Beijing Startup Scene Notes

After spending a week in China, I wanted to write down some observations on the Beijing startup scene while they were still fresh.

In this post:

Currently, Beijing is one of three major tech hotspots in China (the other two are Shanghai and Shenzhen). Beijing’s startup scene houses some of the world’s most valuable startups such as Baidu, Didi, and Meituan. VCs make more than 1/3 of all deals in China in Beijing.

Beijing is also one of the oldest cities in the world. It’s been the capital of China for more than 3,000 years. It houses some of the world’s most important historical wonders (the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square) as well as two of the best universities in all of China (Tsinghua and Peking University).

So, saying Beijing is an important place in the world is an understatement. The Beijing startup scene has developed rapidly in the past ten years and even more so in the past few. I made the following observations during my time there in June 2019.

996 culture

People in China work hard. The typical worker embodies a working culture dubbed “996”: nine AM to nine PM, six days a week. Working 996 is the expectation amongst young people entering the tech workforce. Leaders such as Jack Ma (CEO of Alibaba) and companies such as JD.com (an e-commerce company worth about $68B USD) have established 996 as the norm.

While I’ve read about a lot of backlash to 996 online, the young people that I met were quite accepting of the 996 work culture. They acknowledged the difficulties but also knew 996 culture was expected and were willing to put in the efforts required.

The Ed-Tech Startup Scene

The exponential rise of companies like VIPKid and Zuoyebang has made education technology a hot area for Chinese start-ups right now. New online platforms are taking advantage of high-quality video-conferencing technologies to instantly connect students with teachers. They face traditional industry leaders such as New Oriental, which currently has a market cap of about $16B USD.

Clearly what hasn’t changed is Chinese people’s willingness to spend their discretionary income on K-12 education. This is probably in large part due to the rigor imposed by the gaokao (高考) system. Newer ed-tech startups are now finding ways to apply AI to adaptively teach children skills across a variety of different areas like English, music, and coding.

Entrepreneurship Road

Yes, there is literally a road in the middle of Zhongguancun (the neighborhood in Beijing where most startups and VCs are located) called Entrepreneurship Road (创业路). The various people I met there were all very excited to meet and exchange ideas.

For some odd reason I had this mistaken belief that startup office’s look and feel are unique to Silicon Valley…but it as turns out the startup offices in Beijing look just the way they do here in the Bay Area. 😂 The Beijing startup scene also has plenty of WeWorks too.

Logistics

China’s logistics network is incredibly developed. I think a significant barrier in the States is that labor is expensive. Ordering food on DoorDash feels like a luxury that usually isn’t worth it given high delivery fees and wait times.

But in China labor is cheap and abundant, and the logistics network makes everything instantaneous. Food ordered on an app arrives instantly. Outside of food, you can instantly order literally anything your heart desires straight to your home: a haircut, cleaning services, an art teacher, sliced fruit…

Also, just for fun, here’s a photo of some workers organizing packages for delivery on the side of the road. I’m not sure if this is the usual workflow for sorting packages, but I thought it was interesting.

WeChat (of course)

Any post on China would be incomplete without a mention of WeChat. This time, though, I learned a few new things about WeChat I didn’t know before:

  • WeChat Mini Programs are apps that exist within WeChat. They allow you to accomplish almost everything you could ever need your mobile phone to do without having to leave WeChat.
  • WeChat has replaced a lot of restaurant’s menus. QR codes equip each table. Food arrives within a few minutes after you scan the table’s code and place an order within the restaurant’s WeChat Mini Program.
  • WeChat only lets you view first-degree connections among your network. I consider 2nd-degree social networks to be the norm (e.g. Facebook’s mutual friends, Twitter’s “Followers you may know”) because of how much US social networks have popularized the idea. However, WeChat is a completely locked down social network. You can’t request to join any WeChat groups you’re not already a part of. You also can’t add anyone unless you know their phone number or WeChat ID.

The absurd number of people in Bejing

I can’t ever get used to just how many people there are in China. Rush hour on the trains/buses is insane, and Beijing traffic seems to be bad at all hours of the day. If you thought waiting in line for brunch in San Francisco was bad, here is a photo of the line (at a non-rush hour time) at HeyTea, a popular tea spot:

Here are some photos of a crowd of people waiting to watch some soldiers lower flags at Tiananmen Square:

Finally, some photos of delicious food I had in Beijing, just for fun…

All this delicious food for just $3 USD
The best roast duck in Beijing