Crocodile in the Yangtze

I went along to see a screening of a new documentary called Crocodile in the Yangtze last night and it was excellent — if you get a chance, it’s well worth a watch.

The film was made by Porter Erisman who we met after the screening. It’s pieced together from ten years of footage from all kinds of places to tell the story of his time as a senior executive of Chinese tech company Alibaba. It follows the firm from the moment they left the founder’s apartment through to their IPO in 2010.

The main character in the film is Alibaba founder and former English teacher Jack Ma who comes across as a thoroughly decent and smart man, coping with the drama of startup life and eventually leading a company of 16,000 employees and tens of millions of users very well. He’s certainly up there with some of the leaders of better known US startups.

The film all tallies with what we found when we visited China earlier this year to learn about startups and investors there (Anna’s written about it here). The story of Chinese startups just being copy-cats and somehow suppressed by the political system just didn’t seem to be true. As Porter said at the screening last night — there are more similarities than differences between US and Chinese startups in the early days.

Anyway, it’s a much more interesting startup movie than the Social Network. If you’d like to organise a screening near you, drop me an email and I can put you in touch with Porter.
Related articles

Send more chianti (or what economic growth feels like)

There’s a little piece in the FT’s Lex Column today about wine in China that reminds me of an experience we had in Beijing:

So fast is the market expanding that China is now Pernod Ricard’s second-biggest market. Sales of its mass-market Jacob’s Creek should grow at 40 per cent this year.

On our second evening in Beijing (staying at the very nice Orchid hotel) we found ourselves at a free wine tasting for an Italian wine importer. The guy doing the importing was in his late twenties and from Italy but had learned Chinese at university and always wanted to move to China. Although he liked wine, he’d never planned to go into the wine business, but now surfing the wave of demand he was cleaning up because there are so few Europeans who can speak the fluent Chinese you need to be an importer. His only problem was getting enough of the stuff into the country.

It’s hard to think of anything where there’s demand like that in Europe at the moment and just reminded me how different an economy feels when there’s so much growth.


Share Alike

Some rights reserved by A Culinary (Photo) Journal
Related articles

Little things you learn in Beijing

  • The Beijing subway is brilliant but a bit full on during rush hour. I guess you can’t really complain for 20p a ride.
  • Internet use is restricted but VPNs are usually ok and a lot of people use them — it makes me wonder how many UK twitter (or BBC iPlayer) users are actually in China.
  • The argument the Chinese Government uses for blocking some sites isn’t about censorship (they’re actually quite open about that) but that they don’t want American companies to hold lots of personal data about Chinese citizens. Google Docs is blocked for that reason and it’s the same with Facebook.
  • People don’t really buy hot coffees in the summer — it’s all about the iced coffee.
  • The Communist Party has over 50 million members. They vote on stuff fairly often.
  • There’s pretty much a Chinese internet that we don’t see. The vast majority of Chinese internet users access it through their phones rather than a web browser.
  • The electric bikes are brilliant — particularly the tricycles with an motor strapped underneath them. Why don’t we have them in the UK?
  • The tech industry in China has a special place and is given a lot of freedoms and support by the Government. A lot more than the tech industry gets from US or UK governments.
  • Dumplings for lunch — tasty, filling, 50p — what’s not to like?
  • The idea (you often hear in Silicon Valley) that Chinese coders don’t have any creativity is really not true. While it’s arguably behind at the moment the startup ecosystem in China is developing much faster than the US or Europe.
  • Chinese beer is respectable. Chinese wine less so.
  • I’ve started thinking the software patent debacle in the US is more likely to derail the tech industry there than the intellectual property regime in China is here.
  • The plug sockets (see above) are genius and should be compulsory in all hotels and event venues everywhere. They take plugs from pretty much any country you like.

Laptops and Looms

I spent a wonderful three days last week in Derbyshire talking about how we could use everything we’ve learned about creating and supporting digital technologies to start a renaissance of making things. Instigator-in-chief was Russell Davies who wrote a little bit about why we were getting together in his Wired column last month:

We need an economy that makes things again. And I’m not alone in thinking this. The generation that built the web is tiring of the immaterial and is turning back to objects: to 3D printing, to laser-cutting, to Arduinos. And maybe they can — as with the web — transform hobbies and eccentricities into industries.

We kept it all a bit Bilderburg as we were worried that hundreds of people would want to come and we had no idea whether it was going to work or not, but on reflection it was rather good so we decided we’d do something a bit bigger and more organised next year. At the end of the three days we all agreed to write down some of our thoughts from this year, so here goes. Ten lessons and questions the discussion raised for me:

  1. It’s easy to romanticise the industry of old but much of it was horrible and remains so in the countries where we now outsource many of our manufacturing needs. If we’re to bring manufacturing back to Britain (which I think will gradually happen over the coming decade) we need to think differently about the economics of consumer goods including the jobs created and how to eliminate the environmental impacts.
  2. There are very good reasons why the manufacturing of consumer goods and electronics shifted East. The skills of people and companies in China and the other manufacturing powerhouses are absolutely incredible and combined with low wages meant the economics made sense to Western brands. That doesn’t mean is was always the best decision though -Â this article on why the US can’t make Amazon’s Kindle is spot on and probably applies even more acutely to Britain.
  3. Craft and making things is fulfilling whether it’s a professional or an amateur pursuit. There was quite a lot of discussion of labels we put on different types of activity and people in this area. It brought back the conversation that The Pro-Am Revolution created about how those boundaries are blurring. It seemed that the boundaries were even more blurred today than five years ago to me.
  4. We talked a lot about ambition for businesses and I think there was a pretty clear split between people who were looking for this to be a world of lifestyle businesses and those who were more ambitious. Personally, while I think they’re great for the people involved, I’m not a big believer in lifestyle businesses being a driver of social change. I’m looking for ways of creating services and products that radically improve lots of peoples’ lives. As Reid Hoffman says “Things that help millions of people and last forever”.
  5. There is massive potential for software and the internet to revolutionise other sectors — including manufacturing. Marc Andeessen’s metaphor of software eating the world is pretty aggressive and I’m not sure entirely accurate but broadly I agree with the power of code to improve the way things and people are organised. There’s huge potential for digital services that stitch together resources and institutions in new ways.
  6. There’s a very important economy in Britain that is hidden from Wired Magazine. It’s a world of railway arches and industrial estates. There were a number of examples of projects that had succeeded by picking up the phone or knocking on doors to see what small businesses did and how open they were to trying new things rather than trying to find people to work with using LinkedIn or Yelp.
  7. Everybody loves owls.
  8. One thing we didn’t talk about was the renaissance of food businesses in the UK and I wonder what’s going on there. I’d like us to get more people involved next year who are finding new ways of creating food using tech enabled processes. I wonder whether people like Square Mile would have been able to grow in the way they have without technology, both in terms of manufacturing and ways of reaching and communicating with their customers.
  9. Dan Hill pushed us to think about what we should tell David Cameron. I’d like to see a huge increase in funding for manufacturing apprenticeships — with financial incentives for people to do them and businesses to take them on. One local government thing would be commercial use restrictions. I think it’s got to the point where it makes little sense to have demarcation within the ‘business’ bracket and I’d get rid of them altogether. I’d also create an empty building tax — doubling business rates on properties that are empty and forcing local authorities to sell all buildings that meet the empty buildings criteria. That way we should have many more spaces where people can start businesses cheaply to see whether or not they are going to work.
  10. All good conferences should end with a spot of cricket at Chatsworth House.

Related articles