The piece originally appears on LinkedIn, we reproduced it here under Kaifu Lee’s authorization. Kaifu is the founder of Chinese incubator Innovation Works , he also served as Google and Microsoft VP.

More specifically, why are there hardly any twenty-year-old wunderkind entrepreneurs in China?

I pulled the last 10 China IT IPOs in the US, and found that the founders were 33 when they started their companies.  At Innovation Works, the average entrepreneur age is also 33.  We all know the Y Combinator or Ron Conway are funding younger and younger entrepreneurs in the Valley.  What happened in China?

There are several major reasons why top Chinese entrepreneurs are 10 years older than their counterparts in the Silicon Valley:

  1. Chinese education tends to be better for depth than breadth.  In other words, when you graduate as a software engineer, you may have very strong fundamentals in math and engineering, but you don’t get as much exposure to user experience, communications, product design, business acumen, team-work, etc. as you would in a typical US university.  Moreover, Chinese schools focus more on tests from textbooks, while American schools care more about learning-by-doing.  In short, the American education better prepares a student to be an entrepreneur.
  2. The top American young entrepreneurs tend to be rebellious and spontaneous — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry/Sergey, and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of school because they wanted to follow their heart and realize their dream.  But in China, the environment, culture, and education system care more about discipline, harmony, and conformity.  All students follow similar curriculum, and take standardized tests.  Grades are considered the primary measure of intelligence and success.  As a result, a Jobs-like rebel in China is much more likely to be shamed into oblivion, stifled into submission, or rejected into the dark side.
  3. The Chinese Internet market is a very tough environment, described by some as a gladiatorial fight to the death.  One company has registered a competitor’s domain name and built an identical service to fool users; companies de-install each other’s software and change user selections without informing the user; weibo (Chinese twitter) is used as a battleground for name-calling and rumor-mongering; lawsuits and arrests are common competitive escalations.  This is too dangerous a “playground” for a young CEO who hasn’t had ten years of experience and a dozen scars from virtual duels.

So in China, VCs generally prefer the thirty-something entrepreneur who are more mature, experienced, and adept at execution.  They are more resilient and dependable, but perhaps less innovative and passionate.  They desire success, but may not “think different”. They are a different breed of entrepreneurs from the Silicon boys.

Photo credit: BigStockPhoto

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  1. Rather than ask why there’s no Mark Zuckerberg in China, shouldn’t we be asking why it only happens in America?

    There’s also no Mark in Britain or Canada or Germany either and their educational and social systems are much more similar.

    So why is the US the only nation to have so many entrepreneurial and lucky youth?

    1. I wouldn’t say that. Take a look at Germany. The Samwer clan have made revolutionary changes in the German e-commerce market possible. It’s in fact just all about tradition, education and entrepreneurial environment despite of the fact that more and more Chinese students enjoy foreign education. I would dare say that 90% of the Chinesese governers send their children to anywhere but China for studying…

      1. That’s a bit disingenuous. The Samwer brothers are known for cloning existing sites and simply localizing them. In fact, it’s no different than what many local Chinese entrepreneurs do as well.

        They aren’t doing the type of innovation that’s mentioned in this article.

  2. With all the respect to Lee Kaifu, he is part of that too…As you mentioned, the average age of IW employees and funded startupists is 33 years old, and IW invests (almost) only in projects that have low risk (business models that were proven abroad). Therefore it won’t invest in someone who is a visionary risk taker (and young people are more risk takers cause they have less to lose)
    Moreover, i would like to ask how IW supports entrepreneurship in Universities in China for example? How many start-up competitions you organized or sponsored, how many entrepreneurship classes you funded?

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