What American Startups Can Learn From China’s Work Culture
With Chinese companies accounting for the largest tech IPOs on record, all eyes are now on these technology giants. While everyone wonders what the secret sauce might be, we can imagine what lies behind the scenes- it’s the employees who are keeping these companies afloat with their work ethic rooted in Chinese culture.
I’ve worked for Google in both Silicon Valley and Beijing, and I now run Beijing-based PapayaMobile, which has a satellite office in San Francisco. I’ve seen a definite contrast in the workplace culture in both regions, where each have their pros and cons. That said, Chinese culture has a strong influence on the workplace in China, and U.S. startups could benefit from taking a few notes.
Merit-driven Environments Instill the Importance of Hard Work Early
In China, kids grow up in a merit-driven environment that drills the importance of hard work early on and influences the way they work for the rest of their lives, according to a report on China’s hard-working culture by Professors Shaomin Li of Old Dominion University and Sam Park of China Europe International Business School. Society values career, title and status, and they feel that pressure from day one of their professional lives.
In contrast, Western culture tends to focus more on the terms of employment, such as benefits and salary, and job satisfaction.
Although in the U.S. it’s not unusual for startup employees to work beyond the standard 9-to-5, many Chinese employees regularly work an extra few hours each day, and some companies even mandate six-day work weeks.
These longer hours and work weeks happen because Chinese companies are risk averse and will often run lean operations to minimize costs and maximize each employee’s utility. Although fewer resources are available, employees are expected to work as many (or few) hours needed to get the job done.
At the same time, with globalization now factoring into the strategies of Chinese companies, they’re working harder than their international counterparts “to meet international standards of responsibility in order to compete in the global playing field,” writes Judith Irwin of The Institute of Business Ethics.
Because of these expectations, Chinese employees with whom I’ve worked internally or as partners tend to be extremely attentive and efficient with their work habits and will work longer hours – primarily out of necessity. They also become adept at quickly solving problems as a result.
The takeaway: You don’t need every resource at your disposal. There’s always a solution. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to arrive at your solution within the limited time that you’re given.
While the U.S. Innovates, China Solves Existing Problems
Although China might be known more for “copycat” companies and less for innovation (for now), its problem solving is powerful and just as important as new ideas.
Tencent, Xiaomi, Baidu, and other Chinese technology firms have built businesses based on ideas from their Western counterparts – WeChat from Whatsapp, Xiaomi from Apple, Baidu from Google, and the list goes on. But China’s ideas ecosystem is evolving beyond its “borrowed” or “copycat” beginnings.
These Chinese firms have since “innovated” by creating successful business models that improve on the original products – a trend a McKinsey report notes is visible in the tech industry. For example, WeChat was the first to market with push-to-talk and established a business model from the beginning for a “platformized” app – the idea that you’d never have to leave the app for other activities. Platformization offers WeChat opportunities to monetize verticals that include e-commerce, payments, taxi-hailing, and more all from one app. “These models, unique to China, are generating revenue and growing in ways that have not been duplicated anywhere in the world,” the McKinsey report states.
At the core, these business model innovations have been the search for a scalable way to generate revenue. With WeChat driving more revenue than its Western competitors, it’s arguably walking down the right path. We’re witnessing similar strategies from Alibaba, Baidu and Qihoo.
Although Chinese companies might not be known for thinking outside of the box, they’re cultivating a reputation for being creatively savvy and capable of successfully monetizing concepts that might not have been first to market.
The takeaway: Even if competitors appear to have the better product or upper hand, that doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. You just might need to stretch your creative muscles in designing a savvy business strategy. Take it from these Chinese companies who’ve come out of nowhere.
Family-first Ideologies Spill into the Workplace
With the competition for jobs heating up as more Chinese graduates enter the workforce, applicants have little room for error and hustle for limited and coveted job openings. Once again, societal pressures are at play here.
Many Chinese are responsible for financially taking care of their elders, a common responsibility among most families in China. Consequently, employees are unsurprisingly more inclined to be committed to their careers and take fewer risks than Western employees.
They tend to set aggressive goals for themselves that include improving their societal status through raises and promotions, knowing that they’re obligated to self-betterment not only for themselves but more importantly their family.
When we look within the workplace, this familial ideology that puts the group interest in front of individual interest makes it easier for employees to justify working hard to generate value for their company.
Ironically, that doesn’t mean Chinese employees are more loyal to their companies than U.S. employees. After all, a job is a job, and the harder they work, the greater their chances of moving up. In fact, I’d argue that Chinese employees are more likely to jump between companies than their Western counterparts.
But because of the risk-averse nature of Chinese employees, they gravitate around the prominent major technology companies, where they’ll be guaranteed higher salaries. Joining startups is viewed as a last resort (and one of the reasons why hiring as a startup can be challenging).
In the U.S. on the other hand, it’s sexy to join a budding dozen-person startup.
Of course with entrepreneurship becoming accepted and attractive around the globe, we’ll eventually find more and more Chinese employees taking a risk down the entrepreneurship track.
The takeaway: If you need motivating to do your current job at hand, think about the objective as a whole or remember what you’re fighting for to get an extra dose of encouragement.
The Hard Work is Paying Off
With all that said, large Chinese firms are benefitting from all of this. Although we could argue pros and cons to China’s group-minded ideology and their higher tolerance for longer hours and weeks, I’d argue that the Chinese employee’s dedication to one’s job based on my observation is unparalleled. As one might expect, that hard work is paying off. It’s only a matter of time before Chinese tech firms are held in the same esteem as the likes of other global Western competitors including Google and Apple.
About the author: Si Shen is the co-founder and CEO of PapayaMobile, the social gaming network with more than 127 million gamers and parent company of AppFlood, the largest global mobile RTB network out of China. AppFlood connects advertisers with more than 1.5 billion impressions a month.
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