Vincent Kobler: The Road to Entrepreneurship in China

Donna Kelley, Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship, Babson College, USA talks about the development of her case, Vincent Kobler: The Road to Entrepreneurship in China.

Donna Kelley

Why this case?

There were three drivers for this case. The first was to show how a student can become an entrepreneur after graduating, the second was about starting a business in China and the third was to illustrate the path one takes to become a successful entrepreneur. Our Babson president, Leonard Schlesinger, had been promoting the concept of 'Entrepreneurial Thought and Action,' where an entrepreneur uses his resources at hand, and what and who he knows, and just starts doing something: learning and adjusting, rather than planning it all out ahead of time. I felt that Vincent Kobler's story could illustrate this logic, given that he started a few businesses before hitting on EmporioAsia. This is also why I focused the case more on Vincent, the entrepreneur, rather than the business.

Making contact

I met Vincent, a graduate of Babson, in Shanghai when I accompanied a group of MBA students on a study abroad course to China. Vincent was an entrepreneur during his studies, and then became an entrepreneur after graduating.

Five months after first meeting Vincent, I was in Shanghai teaching Babson undergraduates who were spending the semester in Russia and China. Vincent was a guest speaker in my class about entrepreneurship in China and the students were excited to learn how a Babson graduate went into entrepreneurship right after graduating, particularly in China. Usually students are advised to work first after graduation to some get experience before starting a business. What we've found at Babson, however, is that students often start businesses before, during, and just after their college years. Vincent did this very successfully and I thought it would set a good example for the students to see the path he followed into entrepreneurship.

After Vincent spoke with my class in Shanghai, I emailed him and mentioned that I thought his story would make a great case. He replied to say that he was interested in this and we started planning the case.

Researching and writing the case

First I emailed Vincent my proposal for the case, describing the positioning and main themes. I did this both to get his comments on the proposal but to also have him aware of the things I wanted to cover.

I did some background research on the EmporioAsia website, and then arranged a phone interview with Vincent. Before I talked with him, I emailed him some general questions. When we talked, however, several interesting insights came up, and we followed these areas a little further: for example, the relationship between Vincent and Mr Tang when they started the art gallery during Vincent's sophomore year.

As I started writing the case, I emailed Vincent a few additional questions. Also, during this time, I went to Beijing for a few weeks to teach at Tsinghua University. I made a stop in Shanghai on my way home, and interviewed him in person, getting more detail, and touring his office, which gave me a sense of the atmosphere he promoted in his business. I then sent Vincent several drafts of the case so he could clarify areas or make suggested changes. He was incredibly enthusiastic and helpful during this process.

The only difficulty I encountered during the case writing process was dealing with disclosing financial information, which case writers usually want to include, but that can often be an issue with a private enterprise. Vincent was hesitant about including financial details about EmporioAsia or Publicis, the acquiring company. Ultimately, we decided that because the case was really about Vincent himself, more than the company he started, that we could work without financials. With so much information being available over the internet, though, students could do background research of their own and find some numbers on Publicis or its Leo Burnett subsidiary.

Vincent KoblerWe did a first run of the case in Shanghai when I was teaching the Entrepreneurship in China course again the following year. I videoed Vincent talking with the class and later making a presentation at his office when the students went there for a tour.

Based on the initial run-through I haven't needed to make any modifications to the case. I may however make some revisions to the teaching note. For example, an interesting point that came up in the initial case discussion is the possibility of Vincent becoming an angel investor, as one option for his next steps. Vincent confirmed that he was, in fact, starting to make some investments in start-ups and was searching for additional investment opportunities.

Teaching objectives

A key objective is to illustrate the concept of Entrepreneurial Thought and Action (ETA) through the examination of who Vincent was, what he knew, and who he knew - and how this foundation developed through his experience. I believe this objective was met because the case illustrates how Vincent evolves over time with his early business ventures, and how these early experiences contributed to his success with EmporioAsia. Another concept relating to effectual logic is the concept of 'affordable loss' - that entrepreneurs don't necessarily risk more than they can afford to lose. Vincent leveraged his resources wisely and did not really overextend his risk exposure beyond his comfort level. One example is his choice to grow the company organically and with money from founders, family and friends.

I also want students to place themselves in the role of the entrepreneur, considering some of the decisions Vincent faced along the way, like his choices regarding financing and eventually selling his business, as well as what he could do next - alternative paths for his future. This case can illustrate the range of factors that go into the funding decision: not just the trade-off with growth, but also the availability of certain financing avenues in China at the time, personal preferences, etc - there's not a single logic around financing a business.

In looking at Vincent's next steps, the students can circle back to the path he's taken and, from an ETA perspective, what next moves might be possible or attractive for him. Because Vincent became an entrepreneur directly from graduating, I believe students can make the connection to their own situation and their future career paths beyond graduation.

The case could be used in a new ventures course to illustrate the path of an entrepreneur. It brings an international element to such a course, which is valuable in teaching students to think from a borderless perspective. The case could therefore also be useful in an international-focused entrepreneurship course. In addition, the case is relevant for a managing growth course, where the entrepreneur has grown and sold his business, and is now in the role of Managing Director of a subsidiary of a large global advertising agency, considering the next steps for the business and in his career path.

Any advice?

To focus your research consider the case theme early on, but leave some room for discovering interesting insights during your investigation and allowing the case theme to evolve.

Case details

Click on the case title to view further details and, where available, an educator preview copy.

Vincent Kobler: The Road to Entrepreneurship in China
Donna Kelley
Babson College
Ref 657-C10
Teaching note
Ref 657-T10

About the author

Donna Kelley is an Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at Babson College, and holds the Frederic C. Hamilton Chair in Free Enterprise. e

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