Notes on the Beijing tech scene
I just came back from a week in Beijing and wanted to write down some observations while they were still fresh.
In this post:
Beijing is currently one of three major tech hotspots in China (the other two being Shanghai and Shenzhen) and houses some of the world’s most valuable start-ups such as Baidu, Didi, and Meituan. More than 1/3 of all VC deals in China are made in Beijing.
At the same time Beijing is one of the oldest cities in the world. It’s been the capital of China for more than 3,000 years and 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 to say Beijing is an important place in the world would be an understatement. The tech scene in Beijing (but also the rest of China) has been developing rapidly in the past ten years and even more so in the past few. The below are some notes on what I observed during my time there in June 2019.
People in China work hard. The typical worker embodies a working culture dubbed “996”: nine AM to nine PM, six days a week. This is the expectation amongst young people entering the tech workforce and has been established as the norm by leaders such as Jack Ma (CEO of Alibaba) and companies such as JD.com (an e-commerce company worth about 68B USD).
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 (granted, this may also have been sample selection bias). They acknowledged the difficulties but also knew 996 culture was expected and were willing to put in the efforts required.
With the exponential rise of companies like VIPKid and Zuoyebang in the past two years, education technology seems to be 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 and are going head-to-head with more 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, probably in large part due to the rigor imposed by the gaokao (高考) system. Newer startups in the education technology area are now finding ways to apply AI to adaptively teach children skills across a variety of different areas like English, music, and coding.
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 reached out to when there were all very excited to meet and exchange ideas.
For some odd reason I had this mistaken belief that the way startup offices look/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. 😂 There’s also plenty of WeWorks around Beijing as well.
The logistics network in China is incredibly developed, much more so than here in the US. I think a significant barrier in the States is that labor is expensive, so ordering food on DoorDash feels like a luxury that isn’t even worth it since delivery fees can be around $10 and the waiting time is usually almost an hour.
But in China labor is cheap and abundant, and the logistics network makes everything instantaneous. Food ordered on an app arrives instantly, and even beyond 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 I saw 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.
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 the WeChat ecosystem. This allows you to accomplish almost everything you could ever need your mobile phone to do without ever having to leave WeChat.
- A lot of restaurant’s menus are being replaced by WeChat. Each table is equipped with a QR code, and your food will arrive within a few minutes after scanning the code and placing your order within the restaurant's WeChat Mini Program.
- WeChat only lets you view first-degree connections among your network. Social networks here in the States have popularized the idea of a 2nd-degree network so much that I’ve taken it to be the norm (Facebook’s mutual friends, Twitter’s “Followers you may know”, etc), but WeChat is a completely locked down environment. You can’t request to join any WeChat groups you’re not already a part of, and you can’t add anyone unless you know their phone number or WeChat ID.
I can’t ever really 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 very popular tea spot in China:
Here are some photos of a crowd of people waiting to watch the flags being lowered at Tiananmen Square:
And finally, some photos of some delicious food I had in Beijing, just for fun...
The best roast duck in Beijing.© Melissa Du.RSS