Investor and startup mentor Philip Beck has been in China since 2005 and has seen his share of victory and defeat. He has established joint ventures, launched new brands, and is now an active investor in early and angel stage startups through his private fund Dubeta Ventures China. His primary areas of focus are consumer technology, gaming, and e-commerce.
Mr. Beck is also an active mentor at Chinaccelerator, guiding both Chinese and international teams with perfecting their strategies. With over twenty years of experience with advertising groups like WPP and Publicis China, he offers advice on branding and marketing to mentees. We were lucky enough to have him share his insights on some FAQs:
As an investor, what do you look for before you put in a stake?
I’d say two thirds of the weight of my decision is a strong team. Often the concept that startups present me with is nothing like what they actually end up doing – they pivot, as the industry calls it, but it’s really a euphemism for trying something different after a failure. Knowing that this will happen, focusing on the idea they have is not the most important thing.
Firstly, I have to know that the the founders are in a healthy relationship, meaning that they can survive a fight, just like in a marriage, there will be horrible times, bust ups, walk outs, but afterwards, can they come back together again? I’ve seen too many cases where a founder leaves, and the business falls apart.
I don’t invest in foreigners that aren’t committed to China, meaning they don’t genuinely like the country, or just want make some quick money. They have to be here for the long run, at least 10-15 years, so if you’re not going to be here, don’t bother to start.
Another requirement is there has to be Chinese cofounder, from my experience, the success rate of fully foreign startups is 0%. Most foreigners are not as quick in responding to feedback as Chinese founders are. Part of me feels the central government prefers local Chinese heroes over foreign heroes. They are happy if a foreigner was the one supporting a Chinese person make history, but still want a Chinese face on posters.
I try not to invest in fresh graduates. Often I see starting a business when you have no work experience as a way out when they can’t get a job. I don’t want to be paying for their education.
The actual business idea is only about 10 percent of my decision. The other things I look for are experience and achievements in a certain industry, whether that can be translated into their enterprise. And besides that, I observe how the founders interact with each other. Do they subtly shake their heads, are they engaged, is everyone on the same page?
What do you prescribe to teams who are concerned about their idea being copied?
A lot of people accuse China of copying, and this happens in the West as well. As soon as you release your idea, people will be going, “What’s this? I could copy it and make it better”. So people WILL follow you, and don’t worry about it. Just focus on the business and make it happen. People who come up with the most original ideas are “market makers”, because they get there first and learn their lessons early, they still have this edge.
What you can do is act fast. Its worth learning from Chinese companies, who are sometimes seen as a bit scrappy – their product might not be perfect, but they get it out there, get feedback and iterate really quickly, sometimes on a daily basis. If you don’t improve quickly enough, someone else will.
What are some things “expat-preneurs” can bring to a team?
I would challenge anyone foreigner in any industry to say that they are smarter than any Chinese personnin the same industry. Maybe in some like medicine, agriculture and medicine, yes, you’ll have lead. But in the last 3 or four years they have been losing their advantage very quickly.
Take the example of Qunar. There were three cofounders and each played up their individual strength. Fritz was the one out there talking to all the investors. He’s a foreigner, speaks English, and was good making an impression with the VCs. Douglas Khoo had experience with an advertising industry, and he could reach out to his network of media and advertising people to bring revenue, and C.C Zhang was super smart in operations processes. So if a foreigner wants to start a business here, they should examine their skills sets and see how they complement their partner. In general, some things that a foreign co-founder might bring to the party are creative thinking and problem solving skills, and wider outlook that comes from their experience in other markets.
With the influx of capital government drive for innovation and entrepreneurship, do you think there are too many people diving into the startup scene?
No, from my point of view, there will never be too many startups. But there will be a lot of failures. I think a lot of foreigners are attracted by the opportunities here particularly when their home market is flat. I always say to people, maybe in two years time there will be another WeChat, never underestimate a new competitor coming in. Startups are healthy for innovation and private enterprise, and when you’ve got people trying and failing and trying all over again, innovation will take off.