The same, but entirely different

As I’ve come to the end of my first week in Beijing I’ve learnt to take the phrase ‘it’s the INSERT WELL-KNOWN WESTERN EXAMPLE HERE of China’ with a pinch of salt.

This week, I’ve trekked around the Silicon Valley of China; visited the Y-Combinator of China and attended a product launch of the Facebook of China.

Metaphors are a great way of giving someone a basic sense of what something is very quickly. It’s just that beyond that, they’re not really very helpful. And in the aforementioned cases, they leave you with the impression that there’s nothing new in China; everything’s just a copy of something from elsewhere, but a bit more, well, Chinese.

After a week here, I just don’t buy that. What’s happening here isn’t the same as in the West and it may well ultimately be at least as successful.

The highlights

Here’s a quick overview of some of the places I’ve thoroughly enjoyed:

3W Coffee

Garage Cafe and 3W: I hesitate in grouping these together, but they’re two of three ‘coffee shops’ in the Zhonggancun district (the aforementioned ‘ Silicon Valley’ of China) where aspiring entrepreneurs can find a casual space to work. The third is Beta Cafe, which felt much more like an ordinary coffee shop.

Garage Cafe is a large space on the second floor of a hotel with a cafe bar and plenty of desks. The owner, Su Di, prowls the tables to hurry along those who more interested in the atmosphere than building a company. Around the corner, 3W is on the ground floor of a building opposite Microsoft. It looks like another cafe/workplace at first glance, but it’s really an events space and network for many of the large internet companies situated in the area.

Innovation Works – this photo doesn’t really give the space due credit

Innovation Works: China’s most prominent software incubator. They invest in and provide support and office space to early-stage startups. There’s a lot of money in Chinese VC at the moment, but there’s still an early-stage funding gap and that’s partly what Innovation Works set out to fill. Founded in 2009 by the former head of Google China, Kai-Fu Lee, Innovation Works started by seeding ideas in-house and recruiting an external team for them. They’ve since begun investing in existing teams and raised a $180M fund in 2011, whose participants included the likes of Ron Conway and Sequoia. They’ve got a fantastic office space, an impressive mentor lineup and an extensive network from which they help teams recruit top Chinese engineering talent.

Global Mobile Internet Conference: Thanks to the Great Wall Club, I was able to attend GMIC. I always find conference etiquette in different sectors and different parts of the world strangely fascinating. Most of the people wearing suits were Western and made up less than 10% of attendees; I’d guess that most of the 5000 participants were under 35. The majority of the two-day conference was devoted to fairly standard speaker panels, but there were also some interesting company demos. At one point, I was wondering why one stage was so jam-packed, only to discover that Ren Ren was giving an afternoon-long session – they can certainly draw a crowd.

What I’ve been reading

Here are a few things I’ve been reading this week:

The story of W&L: China’s great internet divide: All about the idea there are two Internets in China, split according to the wealth of their users, and the ramifications this has for Chinese internet companies.

A tale of two microblogs in China: Interesting history on Twitter and domestic mircoblog or ‘weibo’ and their relative political significance.

Copy factory: A list of Chinese sites that replicate the functionality of other software products.

Showcase of web design in China: From imitation to innovation: Even if you don’t speak Chinese, browse through sites aimed at the Chinese consumer and you’ll be struck by how different design for this market can be. This pieces gives you an insight into why that might be. It’s two years old now and I’m trying to get hold of someone who can give me a more updated story.

Thirty days in a Fuzhou barber shop: An American anthropologist’s account of spending a month washing hair in Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province. Nothing to do with starting companies; lots about understanding ordinary Chinese life.