The tim­ing’s got to be right

China Daily (Canada) - - E-COMMERCE -

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?

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