Assumptions, innovation and bike-hacking in Beijing
I’ve just arrived in Beijing as part of my ‘Starting up in China‘ project.
Over the last few weeks, I conducted a handful of interviews in the US with investors and founders focused on China. From these first few conversations and background reading, I’ve been trying to pull together a few commons themes about what the West assumes about Chinese entrepreneurship.
Here are the top five generalizations I keep coming across:
- That China only copies, it doesn’t innovate
- That any innovation that does exist in China is in the commercialization process: i.e. that Chinese companies are more comfortable with launching an early product into the market and seeing what the customer response is
- That the weakness of the IP system is a big problem for early-stage companies
- That Chinese companies aren’t that interested in international expansion: the domestic market is more than big enough
- Government’s role in companies is such that you have to be a local to succeed in business
My hunch is that some of these ideas are going to be more relevant to my focus for this study – early-stage consumer-facing software startups – than others.
These first conversations have also helped me narrow the focus of this project.
I started with three questions – about who is starting consumer-facing software companies in China, the challenges/opportunities they face, and what that means for the US.
But the story I’m most intrigued by is really about innovation.
This is the topic that seems to have most animated my interviewees thus far and I’m already getting the sense that the question of Chinese innovation is far more complex than stereotypes 1-3 above suggest.
Even walking around Beijing’s hutongs you can find a kind of culture of innovation and creativity. Every other street corner seems to have an ad-hoc workshop specializing in all kinds of bike-hacking – adding electric motors, extra seats or fixing wheels. Surely reusing, remixing and reappropriating are key to innovation? I’m wondering if the culture evident on the streets of the capital is reflected elsewhere in Chinese society.
It’s going to be an interesting couple of weeks.