As we worked to launch our blog, my colleagues urged me to write a story about how we got started. That’s not something I wanted to do. Honestly I felt that our story is nothing special, nothing significant, nothing spectacular, and it is not worth sharing. But I was reminded that by writing about our story, we may help customers gain insight into our business, and give new customers more confidence to use our service. After much consideration, I decided to share our story in this newly opened space.
I want to start by saying that our story has the humblest of beginnings. It started in my very modest house in Sugar Land, Texas, the southwest suburb of Houston. I wish I could say that it started in the garage. It didn’t. It started in the study. Without air conditioning, I wouldn’t have survived the hot Texas summers in the garage. I have always wondered whether HP, Google and all those behemoth companies that started in their founder’s garage really became big because of their origin in the garage. Like perhaps all of you, I don’t think so.
It was late September 2003. I was invited to attend the National Day reception at the Chinese Consulate in Houston. I talked to a casual acquaintance, a visa officer at the consulate. Having seen me at the visa office a few times before, she assumed that I worked for a visa service agency. I did not. I was a partner of a Vancouver based tour company that sent American tourists to China. It was my responsibility to help process Chinese visa applications for our customers. I had seen people at the visa office with bags full of passports but never thought much about it. So when the visa officer told me that their new policy should help the business of visa companies like “ours,” I immediately sensed an opportunity. The new policy was, starting May 1 of that year, the Chinese Embassy in America had stopped accepting visa applications by mail. From that time on, Chinese visa applicants must either apply in person or through a third party agency.
Coming home from the reception, I immediately took action. First, I needed a domain name. After searching and comparing, I decided on www.mychinavisa.com. Then I needed a business name. Given the nature of the planned service, I settled on the most direct and unambiguous one: China Visa Service Center. The next step was to build a website. Since I am almost entirely computer illiterate, and I didn’t have the money to hire a web developer, I was faced with the first major hurdle of building the company. After some research, to my great relief, I found that the website registrar had templates for website building. All I had to do was to pick a style and fill in the blanks. With this tool, I was able to build and launch my website in just a few hours.
A week after the website was launched, in early October 2003, I came home to find a FedEx envelope lying at the door. I had my first customer, a trading company in Atlanta, Georgia. To this day, I still don’t know how they found us and, more importantly, how they had the courage to mail their passports to a perfect stranger without even a phone call. I never asked, but they have remained our loyal customer ever since.
Over the years, we were able to build and maintain a steady and loyal customer base. In the beginning, I had to do almost everything by myself—phone calls, emails, invoicing, shipping, you name it. My wife Cindy helped by running daily trips to the Chinese Consulate. I talked to all our customers on the phone and was able to remember the names of many of them. I can still recognize the voices of many customers and recall their names.
As a Chinese saying goes, all beginnings are the most difficult. At first we were getting about 20, 30 or 40 applications a month, hardly enough to sustain a business. Then came May 2004. Barely six months into our existence, we had more than 500 customers in one month! I started to get phone calls from people who told me they heard many good things about us. Word of mouth, I realized, is the best marketing we can get. It reminded me that we must always maintain a high level of customer service. The founder of a large US company once said, the secret to building a successful business is simple: treat your employees well; treat your customers well; and have reasonable and competitive prices. I have never forgotten that and have used it to build my own business.
As we steadily grew, I moved the business out of my house and rented an office in Houston in August 2004, 10700 Richmond Avenue, where our Houston office still remains. And I hired my first employee. In the meantime we were building a stable and loyal customer base. In 2008, five years after our inception, I started to consider expanding our service into other cities. My goal was to have an office in every city where there is a Chinese Consulate. However, opening branch offices requires a lot of dedication and financial resources, and a little courage too. After much consideration and consulting with friends and experts, I decided to take the big step. In 2009, we opened two branch offices, in San Francisco and Chicago. Since then, we have branched out to Washington DC (2011), New York (2012) and Los Angeles (2013). We are the only specialized Chinese visa agency with offices in all six cities where there is a Chinese Embassy or Consulate. In the process, I’ve had the good fortune to hire and retain a team of loyal, capable and customer-friendly employees. Without them, we would not be where we are today.
In the upcoming weeks, months and years, I will continue to share our stories in this space. I will write about the ever changing Chinese visa policies, the many little anecdotes, how we survived through Hurricane Katrina and the power outage in Houston that lasted for 10 days. I thank you in advance for paying attention to this new forum and hope you would be kind enough to leave your comments and share your stories. At China Visa Service Center we will always maintain the highest standard of customer service and provide our dear customers a pleasant experience.