Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Re-Engaging China

I came back to China officially about a month ago. This time is different. It’s not simply a journey of discovery or a pass-through during my international wanderings. It’s not even just about improving my Chinese.

This time I’m committing to and re-enaging with being in China. I have a project, a reason, a focus. I’m not just here to be here. I’m here to try and change something thing, to develop something, to innovate on something.

This is the story of my re-engagement with China and my new job with Startup Weekend China.

My Re-Engaging China

While I have been telling people I live or have been living in China since 2008, the reality is that I have been a digital nomad for the last two years, so this takes me total time in China up to now to about 4 years.

During my recent hiatus, I have been to dozens of amazing places, met great people, and learned much about myself, the world and languages. I still consider myself a “traveling entrepreneur,” but a few things happened during my travels in Asia last year that brought me back to China on a mission.

The main spark is Startup Weekend, a 54-hour event where you merge networking, team building and technical expertise into a sprint to launch a viable business in a weekend.

I attended my first Startup Weekend in Chicago. This was following my brother Eric’s successful launch of Zaarly at a Startup Weekend in Los Angeles and their initial funding. I then attended my second event in Taiwan a few weeks after (See Part 1 and Part 2 for my review of this event).

Since then, I’ve attended, judged and mentored at events in Europe, South America and Asia. This “Startup Weekend World” culminated in my helping to organize the first Startup Weekend in Chengdu in June 20-22, 2014.

Empowered by what we were able to accomplish in our first event in Chengdu, we were approached by some local companies and sponsors about what we wanted to do next. The simple answer was we weren’t sure. We wanted to grow our startup community in Chengdu, but the vision and hope grew as we looked around.

Personally, I wanted to help grow Chengdu and Startup Weekend in general in China. I have my own business, have tried my hand at various ventures, and have a pretty wide, international experience with Startup Weekend.

Startup Weekend in China

While there had been several Startup Weekend events around China, its growth was paltry when you look at countries like Brazil, Japan or even Colombia. So, I asked a simple question: Why aren’t Startup Weekend and its affiliate programs taking off in China?

Inspired by this question and subsequent conversations with local Chinese companies, I returned to the US this past summer. One of my first steps was to reach out to UP Global, the organizing force behind Startup Weekend. After a series of emails and Skype discussions, I was invited to come to Seattle, their main headquarters, to flesh out my vision for Startup Weekend in China.

Historically, Startup Weekend has grown through basically an organic process. People attend an event or hear about it and then decide to put on their own. The Startup Weekend HQ merely helps make sure the event has the right ingredients and some experienced hands and then lets each community manage their own event. This approach has worked incredibly well in most places around the world. In the US and Europe, this approach has seen hundreds and thousands of events take place since 2009.

This model hasn’t worked that well in China. Growth has been static and limited to foreigner heavy cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The reputation and media presence of Startup Weekend in China is equally small. China has yet to see major sponsorship for Startup Weekend events or community. Progress has arguably also been limited by the lack of an official presence / office / representative in China.

Looking at these factors and challenges in China, I pitched to SW HQ some ways to approach those problems and possible ways to build a more sustainable future in China. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy but I proposed the need to provide some flexibility on how things might work best in China.

After some brainstorming and planning sessions, they agreed to make me the first official Startup Weekend / UP Global representative in China, under the title of “Community Development Manager.”

This is the tangible reason for my re-enagement with China.

My China Business Learning Story

Comparing the person who originally arrived in China in the summer of 2008 and the one of who left in 2012, it’s amazing how much I changed during that time. I learned a new language, but mostly it was an opportunity to learn new skills, namely technical skills for web programing, but also a chance to think and attempt a few business ventures. These business ventures provided me with a huge education.

China proved to be a cheaper place for me to make some mistakes. I failed at several businesses while here, but I learned plenty about the business culture and psychology of Chinese people. It’s also where I built my first successful consulting business: Int3c, where we build and focus on Drupal custom web development.

China is definitely not an easy place to work and live at times. But it’s without a doubt an extremely fascinating place where you can’t help but learn. People, foods and concepts are different.

Yes, business in China can be hard. Unexpected failures and China challenges have caused me lost sleep, lost opportunities and even lost faith. China is not an easy place for foreign companies and foreign business people. So, like many business folks in China, I decided to leave.

I left with one viable, location-independent business and with a couple of failed Chinese businesses. All in all, I definitely came out ahead.

While there isn’t exactly a titled “degree” on my shelf, the tuition I paid for learning has helped graduate in various ways. I also was pretty confident I’d eventually be back in China.

My Startup Weekend China Story

I hadn’t quite planned things this way, but upon leaving China in 2012, I started a pretty epic journey across several different countries. I was hoping to figure out the best place for me to live and launch a new business. All I knew upon leaving was that I could run my current business from anywhere with an internet connection, so I figured I could try my luck elsewhere.

And man was I lucky. I spent months in Europe, time in Morocco, travels in Greece and over a month in Colombia. Uninspired by Europe, I hopped around Asia with long stays in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. And yet I kept coming back to China.

I wasn’t sure what I’d find but eventually I found it in the place I’d been leaving and returning to: Chengdu. Some of fellow foreigners in Chengdu were looking for help to do a Startup Weekend. As luck would have it, the connections happened and we pulled things off for our first event. This eventually spun out into my new job and my new commitment to China.

There are several things I’m hoping to achieve, but broadly my job is to help to grow Startup Weekend as a viable business and viable community of organizers, volunteers and leaders. This task is by no means a simple one with a simple, clear road ahead.

We have to test assumptions about what works. We can’t assume American models are sustainable or even acceptable in a Chinese context.

I have to be open to thinking about the very fundamentals of what it takes to be a viable business, a working organization and a dynamic operational team in China. So I ask questions, probe assumptions and establish, to the best of my ability, testable formulas. Then attack. Build-Measure-Learn.

In late August 2014, I arrived back in China. This is not just another passage, another attempt to learn, though those will ultimately prove equally true. I’ve returned to China. I’ve re-engaged China.

Now it’s time to for us to innovate for and in China.

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