My love story began 25 years ago on a bus barreling down the Mass Pike highway in Western Massachusetts. It continues to this day, stronger and more captivating than ever. It has provided the joy, the passion, the inspiration, the endless study and purpose of my life. I’m talking about my love affair with entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.
Twenty-five years ago I was a newly-hatched baby reporter at Forbes Magazine in New York, on my first proper reporting assignment. An editor asked me to look into what was then still a small New England bus company with the unlikely name of Peter Pan Bus Lines. Against the odds, little Peter Pan was competing, and somehow winning, against America’s giant intercity bus company, Greyhound. I took one of their busses from New York’s dreary Port Authority station to the company headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts.
I sat down with the company’s CEO, Peter Picknelly. He gave me my first lesson in what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, the challenge and the delight of taking on – and eventually taking down – a big rival. To my surprise, as well as my editors, I was able to turn the conversation into an article that made it into Forbes, under my byline. My first. I was hooked– not so much with reporting and journalism. That was purely a means to an end. My life’s direction became meeting and learning from entrepreneurs.
At that time, I knew and cared little about small business and entrepreneurs. Both my grandfathers were founders of successful companies. But, growing up under their noses, I never quite appreciated just how special they — and their fellow entrepreneurs – really were. Only when I landed at Forbes, after years of studying Chinese history, then spending time in China and Hong Kong as a grad student, did it first begin to dawn on me how much I had to learn, and how deeply I should admire, the people who take the limitless risk to start businesses, find and please customers and, not all that infrequently, end up changing the world for the better.
Fast forward to today, and I’m living a life that is the culmination of this 25 years of meeting, talking with, learning from some of the best entrepreneurs in the US, Europe and now China. In the four years since starting CFC, I’ve met in China more great entrepreneurs than in the previous 21. That is no small accomplishment, since among the entrepreneurs I met previously are Bill Gates, Miuccia Prada, Ken Olson and dozens more, less famous, but in many senses, no less remarkable and successful.
Entrepreneurs in China share much the same profit-making and opportunity-seeking DNA of entrepreneurs elsewhere. What makes them more remarkable, though, is fact that almost all got their start at a time when entrepreneurship, when starting your own company, was new, untried, often hazardous in China. They not only had to overcome the obstacles familiar to entrepreneurs everywhere (where do I find the money? How do I make a profit, feed my family and reinvest? What about my larger competitors?) but a raft of others that would daunt just about any other sane individual.
Until comparatively recently, China’s economy was a near-perfect socialist vacuum in which entrepreneurship could not survive. The economy was almost entirely in state hands. Licenses were not granted to private businesspeople. Banks would not lend. This was the world today’s successful Chinese entrepreneur was born into. There were no role models. The previous generation of private entrepreneurs had, in large part, been expropriated and excoriated or fled the country in 1949.
Laws giving equal treatment to private companies were only introduced in 2005. Even then, private companies have had it very tough, in many cases. It remains a challenge. Taxes are numerous and high. Regulations can be as stifling as anywhere else in the world. Laws change frequently. Worker salaries are now growing by 25% a year or more. Every good business idea, almost within minutes, attracts hundreds, if not thousands, of competitors. Success or failure can be conferred at the whim of a local bureaucrat.
And still, the great entrepreneurs of China keep marching forward, in ever greater numbers. A week doesn’t go by when I don’t meet or hear about a successful and accomplished entrepreneur. I’m just back from a five day trip to cold and barren Northwestern China. For me, it was far more enjoyable than a long weekend on the beach at Bali.
During my trip, I met back-to-back with the founders of nine different companies, sharing hours of discussion with each, and a delicious meal with most. Each of the nine is successful, in industries ranging from cooking oil to laser components, from high-tech fiberglass threads to the world’s largest producer of a refined mineral used by steel mills all over the world.
In my next blog post, I will tell the story of this mineral company and its remarkable founder. In eight years, since starting his business with little capital and no relevant experience or higher education, he has built a business worth, conservatively, $2 billion. He owns 99% of it. His wife and daughter the remaining 1%.
Each of these entrepreneurs, like so many others in China and elsewhere, will achieve more in their lives than most, and likely leave a lasting imprint on generations to come. This was true for my grandfathers, whose success (one as the owner of a department store, the other as the founder of a button-making company) in the middle part of the 20th century created the wealth to send their children to college, get advanced degrees, and so ultimately provide a very affluent upbringing and even more possibilities in life for me and my brothers and cousins.
The roots of so much of my own happiness are opportunities and experiences made possible by the business success of my two entrepreneurial grandfathers. It is the greatest of privileges for me to now work helping in a small way some outstanding entrepreneurs here in China.