This is the first post in our series: Say Hello To China’s Expat-preneurs, where we will talk to a mix of foreign founders who have tackled China’s growing tech space and won. Stay tuned over the coming three weeks as we talk to foreign founders from Beijing to Shenzhen about what it takes to thrive in China. You can follow our updates at @technodechina, or check back here for new stories in the series.
Moving to China is a daunting project for anyone, but moving to China to grow a business from seed to superpower is a whole new level of terrifying. So why do foreigners leave home, learn one of the world’s most mind-bending languages, and brave the smog and paperwork of China’s entrepreneur scene?
Over the next three weeks, Technode will be asking a spread of successful foreign entrepreneurs exactly that.
The term ‘Expat-preneur’, coined by Yvonne McNulty, has become a loose moniker for those people crazy (or brilliant) enough to pack their bags and look for a new base of operations abroad. Connectivity has changed the way we think about our borders, and an increasing number of entrepreneurs are heading to China, seeking to disrupt virtually every step of tech production as we know it. Gone are the days when we scratched out designs in our own backyard, sent them off into the unknown abyss of China’s manufacturing hubs, and forgot about it until the finished product arrived on our doorstop in a box full of foam pellets.
From localizing innovation to shortening distribution channels, China-side tech is becoming an increasingly attractive business option for foreigners, especially in hardware. Innovators are making the decision to head to the mainland to either increase supply-chain efficiency, or to edge into the Chinese consumer market itself.
The process is far from simple. As many optimistic go-getters soon learn, it’s a mean myth that you can log onto Alibaba and within 30-days be shipping a polished, world-class tech product across the globe (but by all means, take that as a challenge). And even for those who’ve taken the time to set down roots, breaking through the expat barrier and understanding a business ecosystem as complex and well-established as China’s is challenging.
While a handful of the country’s cities have been offered the title of ‘China’s Silicon Valley,’ it’s a poor categorization for a market that is unlikely to ever mimic America’s tech trends. According to Cyril Ebersweiler, founder of Shenzhen-San Francisco accelerator HAXLR8R, recognizing China’s unique offering is key for those looking to head east.
“You can’t replicate the Silicon Valley and it was a mistake trying to do so in the past few years,” Cyril told Technode. “Instead we should all focus on creating new kinds of ecosystems. In Shenzhen we are working toward making the city a place where starting hardware startups is easier and more flexible.”
China’s tech scene is in many ways an ecosystem of contrasts. It’s a market that has largely bypassed desktop computing, meaning that in 2015 there is a significant chunk of China’s population who experience exclusively mobile internet. Despite a sluggish start for local innovation, e-commerce functionality has arguably surpassed America in a big way. And while Xiaomi is taking the market by storm with incredibly affordable smartphones, the iPhone is taking a near-equal share with a completely contradictory model.
If China’s unpredictable appetite isn’t already sufficiently challenging for foreign founders, the tech landscape is also changing incredibly quickly. Remember a time when you’d never heard of Xiaomi and Weibo was the lone-wolf of China social media? Probably, because it was barely 24 months ago.
The pace of China’s tech industry is one reason why foreigners set up camp locally, it’s virtually impossible to stay ahead of any market if you’re not immersed. Conversely, it’s easy to shy away for exactly the same reason. Tenacious competition and copycats have a history of scaring early-stage startups offshore. It’s a phenomenon that many groups, including the Chinese government and their budget, are now working hard to reconcile.
Incentives including free office space, economic subsidies, international incubators and special trade zones have been popping up in China like neon arrows pointing toward a casino floor. And though the barriers are still significant, it’s becoming less of a gamble bring business China-side.
In that spirit, we at Technode have scraped together a selection of our favorite foreign founders for a series of interviews looking at what it’s like to set up shop as an expat-preneur in China’s tech scene. You can check back here to see the stories unfold, or follow us @technodechina.
Feel free to reach out @catecadell for feedback or to suggest a great China expat-preneur story. You can also follow our contributing reporters @evayooare and @emmalee12345 for updates.
In our next post, Eva Yoo will kick off our series with the Top Three Musts For Foreign Founders In China, as decided by our expat-preneurs.