Earlier this year I had a chance to have breakfast with the World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab when he visited Silicon Valley. During the meeting I mentioned that I had never been to China and that I was thinking of attending the Annual Meeting of New Champions in Tianjin. Klaus’s response was to the point: “You cannot ever hope to do business in China if you do not visit and begin to appreciate just how much you don’t know about life, culture, and business in China.”
So here I am. Having spent a few days with investors and entrepreneurs in Beijing before heading to Tianjin, I’m amazed by the many shared similarities and the vast differences in the experiences we have as entrepreneurs in our respective countries. It would be naive to think I know anything about what I don’t know after just a few short days, but here’s what I’ve learned so far.
The relentless and persistent desire to succeed is strong here. Expectations are high, often self-imposed, and the tech entrepreneurs I have been meeting with work long hours without batting an eye. This is how it should be.
I’ve always believed that one of the hallmarks of Silicon Valley was that it did not view failure as a negative indicator; if anything, it’s the opposite. I know from working with entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, Mexico and elsewhere around the world that there are often cultural stigmas attached to failure, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here in China. The idea of many start-ups, where not all succeed, is well understood. When trying to construct an ecosystem for growth, removing stigmas around failure is most important – before addressing capital, legal or structural issues.
The technology nerd in me noticed something else. Everything here is mobile-friendly, or even mobile-only. If it’s not mobile, it’s not going to be successful.
One of the other surprises, which shouldn’t really be surprising, is just how normal things are here. Maybe I’ve been watching too many bad movies, but I guess I expected some kind of visible police state. Running a global Internet security company, I expected to be followed by black helicopters and to be interrogated in dimly lit rooms. Maybe I just don’t see the helicopters, but I think the reality is a lot less dramatic – it’s business as usual for the people I’ve been interacting with here. China is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and people are here to build companies that compete on a global stage. I know there are darker corners of this country that I’m not being exposed to, and over time I expect I’ll come to see or learn about them more, just as I would in the US.
Do I think I understand China? Of course not. Do I have all the answers and know what it means to do business here? No. But I do see that there are more similarities than differences when it comes to the raw ingredients for entrepreneurial success, and that makes me eager to spend more time here. Just as I feel in Silicon Valley, I’m with my kind of people here.
Author: David Ulevitch is the founder and CEO of OpenDNS, a global Internet Security Network focused on helping over 50 million people and businesses connect to the Internet with confidence. OpenDNS is a 2010 World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer.
Pictured: A woman talks on the phone as she walks along the financial district of Pudong in Shanghai. REUTERS/Carlos Barria.