企业家

Why I Love What I DO

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.

Entrepreneurship in China– The Fuel in the Economy’s Engine

Fish bowl from China First Capital blog

China’s only abundant and inexhaustible natural resource is the entrepreneurial talent of its people. Nowhere else in the world can match the number of talented businesspeople, both in absolute numbers and as a share of the active population. That’s what I’ve learned in a 25-year career working alongside great entrepreneurs in the US, Europe and Asia. Today’s China is the most entrepreneurially-endowed place in the world. What that means, above all, is that China’s economy, propelled by robust entrepreneurial activity,  will prosper for the next several decades at least.

Entrepreneurs everywhere seem to share a common gene, and have more in common with one another than they do with the rest of the population in their home countries. They are more tolerant of risk, more compelled to try or invent new things, more able to see opportunities for profit, especially when they are invisible to others.

But, in China, entrepreneurs have some unique characteristics compared to those in the US and Europe. For one thing, 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. Laws giving equal treatment to private companies were only introduced in 2005. Decades of pent-up entrepreneurial energy were unleashed. More great private companies have been started in the last ten years in China than in any other place in history.

We are still in the early years of the Big Bang of Chinese entrepreneurship. Everyone in the world is feeling the effects. Within China, private entrepreneurs now supply much of what China’s vast consumer market buys. Outside China, much of what’s labeled “Made in China” is produced in factories started and run by these new entrepreneurs.

There are some other important ways in which China’s entrepreneurs are different than those in US and Europe. A very minor percentage of China’s entrepreneurs are university graduates. They build their companies with almost no capital, and no access to bank credit. They face daunting challenges unknown to entrepreneurs most everywhere else: an absence of clear commercial laws or intellectual property protection, very burdensome tax and labor rules, holdover policies that give state-owned companies significant advantages.

Despite it all, every year, more of China’s population are going into business for themselves. Not all will build billion-dollar businesses. But, more will do so in China over the next several decades than anywhere else.

Partly, it’s simple math: China has both a huge domestic market and is the world’s largest manufacturing and exporting nation. But, these factors are themselves the product of China’s earlier entrepreneurial success, not a precondition for it. Earlier entrepreneurs created the fertile environment for today’s new private companies to thrive. The process is cumulative, and very fast-moving.. I see this every day in my work. We are meeting more great entrepreneurs now, on a weekly basis, than we did three, six or twelve months ago.

Another fact stands out when I compare these Chinese entrepreneurs to others I’ve worked with in the US and Europe. Chinese entrepreneurs do most everything single-handedly. They build companies without relying on a big management team or a circle of advisors. Decision-making is mainly based on hunch and experience, not on market research or focus groups. Even large private companies in China are managed like sole proprietorships. Nothing of importance is delegated. One person controls all the decision-making levers, casting the one and deciding vote on any issue of importance to do with operations, marketing, finance, strategy, sales. They are lone navigators, steering their businesses through very tricky waters, dealing with government officials, suppliers, customers, as well as their own employees.

Since starting China First Capital three years ago, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet several hundred outstanding Chinese entrepreneurs from dozens of different industries. Most are cut from the same cloth — crisp, confident, charismatic. With few exceptions, most do not have college degrees or much experience working for anyone else. They are born entrepreneurs.

Take one boss I met recently. He began his working life 30 years ago, after high school, as a trader. He was good at it, and saved enough, eventually, to go into manufacturing one of the products he was selling as a wholesaler to others. He moved up quickly, from producing basic low-margin commodity products to investing in his own R&D. He kept plowing profits back into the R&D work, and then to build new factory lines to produce a range of unique, patent-protected products he invented. These products deliver higher margins and target a larger, richer market than anything he previously manufactured.

The business is now growing very swiftly. Also typical, his son has joined the business, after getting a college degree abroad.  This boss, like most others I have met, knows how to work the system to his maximum advantage. His new products let him qualify as a high-tech enterprise, and so pay a much lower corporate income tax rate. The local government has shown its further support by selling him a large tract of land to build a new factory on, at a fraction of its market price.

This boss, somewhat uncommonly, has a very strong management team around him to manage finances, factory production and marketing. He is the force of gravity holding whole business together. It’s hard to imagine anyone else, except perhaps one day his son, could run this business as well. That’s another characteristic shared by most good entrepreneurial companies in China – they are never quite as successful once the founder steps down.

Another distinguishing trait of entrepreneurship in China – there are far more women bosses here than I ever saw in the US or Europe.  The ones I’ve met, along with being successful entrepreneurs, are also all quite elegant, attractive, even seductive. Those aren’t words usually associated with entrepreneurs anywhere else in the world.

According to the magazine China Entrepreneur, there are currently more than 29 million female entrepreneurs in China,  or about 20% of the total number of entrepreneurs in the country. Overall, China has more entrepreneurs, male and female, than most countries have citizens.

China’s economy continues to perform at a level never achieved by a major economy. Can this continue? I believe it can. The most emphatic reason is the entrepreneurial genius of so many of its citizens.

 

 

The New Equilibrium – It’s the Best Time Ever to be a Chinese Entrepreneur

China Private Equity blog post

As I wrote the last time out, the game is changed in PE investing in China. The firms most certain to prosper in the future are those with ability to raise and invest renminbi, and then guide their portfolio companies to an IPO in China. For many PE firms, we’re at a hinge moment: adapt or die. 

Luckily for me, I work on the other side of the investment ledger, advising private Chinese companies and assisting them with pre-IPO capital raising. So, while the changes now underway are a supreme challenge for PE firms, they are largely positive for the excellent SME businesses I work with.

They now have access to a greater pool of capital and the realistic prospect of a successful domestic IPO in the near future. Both factors will allow the best Chinese entrepreneurs to build their businesses larger and faster, and create significant wealth for themselves. 

As my colleagues and me are reminded every day, we are very fortunate. We have a particularly good vantage point to see what’s happening with China’s entrepreneurs all over the country. On any given week, our company will talk to the bosses of five and ten private Chinese SME. Few of these will become our clients, often because they are still a little small for us, or still focused more on exports than on China’s burgeoning domestic market. We generally look for companies with at least Rmb 25 million in annual profits, and a focus on China’s burgeoning domestic market. 

For the Chinese companies we talk to on a regular basis, the outlook is almost uniformly ideal. China’s economy is generating enormous, once-in-a-business-lifetime opportunities for good entrepreneurs.

Here’s the big change: for the first time ever, the flow of capital in China is beginning to more accurately mirror where these opportunities are. 

China’s state-owned banks have become more willing to lend to private companies, something they’ve done only reluctantly in the past. The bigger change is there is far more equity capital available. Every week brings word that new PE firms have been formed with hundreds of millions of renminbi to invest.

The capital market has also undergone its own evolutionary change. China’s new Growth Enterprise Market, known as Chinext, launched in October 2009. In two months, it has already raised over $1 billion in new capital for private Chinese companies. 

In short, the balance has shifted more in favor of the users rather than the deployers of capital. That because capital is no longer in such short supply. This is among the most significant financial changes taking place in China today: growth capital is no longer the scarcest resource. As recently as a year ago, PE firms were relatively few, and exit opportunities more limited. Within a year, my guess is the number of PE firms and the capital they have to invest in private Chinese companies will both double. 

Of course, raising equity capital remains a difficult exercise in China, just as it is in the US or Europe. Far fewer than 1% of private companies in China will attract outside investment from a PE or VC fund. But, when the business model and entrepreneur are both outstanding,  there is a far better chance now to succeed.

Great business models and great entrepreneurs are both increasingly prevalent in China. I’m literally awestruck by the talent of the Chinese entrepreneurs we meet and work with – and I’ve met quite a few good ones in my past life as a venture capital boss and technology CEO in California, and earlier as a business journalist for Forbes

So, while life is getting tougher for the partners of PE firms (especially those with only dollars to invest), it is a better time now than ever before in Chinese history to be a private entrepreneur. That is great news for China, and a big reason why I’m so thrilled to go to work each day.