Friday, August 05, 2016

A Swedish Tech CEO Explains Why He'd Much Rather Run His Startup In Beijing Than Silicon Valley

Via Business Insider:

I was born in Sweden, moved to Silicon Valley and then New York, but I founded a tech startup in Beijing and chances are I'll stay there. Why?

Because in many ways, Beijing has been a better breeding ground for my startup and for my own personal growth than I think Silicon Valley could be today.

With the perspective of having lived in three markedly different cultures, I have come to the conclusion that Beijing might be of historical importance for the creative forces often associated with Silicon Valley — a place that seemingly lost its way.

I pulled two amazing privilege cards from the deck of life straight from the get-go: I was born in Sweden in 1986, a country that enjoyed early market adoption of personal computers, and I was raised by software entrepreneurs.

I had a Macintosh in my room before I even started school. Computers were always a part of my life, and I got to have a computer—literate childhood. I had already been using computers for a decade when I got to high school, and had all the confidence in the world.

Nothing about computers scared me, and teaching myself how to pirate and use complicated software was just par for the course. Long before helpful Youtube tutorials (or even realistically watching video online) I had the good fortune of teaching myself how to use software like Photoshop, video editing software, music studio software, hex editors, IDEs, you name it. In the years before high school I carried networking equipment in my backpack, and my mom would drive me over to friends' with my desktop computer in the back of car so we could have overnight LAN parties.

All of this gave me a front row seat to one of the most interesting periods of Internet history and culture, an Internet that seems entirely foreign to my 15 year younger brother: after the Golden Age of PC RPGs in the late 90s came the dawn of online gaming, and it changed my life.

I sometimes say I grew up on the Internet, because by the time I was 14 I spoke better English than my native Swedish and I had more friends that knew me by my online alter ego than friends I had in the meat world. I got to spend my teens in an Internet subculture surrounded by some of the most interesting people I've ever met, because the Internet was not some playground where just anyone gathered — we were still discouraged from spending so much time on our computers, and there was no one around to teach us how to get online and find each other.

To find my friends I had to learn how to use a computer, master a new language, get online, pirate computer games and find people to play with, and the people I found had gone through the same experience. To play games online in the year 2000 was to be surrounded by those that had a real drive, that would not be deterred — they were entrepreneurial. I don't think it is a coincidence that my generation, that got to explore computers as children playing games in the dawn of online gaming, have done exceptionally well for themselves in tech since they entered the workforce.

For some kids of my generation the Internet was a frontier, a wild and untamed landscaped where, if you could put down the hard work and weather an unknown and sometimes hostile environment, one could forge a new life and identity, and live life by your own rules.

Almost inevitably, I ended up working in software. I dropped out after my first year of college to join a software company, and eventually founded my own tech startup. I'm the kind of guy that should love Silicon Valley; I should find myself feeling right at home with that crowd.

Full of youthful political vigor, I finally agreed to be relocated to Silicon Valley when Obama became the President Elect. I believed that change was coming, that the time had come for my generation to inherit the world, and that I needed to be close to what I had been told was the uncontested epicenter of innovation.

It didn't last.

Moving to the States

My first experience of the States and of Silicon Valley was absolutely soul — crushingly disappointing. I landed in San Francisco and felt like I had traveled back in time. Far from the expected glass towers of a technological utopia, what I found was a surprisingly run down city that reminded me of traveling in Eastern Europe.

It seemed to be all pot and potholes, and the culture was difficult to navigate. I was told not to discuss religion and politics, which is really all we talk about in Sweden, and I was confused by the sheer amount of narcissistic Ayn Rand followers.

What's the point of innovation if you're not building a better society?

I encountered levels of homelessness and mental illness that I was entirely unprepared for, but was repeatedly discouraged from donating any spare change by my new American community.

It's not your problem, that was the mantra that unironically flowed from the lips of entrepreneurs that otherwise convinced themselves that they were making the world a better place, presumably for themselves and the people who were their problem. There was something absurd and almost obscene about watching the technocrats step over and around the homeless to get to jobs where they're given free food and drink.

As a Swede coming to the States, I was disillusioned. I had, as I think many young entrepreneurs have, idolized Silicon Valley as a utopian vision of an idealistic but well — meaning band of technocrats building the foundations for a just and democratic society, but in its place I found vanity, pettiness and greed.

Not only did the emperor have no clothes, but the naked corpus revealed was unappetizing to my Swedish quasi-socialist ideals. Ultimately, I felt alone in Silicon Valley ... I left.

Moving to Beijing

Through a weird string of disastrous circumstances I found myself on a flight to Beijing in 2009. I was leaving everything behind, wanting to cleanse my palate, and it was the bravest, or most reckless, thing I think I've ever done.

I had a thousand dollars in my savings account, and what I hoped was 15k USD worth of shares in the private company I dropped out of college for. The plan was to sell my shares back to former colleagues, but I had no guarantees.

In fact, I had been told I shouldn't go. I should get a new job, take my time selling the shares, find my footing... But I rarely listen to helpful advice, so off I went, confident that I'd work it out somehow. I would find a place to stay, a way to feed myself, and I'd build a business from scratch, one without the moral shortcomings that had driven me out of my previous workplace.

I fell in love with Beijing before I had even stepped out of the taxi from the airport. Beijing was an insane mix of history and futurism. Construction was everywhere, 20 million people desperately cramming together into ever taller buildings to be part of China's brave new future — here were the glass towers, growing out of a landscape of poverty and the weight of millennia of history. Beijing was dirty, gritty, and wild — but it was changing so incredibly fast. It was absolutely intoxicating.

Before you object, I am by no means saying that China is a more just society than the States, or more technologically advanced — it was just clearly moving faster — and you immediately got the impression that Beijing was a city concerned with statecraft and the future of its people, rather than the latest hot gadget. For all its warts (and there are many), Beijing is a city with its eye on the future and a place that you can help shape.

Beijing turned out to be a great place for a startup, and I have often argued that the city was the best incubator we could have asked for — it offered us cheap housing and food, a network of experienced mentors that were happy to take the time to help, steady access to some of the world's greatest engineering talent at a sixth of the cost of a junior engineer in Silicon Valley, and access to a vast market of clients. In my company's field especially, Beijing provides fertile soil for innovation and steady access to problem's worth solving.

What really captured my heart, though, was the people that move to Beijing. Just like the Internet of the early 2000s was a fantastic meeting place for entrepreneurial and eccentric people, Beijing seems to attract large numbers of truly driven, creative and interesting people. No matter if you move to Beijing from a smaller city in China, or from across the world, you're making a decision that many will question.

What about the pollution? The poverty? The corruption? Almost invariably the motivation of these pioneers echoes the desire to be part of something great — an unknown but exciting future. Beijing today feels like the Internet felt in my teens — a place where eccentric, talented and driven people congregate to make their own rules.

I've now lived here for 6 years. I never planned to stay, I just couldn't leave. There was too much going on, too many opportunities to see history unfold in front of me, and now I have to admit that I'm addicted to its pace and vision, and the feeling of helping move the needle at civilization scale.

Returning to Silicon Valley

I still spend at least a month a year in the Valley, and I'd like to think that my perspective has changed over time, made richer by experiencing China for more than half a decade. Just last week I returned from my latest three—week visit, and I'm still digesting the experience.

Don't get me wrong — there are many things that I truly love about Silicon Valley. Even though I mourn a missing moral compass, I profoundly love that Silicon Valley is a place where geeks can be geeks and intellectualism is not frowned upon. I admire and love the drive to create, and I am grateful for all the hard work and loving attention that people put into creating great products.

But let's be honest — Silicon Valley is often a parody of itself, and it has lost some of the things that made it great. Where Silicon Valley was once heavily subsidized to be a place of technical innovation, it is now an expensive but well-funded hub focused on business execution.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that — good technology deserves good execution, and investors deserve to make money — but it is hard not to wonder what could have been. What if Silicon Valley stopped employing some of the world's greatest minds to make us click ads, and instead served a higher calling?

When an established and well-known company like Häagen-Dazs believes that the inhabitants of the Valley can be pandered to with pseudo-code and proclamations of being a "56-year-old" startup, we can certainly laugh at their attempts to be hip, but it might serve us well to ask what it says about us, and how the world perceives us. Also, it wouldn't hurt the technocrats to once a decade or so look themselves in the mirror and question common sense — why are we really here, in Silicon Valley, and not somewhere else?

When I founded my startup I arguably had the wrong (or right?) motivation. I wasn't thinking about huge markets, and how to make enormous amounts of money for myself and my investors — but simply wanted to solve some painful data related problems that had been haunting me through my professional career.

My cofounders and I, having already built deep tech like intra-cortical neural interfaces, wanted to build challenging technology we could take pride in having built. It has often lead us down contrarian paths, and we've often confused and frustrated investors with long-term road maps that seemingly pass up immediate opportunities at hand right now for some potential greater opportunity in the future.

Time will tell if we've made the right decision, but I know that we could never have built what we ended up building if we were in Silicon Valley.

It took two years of hard work and late nights at the whiteboard to build a prototype of something we knew we could be proud of — and what Silicon Valley investor would agree to fund something that would take two years to release?

Not only that, but it would have cost us roughly 6 times as much money to develop it in Silicon Valley — for no immediate benefit. Here in Beijing we still have access to world class talent, as Silicon Valley already knows — they're importing tons of engineering talent from China, and we're happy importing talent to China as well.

I could certainly be wrong, but from where I'm standing now it is hard not to see reason to have an immense debt of gratitude to the culture of Beijing. Our backers here saw our passion, and were not afraid to make a long term investment, and the community here has supported us in more ways we ever thought possible.

More than anything, I take immense pride in being part of a community (what up, #BeiArea?) that truly cares about great culture — not just company culture, but how to build great culture at civilization scale. I want to dream big, and Beijing is for dreamers.

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