The other day I was having dinner with some friends and we chatted about how many Chinese people follow very rigid rules and are almost banned to try new things. There seems to be so much pressure to do things ‘right’ that it leaves no space to do things wrong and learn from it. Many of the world’s inventions were created through trial and error and making small tweaks or even serendipitously stumbling upon something. One famous and now iconic mistake was the invention of Coke when Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton tried to make a cure for headaches but instead made a drink that tasted delicious. So I question if China would be able to innovate much faster if it was much more culturally accepted to experiment, fail and learn.

Not so much in the startup world, but in the traditional business world, many Chinese have very strict orders by their superiors. Since China is so competitive and people outnumber jobs, it is very dangerous not to do what you are told.  I heard one example even from an international magazine; employees are asked to clock in and out to monitor their daily hours worked. Once I talked to a property agent and tried to discuss terms but when that didn’t I wanted to talk to her manager and she suddenly became very scared.  At many restaurants, if you ask for a slight variation of what is on the menu, like adding cheese to a burger that doesn’t have cheese, it can’t be done.

Through the above examples, there are a number of points to reflect on. Firstly, it is no secret that there are very low levels of trust in China. A local person once reasoned it was because there are so many people in China, how can you trust everyone? Therefore, people don’t give someone the benefit of the doubt to do things on their own, with their own talent or skill. Secondly, since an early age when in school, many Chinese are taught to rote learn things and not encouraged to challenge the teacher. This has created a sense of insecurity to challenge the norms or rules and think differently, because you do so at your own risk. That’s why I feel many Chinese people are happy to complete tasks but not think about how to do things better. Perhaps that is why things aren’t always very efficient.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article that was inspired by a talk given by the famous Chinese Angel investor, Xu Xiao Ping. It was titled, “China needs 20 more years to become really innovative”. The three main reasons for needing another generation or two revolve around education, passion and an unfair competitive environment where giants rule. Of course, a culture of learning to accept experimentation and failure to create new things or even stumble upon breakthrough inventions is a radical change for China. But the very big and difficult questions are 1. How do they start? 2. Where do they start? 3. Who should lead it? I’m not propositioning that the Chinese way of thinking is wrong; I’m proposing there are different ways to think about things.

Now bringing it back to the tech startup world; in America, many famous and successful entrepreneurs are the ones who dropped out of college, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg of course. Entrepreneurs are also often rebels who see and do things differently. It is this difference that makes them stand out and eventually succeed. Rebels and failure are even tolerated and sometimes celebrated. In China, dropping out of college is virtually taboo and almost suicide. Instead, respected entrepreneurs are the ones who have instead worked at large and established tech companies like Baidu and Tencent because they are a ‘safer bet’ and hence find it easier to get money from investors.

A video on FastCompany shows SCVGR’s Chief Ninja, Seth Priebatsch talking about two types of mistakes: 1. Point mistakes and 2. Process mistakes. “Point mistakes are when someone does something wrong in a given instance and Process mistakes are when people consistently think about something wrongly or doing it in the wrong way; and we actually try and reward Point mistakes because it means you are experimenting.” It is this kind of flexibility and attitude that can greatly influence how innovative people and companies can be.

Just do it. Then do it better.

Jason is an Australian born Chinese living in Beijing, specializing in entrepreneurship, start-ups and the investment eco-system in China, especially in the tech and social area.

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1 Comment

  1. I would argue that famous and successful entrepreneurs who dropped out of college are rare, hence why the outliers are so recognisable. If you compare the number of non-drop out success cases vs drop out success cases the numbers will tell a different story. The college drop-out success is just too good a story to ignore, hence the wide range of reporting.

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