The timing’s got to be right
to produce products with larger added value.
“The tech-savvy young generations are becoming a driving force for growth, paving the way for wider use of information technologies in the country,” Liu says.
Those young brains are working night and day building up their own businesses. One who has gone down that path is Zhao Yong, a former engineer with Google Inc. He obtained a doctorate in computer vision from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, returned to China in 2013 and founded the company DeepGlint. The company, in the northwestern suburbs of Beijing, develops technologies that allow computers to understand three-dimensional images they see and respond to constantly changing visual content.
Zhao had been part of a team of seven in the US that developed Google Glass, a wearable computer device in the shape of spectacles.
DeepGlint specializes in providing computer vision technology to industries such as those in the security, auto-driving and robotics fields.
Returning to China, Zhao says, has given him a bigger opportunity to work with the Chinese market, which overseas technology firms may find harder to penetrate because of a lack of understanding of local customers’ demands.
“China needs to give more power to startups to innovate. We now have a lot more talent to work with than we did decades ago.”
Ibegan working with China Daily as a copy editor on the night desk; and to fill the long hours of the day I would seek interview assignments from editors who were short of hands.
By then China was in the throes of the first wave of startups. When the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping revitalized the process of economic reforms in 1992, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of government officials, university faculty members, researchers and other public sector employees gave up their “iron-rice-bowls” to set up private businesses.
The prospect of making big money or just to be one’s own boss was a big incentive. The mass exits spawned a new profession — entrepreneurs. Their stories would be covered extensively by the Chinese media.
I too got the opportunity to write a few news features on entrepreneurs. I had begun to think I wasn’t too bad a reporter after all, and would have asked my boss for a transfer to the reporter’s section, were it not for a senior colleague who poured cold water on my aspirations saying I was yet to figure out what the term entrepreneur really meant.
“What you call an entrepreneur is almost always a businessman.” he said wryly.
“Does it matter? Aren’t the two the same thing?”
“No. They are quite different. You are yet to meet an entrepreneur in the true sense.”
I realized what he meant only after I met Xiao Helong. In his early 50s, Xiao quit his job in research and set up a health drink manufacturing company based on his own patented formula. After my interview with him was published in China Daily, several companies, including a South Korean conglomerate, called me. They wanted to either buy the formula or start a joint venture with Xiao and I helped set up the meetings for him. I was quite curious to see how he went about making deals with a foreign investor.
He once told me emphatically that the venture was his “baby”. He didn’t really want to sell it to a stranger. “Being an entrepreneur is the closest a man comes to giving birth,” he said. Years later I read an interview in which a top foreign business leader made the same assertion. At the time, Xiao was desperately in need of new funding to scale up, but never budged from his position. If he did not have the funds, the “baby” wouldn’t grow the way he wished, but that was not good enough reason for him to sell it off to a richer adoptive father.
Whenever Xiao visited Beijing, he would find time to see me. I helped translate a few company profiles for him. He would consult me on media relations as well. His businesses, however, declined steadily for lack of fresh investment and went bust in two years.
Today as China is focused on transforming itself from a world factory into an innovation hub, more and more young people are encouraged to go the startup route, and entrepreneurship is the buzz word, I’m reminded of Xiao and his short-lived enterprise. Among the many who ventured into new businesses in those years more than half were failures. Xiao has stayed in my memory not because of his achievements but his refusal to let go of his dream as long as he could.
US-based research organization IdeaLab studied 200 cases to arrive at five factors — idea, team, business model, funding and timing — that determine the success of a company. The most important and decisive among these turned out to be timing.
At times I can’t help wondering: Would Xiao have better luck if he started his company now?