Calvin is a seasoned entrepreneur from America now based in Shanghai. Calvin worked on Wall Street in Debt Capital Markets for a couple of big European banks before deciding to get into technology start-ups in New York, Silicon Valley and then China. Calvin is most famous for being a founder of Qifang.com, an online crowd-funded company that helps Chinese students, pay for school tuition through loans or donations. He has met high profile world leaders such as former US President, Bill Clinton and the Father of Micro-finance himself, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Muhammad Yunus, highlighting his important efforts in social entrepreneurship. I interviewed Calvin about an array of things which I think many foreign entrepreneurs interested in China will find intriguing.
Getting into entrepreneurship
Calvin got into entrepreneurship because his parents were small business owners in Michigan. But more than that, Calvin felt drawn to entrepreneurship because it is the “natural state for most people since we want to feel a sense of impact and make a difference and start-ups and entrepreneurship’s is the maximum effect of that.” He recognises that although many people think about doing business and want to do it, people feel constrained by “financial pressure and the need for security so it’s not for everyone.” Overcoming that pressure allowed Calvin to walk away from a lucrative career on Wall Street to pursue entrepreneurship because he realized early on how to operate around risk, analyse the opportunities and pull the trigger.
Achievement is about the journey
Calvin has an interesting perspective on achievement. He doesn’t measure success by the amount of money made or number of users accumulated. He feels achievement at a deeper level, when he “impacts people, customers or users in some tangible measurable way.” This is exemplified with his social entrepreneurship venture, Qifang, which helps raise funds for students’ education, a platform people are using it to “transform their lives.” Another way he views achievement is the self-actualization aspect, “No-one is a perfect entrepreneur. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates aren’t but it’s about everyday getting back onto your horse and trying to do it that much better. Success isn’t measured as a destination but the journey and it’s an achievement to keep at it and to watch your team grow, to learn and to keep doing better. There are many other, more reliable ways to make money. You’ve got to have passion and commitment beyond the pursuit of wealth to be a successful entrepreneur. Even the ones who make tons of money need that energy and emotion.”
What are you doing now?
Calvin is now stepping away from his day-to-day role at Qifang to move on to other ventures. “I’ll still be involved at a strategy level, but I’m using my time now to leverage some of my key learning’s and assets that I’ve accrued with Qifang such as execution of an early stage project, building a company and a team, building a brand and reputation in the market place for users and investors, media and government relations and trying to figure out the key components of building a social venture and an innovative company in China. I’ve been talking to colleagues and friends, where we are looking at the base of the pyramid or the bottom billion. These people are down market and have lower average earnings and typically companies have not focused on them. We think they have tremendous market opportunities for transformative products and services that can make a difference in people’s lives but also be financially remunerative.”
I asked Calvin if he sees China as his focus or if other areas will be explored. “My focus is on solutions that make sense in China and can be portable regionally in Asia. I think there is a phenomenal amount of synergy and opportunity with China-Africa relationships and having reached out to a lot of friends in Africa over the past 12-24 months and participating in the World Economic Forum (WEF) East Africa Summit, there’s a lot of market opportunities in Africa that are reminiscent of China opportunities. With a certain amount of adaptation and localization, products can make sense across geographies.”
The difference between Chinese and American Start-Ups
“If you compare the hotbed of start-ups in Beijing with Silicon Valley, there are stark differences. In China I think the ecosystem for early stage projects, technology risk and true venture risk is under-developed so investment is skewed towards later stage businesses. So in China while it’s possible to raise money as seed capital from friends and family because operating costs are quite low, there’s an early growth stage in America that is filled by Angel funds or micro-VCs and they could be investing between $250,000-$1-2m. This does not happen in China and is a key challenge for startups in China.
Also in China more people skew towards less risky ventures, so you have a lot of copy-cats and projects that are most fundable versus what am I most inspired by and what is the company I want to build. So you have 2,000 Groupon clones in China because it’s a hot space in the US and they think it’s likely to be a hot space for venture dollars in China too.”