Baidu woke up early but was late to market — phrase of the week

Society & Culture

Baidu had a head start in self-driving cars but may have wasted its lead, and there’s a Chinese proverb for that.

chinese market
Photo by Les Anderson

Baidu has dominated — even monopolized — China’s internet search business since Google exited the China market in 2010. The company was previously the largest of the trifecta of China’s original internet giants known as BAT: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.

Over the years, Baidu has tried to diversify away from its core business and into emerging sectors, from driverless cars to livestream ecommerce. It’s often an early mover, investing heavily in new technologies.

But Baidu’s recent investments are often described in entrepreneur circles and in the press in China with this saying:

Got up early but was late to market
qǐ ge dà zǎo, gǎn ge wǎn jí

This is a typical use case, from Sohu:

Baidu does not have a long-term vision. It was one of the earliest companies to have a driverless car strategy. Although it made these early moves, Baidu failed to capitalize on them and lost out to others.


Backstory and translation

This phrase is a Chinese proverb (谚语 yànyǔ), which is a kind of colloquial phrase (俗语 súyǔ) that is not normally traced back to a particular written work, but is widely known and described as being “from the people” (民间 mínjiān). There’s usually a life lesson to be drawn from it.

The proverb comes from a story of a boy in a farming village. He notices others in the village getting rich from selling crops in a nearby city. So he decides to follow, but instead of farming crops, he digs a pond and farms fish. Eventually, when his fish are large enough to take to market, he decides to wake up before dawn the following day to get to market early.

In the early morning, he tries to catch his fish but realizes his nets are broken. So he has to fix them. Having spent hours fixing his nets and rounding his fish up, he arrives at the market around lunchtime. Then he realizes he needs a bucket to keep his fish fresh and spends the whole afternoon looking for one.

By the evening, he has everything ready. But by that time the market is closing, and all the customers have gone home: He got up early but was late to market.

Nowadays, the proverb is often used to describe a company or an investor that makes early and aggressive moves into a new sector, but is not well prepared and doesn’t take advantage of its early-mover position.

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Andrew Methven