Entrepreneurial energy

By Wang Han Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/7 16:08:39

Chinese and foreign entrepreneurs compete for best start-up in Shanghai

According to media reports, the rate of entrepreneurship in Shanghai has grown from 4.9 percent in 2005 to 11.9 percent in 2016. This increase in start-ups has not only boosted the economy but provided numerous jobs for others.

To promote entrepreneurship citywide, the final round of a local start-up contest was held in Putuo district Tuesday. According to Laodong Daily, the first round of the competition, which originated five years ago, began back in April.

Entrepreneurs from 16 districts first competed with each other at the district level; eventually, only 20 participants entered into the final round. Notably, the average age of the entrepreneurs was 33, with 50 percent having a master's degree or higher. 

Listed among the top 10 rising entrepreneurs of the contest were Americans James Lee Thornhill, Charles Erickson and Tyler McNew, who together set up an e-commerce platform called Baopals.

It was the first time in the history of the contest that foreigners had entered into the final round of the competition.

"A friend suggested we enter the competition. And I said no at first, because it was peak season for us and we were so busy just trying to keep up with Baopals' growth," Thornhill said.

"We didn't really have a sense of how large and important this competition was until we made it to the final round."

Shanghai's start-up scene

According to Thornhill, Baopals is the first platform made by and for expats in China as a convenient way to shop for products on China's most popular e-commerce sites, including Taobao and Tmall.

In the summer of 2015, the three American innovators wanted to do something new and exciting in Shanghai. Thornhill said they first thought about opening a bar, then explored developing mobile apps, finally coming up with the idea behind Baopals. 

"We launched our website in 2016, about seven months after the initial idea. We were just a team of four then, plus an intern, but the orders started coming in pretty quickly."

Within a couple of months, the team had hired five more employees to help them keep up with their rising popularity. Thus far they have sold over 775,000 items through Baopals, with a gross merchandise volume of about 40 million yuan ($6 million) in 2017 alone, according to Thornhill.

"That's almost four times the amount of business we did in 2016," he added.

Thornhill pointed out that the entrepreneurial energy in Shanghai is "stronger than anywhere else" he has witnessed in the world.

"There's a diverse group of people in Shanghai trying to do all kinds of different things, and in recent years more support structures have popped up to fuel the local start-up scene," he said.

It takes a team

Chen Weiyu, 34-year-old, graduated from Peking University in 2007 and worked as a product manager at a start-up tech company in Beijing for three years.

In 2010 he quit his job to pursue a master's degree in Engineering Management at the University of Southern California in the US.

After finishing his postgraduate education, Chen returned to the Chinese mainland to start his own business. In 2014 he founded online platform Newrank.cn with three partners.

"My friends and I decided to make ranking lists to evaluate the popularity of WeChat accounts," Chen explained. "Our lists were well received by the market, so we decided to set up a formal company to statistically analyze the popularity and value of new-media accounts."

Chen said Newrank.cn mainly provides services like statistics consulting, advertisement injecting and content e-commerce. When asked about what makes his start-up stand out from the competition, Chen said it is the diversity of his co-founders.

"Three of us graduated from Peking University and one from Fudan University. Our specialized fields are very different but complementary," he said. "All of our co-founders had previous start-up experience, which has enabled us to avoid mistakes."

Hands-on learning

Gu Shiyao founded MFEducation in Shanghai soon after receiving his bachelor's degree in philosophy from Princeton University.

"I was inspired by a popular course from MIT, 'how to make almost anything.' I found it a motivating and inspiring idea for students to take initiative, so we set up a company based on that concept," Gu said.

The traditional way of learning, according to Gu, lacks key components for a modern education.

"One crucial thing is that students don't have passion for learning anymore. However, I have found that hands-on learning can serve as a very good complement," Gu said.

Gu, however, encountered a number of obstacles while carrying out the early stages of his project.

"One of the major challenges was to motivate teachers to accept our learning tools and curriculum. They had gotten used to traditional methods and were unwilling to change. We then realized that our early products were a burden on their teaching style."

In terms of customers, Gu told the Global Times that, currently, they mainly target students and schools.

"MFEducation offers a complete solution, from providing educational tools to professional training, in helping students make their own projects. There are also some evaluative and instructive components," he said.

According to Gu, MFEducation has thus far provided curriculum services to over 40 domestic education intuitions, benefiting more than 3,000 students directly or indirectly.

The top 10 rising entrepreneurs of the contest together on stage


Attendees at the event

Gu Shiyao Photos: Courtesy of Shanghai Employment Promotion Center



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