On Saturday the Geeks on a Train crew from Chinaccelerator had their first stop in Beijing. The 10×10 event was held at the most artistic incubation space in China, Yuanfen Flow at 798 Art District. Surrounded by modern art installations, start-ups can draw creative inspiration to apply to their business – something that needs to happen a lot more in China.
10 speakers had 10 minutes each to impart their wisdom, experience and advice about being an entrepreneur. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the inspiring mentors who touched on a range of important and insightful topics.
1. Richard Robinson – Speed is key
Robinson China is currently working on Youlu, a mobile application to convert your mobile phone address book into a social network.
He illustrated the point by showing a snippet from the movie Troy, where Brad Pitt who plays Troy uses pure speed and agility to defeat his much larger and rather beastly opponent. The metaphor shows that start-ups who are lean and quick can overcome much bigger incumbent competitors that take a long time to move and change.
He also noted that speed helps improve morale with momentum, raises awareness and drives adoption, maximizes valuations and attracts investment. As famous serial entrepreneur, Mike Cassidy says to “set tone from day one”. This includes making offers quickly, making on-boarding of new employees smooth and fast as well as getting people who don’t fit in the organization off the bus quickly to maintain efficiency
2. Quentin Zhang – 5 tips for start-ups
Quentin is the CTO and co-founder of Ushi.cn, a Linkedin like platform in China.
His 5-tips were:
- Find needs and solve them – assess the market and get feedback
- Learn and innovate – listen to customers and be agile, don’t fall in love with your design
- Care about cultural differences – think locally to understand nuances
- Believe and persist – Fail fast and learn from it, then move one
- Network – use your network to make things happen and get a mentor
3. Glenn Alexander – Mastering resistance
Glenn is a lecturer at Tsinghua, consultant as well as a hypnotist.
Psychology is a very big part of being an entrepreneur. Your mind is constantly swirling with thoughts. Sometimes you want to resist action and Alexander pointed out some of the roots of resistance:
- people don’t like change if it means others will think less of them
- people fear the possibility of failure or thinking they could be wrong
- not asking questions for fear of being called stupid
- not listening to your instinct or inner voice
- being visually impaired and not believing in yourself
To overcome these roots of resistance, Alexander gave the formula D xV x FS >R.
Where D is for dissatisfaction that compels you to take action, V is for vision that allows you to see different solutions; FS is for first steps where you realize the first things you need to do to stir yourself into action.
4. Stephen Wang – The circle of start-ups
Wang is a serial entrepreneur who most famously co-founded Rotten Tomatoes. His latest venture is Alive.cn, an online marketplace for celebrity endorsements in social media.
Now up to his fifth start-up since college, Wang has collected a lot of experience points from doing start-ups. He talked about each start-up saying there are always high points and low points, whether it is co-founders leaving or uncontrollable market factors like September 11 or the financial crisis since 2008. But he argues if you work incredibly passionately and quickly, you can drive yourself out from the low points to the next high point. He has taken advice from a former client and famous martial arts movie star and devout Buddhist, Jet Li who said “Life is a circle of ups and downs. From your lowest point the only way is up.”
Some of the key lessons that he learnt along the way were:
- Stay young and learn fast – start early, fail, learn and move on
- Don’t think small – a good idea in a small market can’t be big
- Build on your strengths
- Don’t do too much – be focused
He said as a start-up you need to focus on the things you can control, like your budget and your time. Wang believes doing a start-up early is way more valuable than working in a big cooperation where it will take many more years to learn skills that start-ups accrue a lot quicker. He also profoundly said being an entrepreneur is a way of life; it’s about the journey not the destination.
5. Casper Johansen – Having a balanced lifestyle as an entrepreneur
Johansen is former investment banker turned entrepreneur. His current venture is Seravia, an online data analysis business.
Start-ups are widely known to be workaholics and often feel the need to out-run the competition and stay ahead of the market. However, Johansen who is married with a young kid knows the importance of having a balanced lifestyle as much as possible, otherwise you will regret it.
The key is to acknowledge how you work and communicate it to your friends, family and team. Since ‘face time’ is a cultural norm in Asia, he gave the example where originally his employees would feel the need to stay in the office as long as he did, to prove they were ‘hard’ workers. But Johansen strongly follows a results driven culture where if you finish your work you can leave. The key is to talk about these expectations upfront to avoid any confusion. Even with friends Johansen says that you should make them aware that you might not be able to spend as much time with them or could be delayed in responding to messages and it’s not because you are avoiding them. Especially for yourself, you need to make sure you stay grounded and do the important things like going to church, exercising and relaxing. For entrepreneurs who feel themselves burning out, this is great advice.
6. Frank Yu – Doing start-ups is also like playing a game
Yu is a well known figure in the start-up scene in China. His start-up Kwestr, a socially achievements game is also one of the start-ups at Chinaccelerator.
Yu believes that even if you don’t play or like games, doing start-ups is like playing a big game. From his time and Chinaaccelerator one of the key things he learned was the really question why he was doing a start-up. For some, it is to have a big exit and cash out, for others it is to create and build a legacy company and for others it is for fun. Like playing a game, you can go through all the levels, get as many points as you can. But the end goal is usually the same – to finish the game. How you get there depends on what you want out of it.
Yu’s advice is for start-ups to be able to separate yourself from your start-up and look it at as a part of playing the game of life. Ask yourself what you really want out of it.
7. Jesper Lodahl – Make what customers need
Jesper is a co-founder of Smartots, an analytics solution for parents who want to monitor their kid’s performance of playing mobile games.
Jesper learnt the hard way about what start-up people call tunnel vision. You think you know what the best product is because you and only your-self believe it. He shared his failed experience with Club Beautiful, a controversial social network for only beautiful people. His conclusion was that he got his hypothesis wrong that Chinese people like Westerners care about good looks, but instead care more about status and money.
He then talked about making what customers need. As a former engineer, Lodahl knows engineers are inclined to build unnecessary features. They just sit in front of a computer and just build without getting out of the building to listen to customers or ask them questions. That is why, he believes the Product Manager is the key person to link technology, marketing and sales people because they really know what the customer needs.
So by firstly understanding his own problems and being his own customer, he realized that parents want to connect and know more about what and how their kids are doing on games, so started Smartots.
8. Andy Mok – Hiring the right people
Andy is the founder of Red Pagoda Resources, a head hunting firm to help find talent for venture backed start-ups.
As the saying goes, people are always what make a company or team different. So Mok said the most important business decisions are not ‘what’ decisions but really ‘who’ decisions. He illustrated this point by numerating that a cost of a bad hire could be 15x an employee’s base salary and even tens of millions for a start-up.
To hire correctly you need to factor in the right person for the right job at the right time for the current business problem.
9. Jonathen Palley – Rules of Improv
Jon is a tech geek and the first developer to bring Ruby on Rails to China. He has also recently sold off his company. However John is gaining more fame for his impromptu acting skills among the tech circuit.
Although his talk was all about how to be a great impromptu actor, the lessons and similarities learned for being a great entrepreneur were clear.
When an impromptu actor gets up on stage he or she has nothing to build upon until an idea is generated. Once the initial idea forms, actors use a technique of saying yes and being obvious to connect it to another actor. This helps the act by building momentum; otherwise the acting could stop and become awkward. For start-ups, they also need to work within teams and with customers to start with an idea but build on it by accepting new thoughts and being clear.
The saying goes that the ‘best things happen naturally’. Impromptu actors or comedians on stage try and commit to this by being quick to think, act and change if something isn’t going well. They can get immediate feedback from the audience if they like their joke or acting. Likewise in a start-up it is vital for them to get out there into the market, release a product and listen to the customers for feedback then iterate.
He pointed to the example of Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb who said ‘success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration’. Meaning start-ups have to be persistent and keep doing to eventually be successful.
10. David Kay – Entrepreneurs are artists
David is the founder of Yuenfen Flow, the incubator space dedicated to inspiring and helping entrepreneurs succeed.
He believes that entrepreneurs see things that others don’t. An artist doesn’t just see a block of clay, he sees a beautiful human sculpture. Entrepreneurs are inspired by others, by borrowing and building on the brilliance of others, even from other fields. Kay believes that entrepreneurs don’t just see the problem; they see the solution amongst the chaos. That is why Yuanfen Flow aims to create a space that allows them to embrace the chaos and channel the flow into a brilliance business idea that can disrupt how things are