HONG KONG — For Richard Robinson, 46, there’s no question where the world’s most vibrant tech startup and entrepreneurial hub outside Silicon Valley is to be found — it’s in Beijing.
“There’s New York, Boston, LA, Boulder, Chicago all competing now, but really Beijing is number two behind Silicon Valley. There’s this huge ecosystem in place: large companies, lawyers, VCs [venture capitalists], startup organizations, conferences, universities. It’s unquestionably here, but people really don’t seem to process it.”
A serial entrepreneur with an adventurous streak, Robinson grew up in Boston and made his way to China by happenstance.
He got his start after graduating from the University of Southern California, working his way across Europe as a housepainter, grape-picker, bartender, and BMW factory worker. Then in 1993 he hopped on a trans-Siberian train that ended in Beijing, and he was smitten.
“I got to China and I fell in love immediately with the place. It has this hot noise that’s so grabbing, so compelling,” he says.
In 1998 he moved to Hong Kong and became an executive at RenRen, the Facebook of China. At the internet bubble’s peak, Robinson says “for one farcical moment” the company was valued at $1.6 billion, but then it crashed.
By 2000, he had moved to Beijing in order to plunge into the just-emerging world of technology startups. At the time, Robinson did not speak fluent Mandarin, and he had few connections. What he did have, however, was openness to the differences in the way business gets done in China.
“I think all that traveling I had done before opened my mind,” he says. “When you’re getting your ass kicked around the world, it makes you realize you need to be able to accommodate what’s around you.”
Since then, he’s launched five companies in China, most with a focus on mobile gaming. He sold his stakes in the first three companies, one of which was bought by Tencent, China’s biggest internet company, in the summer of 2012. His current project, Youlu, makes business apps that scan business cards and optimize professionals’ contact lists. On the side, he runs ChopSchticks, which brings comedy acts like Jim Gaffigan and Louis CK to perform in Asia.
His success, of course, is more the exception for foreigners than the rule. The problem, he said, is that many companies come into China expecting to do business the same way they do in America. Even tech giants like Yahoo, Google, and eBay failed to adapt quickly to the local market, he said.
When they came to China “it was like an Indiana Jones movie where everyone is going after the gold and they all end up dead," he said. "Google, Yahoo, eBay — all dead, dead, dead. To this day, there is no successful foreign internet company in China,” he told GlobalPost.
Others simply get overwhelmed by China’s size and take on too much risk.
“Some people come in and totally lose their mind in China. They just lose the plot. ‘This is China, so I have to do things completely differently here and overextend myself.’ I see so many companies come in here [that] don’t put in the checks and balances.”
The key, he said, is to find trustworthy local partners, and to learn to understand Chinese ways of doing business — even if you aren’t fluent in the language. Without good, trustworthy connections, Americans can quickly find themselves drowning in China’s massively competitive marketplace.
Asked what advice he had for people considering coming to China, Robinson warned to prepare for bureaucracy, and to avoid any industry that could run afoul of government censors, who remain acutely wary of foreigners.
For tech entrepreneurs like Robinson who can swing it in the Middle Kingdom, the rewards are clear: China's internet population stands at more than 500 million and is growing. What’s more, Robinson says: relative to Silicon Valley, it’s cheap to start a company in Beijing, and cheap to fail.
“For some companies, China is like an engineering engine for what they’re creating, and they push it out to the rest of the world. You can find talent relatively cheap and blend it with foreign sensibilities and staff.”
When he’s not pursuing entrepreneurship, Robinson travels around Asia. He has spent three years rebuilding a 100-year-old hutong, or courtyard home. He is a cub scout leader, an amateur comedian, and an adherent of the “paleo” lifestyle.
In addition to his own startups, Robinson has become active in cultivating other entrepreneurs in China. As an angel investor and mentor at ChinaAccelerator, he has helped advise startups and connect innovative companies with seed funding. In 2007, he co-launched the Beijing chapter of The Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a global community of business owners who run companies with over $1 million in revenue.
Beijing, he says, is “in my heart and in my blood.” Many Americans don’t realize just how innovative and vibrant China’s technology scene is, he argues.
“I think that China is often dismissed and defined by what people read negatively in the tech space — it’s a rogue state of hackers and copycats and people doing unethical things,” says Robinson.
“I say there are two points: Sure there are lots of copycats, but I think that's the state of the market. The British stole the secret to making porcelain years ago. It’s the circle of life, Simba. What really defines China, I think, is that it’s hypercompetitive in a way that would blow away Silicon Valley and other markets. The intensity of people’s entrepreneurialism here is just jaw dropping.”