Yesterday I participated in Barcamp Beijing 2007, which was held at the France Telecom Research and Development Building in Haidian district in Beijing. There were more than 100 participants with some 24 sessions held in three different languages.
It is hard to describe the firehose of information from Barcamp, but I will try to offer some of the highlights.
Michael Sikorsky, CEO of Cambrian House, first spoke about how to raise financing for startups. Based in Calgary Canada, Cambrian House offers a business platform for service providers, and Michael has successfully transitioned from being a tech person to a business person. I was immediately impressed by his praise of Paul Graham, founder of the Y Combinator seed-funding group. Paul Graham is the smartest tech guy who has transitioned to business, and Michael showed how Y Combinator has introduced a new VC business model of seeding startups by mentoring them through the startup process.
I have spoken frequently with Frank Yu about the need to bring something similiar to the Y Combinator seed capital model to Beijing. Chinese startups badly need mentoring, especially in their early phases because most of the founders do not know how to build teams. This is something Paul Graham’s Y Combinator organization has been able to address very well, teaching business smarts to founders from tech backgrounds.
The other main takeaway from Michael’s talk was that it was important for new companies to be “investor-centric” as opposed to “founder-centric”. If a company is set up to be friendly to investors up-front, then it is much easier for it to scale.
Andrew Lih, who is now living in Beijing, spoke about the Wikipedia movement. Andrew is a researcher in new media, and is now working on a book on Wikipedia due for publication sometime next year.
In the afternoon sessions, Karl Mattson, president of Medium Cool based in San Francisco, talked about what kinds of people were needed to build a good company. He put special emphasis on need for background diversity. When most Americans hear the word “diversity”, then tend to think in terms of racial, religious and sexual diversity. What Karl was talking about was the need to get people from different parts of the world, social and educational backgrounds so that they can exchange views by looking at a business proposition from different angles. Failure to do so meant that companies would often have “blind spots” and result in “group-think”, where the same group of people have a narrower and narrower vision.
I have noticed this tendency even in very large and successful US companies such as Microsoft and Google, where the definition of a smart person fits very closely with the founders’ definition of smart. This has resulted in a form of inbreeding, where the companies’ blind spots get bigger and bigger, creating opportunities for new challengers and startups.
Following his talk, Robert Scales, founder and CEO of Raincity Studios, talked about his company’s experience working with Drupal, the open-source community web framework. Robert talked about how Drupal has matured into an excellent solution for all kinds of businesses, with new modules being added on a regular basis. Previously, companies had been wary of using open-source as a solution because of security cares, but now he found that they had gone past those issues and had come to embrace it as a development platform. The best part for his 12-person team based in Vancouver was that because the software is regularly updated, his company only has to concentrate on basic functionality, design and configuration issues for his clients. And if his company cannot perform the work, design and feature requests can just as easily be addressed by another team which is familiar with Drupal. Now, his company is so busy that he has come to China to look for designers and coders to augment his Vancouver team; he mentioned that he is so busy that he has had to turn away business.
In reply to a question from me, Robert mentioned that the average billing amount and timeframe for a project is 3-6 months and 50-100k (Canadian dollars) per project.
My session was on the topic of “Building Management Teams” for startups. I focused on some of the problems which I found most Chinese startups to have:
- Founders fall in love with their own ideas too much, take criticism personally. This makes companies too slow to ditch old bad ideas.
- Chinese companies tend to be “founder-centric” instead of “investor-centric”, which means it is very difficult for a company to grow past US5B market cap in size (with the exceptions being Chinese state-owned enterprises or SOEs).
- Healthy startups have a technology founder, product founder and a bizdev founder, forming a tripod. Most startups in China do not have this setup; instead relying on one person to drive growth and vision. This model does not scale well, and feeds the founder’s ego too much. This puts a cap on future growth.
- There are too few original ideas; companies tend to copy each other.
- China has a high-competition, low-trust society. This also puts a cap on Chinese companies’ growth. If someone can successfully address the issue of how to build trust in the online/offline world, they will have something very interesting.
Many photos were taken, including many by Kris Krug, president of Bryght, one of the event sponsors. You can find the list of sponsors from my previous pre-event posting. If you would like to see photos from the event, you can find them on Flickr.
Barcamp Beijing 2007 was a very interesting and exciting event for those interested in technology. It provided an excellent opportunity to meet some of the participants and drivers in open-source and Web 2.0, and gave those from outside China a chance to learn about the Chinese market, and a chance for Chinese to mix with outsiders.
All in all, an excellent experience.