I got back from a trip to Asia late last week. Like all my trips abroad, it was very eye-opening, and I am definitely very grateful for my fund’s cross-Pacific approach for giving me a chance to build a more international perspective on venture capital and business.
A few thoughts:
- I was very pleasantly surprised by Beijing. Now, obvious caveat: I stayed at a fancy hotel, threw a swanky corporate party, and was mostly chauffeured around the city on the fund’s dime – so obviously, I’m getting a semi-biased perspective on Beijing. With that said, there’s just no getting around the fact that China is big and booming. Before this trip, my only exposure to China’s rapid growth was in statistics and business reports. So, it registered on only a superficial, intellectual level. But to see it up-close was a completely different matter. Parts of Beijing are as bustling and well-developed as a New York or San Francisco, with well-dressed businesspeople and shoppers moving about quickly to get to their next destination. The infrastructure quality within the city is significantly better than I had pictured (and, likely far better than many poorly-planned cities in the West) and, aside from the air quality and traffic, the city was far cleaner and better organized than I expected – especially when comparing it to my experiences in India.
- No business can afford to not have a presence in China. Everyone has their favorite China market statistic – mine, given my venture capital/tech leanings, is this: there are more internet users in China (~400 million) than there are people in the US. While, for obvious reasons, I’ll always have a soft spot for Taiwan, you just can’t get around the size and growth of the Chinese market. We’ll all need to know Chinese and Chinese business culture some day in the same way that everyone today needs to know English and US business culture.
- There’s an “energy” around China that you only see in places like Silicon Valley. This is very difficult for me to describe, but in places where there is a lot of entrepreneurial energy, the people have a palpable “hunger” for opportunity that you don’t see elsewhere. You can sense this amongst entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley, and you can definitely feel this in China. The entrepreneurs that I met were young and relatively inexperienced, but very eager and very “hungry” for a chance to prove themselves. It’s a great feeling, and I think it bodes very well for China’s future.
- Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are massive. For some reason, I had always thought that they weren’t particularly large. My mistake – and my feet didn’t forgive me for it. It was a gorgeous site, though, and as someone who wrote a report about the two greatest emperors of the Qing Dynasty, a very rare chance for me to see some of the actual history in front of me.
- Tokyo is amazing. This is my second visit to Japan, and as a self-admitted Japan-ophile, really, you don’t get much better Japanese anime, art, service, or food anywhere else than Tokyo. The skyline is gorgeous (I got to check out the Tokyo tower skydeck), the electronic store district (Akihabara) is very cool, the karaoke scene is phenomenal, and the food is spectacular. Oh, and I must have a Japanese-style toilet some day. Heated seats. Built-in bidet. Electronic controls (some even with motion sensors so it knows when to lift up the seat). Or, in other words: as close to heaven as you can get while in the bathroom .
- Tokyo is like one, big contiguous shopping mall. Everywhere you go: shops, stores, billboards, and posters. I went to a particularly well-known shopping complex in Tokyo’s fashion district (Harajuku) called LaForet Grand Bazaar (see right), and it was like traveling to a different planet, where the population was 95% obsessive shoppers, 5% shouting store clerks. One store I passed had a very interesting system: each shopper could only browse/shop while a 5 minute song was playing and, after the song finished, had to buy what they kept. Even I couldn’t resist the allure – as I went to a Uniqlo store in the Ginza district and bought a dress shirt.
- Japan needs to change. The Japan-ophile in me wants to see Japan continue to thrive as a major economic force, but speaking to some locals has cemented the conclusions of my own research: I’m concerned for Japan’s future growth prospects. While Japan will maintain its lead in consumer electronics and automobiles for some time, there are definitely signs that this leadership could dwindle. The entrepreneurial spirit that I sensed in China was not as palpable in Japan, where the people place a lot more emphasis on rigid hierarchies and social structures. That translates into less risk-taking, fewer bold strategies, an unwillingness to fire unproductive workers and kill off bad projects, and a business culture which probably places too much emphasis on loyalty and connections rather than results. These are sweeping generalizations, of course, as exceptions like Japan’s electric vehicle and mobile social networking industries exist which are booming and full of creative spirit. But I do worry that the Japanese economy will continue to experience slow growth or decline if they don’t find a way to make the bold changes that they’ll need.