In 1997, his dad took Gustav Astrom (Sweden) on a train ride from Scandinavia to China. Today, Gustav is a Mandarin-speaking business owner who runs a successful firm in consultancy in China. “Most European markets reached maturity long ago. China, on the contrary, is a place bursting with entrepreneurial opportunities.”
On behalf of a Swedish recruitment firm, Gustav Astrom began pioneering in China in 2009. He left the company to set up his own venture, and what had started as a project at his previous employer, under his own leadership became a firm in consultancy in China named SXL Group in 2011. Gustav: “SXL is short for ‘students excel’, which is what I see happening every day. We mobilise and coach top students to excel in consultancy services – at a much better price-performance ratio than our competitors could possibly offer. Our services are centred around market research and data gathering. They range from competitor analysis to market opportunity scans, and from employee surveys to monthly market reports.” SXL Group delivers at a third of the price that regular consultancy firms charge for similar product types.
Whereas in Europe the same business model is applied in companies that are 100 per cent student-run, Gustav prefers his own company’s positioning: right in between student-run and wholly professional. “Students at SXL are coordinated by an experienced staff consisting of 20 fulltime professionals. This way we guarantee on-time and on-budget delivery to a customer base that is willing to pay less, but unwilling to cut back on quality. Most of our customers are non-Chinese, which makes them foreign to culture, language and business etiquette. But whether a customer is about to enter China or has been around for decades, the volatile Chinese market makes no distinction between newcomer or establishment. In China, every company is in need of an accurate and up-to-date picture of the market it operates in.”
“It is difficult to impose one’s business model on the Chinese market”, Gustav says. “Rather, our model came from within. I soon learned that academically strong Chinese students lack hands-on working experience. Meanwhile, companies pay hefty fees when they outsource their market research to professional consultancy firms. Tying loose ends, I thought of a value proposition that has already proven to appeal to over 100 customers. Our holistic recruitment process is built to select students who do not only perform in academic spheres, but are also business-mature, emotionally competent and proficient in English. Unlocking the drive, ambition and potential of students, we offer practical challenges that increase chances when they apply for a ‘real’ job down the road. Students place high value on their experience at SXL, which they bring along to companies such as McKinsey and BCG, or when they pursue an MBA abroad.”
High rotation rate
But engaging students enrolled at university comes at a cost. “SXL knows an incredibly high rotation rate. Because students generally contribute to one or two SXL projects before they graduate, it is very difficult to retain knowledge inside the company. It makes our alumni network of over 1000 students an even more invaluable resource. They act as mentors, and continuously reinvest in the company.”