US returnee creates market for O2O pet-dog service

Liu Zhixiong CEO of HaoGougou Photo provided to

It has been nearly eight years since Liu Zhixiong returned to China after studying and working in the US for six years. While he made up his mind to come home instead of staying in the US and obtaining a citizenship certificate, many of his friends thought he was crazy.

Yet, for Liu, it was just the right time to come home where he felt more comfortable and confident to realize his dream.

Having tried and struggled with several projects in the past few years, mostly related with bridging the Chinese and US markets, he is now in charge of the operation of HaoGougou APP, a successful O2O pet-dog service platform targeting the Chinese pet-dog market, to help dog owners find nearby grooming services for their pets. In early 2015, the team started to provide door-to-door grooming services for pet dogs.

Choosing adventure over comfort

“It was hard to do something that you really wanted to do while you apply for the US citizenship. It was like doing nothing but sticking to one circle,” Liu recalled the moment when he decided to come back to China eight years ago.

Liu went to America and studied computer science in 2002. While many post-90’s Chinese students who study abroad are funded by their parents, students like Liu born in the 70s mostly had to depend on themselves financially.

While Liu studied in the US, he once sold Chinese paintings and calligraphy which he purchased from China, and became the largest retailer on eBay. It was from that experience that he began to see the great opportunity behind China’s Internet industry and get to know about social media and online shopping.

After he received the master’s degree he worked at fatTail as a software architect for over two years until 2007 when he returned to China.

As there was green card quota for foreign employees with professional background in 2007, many Chinese students like Liu chose to work in America, applying for an H1B visa and finally getting a US citizenship certification. Liu, however, didn’t want to spend the most important 10 years of his life doing something he didn’t like but just to get a US ID card.

Before Liu studied in the US, he had worked in CRM product research area for two years after graduating from Beijing Institute of Technology in 1998, and he felt more comfortable and confident about doing things in China.

“You never feel that you are at home when in a foreign country. This place is my home. Even though you know this place is not perfect, you are much more familiar with how things are run and how to get access to resources here,” Liu told the in his office in Haidian district of Beijing.

Unlike many entrepreneurs who had to start from scratch, Liu was at a higher starting point having both a good project and financial support from his previous company in the US. However, the problem was that what he was doing was “not at the right historical period” as he put it. The difference in the business environment between China and US, and people’s indifference toward new things somehow disappointed Liu’s ambition.

He tried to help China’s medium and small-sized companies promote their advertisements on US website platforms through the advanced ad system Liu brought back from the US. While it is quite a competitive project even in today’s Chinese market, few companies saw the huge potential in overseas market and didn’t want to spend too much on it at that time.

But the most difficult part for Liu after coming home was to “fight against his own weakness”. “For many returnees who have studied and worked abroad for many years, instead of those who only studied there for one or two years, the toughest thing to overcome was their own attitude. On the one hand, they did not like China’s social system; on the other, they always tried to escape when confronted with difficulties.”

The devastating moment came as Yunju, a twitter-like social platform Liu started for some stars to tweet their photos and communicate with fans, was shut down in 2009 due to the rise of Sina Weibo, China’s largest social media, and Liu began to rethink what he was doing and where he was heading. “I went to Xiangshan (a mountain in Beijing) alone, and it was that moment when I began to think calmly and independently.”

Using US experience

In 2012 Liu began developing Haogougou APP, a pioneering online-to-offline pet-dog service platform in China, though many thought the idea to combine pet-dog service industry with O2O commerce was like Arabian Nights.  

Liu came up with the idea to start an O2O pet-dog service platform while he helped his former US employer to develop SlimDoggy APP, which aims to help owners track their dog’s activities and food consumption so as to manage their dogs’ weight.

“When we designed SlimDoggy, I saw that there was a huge pet-dog market in China, but blending the O2O business model and pet-dog service sector was a blank area,” Liu said.

Online-to-offline commerce, or O2O, is a business strategy becoming popular since 2013 and drawing potential customers through online channels to physical stores or services. The boom of O2O business model is transforming not only the way people live but also the operation of traditional businesses.

Before the HaoGougou APP launched door to door services including grooming, bathing, nail trimming for pet dogs at the beginning of 2015, they had been running an official WeChat account named HaoGaougou88 which earned them over 500,000 members who, Liu said, became the first group of customers of HaoGougou APP.

The combination of O2O business model and China’s pet-dog industry not only helps to increase the income of the professional pet groomers, but also makes pet caring more convenient for dog owners by providing services at dog owners’ houses, Liu added.

During the interview with, Liu said that HaoGougou project is also planning to march into the US market, though the pet-dog industry has already developed into a rather mature stage in America.

“If someday we start our business in the US, we will definitely take the American people’s demand into consideration, but still based on the O2O commercial model. For example, the number of pet dogs in the US is larger than that in China. So while the demand for grooming service is little, we would focus on offering washing and bathing service for pet-dogs instead,” he said.

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