Here is a short guide that has been designed to assist foreign companies operating in the healthcare and VMS industry, while exploring the Chinese market and its specificities.
China’s demand for health supplements products and more generally complementary medicines have been positively impacted by several factors such as an aging population, the COVID-19 Pandemic, an increasing disposable income, and the fast path of life with low quality of sleep, food safety, and environmental concerns, etc.
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While there is increasing demand for dietary supplements and therefore more and more opportunities arising in China, the market is still very much different than in western countries, or if looking even closely at Asian countries in general. Also, considering the market regulations and specificities, professional advice will be strongly recommended for any companies willing to expand their activities to China.
Quick Outlook of the Chinese market in 2022
While COVID-19 has led to a strong shift from offline to online consumption, China has registered a market growth of +17.2% in 2021 confirming its position as the world’s largest e-commerce market.
With close to 60% of the population being online shoppers, the current environment in China is supported by the fast development of IoT, the internet, smartphone penetration, increase trust toward online platforms, and the plurality of online payment solutions such as WeChat and Alipay… It has led the Chinese E-Commerce market to rapid growth. And according to GlobalData, its value is expected to grow at a CAGR of 11.6% up to 2025, to reach 21.4 trillion RMB ($3.3 trillion USD).
When considering E-Commerce, many of us think about major platforms such as Tmall or JD, but while being the first country to see most of its retail sales happen online, social E-Commerce has actually largely participated in the market growth with a surge of 44.1% in 2020.
Online Networks and social e-commerce on popular applications such as Douyin Tiktok, WeChat, and Little Red Book have become a complete part of Chinese people’s daily life now. They use these well-known applications to stay in touch, make payments, shop, plan vacations, and more.
Online platforms with integrated e-Commerce features such as WeChat and its mini-program offer, Little Red Book and its store, and group-buying platforms such as Pinduoduo, which has unlocked eCommerce operations in rural areas, are now the reference in terms of social e-commerce.
China’s Internet landscape and users’ behavior
China is one of the most digitally immersive environments in the world with an average of two hours and fifty-one minutes spent on average per day, per adult in 2020. A time increase of 23% compared to the previous year. And according to Statista, this screen time is expected to reach four hours by 2023…
With this in mind, and before going into details about China’s sales channel and shopping behavior, foreign companies should understand that they’ll have to adapt here to a completely different ecosystem and local conditions.
A different culture and customer behavior may affect the overall product-market fit of new entrants. If targeting elders in their domestic country, there is a high chance to experience a target audience shift while entering China.
That’s the case with anti-aging and dietary supplement products, for example, where one of the main customer segments might turn out to be Millennials. Or in another case, it’s not rare to see young adults purchasing products online directly from their parents.
China’s Healthcare Market
Since the coronavirus outbreak, consumers have shown a growing interest in their health protection. While focusing on preventing potential diseases rather than just finding a cure, they are now looking for trusted solutions to avoid being sick. A market trend typical of China’s approach to medicines has led to new opportunities for foreign brands dealing with vitamins, minerals, and dietary supplements.
General consumer awareness of healthcare and fitness has increased. People are getting more knowledgeable about nutrition and health, with growing expectations from customers toward clean labels. In addition to this, if considering the increasing purchasing power, we should expect a rising demand for safe, high-quality, organic, and custom-made products offer.
When looking at the market growth, as demonstrated in iiMedia Research on China’s Health Supplements Market, in 2015 the scale of China’s healthcare products market was only 128.2 billion RMB, and in 2019 it increased to 222.7 billion RMB, making it the second-largest consumer of health care products in the world… And according to the forecast, it should reach over 328 billion RMB in 2023.
Take note: China showed a 10% year-on-year growth rate between 2013 and 2019, which basically correspond to the US growth rate in the 1970s.
Chinese Consumers are concerned about their health
When looking at the vitamins and health supplement consumption of Chinese people, we notice that the demand for imported functional healthcare items and health supplements greatly increased among the younger generation of customers, and millennials in particular.
According to statistics from Deloitte x Tmall Global’s “post-pandemic imported market”, the use of healthcare products is incredibly high among the post-85s and post-90s generations, while the post-95s consumption growth rate is increasing. This goes hand in hand with a higher demand for healthy food.
In comparison to the pre-pandemic period, expenditures on imported vitamins and health supplements increased by 51% year-on-year in the post-90s. The growing awareness of the benefits of taking food supplements to sustain immunity, better digestion, hair and skin benefits, as well as functional assistance like sleep and focus, is driving the increase. Given the rapid lifestyle and work overload in tier 1 cities, many consumers experienced “health anxiety” symptoms.
Similarly, heavy schoolwork for students, busy work, and constant competition is impacting people’s physical health, notably by shortening their sleep time… In China, around 300 million people now experience sleep disorders, while 38% of Chinese adults suffer from insomnia. Some new trends leading to the consumption of melatonin, anti-fatigue products, vitamin C, essence oil, and others, are to reduce stress, increase energy and improve sleep quality.
What are the purchasing factors for Chinese consumers?
In the end, and according to an online survey from iimedia for vitamins and health supplements consumers in 2019, when looking at the main purchasing factors among the health supplements industry in China, we’ll take note of the following:
- Top 1: Function at 55.9%
- Top 2: Product Quality at 47.1%
- Top 3: Brand at 40.1%
- Top 4: Price at 33.5%
- Top 5: Origin at 14.3%
However, regardless of how well the products work and despite being aware of their primary issues, one of the main reasons consumers of vitamins and health supplements are frustrated is their lack of knowledge regarding which products to buy and which products on the market are best suited to their needs.
Finding the proper items may rapidly become a major difficulty for customers since brands are constantly emerging and individuals now have access to thousands of products online. Unless a customer is prepared to undertake extensive research and take the chance of discovering false information. Additionally, a lot of them lack time to perform due diligence and online research.
To face such issues, the new rising trend is about customized dietary and nutritional supplement plans. Indeed, some health supplement businesses have now made the decision to change their attention to creating customized packages for Chinese clients.
For instance, LemonBox, which emphasizes “ingredient customization” as its key feature, is presently the market leader in the personalized vitamin business model. Customers are requested to answer questions about their eating habits and health issues in online questionnaires that the firm creates using the WeChat mini-program and the Tmall program before obtaining a list of health supplements that are highly recommended. Customers may then purchase “recommended” supplements and have them transported from a bonded facility.
Health Reforms and Food safety standard for Vitamin and Health Supplements in China
According to the National Food Safety Standard, health foods correspond to food products that claim to have special health benefits while being suitable for specific groups to consume and control body function. Important to notice that healthy foods are not made to treat disorders or to be considered medicines in any case.
In general, health food products are mostly categorized into:
- Health foods with functional claims (about 60% of China’s health food market)
- Nutritional supplements (about 40% of China’s health food market).
While the first one corresponds to general food items that regulate human body functions, but are not used to treat diseases; nutritional supplements are mostly used to replenish nutrients such as vitamins or minerals.
Within these main categories, we can also distinguish four sub-categories:
- Dietary supplements: Supplementary nutrients and bioactive substances for the human body. The main raw materials are vitamins, minerals, and plant extracts.
- Traditional nourishing health food: Products prepared using traditional Chinese methods based on the concept of regulation and balance in traditional Chinese medicine.
- Sports nutrition: Products that will improve physical fitness and enhance the effect of exercises, according to the nutrition needs of different sports.
- Weight management: These products will help towards gaining or loosing weight so that the desired weight is achieved.
China’s President, Mr. Xi Jinping, has positioned health at the center of the nation’s whole policy-making machinery and has made it an official government policy to include health in all initiatives. The National Health Conference in China was the most significant national health conference in the previous 20 years. At this meeting, the administration made clear its political commitment to funding health-related initiatives.
According to President Xi, having good health is essential for both people’s personal development and economic and socially sustainable development. Therefore, he issued a warning that if healthcare concerns were not properly addressed, people’s health may be jeopardized, which may endanger China’s social stability and economic prosperity.
eCommerce: Online Selling the royal path for foreign businesses on the China Vitamin Market
The Chinese eCommerce market is the biggest in the world, with a size that is three times that of the US market. With over 1.4 billion people, the Middle Kingdom’s traditional and innovative goods, going along with the government’s protectionism, have all combined led to a thriving online and offline economy. Chinese selling festivals are starting to be adopted even in the West.
To get a better outlook on the Chinese eCommerce market, let’s start with an overview of the biggest online shopping platforms:
Selling Vitamins and health supplements with Tmall – Alibaba Group:
Launched in 2014, is the world’s largest cross-border e-commerce marketplace for international companies. It is run by Alibaba, the Chinese eCommerce giant that also owns Taobao, Lazada, and the domestic version of Tmall.
Tmall Global, unlike Tmall, is not available to domestic enterprises; instead, the platform exclusively works with international companies having an actual presence in foreign countries. To open a store on that platform, companies must have registered an international trademark, or at least get trademark authorization from the official brand owner.
Tmall Global has been recognized as a leading platform aiming to cooperate with the world’s top brands, offering high-quality items to customers. The platform intends to cater to China’s high-end consumers while answering their growing desire for high-end products and leveraging their increasing purchasing power.
Selling Vitamins in China with JD.com – Tencent:
Launch by Tencent in 2015, JD Worldwide has been created as an answer to Alibaba’s CBEC platform and therefore competes in the cross-border e-commerce market. JD Worldwide or also called, JD Global, has been succeeding by exploiting the vast user base of JD.com, which is China’s second-largest marketplace.
JD Worldwide offers almost 10 million SKUs from nearly 20,000 different brands. As an example, we’ll find their electronic products, but also nutrition and healthcare, household appliances, and automobile-related things, just to quote a few.
JD Worldwide is organized into several national and regional “pavilions.” The present focus of the worldwide cross-border e-Commerce platform is on exports.
Sell Health products in China with Social Ecommerce
Despite these being the major platforms in the market, it will still be interesting to consider sub-platforms offering e-commerce features such as:
- Little Red Book or also called: XiaoHongShu
- Douyin TikTok
Enter China Vitamin and Health Supplement Market with Cross Border Ecommerce
However, if operating within the healthcare industry (or you sell health-related products), considering the current restriction in terms of products licenses, products registration, and the importance of the brand reputation, the very large majority of foreign healthcare companies will consider their operation on the following platforms instead of local eCommerce platforms:
- Tmall Global
- JD Worldwide
These are basically the corresponding cross-border platforms for Tmall and JD.com. The main benefit for foreign companies is the ease of entrance through this CBEC model:
- A Chinese business license is not required
- Products registrations are not required
- Chinese trademarks are not required
In short, it’s the simplest way for foreign companies to enter the market.
E-Commerce logistic system: How does it work?
CBEC Bonded warehouse
The logistic solutions that come along with China’s ecosystem are constantly evolving. Import customs clearance and restrictions are the most difficult aspects of logistic solutions. Getting your goods to the buyer isn’t difficult, but factors like import licenses, product registrations, and customs restrictions may complicate the process.
For cross-border eCommerce to China, there are now two basic import models: bonded imports and direct purchase imports. The bonded imports concept may then be separated into two categories: bonded warehouse and direct mailing.
In China, a bonded warehouse is a structure or secured location in a special area monitored by customs where dutiable products are stored prior to duty payment. This typically means that goods arrive sooner.
As defined by the bonded warehouse method, products are imported in bulk into designated warehouses specifically approved for cross-border e-Commerce. Then, once consumers place an order on an online platform (example: Tmall Global), the purchased items clear customs.
Importing products listed on the Positive List has the advantage of quicker product registration and customs clearance. Furthermore, overseas merchants have the option of deferring import duty and VAT costs until the moment of sale.
Direct mailing model
The direct mailing model, on the other hand, starts when consumers make an order on a registered cross-border eCommerce website or platform. Following that, these platforms will send the order, shipping, and payment records to customs.
The items will be released from an overseas warehouse by direct mailing once VAT and customs fees have been paid, allowing them to pass through customs more promptly before being sent to the customer.
On the other hand, the speed of the process will be one main difference from the import model. Because items imported through direct purchase imports may face a more complicated registration process and customs clearance.
How important are e-Commerce operations for a Healthcare brand?
If offline operations going through pharmacy and OTC used to be popular in the last decades, the efficiency and availability of products through online retail sales had led to an important shift in terms of operational business model.
The initial stage for a new brand of health products to test the Chinese market is through online e-commerce, which is a relatively low-cost and high-yield growth channel.
From a customer perspective, cross-border channels are naturally the preferred ones as offering direct access to quality imported goods and reliable stores. From a company point of view, it’s a premium path offering low entry barriers, high visibility, and secured transaction.
CBEC is also a nice way to test the Chinese dietary supplements market and evaluate how consumers react to your products. However, keep in mind that a branding issue may be the cause of your products’ failure to sell.
Companies must understand that Chinese consumers may not need your product, since they are probably familiar with a local alternative and may not even be aware of your brand. Therefore, it is always advisable to conduct a market analysis to identify your competitors and learn how they manage to succeed.
High variety of products, free flow of information, price competitivity, and full digital access. Some key elements leading online sales not only ease commercial transactions but also convert skeptical consumers.
But what many of us may be wondering, is that despite the obvious successful development of China’s online retail sales market, what impact did the covid have on the market and its customers?
COVID-19 impact on the China market for healthcare products
Back in 2002, when the first version of the SARS virus broke out, China was already one of the world’s largest suppliers suffered a significant loss, while seeing its stock market plunging up to 15%. But as well all know, China recovered quickly from it to even get stronger than ever.
Nowadays, despite the overall anxiety touching people all around the world, and the negative impacts the COVID-19 got on sales, some sectors managed to actually benefit from it.
While working from home, Chinese consumers spent more time than ever on their smartphones and electronic devices. People that used to walk around shopping malls to purchase products are now going online. And many brands generated much more results online during these short periods of lockdown than they ever did offline, leading to not a single loss.
The coronavirus temporarily halted everyday operations and industry output. But due to their concern about getting sick, consumers in China and other countries have started ordering household goods like food and medicine online.
Chinese consumers are increasingly shopping for their preferred international clothing, accessories, and cosmetic goods as they stay at home due to health concerns.
And despite fewer restrictions on COVID-19, this trend continues to go strong. With less regulation in the medical industry, going along with the popular CBEC system, China is now back to being a hub for opportunities offering chances for your company to import products to mainland China and grow within a new market.
According to Accenture 2021 China consumer study, we’ll note 4 main trends in terms of both consumer behavior and mindset changes that have been amplified and accelerated by the recent Coronavirus outbreak:
- Everything’s about health now: People express a strong desire to pursue a healthy lifestyle by preferring healthier food consumption and increasing their practice of indoor/outdoor exercising.
- Strong digital focus: There’s now a greater reliance on digital media for interactions and activities in daily life. Customers across the world are turning to digital alternatives to satisfy essential daily requirements, from shopping to medical consultations, as they grow more at ease being “homebodies.”
- Sustainability as the new hype: We’ve noticed a stronger emphasis on sustainability while making purchases. However, because price, quality, and convenience are still the top three purchasing factors for Chinese consumers, companies must strike a balance between sustainability and these other factors to effectively attract them to buy products.
- Open to new change: Chinese customers are getting more and more open to new ways of buying and commercial interactions. A rising curiosity and willingness to experiment may lead businesses to new opportunities.
Launching your vitamin and health supplements brand in China, a step-by-step approach
Many companies come to us while considering they have a big success in western countries, so their products should therefore be a hit in China. Some others think that because they may translate some information on their products, it will play the trick and work out as well as in their domestic market.
The problem is that such an approach is based on assumption that their market fit would still be the same while entering china and that their success would then only depend on translation issues. But most of the time, this is not true.
Foreign brands should really consider the cultural gap, differences in terms of customer behavior, and digital eco-system just to quote a few… The key when entering china would here to be flexible. To put the product at an MVP level and test the market as if starting from scratch – cause that’s literally the case.
Its therefore preferable to enter China with a step-by-step approach while monitoring your investment, testing the water, and optimizing your development accordingly. Can first start by publishing content on your brand and products, to gather data and analyze what people think about it… At least, if not willing burn out all your cash.
Based on cultural differences, do not expect the same purchasing behavior in China as you may have experienced in Western countries. If we may have a direct purchasing approach more looking alike a specific mission based on a need/want we have, in China the purchasing behavior is more comparable to a social experience.
For example, if dealing with food, according to your product taste if it’s sour or sweet, it might be more suitable for some regions or others. If targeting millennials, get to know that they’re very much into custom-made products. When dealing with vitamin and health supplements or any health-related products, Chinese people will first look at your product’s function (vitamin E, vitamin C, immune system booster), then its price, and then will be checking about your brand and what people say about it…
In a nutshell, it will be very important to discover all the specificities of your target audience to not only bring out the most value to your customers but also to optimize your entry strategy and return on investment.
To attract dietary supplement customers, health care international brands need to build awareness
Imagine a Chinese company contacting you. They tell you that their company is super famous in China (although you never heard of them), and they want you to distribute their products. I guess without a recommendation, it’s going to be complicated, right? Especially if this company is not referenced on Google, and you can’t find any information about it on social media.
Well in China, it’s the same. They do not have access to most of our mainstream media and social network. So, you can already forget about Google, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Viadeo, LinkedIn, and others.
Promote your Dietary Supplement Products With Chinese Social Media
To get started in China, give the Chinese people the opportunity to know more about you. And this will go through the following platforms:
Market your Supplements in China through Wechat
Wechat is like the Chinese Facebook. Everybody uses it in China. A great messenger APP that also gets a “moment” system allowing people to share content (messages, pictures, videos) and personal feedback.
Through this app, people use “Wechat groups” to communicate solutions to their problems and therefore recommend brands or products. Not very efficient for direct advertisement but is a super tool for community management and building engagement. You can also create your own groups through the APP.
Get Maximum visibility for your health supplement brand on Weibo
Weibo: The Chinese Twitter. Not only being one of the most popular social media in China, it’s also an excellent platform to develop KOL strategy and ads campaign. If you plan to target a large audience and engage with your customers, Weibo will be a perfect tool.
Reach out to the Chinese Middle class on Xiaohongshu
XiaoHongShu, also called Little Red Book, is similar to Instagram or Pinterest. 80% of its users are female from 20 to 40 years old, with a nice purchasing power. Perfect for visuals and interactive content, this platform is a must-do if promoting cosmetics, beauty, and healthcare products.
However, we’ll note here that as a brand you won’t need to post dozens of monthly publications. 1 or 2 per week is enough… To get the most benefits from this platform, we’d recommend you cooperate with KOL and KOC to deliver online testimonials and product recommendations. A perfect platform to work out your brand reputation.
Search Engine Optimization: Baidu is the #1 search engine in China
A fundamental if you want to succeed in the Chinese health supplements market. And if people tend now to spend more time on social media than on Baidu, it will still be important for you to get minimum visibility on this platform as it can not only help to drive traffic to your online store, but also enable the development of a network of potential distributors.
In terms of content, and regardless of the platform, you can’t do a simple copy past from western social media and expect to get results in China. Everything needs to be adapted. As your marketing strategy will be a key success factor in your business development, it’s crucial to manage this part with caution.
To sum up, you’ll need to directly attract Chinese customers, you need:
- Chinese website
- Presence on Chinese social media
- Positive word of mouth and references on the Chinese Q&A platform
- Cooperation with influencers
- Online-store: Tmall Global / JD Worldwide
To sell on the Chinese vitamins and health supplement market, better find a reliable partner
Also, for such an investment, you’ll want to make sure to get the right partner. So here is a non-exhaustive list of features you should consider when choosing your TP:
- Have experience in your industry
- Understand your products
- Provide Market research to recommend you the most efficient Marketing and eCommerce strategy
- Can set up your store and optimize it based on your performances
- Be transparent regarding your monthly expenditure
- Consider your business safety while guarantying your ownership on every element they’ll create for you
- Offer daily communication with your team
- Speak English (It’s a bonus but will definitely help…)
Finally, and we can’t emphasize enough this: do not forget to work on your dietary supplements brand aside from the store. Cause if having a Tmall store can help you to be acknowledged by Chinese customers, it should not replace the development of your marketing strategy which will positively impact your traffic, conversion rate, and future ROI.
Vitabiotics: a health supplements brand’s success through Tmall
Vitabiotics, like Blackmore, has entered China health supplement market with a step-by-step approach, while focusing on building its dietary supplements brand & e-reputation and then optimizing its e-commerce performances to maximize sales. Now, it is one of the most popular brands for pregnant Chinese women.
Let’s take a look at its strategy for success in the Chinese health supplement market.
- Play on its origin: a quality Vitamins brand from the UK
Although international brands need to adapt to the market and its consumers, many foreign brands are still encouraged to play around with their foreign origin. For many Chinese people, despite local brands increasing their reputation and product quality, a renowned foreign brand is still perceived as more trustworthy than a Chinese pharmaceutical manufacturer.
Thus, we can see that in the Vitabiotics Tmall store, whereas all products displayed and information will be translated into Chinese, the packaging and official certificate & accreditation will still be introduced in English.
- Company History: Be a storyteller
While introducing the brand’s highlights from its first step to its international development and awards, Vitabiotics had an interest in sharing its story. This built a notion of trust with customers, as when purchasing healthcare products consumers will tend to favor companies with experience, awards, and legitimacy rather than the newbie that come out from nowhere.
Therefore, listing rewards and certificates in health care can help brands to win the consumer’s trust. It indicates the product has passed all the required testing stages and reviews. That it’s safe and efficient. Sharing your brand story will be a key element of your development in China.
- Powerful content to increase the brand health supplements sales
Vitabiotics also provided professional information associated with pregnancy and baby care in order to help first-time parents to take care of their children. It’s all a matter of delivering the right content to the right audience and engaging with your potential customers.
In China, young adults can’t really count on their parent’s advice to take care of their newborns. They’d rather discuss it with their friends or look for online advice and recommendation. Therefore, such context can be an opportunity for brands to build their authority in the market while delivering content to their audience.
- Transparency: share details on your products and process.
This point matter, even more, when it comes to the health industry. Each product introduction page clearly describes every detail of the products and the volume of each ingredient. It makes customers feel more comfortable when knowing what they are taking in.
- Targeting different audience
Vitabiotics has an extensive and multiple range of products for their different customers. It can be divided into several categories such as baby, mother, adult man, and elders. And all those categories can be found on the front page of the store.
This enables the customers to directly find what they’re looking for based on basic criteria. A customer experience improvement considering their time value and avoiding them to waste too much time browsing on products.
- To enter the dietary supplements market, Adapt to the Chinese language and norms
The product’s description and display are in Chinese, with a specific design following the Chinese codes. Some simple actions may seem extremely basic but are unfortunately not considered by all western brands. Customers need to get a good understanding of what you’re offering before considering any purchase, and being a foreign brand is not a USP.
- Logistics on track
China is well known for its extremely efficient logistic system, and from all the platforms present in the country people are now custom to delivery being executed within a couple of days. 2-3 days on average, up to 7 maximums.
Once an order is placed in the store, customers will access information to track the delivery in real time. And be aware that if they can’t access tracking information of their purchase or if it takes more than 7 days, you may face a very high refund rate.
As Vitabiotics did, it will therefore be strongly recommended to operate directly through bonded warehouse solutions that can be provided by the logistic suppliers or the platforms themselves. A direct mailing will be here a risky solution…
Want to introduce your brand to the Chinese dietary supplement market?
Strong from our experience in the nutritional supplement industry, our expertise has been built through the management of over 1000 projects. If looking for a partner that understands both your challenge and the healthcare market development, that can help you grow your brand and generate sales through Chinese platforms, then we may help you.
When considering new entrant challenge, our expert team will guide you in details through the CBEC process including both your logistic operations and ecommerce optimization. We will help you select the more suitable e-commerce platform for your brand.
China is a marathon, not a sprint. Qualified brands are here for long terms and target high performances. Therefore, GMA will assign you a personal manager dedicated to analyze your development capabilities but also to monitor your investment while maximizing your ROI.
We invite you to a 15min discovery call, where we will get to know if your product and qualification match customer’s expectation. Tell us your brand story and our expert will tell you your future China story. If you’ll match with our qualification process, we offer 1h free strategy consulting, and creative brainstorming.
For more details on the Chinese healthcare market and if interested to see if we could be a good match for your development in China, please feel free to contact us and talk with our consultant or apply for our 6 months brand incubator program.
How it works:
- Tell us who you are and what’s your brand story. Let us get to know each other and see if you’re made for China.
- Get to know more details on the Chinese market, how similar brands like yours are doing and get a tailor-made strategy matching with your needs, FOR FREE.
- If we determined that we can be a good fit and that we can actually help you to successfully grow your business in China, we’ll make you an offer to put your brand on a launchpad and get all you need for measurable success.