Chinese companies are innovating at an incredible pace within tech development. What are the secrets behind the innovation speed? And what can we expect from Chinese innovation in the next few years?
In 2013, Bessie Lee became the CEO of WPP China and executed the role until she left the company in 2017. But why did the CEO that was responsible for 14,000 employees and more than $1 billion in annual revenue decide to quit?
“When I was working in a very big, very successful corporation, there were many restrictions in regards to hiring engineers and tech teams who could introduce science in how to do marketing. I figured a faster way to change the industry was to get closer to the people who had the technology and the data”.
Now she’s the founder and CEO of Withinlink, a China-based startup incubator and early-stage venture fund. With more than 29 years of experience in the media communications industry.
“After 29 years in the industry, I see myself as a hybrid; Chinese culture and values with a strong global perspective.”
What can we learn about innovation from Chinese businesses? And what does the future within the tech development in China look like in the years to come? Here are Bessie Lee’s perspective on innovation in China:
Q: What do you believe are the biggest trends in Chinese tech in 2019?
A: At the moment, I can clearly see that the entire nation is taking AI as a top priority. It started with a push from the central government and the fact that China has a very vibrant and active investment community has helped. Because of the movement of the whole nation, we have also started to see AI taking an important role in marketing startups. Currently, we have a portfolio of 16 companies, quite a few have strong AI in the product design. Overall, China wants to stay ahead of other nations in AI development.
How will Chinese technology change the way we live and work in the next few years?
AI is moving very fast. In China, we possess most of the data, compared to other nations in the world. China produces about 20% of the data in the world, and we are using it proactively. We have many exciting developments in the IoT, smart cities and smart homes. In 5-10 years from now, I can envision an ordinary Chinese family using a robotic home center to control the information flowing around at home; most of the equipment in homes will be connected. We will have robots, not just in manufacturing, but in everyday life - in our homes. I can see China becoming more and more of a smart nation, where devices are connected and communicating with each other.
What is China’s secret behind the speed of innovation?
There are many reasons behind it.One reason is that the government sets a clear direction, the cities will initiate. It is much quicker to gain alignment and then move on. AI is a perfect example - the strategic paper was issued in July 2017, and very quickly the cities started having policies and government guidance funds and community investments joined in. Pushing such a big sector, in much smaller sectors, on a micro level, things are moving really really fast. So I think to have a very efficient political system and vibrant investment system - we have a lot of funding and very receptive consumers. We have to give the consumer's credit, they embrace things wholeheartedly. The level of pressure is huge in China. If western companies want to compete with Chinese companies, you need to move fast, have the money and have talent. We produce a large number of talent in all areas. Just in technology math and engineering, every year, China has about 4 million university grads majoring in these areas, just slightly less than the total population of Norway.
What should big established companies do to increase innovation speed?
I recently read a book about how big companies should embrace innovation- The Innovator’s Dilemma. I used to believe that big corporations could embrace innovation internally, but after reading the book and reflecting on my experiences, I now believe that if big companies want to innovate, they should drive innovation outside the company first and then integrate it. You will have a much better chance of making that innovation real.
Why has social media been so popular in China?
The one child policy has an impact - it was put in place in the late 70s, so when you're the only child in the family, you have your classmates and cousins and neighbors, but when social media started, you realized that through social media, you can have an extended sibling outside of your hometown. All of the sudden, an only daughter has a friend who lives in Beijing, became her friend and responds to everything she said on social media.
Why is WeChat specifically so popular?
It took them a lot quicker than Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to gain momentum. I think the one-child generation, millions grew up being the only child. They find that social media is able to provide that level of gratification that they can’t get from their own family or local community. I personally think that has a major contribution to the success of social media. When WeChat started, it was a safe environment. It gave users a different reason to use, which is why it took off so quickly. WeChat is beyond just social. It is a super app that bundles our everyday lives. We can transfer money, use basic banking services, hire a taxi, order food, flight tickets, book hotels, split dinner bills, pay utility bills. It's an everyday life prerequisite app.
China has been known for copying innovation. What original innovations have been coming from China in the past year/in the future?
I would say the most original is mobile payments. The original WeChat and Alibaba are copies. But what is original is how they have evolved their consumer model. They look completely different from what they were copying from.
What does the future of payment look like for China? What comes after mobile pay?
At the moment, because of AI, we are starting to see more places using payment by facial recognition. Once your basic payment gateways are in a system, you can actually pay with your face. KFC has a restaurant in Hangzhou where they experimented with Alibaba and you can pay with your face. The future of payment may not require anything besides your face, thumb or voice. You can now turn on WeChat by using your voice. It knows it is you.
A lot of people compare Alibaba and Amazon - what’s the difference between the two?
To me, they are completely different systems. Alibaba just built a platform and information gateway. They encourage anyone to open a store - big or small, you can set up and manage your store. Alibaba only builds the platform and payment gateway for you. It's still a very open system. Because of that, we have a peripheral industry that has emerged. For instance, logistics and e-commerce companies. From product fulfillment, warehousing, logistics, customer service, these are all managed by Amazon. It's more of a closed system. These two are complete opposites.
What advice would you give to leaders on how to empower their team?
I do not believe leaders have to be strong and good in every area. You need to know what are your strengths and weaknesses are. You need to hire talent that is stronger than you where you are weak. Invite them to join your core team so that you complement each other. Once you've developed a team of top talent, you need to make sure that everyone believes they have a great career. You need to find resources and support to provide to these talents so they can do their job much better. As CEO, that what’s what I do. I needed to have self-reflection and be able to admit to yourself what your weaknesses are. Then go out and hire strong talent. Make sure that the environment is the right and exciting place where talents want to work long-term so that they can continue to flourish in their jobs. They're strong already but need to feel that they are getting stronger and better every day.
What can Norwegian companies learn from Chinese businesses?
he first thing they can learn from this is how to take risks. Risk taking, whether its companies or countries is a no-go area. Risk-taking leads to mistakes and mistakes equal bad I don't think it equals bad. We only succeed because of lots of trial and error. This is the way to find out what works. Trial and error and risk-taking is what a lot of nations try to avoid. That’s the first thing others can learn from China.
What do you hope the audience will gain from hearing your presentation in Oslo?
I hope that the audience can have at least one takeaway that they can implement immediately in Norway.