First Time at Fortune BrainStorm Tech International
- December 11, 2017
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Just prior to the Fortune Global Forum, I was invited to also attend the Brainstorm Tech International conference as well, which was in the nearby Four Seasons hotel. This is my first trip to this part of China, or Guangzhou in particular, so I’ll share a few observations:
First the weather is amazing. Everyone from Guangzhou appears to be a bit cold, but the 60’s are great weather for someone who has to wear a sport coat or suit. Like other cities I’ve visited in Asia, Guangzhou boasts amazing architecture and buildings that reach for the sky. But Guangzhou appears to do a reasonable job of mixing in green spaces that are well maintained at least in the city center.
At the conference, rather than set up a big screen, there were tables with monitors posted all over the room, and those monitors would show the speaker’s slides, or a view of the speaker talking if they weren’t working with slides:
There were very few attendees from outside of China, overall. The startups were Chinese startups in the pitch competitions, however, as well as several other Chinese startups represented in the audience. The format was pretty intimate – table rounds and close-in seating rather than classroom seating lends itself to feeling like you’re with friends. Much of the discussion was in Mandarin, with instant translation provided via translators and devices that are pretty ubiquitous – you hang the speaker over one ear and listen to the translation, while still having your other ear open to what else is going on in the room. There was some debate among the non-native speakers as to whether the translations were sufficiently good – I think there’s no doubt that a lot was lost in translation but I sympathize with the translators trying to translate startup and tech slang between two very different languages.
Because I was arriving from Hong Kong, I missed a few of the early morning sessions but the first full session I caught was an interview with Nate of Airbnb. Fortune has excellent coverage here as well. He is the chairman of Airbnb China, and one of the co-founders of Airbnb – in fact, he was the third roommate that created a vacancy in his roommates’ apartment, while rent also went up 25%, which led to a chain of events to rent out that spare room and eventually start Airbnb.
In particular I liked this line (paraphrased): “recently my roommates had quit their jobs to start a company. In other words, they were unemployed.” Once upon a time when I was freelancing, I referred to the period between full employment and actually earning revenue in your own new company as “self-unemployed”. Not quite self-employed… but not quite unemployed either.
Nate shared interesting stats about Chinese travel – that they have 2-3x the international travel spend compared to the US or Germany. That represents a huge opportunity to put them in Airbnb spots when they travel abroad – or to have them host visitors in their own homes in China. He claimed 8.6M guests from China going abroad, and 120,000 homes in China offering an Airbnb.
I also liked the way Nate thinks about customer service- where ever a Chinese traveler goes in the world they can get customer service from a native Chinese speaker. This is the kind of commitment that matters to travelers abroad. I also found interesting Nate’s discussion of balancing local empowerment with all geographies being on the global platform. These are difficult challenges for global enterprises and it was refreshing to hear a relatively young company talk about it openly.
I don’t use Airbnb, so I wasn’t aware that they had started rolling out the idea of experiences as well as hosting. This hits home when you think about it with specific examples. Staying in a home and having an included experience of a hike in the mountains. Or at a farm or ranch where the experience might be tending the animals why you stay there. In a city and the experience might include a walking tour or a dining tour. I like the thought process – all about helping hosts stand out.
This was followed by a session on funding in China. In particular, funding for small businesses. There were some interesting examples like micro-leasing – which enables things like leasing a cow… Or a small piece of equipment. The point of the micro-leasing initiative was to enable per-use leasing of equipment that would normally fall short of the interest of major banks (unprofitable for them). Also a lively discussion about the digitization of the economy allowing a farmer in China to potentially sell goods directly all around the world, not just to the buyer nearby.
As parents, the panelists described how they help their children with homework through WhatsApp calls – technology enabling parenting in situations where traditionally you would miss out on the opportunity. It feels problematic to someone who wants to be home with their children to help with homework -but it is, as they say, better than no help at all. Still one wonders how much parenting is being given short-shrift by these trade-offs. On the whole this panel focused on diversity of funding, ideas, employees, and families. Great discussion, very human.
A design thinking panel was fantastic, and is discussed in another post.
An interesting investment panel discussed what they look for in their investments and their theses driving investments in China.
Overall the startup pitches were interesting to listen to, and included companies that were (to my eyes) pre-revenue or early revenue all the way up to significant companies that looked ready to really explode. There was a company that detected and helped you correct your accent if you are a native Mandarin speaker trying to speak English. There was another that had a variety of electric motor-driven transportation devices for personal transit. Some of which could check into an overhead bin. I thought at first that they had one product – but he showed off half a dozen. There were a trio of AI startups, a trio of healthcare startups, and a trio of greentech startups. And another trio around Education tech.
My impression is that while the pitch quality was more varied than some of the pitch competitions I’ve seen in the US, the quality of the companies pitching in this competition was quite high overall. Personally I liked seeing some of them tackling hardware as well as software challenges in our world with a startup.
AI and Robots.
Finally there was a session on AI and Robots with David Hanson, creator of the Sophia robot. This might have been my least favorite session. It just waxed too philosophical and I can’t relate to the effort to create such an anthropomorphic robot. I think it really helps understand the context when you realize that David also worked for Disney years ago in their robotics (animatronics?) division. It’s robotics as entertainment, I suppose, but it just felt too gimmicky to me.
Finally there was a dinner reception with a panel of speakers on the state of education in China. Lenora Chu, a fellow Stanford alum, and author of the book “Little Soldiers” delivered a 10-minute introduction before the panel discussion started. I was really impressed with her sharing of perspectives as a “Western” parent with a child going through public school in Shanghai. It’s fascinating. And I would love to see a similar perspective published by a parent making the opposite move from Eastern to Western schools. Then a discussion followed involving more advanced learners – college and MBA students, for example. I admit to being disappointed that one speaker believed that by 28 your creativity is baked. You either are or aren’t creative at that point and he’s working with hardened clay. I think that’s a horribly limiting point of view – however accurate he may be in aggregate, I’ve seen so many people expand their horizons post-28 years old, that I just find it shocking for an educator to take that point of view.
More to come on my experiences at the Fortune Global Forum as well!