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American entrepreneur bitten by the 'China bug'

LAW school will always be there, but there's a window of opportunity for China business, and American entrepreneur Joseph Constanty has seized the moment for business networking. Sam Riley reports.

For American entrepreneur Joseph Constanty, there was only one thing to do as he contemplated the failure of his first business venture - have a beer.

Constanty was just 27 when his first business idea, a mini-golf course in Shanghai, fizzled on Valentine's Day in 2007.

The Lucky Greens course was set in a lush fake jungle on a 100-square-meter area in the Cloud Nine Shopping Mall next to the Zhongshan Park Metro Station.

It had all the makings of a winner. The locals were going nuts for golf, the expats would love it, and it was a fun family outing in a city with not too many options.

But it never panned out.

The course was one of the mall's first tenants and it never got the foot traffic. Chinese parents preferred to watch their children than play a "kids' game" and the broad marketing campaign failed to hit the mark. Constanty dully watched the money ebb away.

Finally, when the electricity was shut off, there was an impromptu wake for Lucky Greens. "They shut our electricity off because we hadn't paid rent in two weeks and we had all this beer in the refrigerator and we didn't want it to go bad," Constanty jokes. "So, we got all the employees together and we played poker in this deserted mall until they turned all the lights off and that was my Valentine's Day in 2007."

But while sitting with colleagues and employees sipping a warm beer, Constanty was already focusing on his next big business idea.

Just two months after the demise of Lucky Greens, Constanty and his partner Ed Kim started NextStep, a business that aims to provide a forum for entrepreneurs to meet and swap ideas.

For the last two years they have run a regular social networking event on every second Tuesday of the month. They also hold monthly business forums, where like-minded entrepreneurs can exchange information on a particular topic.

Business efforts

Last year Constanty also launched NextStep Directory, a business directory that he hopes to expand to other cities around China.

"A week after we closed the Lucky Greens doors, Ed, myself and a friend Wen Ying sat down and thought what we are going to do, what does Shanghai really need that it doesn't have," he recalls.

"And in all of our business efforts we had never gone out and made an effort to talk with other business owners and expats to network and learn from them. So we thought, 'Let's find a way to get them all in one room together'," he says.

But the Philadelphia native's business career began in the States in the rather more risk-averse atmosphere of an insurance company where he says he was entertaining clients and "working on his golf game."

But Constanty had set his sights on China after spending part of his university studies in Beijing as a 20-year-old. He arrived in 2000 and, he says, was instantly "bitten by the China bug."

He also spent seven months studying finance and politics at the University of Hong Kong before graduating in 2002.

Knowing he would eventually return to the Chinese mainland, he quit his insurance job and moved to Taiwan in 2003 where he studied Chinese language while making ends meet teaching English.

Constanty had planned to go to law school in the States and decided to fill in a few months taking an internship at the Shanghai law firm Lehman, Lee and Xu in 2004.

But he never made it to law school, instead meeting his eventual business partner and fellow intern Kim.

"We used to fill in our days, talking about all these great business ideas for China, while at the same time learning a lot about business law here and how to set up a business," Constanty says. "We both decided that law school had to wait."

While all that is left of Lucky Greens is a Website that still gets the odd inquiry, their decision to chance their arm in China is looking promising.

They launched NextStep business directory and networking site ( last summer, and it has quickly grown to more than 8,000 members. As many as 12,000 people have attended at least one of their events and they get 12,000 unique visits a month from people looking for businesses and services.

Constanty and his brains trust have big plans for the directory.

"When you are looking for information, whether for your social life or business, it is not very well organized," he says. "The directory was a way of trying to do that and it still has a long way to grow in Shanghai, Beijing and all over China and Asia.

"There is a lot of competition in Shanghai for this, but Shanghai is only one location."

The keen soccer player and marathon runner says that work and making his business model a success consume much of his time and energy.

"I am constantly talking to people about their businesses, how to make their businesses work and their business ideas," he says, adding that there is a core group of entrepreneurs in Shanghai who are focused on seizing opportunities before they are gone.

"I always say law school will never go out of business but an opportunity in China may only have a window that is open for a short time and I don't want to miss that," he concludes.

Joseph Constanty

Nationality: USA

Age: 29

Profession: Business owner


Description of self:

Opportunistic risk-taker.

Favorite place: The roof-top terrace at MiND Offices.

Strangest sight:

Everything is a bit strange.

Worse experience: Missing my flight home to the US on Christmas Eve 2007.

Motto for life: Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. - T.S. Eliot

How to improve Shanghai:

More parks where walking on the grass is permitted. There is something about walking on grass that is relaxing.

Advice to newcomers:

Get out and meet people. Building your network early will pay dividends later.


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