New working models for a new generation

Building your own business – especially a business which really scales like an Internet business – is also pretty new in China, And it’s most desirable. Shanghai is a real hot spot for business start-ups. Censorship and the Great Firewall don’t seem to pose any problems at all. And the same is true of Internet access – China is largely covered with broadband and 3 GSM is available in almost every region, even in the most remote rural areas. Young Chinese are eager to take up chances and are more than ever ready to take risks. Venture capitalists were quick to embrace the country and today China is one of their most attractive markets. “They are all here”, says Marc van der Chijs, a Shanghai-based serial entrepreneur just returned from overseeing the IPO of his baby “Tudou”, the YouTube of China, on the New York Nasdaq. “The problem is”, he adds, “that while it’s very easy to get a cheque for 5 million or over, very often you only need half a million or a million dollars. And investments on this scale are hard to find. So in the midterm this could turn out to be a problem for young Chinese because they don’t want to sign away their entire company.”

So maybe we came across one of the lucky ones when we met Huo Ju, a 29 year old coder based in Pudong. He and two of his friends have just received one million USD funding to build the next social network – exfe, a community tool all around meetings. Huo Ju quit his last job as a coder for the Chinese search engine, (a well-paid job by the way) without knowing what would come next. And within two months they had found an American investor. Ensconced in a small office he is now busy developing his new product right around the clock. And he is happy.

Other young entrepreneurs opt for not having their own explicit working space and go in for what’s known as co-working which means they rent a working space, a desk, a meeting room and office equipment by the hour or month. We have similar schemes in the West too, the “Betahaus” is probably the best known one in Germany. In Shanghai it’s called Xindanwei which means “New Work Unit”. Xindanwei is located at Yongjia Lu near the French Concession and it’s the most famous of a growing number of co-working spaces in Shanghai. Xindanwei is somehow special. It’s not only about providing a working space, it also strives to create a dynamic creative community through staging a range of open events and inter-disciplinary collaborations. They’ve already hosted events like the Shanghai Bar Camp, Dorkbot, TED screenings and MIT Media Lab Scratch workshops. And as they like to share, Xindanwei offers not just a workspace, but a built-in network of creative professionals and entrepreneurs in design, writing, architecture, the visual arts, and more. This is the credo of Xindanwei’s founders. Isaac Mao one of the angel investors describes it as “an incubator of knowledge sharing and innovation”. But running such a place for profit is none too easy. As co-founder Liu Yan confessed, “We have no shortage of people with good ideas, but we do have a big shortage in terms of leads, channels, scales, impacts and resources”. It’s this undercurrent of belief in collaboration, community and connection that drives this space and the impressive working philosophy it has built up ever since its doors first opened in 2009. “For people using the space, the borders between work and life, between business and fun are no longer definite or clear,” said Cozi Ge, who works for Xindanwei. “It’s cool”, she smiles.

Xindanwei’s three founders are researchers, consultants, bloggers, programmers, artists and self-confessed cultural entrepreneurs. Liu Yan acted as a Chinese-European cultural consultant linking SMEs and creative individuals, and as a consultant on cross-cultural exhibitions like the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival (DEAF) and PICNIC, a networking / festival / conference event for creative folks in a variety of sectors. Chen Xu developed projects fuelling creative communities through independent research and strategy at BOP Consulting London. Xu Wenkai, aka “aaajiao”, is a prominent programmer, blogger, new media artist, and a proponent of free culture. He has created a number of exemplary sites including eventstructure.com, and the Chinese version of the art / design site we-make-money-not-art.

You can feel all this when you enter the space. It’s not at all “pure” or “only” Chinese. It’s multi-cultural with a decidedly international outlook. At least that was my impression. What makes Xindanwei unique among all the co-working spaces I’ve seen in the States or Europe is how it’s grown so quickly into a central hub of manifold disciplines, not just design, not just technology, not just art. It’s done this by improving the facilities of the space and ensuring the right mix of people and events.

It’s a true global institution reflecting what I referred to just now as ’generational consciousness’. Much more global than most global companies are – because what brings these people together is a common set of shared values and a common goal. Which they all live out on a daily basis!

Xinchejian, the first of many hackerspaces in China, is a place closely related to Xindanwei. A hackerspace is a community-operated physical place where people can meet and fool around with their projects. Each hackerspace is an autonomous entity, but they all share the same philosophy: it’s an environment where people can learn and tinker with technology, work in teams and take part in international competitions where many new opportunities can be found and created for all.

Unlike Xindanwei, Xinchejian is not in the middle of a tourist shopping district in a glossy picture postcard part of Shanghai. It’s in a far more “real” part of town, away from the rich expats and the manicured shopping malls down a narrow hard-to-find one way street in an old warehouse. If I’d have come in my own car, I’d have had to parlay with the locals to park it! In other words, it’s in a spot not too dissimilar from the other neighborhoods where hackerspaces are hidden away.

Xinchejian opened its doors in 2010 with a mission to support, create and promote physical computing, open source hardware and the “Internet of Things.” When I walked in I might as well have been walking into the NYC Resistor. In its modest 500 square feet of studio, the hackers’ playground is a tangled chaos of live circuits, computer spare parts and microchips. Cheap wrought iron shelves lean against a wall overflowing with the DIY goodies every geek’s wet dream. The air crackles with energy, invention and innovation. “It’s about connecting the real world with the virtual world, we demystify technology by hacking it,” says David Li, Xinchejian’s frontman. When I asked him about the business model behind the idea, David said: “Eventually we want to adopt a not-for-profit business model with memberships similar to social clubs. This is something we can do, something which has been shown to work in many countries. Hosting start-ups in the space during the day and having our community events in the evenings and at weekends is also a good way of balancing out. We’re also currently investigating setting up a legal entity, a company, to act as a legal shell for the community.”

The membership fee allows people to access the space for whatever tech projects they dream up – and no, they won’t teach you how to steal credit card data! Some current projects involve incorporating iPad technology in smart robots. “There are tons of iPad clones available on Chinese local markets for a pittance – and we modify them to match our specifications,” says Li. Other projects are creating 3D printers, making 3D art with the Xbox 360 Kinect, and even eco-friendly community projects like combing technology with urban farming are part of the menu. An electric motorbike now ready for its European market launch was also prototyped at Xinchejian. The key tenet of the Shanghai Hackerspace and other similar collectives worldwide is sharing, not just passing around hand-me-downs and tools. The club reflects the tech industry’s most outstanding quality: open sourcing.

Looks like Shanghai techies have found a new global home.

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