Ep. 48: Three Squirrels: The Nutty World of Chinese D2C Brands


In episode 48 of TechBuzz China, co-hosts Ying-Ying Lu and Rui Ma take a look at the direct-to-consumer, or D2C, brands in China. Specifically, they highlight one of the early winners of the business model: Three Squirrels, a Chinese internet snack brand that started off with selling nuts and went public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange last week with a market cap of close to $2 billion. Though the company has not been covered much in English, it has been all the buzz in China’s tech community, and is a story that our co-hosts think is good for demonstrating both the similarities and the differences in the rise of D2C in the U.S. and China. 

Rui and Ying-Ying begin by explaining what they mean by the “snack market” in China. Though estimates differ on the market size, as well as the definitions of the market itself, our co-hosts agree that the market is enormous as well as highly fragmented. Enter CEO Liaoyuan Zhang (章燎原), whose background prior to founding Three Squirrels — in contrast to many of the founders we have featured so far on TechBuzz — was decidedly unprivileged and unremarkable. He was a street vendor, motorcycle taxi operator, and more, before being hired into a firm that sold nuts and eventually being promoted all the way up to managing director for sales. 

Listen to find out: What insights did Zhang glean from his experiences in sales, and in the nut industry? Why do we say that Zhang had the right idea (investing into the Chinese version of D2C brands) and the right timing (early 2012) for starting Three Squirrels? How has Zhang’s genius for marketing fueled the growth of the brand? What about the company’s obsession with intellectual property? What reasons other than branding did Kathy (徐新), the founder of Capital Today who led the company’s Series B, give for investing? Overall, what were and are the company’s weaknesses? Finally, how does the story of Three Squirrels converge with what we are seeing in the U.S. with direct-to-consumer brands such as Warby Parker, Dollar Shave Club, Glossier, Kylie Cosmetics, and more? 

As always, you can find these stories and more at pandaily.com. If you enjoy our content, please do let us know by leaving us an iTunes review, liking our Facebook page, and tweeting at us at @techbuzzchina! Thank you also to our listeners over at our partner, dealstreetasia.com.

We are grateful for our patient and talented producers, Shaw Wan and Kaiser Kuo, and for our wonderful interns, Wang Menglu and Mindy Xu. Thank you!