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Startups: Technology for the gentleman

Monday, January 25th, 2010

All this G talk of the last days has brought me a lot of readers from the tech world, and I feel a responsibility towards them now to report the latest innovations. That is why yesterday during my Sunday walk I decided to stroll into the local public lavatory, where the latest developments are always cooking in the field of signese.

A bit of background: signese is the Chinese humour contained in public signs before they are translated to English. It is not Chinglish, it goes much deeper into our cultural differences, and it is funny because it shows an unexpected approach to life. Look at this sign below, it is a classic of toilet signese, a sign that hangs above millions of urinals in China, from the Summer Palace to the smallest alley in Shanghai:


A small step for man, A great leap for civilization

Approximately 50 million urinals carry this sign in the mainland. I wonder if somebody has told Neil Armstrong in his old age that his famous and well rehearsed line is remembered today by 1/5th of humanity as a hygienic measure for urinating gentlemen.

Bad aiming skills in the toilet is a common ill in all societies, any lady will tell you that. But in China the problem is most acute, and sub-urinal ponds are part of the landscape. Some ascribe it to the natural optimism common in most Chinese males. I prefer to think it is a matter of multi-tasking abilities: speaking on the phone while smoking a cigarette is not the best way to ensure full control.

In any case, the Ministry of Health prefers to not leave anything to chance, and already a tech startup is taking care of this:

Click to continue »

Who gets Rich in China? and the Expat Trap

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

Last year I wrote a post about foreign entrepreneurs in Shanghai that included a Big Question with a link:  Who gets rich in China? The page attracted a ridiculous amount of search engine hits considering its dumb content, which proves that it was indeed a hot question. Time passed and I never got around to writing more, but my intention was just to echo the phrase I so often hear from disgruntled expats:

“Who gets rich in China? The Chinese!”

I am afraid I don’t have a better answer now than I had then, but recently I’ve been talking business with some entrepreneurial friends, and one problem has come up so many times that I think it is worth a post. And I hope this is useful for foreign start-ups in China to avoid making a bad decision from day zero and ending up, a few years down the line, mumbling the bitter phrase. The problem I refer to is the market dilemma, otherwise called the expat trap. Click to continue »

China’s Confidence vs. World Economic Forum

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

You know how Wen Jia Bao asked us this week to have “faith and determination“, and added that the “nation will be the first to recover” from the crisis and grasp the opportunities available. Then come the experts of the World Economic Forum, who are getting ready for their yearly skiing holiday, and they publish a prediction right on their front page:

Global Risks 2009: a new report from the World Economic Forum, identifies a deteriorating global economy, a hard landing in China…

In the report , which you can download here, they go on to speak of China 09 GDP of “6% or below”, a point which the international media is quick to report. How’s that for the confidence. Ouch, one 2 good points below the waistline of the CPC’s 8% , and right in the family jewels.

Mind you, I am not writing this to pick on Wen’s predictions. First of all, the WEF’s report is only making hypothesis, to see their possible impact on the World economy. Second, I think Wen would be as likely to get it right for China’s economy as the gurus of the WEF. After all, the CPC prepares its predictions with the advantage of insider information, and it suffers less distractions than the vedettes at the Convention of Dismalness.

On the other hand, it is a long time already since the Forum passed the heigh of its influence and it looks this year more irrelevant than ever. In the end, the important decisions for the World economy will be taken by Obama’s team and the CPC, and it is unclear how either of them will listen to the WEF. Most importantly, the role of the Forum as a brainstorming event has largely been taken over by the econobloggers, as we saw in this fascinating article you might remember from last month.

Inexplicably, we have not been invited to Davos this time, so we’ll hit the road in Shanghai instead and see how the faith and determination is doing, and whether there are signs of  faltering in the good old Shanghai shopping spirit. A big part of China’s economic Wall is made of the faith of its consumers, who are the ones supposed to make up for the lack of exports. Here’s how they are faring in Shanghai:

Nanjinglu: The usual mobs of shoppers and sellers in spite of the biting cold.

Xujiahui: It is difficult to walk the Street, the shops are as full as ever and the official sign on the Bridge reads: “Do Well Your Economic Survey, capture the situation and the strengths of the District, and promote the development of XuHui.” This district is also undergoing an economic survey, like the one done by these funny villagers, but hopefully using more standard statistical methods.

Sitting 牛: Hordes of consumers worship the goddess of consumption, the Sitting Cow.

We Hire - I got this last night right next to my place. I haven’t been keeping track of the changes these last weeks, but all I can say is that we still see many signs like this. The red character means: We hire.  1200RMB a month plus extras. Searched: waiters, shop manager, dish cleaners, etc.

So there you go, in Shanghai, in spite of some people getting worried and a few foreign startups having a hard time to meet ends, it looks like the F and D are still holding stong. Let’s hope they stay right up there throughout 2009, and we might avert this one of the Global Risks.

What’s up with all the Chinese FACEBOOKS?

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Last night I was out for a little dance with one of my Shanghai friends. My performance must have been pretty good, because as we were leaving she invited me to join Kaixinwang, and added that she would buy me straight away if I bought her.

Now, I didn’t know what to make of all this. But I was quite curious, as I had read about all these Chinese Facebooks recently on Danwei. So, as soon as I got home I thought I might as well open an account and let myself be bought. A bit of a hassle to deal with all those Chinese characters on a Sunday night, but anyway, it’s not like you can say no to a Shanghai girl.

So I went and googled Kaixinwang and opened an account and tried to find my friend there, only to find out that I was in the WRONG kaixinwang. And I had to start the whole process again. Further googling confirmed that there are 3 different kaixinwangs, apparently unrelated except that they bear the same name: kaixinwang, kaixinwang and kaixinwang. In the same time, I also found out that there are at least 2 other Facebooks: Xiaonei and Zhanzuo

So, what is up with all these Chinese Facebooks?

There seems to be a fierce struggle for power among them. Like the links above show, they are all almost exact copies of the original Facebook, but over time they have been introducing some Chinese characteristics to appeal the local users. Still not the Chinese “Wall of Characters” format, but definitely doing their best to cover up the blank spaces that Chinese users seem to hate so much. See above my (wrong) kaixinwang account.

I remember when I was in Business School, one of my classmates did a Business Plan with the title: “How to beat Ikea in 3 years”. It was a good laugh for the teacher, and my friend got extra points for “audacity”. But it is amazing to think that now for any random Chinese entrepreneur it is possible to do “Beat Facebook in 3 years”, and they don’t even need a BPlan. Is this the land of opportunity or not?

In case you think I am exaggerating, see what I got from Alexa global, with 2 of the kaixinwangs taking a huge leap in less than 6 months:

OK, probably Facebook will stay at the top because of its worldwide support. But in the Chinese market it doesn’t stand a chance. The Kaixinwangs have started and will continue to adapt the concept to Chinese preferences, and Facebook, unlike other global companies, has not moved in this direction. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg might have had a chance if he thought of selling  “sweet and sour Facebook” before.

To be fair, it is true that the Chinese censors are doing a good job at slowing down Facebook here, while not affording any protection of Intellectual Property. And the same rumours that spread in the West about the Book - giving data to the CIA, etc- are very present among the young and nationalistic Chinese internet users, and surely not discouraged by the local competition.

Now, let’s see the key points for future developments:

  1. The lack of IP protection in China means that all these startups can just copy the essential from Facebook, and concentrate instead on adding some extra games and gadgets that appeal the Chinese. In fact, for this very reason it doesn’t make sense for Kaixinwangs to innovate. Wasting resources in coming up with a new platform is a loser move, when any newcomer can just copy.
  2. This seems to be an unregulated network market, which usually evolves into a Winner-Take-All situation. So it is to be expected that pretty soon one of the Kaixinwangs will take the whole pie.
  3. Only at that point, with the local market secured, the winning Kaixinwang will find a reason to start developing some really new stuff.
  4. This is a phenomenon that applies to many industries in China. They are in a race to capture markets while the economy grows, and can’t afford to stop and rethink right now. This is what I mean when I say the fast pace of Chinese economy for the last 30 years has left many holes behind.

From the selfish point of view of an expat in Shanghai: I can’t wait for all this kaixinwang competition to get  settled and every Chinese to get an account in the Champion of the KaixinWangs. (开心网王)

For many Westerners here Facebook has become part of our social reflexes. When we meet someone new - which happens everyday in Shanghai- it is the easiest way to keep track. With the Chinese, the simple social question: “what is your Facebook?”  results in a complicated discussion, often involving the CIA, James Bond and Her whole Majesty’s Secret Service. In the end, you always end up stuck with another fancy visit card that quickly gets lost in the overflowing 名片drawer.

UPDATE: I found another 2 kaixinwangs just now: kaixinwang and kaixinwang. There must be dozens of them out there if I can find these 5 so easily on the first page of google results. What a mess! It reminds me of the times when WangDonalds flourished right next to the real place. Perhaps the Chinese Net Nanny should spend her time trying to sort this out instead of wasting it with us.

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