.

XW: So I thought maybe we could put our products on the Internet and to sell these products to people who don’t have access to Chinatown in mid-America. So that’s how I really started.

CARD: She named her company ChinaSprout and ran it from home.

XW: I did everything by myself. I, I take phone orders, I process orders, and I run to the post office to drop the boxes.

CARD: ChinaSprout grew fast. Xiaoning moved the company to a large office warehouse.
She hired her first employees. Her inventory grew from 100 to over 8,000 products.

CARD: But by 2008 the adoption community had stopped growing. Xiaoning shifted the company’s focus

XW: Chinese become one of the most popular foreign language in the public and private schools. So when the, the market of adoption community declined, I actually picked up from the schools.

CARD: But the rise in Chinese language studies brought competition from large book distributors.

XW: These big companies, they said more efficiency, or more cost-effective. You know it’s really tough for small businesses to compete with big business.

CARD: Xiaoning hopes that her expertise and personal service will help her stay competitive.

XW: You know, I still work seven days a week. My life is my work, so my work is my life. I don’t balance well, I have to say. But the other side is very rewarding. These American families with Chinese children, they always say, you know, “It was you who brought us so many things so our girls can learn about China, learn Chinese culture.” It’s not just about making money. It’s about something meaningful.

Xiaoning Wang video credits:

Producers – Victoria Wang and Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Merril Stern
Director of New Media and Outreach – Karin Kamp
Director of Photography – Sam Shinn
Associate Producer – Nusha Balyan
Assistant Editor – Matt Strickland
Social Media Coordinator – Christina Wu
Music – Killer Tracks

Photos courtesy of:
Danielle Lewis
Dereck Bradley on Flickr
John Rudoff (c) 2009
Kim Hodges, Families with Children from China
Marc Davis on Flickr