Christoph featured in SHANGHAI STAR

SHANGHAI STAR. 2005-07-07

EVER dreamed of ditching your 9-to-5 job, starting your own company and riding off into the sunset on the galloping Shanghai economy? Christoph Lienke has gone one step farther: he’s done it all while actually having fun.

The Berlin native, co-founder of a thriving photo production house, is living the dream of many a China expatriate who, though surrounded by the glitter of opportunity, is stuck in a lackluster office job. After years in the work-a-day world – from factory jobs to corporate gigs to bartending – in his native Germany, the United Kingdom and United States, Lienke heard Shanghai calling.

“I wanted to do something completely different,” said Lienke, a congenitally friendly 36-year-old with an easy smile. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to go somewhere the economy was doing well. But I also wanted personal change. I wanted to learn.”

That made China an easy choice. “I had a connection to China because of my martial arts,” said Lienke, who had begun studying kungfu, tai chi and qigong at age 15 in Berlin. So, in winter 2002, he made an exploratory trip to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong “to see if I could really live here”.

Best decision

It was quickly clear that he not only could, but should. On his second day in the country, Lienke met a professional headhunter at a German party, and was hired soon after by a German manufacturing firm in Shanghai.

At the same party, he unknowingly made another German connection that would shape the direction of his life in China. After chatting with a friendly fellow German, the woman offered to put Lienke in touch with her boyfriend, Laurenz Wagener, who was working in marketing for a Chinese online company.

Lienke soon followed up with a call. Wagener was immediately impressed with the stranger’s initiative. “It was a good first impression,” said Wagener, 28. “I thought: ‘He’s a pretty good cold-caller.’ That’s something I’ve never liked; I’m not good at it.”

At the time, the idea of forming a company together was years away. But Wagener knew then that Lienke, who earned a degree in marketing and communication from a university in Munich, was someone with whom he could work. “We have skills that complement each other,” he said.

Less than two years later, in July 2004 over another lunch, Wagener popped the question. “He said, ‘Hey – what do you think about starting a company?”‘ recalled Lienke. Wagener also remembers that lunch, during which they decided to give it a go and mulled several ideas for their new business. The one that ended up making the most sense was the production house – a one-stop shop for companies in need of photos (usually of products) for in-house publications, catalogues and advertisements. And so Rimagine was born.

“It sounds too good to be true,” Lienke said recently over a plate of zucchini fritters and a Greek salad at a Xintiandi bistro. “But saying yes to Laurenz was the best decision I’ve made in 10 years.”

The pals both took the title of general manager, while a third partner, China native Jiang Lei, became director of operations. In picking a name, they played on the creative side of their business. “The ‘R’ is for re-invent,” said Lienke. “We wanted to reinvent how to produce pictures.”

Successful partnership

Starting with a workforce of two operating out of their respective apartments, Rimagine now has a staff of 15, a big new office near Jing’An Temple and a client list that includes IKEA and Elle Magazine. The company, which has a small stable of international photographers, both manages the photo shoots and handles the processing, retouching and digital imaging afterwards.

Recent contracts have included everything from retouching photos for skincare ads to sending photographers to production plants in Guangzhou to take pictures of machinery.

Wagener’s instincts about complementary personalities proved correct. These days Wagener is content to handle strategy, concepts and paperwork (Lienke’s most hated chore), while his partner loves nothing more than to shuttle around town, lingering over long lunches with potential clients. “It’s not the greatest pleasure for me to approach people I don’t know,” said the soft-spoken Wagener. “He’s so outgoing; when he goes out, he always comes back with 20 namecards.”

Maintaining balance is a running theme for the pair. While the Rimagine staff puts in the long hours and occasional six-day work weeks needed to grow a new business, Lienke and Wagener try to offset the punishing schedule with regular staff dinners and a ritual of celebrating all employees’ birthdays with cake and a party.

If the path all sounds too smooth, Lienke is quick to note there have been obstacles along the way.

One of his biggest challenges has been figuring out and adapting to the differences between Chinese and Western clients. “With the Chinese clients, it can be very chaotic. They’ll call and say, ‘Can you do it now?”‘ said Lienke. “We don’t work that way; it’s a totally different mentality.”

Local clients have a hands-on approach that includes personal visits to the office; Lienke hopes that as the company continues to work with Asian customers, trust and understanding will grow. “They come over, they want to see what we do. They’re on the sets during shoots. With international clients, we’ll give a briefing and then they just trust us to get it done.

That’s about as close as you’ll come to glimpsing Lienke’s negative side. “He’s not a complainer, he’s a problem solver,” said Wagener. “He’s very positive, very optimistic. He’s always interested in meeting new people and having good conversations with them, and seeing new things.”

Workaholic freedom

While the affable Lienke can schmooze with the best of them, he is strict and disciplined when it comes to another arena: his body. Instead of the martial arts he once loved, he now spends about two hours each morning practising yoga and meditation. “It’s not only the work, but the city that can take your energy,” he explained. “I need it for my balance.”

To that end, Lienke tries to sleep at least seven hours a night and makes regular visits to a traditional Chinese medicine doctor. “He checks my yin and yang, and he gives me terrible-tasting medicine,” he said. The foul potion, cooked up by his ayi, is imbibed daily. In addition, Lienke doesn’t smoke and rarely drinks.

“Anything that’s important to him, it’s always 100 per cent, he’s very radical,” Wagener said. “He’s very enduring and very strict. He has a lot of discipline.”

Among the greatest pleasures in Lienke’s life are good friends and good food, though his eating habits are often the butt of good-natured ribbing by those good friends. A self-described vegetarian for the last three years, he makes a notable exception – for mutton! – because his trusted TCM doctor advised him it is good for his health.

Currently in a long-distance relationship that leaves him the freedom to be a workaholic but takes its toll on his phone bill with daily calls to Germany, Lienke’s time will be further stretched this summer when his brother, a 31-year-old lawyer, moves to Shanghai. (His parents live in Munich, as does a 39-year-old sister.)

When Lienke talks about projections for the future – professional and otherwise – it becomes clear he isn’t just goal-oriented in the world of business. “I want to have four kids – at least four,” he said. Lienke also hopes to one day adopt a Chinese baby girl. “China gave me so much personal growth and understanding; I’d like to give something back to China,” he said, adding, “And, of course, they’re cute. They’re wonderful!”

For the foreseeable future, however, Lienke’s life will revolve around his other baby: Rimagine, which he says has yet to turn a profit but is meeting projected earning targets. “We don’t think success comes in the short term,” explained his partner, Wagener. “You need to consistently work hard, but not so hard that you collapse. It’s a slow take-off, a plane rather than a rocket.”

As the pair continue their slow but steady ascent, Lienke is cautiously optimistic. “Until now it’s a good story,” he said, his broad smile tempered with humility. “But we have to prove now that it’s a sustainable business, that it really works.