How to Become a Shanghai Entrepreneur

I’ve seen a sharp influx of potential entrepreneurs to Shanghai when I was in town the last couple of months.

As the U.S. and European economies head south, I guess that people are looking at the growth numbers, noticing that China is still in the positive digits, and hopping a plane over here, hoping to get something going.

Starting your own company is hard. The vast majority fail quickly. In China, in particular, there are all sorts of regulatory restrictions about starting companies, and what foreign-owned companies can do, and how much money you can take out of the country if you do manage to make it.

But, before you hire a team of lawyers and incorporate as a JV — or a WFOE — or as a rep office of an off-shore entity, before you start hiring staff and finding customers, do yourself a favor and get to know the entrepreneurs who are already here.

They’ve already made all the mistakes. Learn from them. In my experience, there are few communities more welcoming and more inclusive than the Shanghai entrepreneurs.

And don’t forget — entrepreneurs attract venture capital. If you hang around other business owners long enough, some of that VC attention will come your way.

So where do you find other entrepreneurs?

Traditionally, the answer is the Chambers of Commerce. Most of the large chambers have some kind of entrepreneurship activity — a committee, a networking event, what have you.

My favorite chamber event has long been the Mindswitch event jointly hosted by the British Chamber of Commerce and the Expat Professional Women’s Society (now separated into two distinct events). Sorry, guys, it’s women-only. Mindswitch was not limited to just entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs were always heavily represented in the group.

Check out the chamber schedules for other events — many are open to non-members.

For big-time entrepreneurs, there’s the Entrepreneur Organization. Membership is limited to founders or owners of companies with at least US$1 million in annual sales.

A little rich for you? Try the monthly get-togethers of the Shanghai Entrepreneur Group, where the only requirement is that you buy your own coffee. The SEG is my favorite of the entrepreneur groups in Shanghai, and I’m not just saying that because I used to be the president. It’s low-key. People get together and share problems, and possible solutions, over coffee or tea. It’s not your typical meet-and-greet-and-trade-business cards that’s common to Shanghai networking events.

You should also check out NextStep Shanghai. I haven’t been able to get to any of their meetings, but hear good things about them from friends. One of my interns also comes to me through their internship program, and I recommend them highly in that regard as well.

Beijing-based China Entrepreneurs has also had a couple of events in Shanghai.

The older organizations have websites, and that’s the best place to check for events and other information. Younger organizations are on Facebook — always a good resource for finding people.

Most recently, however, Twitter has become the medium of choice for Shanghai’s startup crowd.

Last week, Paul Wood — who’s starting an iPhone software development company — tweeted that he was interested in finding some Samuel Adams beer. Several people, including me, responded about a new bar — Kai Ba — known for its wide selection. Someone else suggested Munchies for snacks and a tweetup was born. The next day, a couple of dozen of us crammed into Munchies for their burgers, Cincinnati chili and quesadillas — excellent, by the way — and to chat. Across the table from me, Paul Wood met Sera Hill, another entrepreneur who was starting an iPhone development company in Shanghai. (Sadly, Kai Ba did not, in fact, carry Sam Adams — but perhaps they’ve remedied this lack since.)

But almost everyone else there was a tech entrepreneur as well, or was about to become one. What is it about Twitter that attracts entrepreneurs? Maybe it’s the fact that it’s the latest high-tech toy. Tech entrepreneurs love all things new and shiny. Maybe because it reminds us of Internet Relay Chat — but without the weirdos and the flame wars.

The key to using Twitter to build a personal network is first to find some people who you like listening to. I’ve included a list of entrepreneurs on Twitter at the end of this article. Feel free to follow any of them. As you read their comments, you will notice that they interact with other people on Twitter — and if the conversation is interesting, you can add these new contributors to your Twitter stream. You can also see who your favorites are following, and follow them as well.

But, as with any of these networking groups whether online or offline, it all depends on your contribution. You might think you have nothing to contribute, but that’s not true. If you have programming skills, you can volunteer to set up websites or do other coding for organizations. If you’re an avid follower of news in your industry sector, you can post links to the most interesting stories on Twitter. If you have organizational skills — or lack organizational skills but need to get better in order to succeed in business — you can volunteer to help organize events and recruit speakers.

Or you could simply ask the people you’d like to get to know better what you can do for them. They’ll tell you.

After all, any words of advice from a fellow entrepreneur are worth double what that same advice would mean from a lawyer or consultant out to pad their own pockets. So start building up that favor bank.

And you are the average of the people you hang around with. If you want to be an entrepreneur, start hanging around with entrepreneurs.

EPWS: Women of Vision: Free to members, open to non-members for a fee (RSVP required)
British Chamber of Commerce Mindswitch: Free to members, 100 RMB to non-members
Entrepreneur Organization
Shanghai Entrepreneur Group: Also has a Facebook group
NextStep Shanghai
China Entrepreneurs

Shanghai entrepreneurs on Twitter: @chinapaul @serpah @DavidFeng @FonsTuinstra @ShanghaiTWTR @lovince @ChristineLu @calvinwuchin @marcvanderchijs @Web2Asia @sagebrennan @joe_constanty @thelastchinese @ianmcguinn @reneecolette @oscar_ramos @joethong @clauderitter @jianshuo

And, of course, @MariaKorolov … me.