Editor’s note: This was produced in partnership with Start Alliance, a business network between the most vibrant startup hubs around the globe. Start Alliance supports startups to adapt business models to international requirements and accelerates corporate innovations. Partner cities are Berlin, New York, Paris, Tel Aviv, and Shanghai.
I have worked in four startup cities: Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, Seoul, and Shanghai. If you ask me, which city I liked the most, I can tell you for sure, Shanghai is my favorite startup city. For me, Shanghai is a land of freedom, free from cash, free from the thing you own owning you, free to try out something new, and free to join any community.
When I first arrived in China in January 2015, I saw how I could pay for all my meals, snacks, and even my electricity and water bills using Alipay. It was a mind-blowing experience. I’m from South Korea, notorious for long online payment process. This made me largely depend on brick-and-mortar stores even just before coming to China. Since then, China is, what I call, the “IT heaven.” Now I feel most home in China since I have all the mobile payments and Mobike here.
Yes, in China, you cannot access Google nor Facebook. Many chatting apps like Whatsapp, KakaoTalk, and LINE are blocked in China, so you will have to use Chinese replacement of these apps. Thankfully, Chinese apps have matured enough to fill in all the empty spots, and some are doing better than foreign ones. The title of a Forbes article published in August 2016 was “It’s time for Facebook to copy WeChat.” Silicon Valley startup Whale even got the idea for their product from Chinese knowledge sharing startup Fenda.
If you want to find out Chinese innovation for yourself, then come to China. Don’t sign up for roaming on your phone in your country, and instead, buy a SIM card in China to get a Chinese phone number. Then take your phone and passport, go to the Chinese local bank to open your
Chinese bank account. With your new bank account, set up your Alipay or WeChat payment, which will make your China experience like Alice in Wonderland.
As an expat tech blogger, the cool thing is that you get to actually experience the startups that I write about. Here I will share with you some startups that make life here so fruitful and interesting: Living (Ziroom), transportation (Mobike, ofo), work (WeChat), hobby (Alipay), workout (Keep) and food (Dazhong Dianping).
Ziroom is a startup under the Chinese big real estate group Lianjia. You can browse their website or app to search the location you want to live in, and the number of people you want to live with. The good thing is that they have a custom design, and all the interior of the house is done neatly and all clean, to meet the young generation’s taste. When you enter the house to check your room, you will find that it’s not so different from the picture you saw on the website.
When you choose to rent out a room and live with other housemates, you have your own room, and live with other people, and share the common area with your housemates. A cleaning lady comes every 2 weeks to your house to clean the common area, so you don’t have to quarrel with your housemates about who will do the cleaning. Back in Tel Aviv, I had to move house four times in 7 months and had to depend on a secret Tel Aviv Facebook group to post my house, which made me suffer a lot. Ziroom’s staff, who always dress professionally, manage your complaints through WeChat and tries to solve the problems of apartment living, from broken appliances to housemate issues. When you leave the house, they will take care of your empty room, so you don’t have to a replacement to sublet or take over your lease.
Transportation: Mobike and ofo
Mobike really changed how I live. Now I barely ride a bus or metro, instead, I ride Mobike. It helped me realize how beautiful the French concession is, and the beauty of small alleys and trees filling up Shanghai’s antique atmosphere. It also changed my fashion, from dresses to comfortable pants. Every morning, I go ‘hunting’ for a Mobike around my spot and find a Mobike that is clean and has the right height seat for myself. The best thing about Mobike is that you can drop the bike anywhere, and you can pick it up anywhere, wherever you are. As a humble business development manager for a startup in Silicon Valley back in 2014, I still remember having to walk on a sizzling highway on a scorching hot day in San Jose, to get to one place to another.
Mobike is actually changing Chinese cities. According to Mobike’s white paper released this May, survey respondents reported a 55% decline in usage of private car services since the introduction of bike-sharing. Mobike’s competitor Ofo is yellow bikes and come out with bigger sizes which might be much more optimal for German riders.
Working is largely done on WeChat. In fact, 83% respondents now use WeChat for work, according to 2017 WeChat user report. Firstly, you don’t need a business card in China. When you meet someone, you just show them your QR code, or you scan their QR code. You get to see his/her WeChat Moments, where you get a clue of what this person does and like. Sometimes they link their LinkedIn account to their WeChat profile so you can add them directly. Secondly, my company’s teamwork is done through WeChat. We have three WeChat groups: one with all the former-TechNode members including the people who used to work for TechNode, one with all the TechNode Chinese and English reporters, and one with only TechNode English reporters. Our English reporters do weekly meetings through WeChat call, connecting all the writers based in different cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and other places if someone is on a business trip. We also share interesting, noteworthy articles in the group, and sort out our tasks.
As a reporter, I do my interviews over WeChat and find sources through the group chats I’m in. It’s also very useful when I go on a business trip to an unfamiliar city. I ask in a group, if somebody is based in Shenzhen for example, and that person invites me to a WeChat group full of 500 people in Shenzhen, where I can ask the group members for the connection I’m looking for.
According to the 2017 WeChat report, the top 2 reasons to join a group chat of more than 100 people were for corporate internal communications and for professional networking. So if you’re thinking of starting your business in China, I advise you to ask someone to invite you to join a WeChat group related to your interest. There are so many WeChat groups where people share their ideas and meet up offline. For example, I run a WeChat group called Masumo for Korean business people in Shanghai (Masumo is a shortened word for “gathering every last Wednesday of the month” in Korean). I share what I found as an interesting tech trend during the month, and two more people volunteer to give a speech.
WeChat works like a one-stop platform for us to share information both online and offline. There are a lot of business-related WeChat groups, but also hobby groups, such as podcast discussions and book discussions. In Silicon Valley or Israel, I used Meetup.com to find these offline communities and used Facebook to find these offline communities in Seoul. WeChat, primarily an online chatting room, gives people a much more open environment to talk about your interests.
You can make amazing things happen through these WeChat groups. The best experience I had in Shanghai was caroling around the city, two weeks before the Christmas. The organizer, Jenny Tang, simply gathered up volunteers in a WeChat group. For most of us, it was the first time we had ever or practiced together. With Santa hats, we went out into the busy streets and subway and suddenly burst into singing. Passersby paused, smiled at us, chanted, cheered, and applauded. They also scanned our WeChat group QR code and sent us photos and videos.
My hobby in Shanghai is traveling. I purchase train and flight tickets on Alipay, and book accommodation on Airbnb, linked to Alipay. Previously, I had to wander through Skyscanner to compare the flight fares and go through many steps to make the payment using my bank cards or to make a money transfer at an ATM around my house. Using Alipay, I can book flights in less than three minutes on my phone.
Alipay also makes it easy to transfer money to my friends or merchants. Many cases, it’s a friends gathering and one of the friends pays for the meal, and we transfer money to that person using Alipay. I used to go to oil painting classes, and I paid the 10 class fee directly to my teacher Una Deng. Running a small business and getting mobile payment is this easy in China. Even a small fruit shop on the outskirts of Shanghai, or on a mountaintop, can receive payments via Alipay.
Keep helps you shed some extra weight. Last year, I found out that I spent more than 26,900 RMB ($4,000) in the gym membership and five months training session with a personal trainer. It did help me lose weight and gain muscle, but I couldn’t believe I spent so much money.
This year, instead of registering for a personal trainer, I rely solely on Keep. I first set out a 4-week-long plan that I wanted to gain muscle and shed extra weight. Then I chose the level I wanted. Then everyday, Keep sends me 2-3 exercise videos that count the number of your movements and motivates you to do more. I bought a yoga mat, and dumbbell and my room became my gym. After each session they let you take a photo with a day number and post it on the timeline so that you feel a sense of achievement and be proud of yourself.
When I go to the gym, I now see more people exercising by themselves with a yoga mat using Keep. Yes, this app is replacing personal trainers. I measured Inbody on this July, and checked my muscles and body fat, and could see that my body fat reduced and muscles increased. It’s great that you don’t have to spend money, and an application helps to you achieve this result. Keep is also the company that Apple CEO Tim Cook visited when he visited China.
Food: Dazhong Dianping
Dazhong Dianping allows me to find the best restaurants around my home and anywhere I go for the first time. It’s like Yelp in China. This is also how a tiny brick-and-mortar store can attract customers. Once I wanted to perm my hair and found a five-starred hair salon around my house. It was run by post-90 generation (those born after the 1990s), and all the hairdressers were in their twenties. They told me that they used to work at a bigger hair salon as an apprentice, and decided to start a business on their own. They were really skilled in styling, and their best part was that after the customer’s hair is neatly done, they take professional pictures of customers using Chinese popular photo filtering app like Meitu. They also had a special light and wallpaper inside the hair salon. This is very smart because Asian women like to take pictures of their new hairstyle and post on their social network. This way, they went viral on Dazhong Dianping and attracted a lot of customers without spending any money on marketing. Customer like me became a regular. Even though I don’t live near there any longer, I still travel to come to this hair salon. Dazhong Dianping really works on top of word of mouth, as you can see.
I recommended all these apps to my friends who visited China for a short period. They were lazy to try out these Chinese apps, but one particular app captivated them. Whenever they had free time, they would open the app and giggle. It’s, Tantan, which is like a Chinese version of Tinder, letting you find a romantic partner around you. If you’re looking for a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend, or just to practice your Chinese, it’s a good option.
So this is how cool Shanghai is. You can see how these apps are a huge part of my life. Using these apps, Chinese people are setting up their business, earning money, and building up their reputation. Shanghai has sharing culture. We share houses, offices, bikes, information, and connections. Many things here are so affordable, shareable, and help you live a healthy and smart life.