By Khiew Shi Kai, SMU School of Information Systems
Group photo at Zhong Guan Cun (中关村) also known as the Silicon Valley of China. Photo credit: QuestVC
Before this study trip to Beijing, my understanding of China was limited to that of a fast growing economy with a huge population and plenty of opportunities for startups. The impression I had was that innovation in China is mostly limited to the “reverse engineering” of ideas from the West, then reproducing a similar product at a much lower price. I also heard rumours of extensive government intervention on businesses. However, this trip has proven me wrong many times over. Chinese startups can be really innovative and each solution is uniquely tailored to solve problems in China. My intention of taking part in this course is: first, to understand China better, especially in the technology startup industry; second, to learn the journey of a startup, both successful and failed examples; third, to explore market opportunities.
The trip was organised by SMU’s partners in China – QuestVC and Jetbay. They did a fantastic job as hosts and the planning was outstanding right down to the arrangement of hotels, transport, company visits and our daily lunches. We were fortunate to try a variety of Chinese food, from Ma La (麻辣) dishes to the famous Beijing duck. On top of that, it is part of the Chinese culture for the hosts to cater more than enough food for their guests so it is common to see ten over dishes on our table during every hosted meal!
Trying out some delicious Beijing dishes for lunch. Photo credit: QuestVC
During the trip, we visited ten companies which are startups or incubators where we managed to participate in several insightful sharing sessions from the various representatives of these companies. It was certainly an educational experience as we get to see their working environment, hear the stories of how these companies started and the challenges they faced along the way. From the visits, we have gained valuable insights about the China market. I learnt that it is really crucial to have a local partner if a foreigner wants to venture into China as it is not easy to understand the Chinese culture, much less thrive in it. The trip has definitely highlighted how capable the Chinese technology startups are and they are proving to be comparable with their US counterparts, or at the least catching up with stunning speed. Companies like Meicai (美菜) and APUS have achieved incredible success as they managed to expand from less than fifty employees to a few hundreds and thousands in just over a year.
Sharing session at MeiCai (美菜), China’s leading electronic agriculture platform. Photo credit: QuestVC
Office tour in APUS Group, the company which created the world ranked no. 1 user system for Android. Photo credit: QuestVC
This seven-day trip to Beijing has given me a rare opportunity to know more about what is required of an entrepreneur. Previously, I always had the mentality that one day if I ever fail at doing a startup, I can still fall back to a corporate job. However, from the trip I can see how passionate the speakers are – they treated the startup as a form of lifestyle, a vocation that they never thought of giving up. Even if they failed in one of their startups, they will try again and again. This tenacity is key to success and the three main points I learned for doing a startup are:
- In order to be a successful person/entrepreneur, I must first learn how to be ‘human’ (做人). Being an ethical entrepreneur is really the key in going far in the long term.
- Speed makes a lot of difference when determining the success of your business. In a competitive market like China, it is crucial to reach a critical mass fast in order to fend off competitors. It also means failing and learning fast to be better in the next attempt.
- In doing a startup, you must also be ready to fail. The startup journey is not always rosy like successful cases such as Uber and Instagram. Every time there can only be one survivor amongst thousands. Therefore, you must have the perseverance and passion in chasing your dream.
To conclude, I really enjoyed the trip a lot and given the opportunity, I would definitely recommend future students to take up a Technopreneurship Study Mission as there is so much to gain from it.
The trip included an educational tour of the Great Wall on the first day. Photo credit: QuestVC