A New Era at The Nanfang Begins Today

But plenty of mistakes were made along the way

Cam MacMurchy , February 9, 2015 12:24pm (updated)

Today is a really big day for me personally, my co-founder at The Nanfang, Ewan Christie, and for the entire team that works so hard on this project.

When we started The Nanfang back in 2011, we did absolutely everything wrong. We made every possible mistake a start-up website could make: we cut corners on design and development costs, we were overly ambitious, we implemented every hairbrained idea we came up with, and we had no business model. Worse, we were incredibly naive. We felt that, if we just built a community website in Southern China with jobs, events, classifieds, forums, dining and nightlife listings, and some translations from the Chinese media, we’d be inundated with traffic. All we had to do was build it. Yes, we actually thought that.

Our first website was, well… let’s just say we tried. We hired a web development firm in the United Kingdom that we later discovered was outsourcing the work to a tiny team in Ahmedabad, India. The quality was shoddy, which led to us being hacked by a teenager in Iran. I actually sought the kid out on Facebook, and we had an awkward conversation in which he explained our site was so easy to break into that he just couldn’t resist. The teen managed to knock us offline for more than a month, which didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the quality of the development work. (Good thing traffic was low enough that hardly anyone noticed.)

The original Nanfang from 2011.

The original Nanfang from 2011.

We got back on our feet with new developers and a fresh-looking site later in 2012, but kept the same original plan. We spent dozens of hours re-designing log-in functionality, event uploading forms with recurring events calendars (talk about a hassle!), job classifications and more. In some ways we succeeded, as traffic to our non-news sections continued to climb, but in many ways we didn’t. We didn’t understand our audience or the broader market, we weren’t responding to changes fast enough, and we didn’t have a sustainable plan. Like so many founders, we spent years trying to reconcile what we felt the community needed with our own limited resources and capabilities. I still maintain the community needs what we were trying to build, but we didn’t have the experience to deliver it at a high enough level to be sustainable. (This was a sobering realization). We had different strengths, and had to align our goals with our abilities if we wanted to make a difference. 

So, over the last year, we gave The Nanfang a lot of thought. What do we do best? Why do people come to our site? What value can we add? What do we want this to look like five years from now? How can we turn this project into something sustainable?

More than 92 per cent of our traffic comes for our stories, which gave us a good indication of which way to go. So we began a debate on what to get rid of. Surely, we said, we should keep our dining and nightlife listings pages? I mean, we have 1,500 of them! It took months of work to put them in there, and we don’t want all that effort to go to waste, do we? What about jobs? We have a growing jobs section! Events? More and more people are uploading their own events to our database; do we want to cut them off just as the section is gaining momentum? We had debates about each category, but those discussions continually lead to the same conclusion: focusing on these other things distracted us from what we do best. So we whittled The Nanfang down to its essence: stories. News items, translations, commentary, perspectives, and stories about China. This is why people come, day after day. So we decided to put all of our energy into one thing: making The Nanfang the best site on the web for stories about China.

It turns out we wasted a lot of time over the years on a lot of things that didn’t work out. We’ll probably make more mistakes and waste more time in the months and years ahead. But we now have a focus, a plan, a dose of badly needed and hard-earned experience, and a beautiful new website to go along with it. That’s a lot more than we had a year ago.

We are extremely pleased at the support The Nanfang has received, particularly in the lead-up to this re-launch. We have more than a dozen bloggers who will write or have their content syndicated with us starting today. There are some big names, too, like Bill Bishop of the famed Sinocism newsletter (a must read each day), the silver-tongued Big Lychee in Hong Kong, Michael Turton in Taiwan, Jeremiah Jenne of Granite Studio fame, the amazing Suzanne Pepper, Trey McArver, Mary Ann O’Donnell and many more. 

It’s also important for us to thank our sponsors: Doctors Beck and Stone have been incredible and have supported us for over a year. ExpressVPN has also teamed up with us for the re-launch to give away free VPN service for a year to three lucky winners. All you have to do is sign-up to our new newsletter to enter! (We won’t spam you, I promise). 

I know some of you who relied on us for listings, events, jobs, and classifieds in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Dongguan will be disappointed that those sections simply vanished. If we had unlimited resources, we could’ve built those sections out properly; but we don’t, so we had to make some hard decisions. In the meantime, our favourite place for listings remains That’s PRD, which does a great job in Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

We remain proudly based in South China with writers located all over the world. While our coverage will expand across the entire nation, we also plan to beef up coverage in our own backyard. This is where most of us live and work, so it’s close to our hearts. Plus, it’s the most beautiful part of China (yes, I’ll debate you on this in the comments).

Please let us know if you come across any bugs, have any ideas for content, or just general suggestions to make the site better. 

On that note, onward and upward. A new era for The Nanfang begins today.