January 12, 2012, 9:02 AM

A first-hand look at the wide world of e-commerce

A young French entrepreneur gathers valuable insights on a global e-commerce tour.

Most e-commerce professionals get their start working on a narrow aspect of online retailing, crafting copy for paid search ads, for example, or coding product pages. Thibaud Clément is taking a different path.

Clément, a 23-year-old aspiring e-commerce entrepreneur, is spending a year traveling the world and meeting with e-commerce executives wherever he goes. He plans to start his own business and hopes what he learns between now and October will provide insights that he can turn into a business plan.

Even before he began his trip last fall in Asia, he was already something of a citizen of the world. A native of France, Clément received his MBA last year from the University of Ottawa in Canada. While there he took a course taught by Harley Finkelstein, chief platform officer at Shopify, a provider of e-commerce software. When Clément was assigned to do a consulting project with a business he turned to Shopify, and developed a plan for how Shopify could identify countries where its expansion opportunities were particularly promising. That gave him the e-commerce bug.

Clément kicked off his e-commerce pilgrimage in China in November, spending most of his time in Beijing and Shanghai. He has since traveled to South Korea, now is in Japan and will soon move on to Hong Kong. Other planned stops on his tour include Thailand, Australia, the United States and South America.

Wherever he goes he seeks out online retailers and other e-commerce experts to learn about their businesses, and he’s come up with some valuable information. For example, in South Korea he learned that if you want to send e-mail to consumers in that country you better have e-mail servers based in South Korea. Good to know for any retailer aiming to sell to consumers in that nation, which is among the global leaders in consumer use of the Internet and advanced mobile phones.

In China, he learned that there is a big opportunity serving the large rural population, hundreds of millions of consumers who live in towns and villages too small to have major bricks-and-mortar shopping centers. China’s economic boom means there are many consumers in these rural areas with money to spend, but little opportunity to spend it—except online. Plus, he learned, transportation within China is quite cheap, so it’s relatively inexpensive for retailers to move goods from a factory in the northern industrial city of Tianjin, for example, to a village in lightly populated Qinhai province in the west of China.

No doubt he’ll learn plenty more in his travels, and it will be interesting to see what Clément does with the knowledge he gathers. One thing I’m quite sure of: The e-commerce world will hear more from Thibaud Clément in the years to come.

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