8 Lessons I learnt from my Asian Trip – Business and Technology Edition

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What is the impact of technology on business in Asia? Is it more dynamic than what we experience in the US? Mainstream business and technology news reporting rarely touches this topic, and I conducted a mini-research on this topic while I was in China and South East Asia in the past three weeks. I’m surprised to conclude that US is still the leader in innovation globally as scale matters. Here are the 8 lessons that I learned:

1. US is 2-3 years ahead in the application of technology to business
“You are working on Big Data? I thought you are working in a food company? That’s so strange! What has data got to do with businesses anyway?”

That’s the response I got when I told my friends and professional contacts – many US educated – what I’m doing at work. With the exception of e-commerce, many of the emerging technologies that we are leveraging in US business environment are relatively unheard of out there.

2. Uber is taking over the world
China is set to be Uber’s largest market. Chengdu in China has a higher daily Uber ridership than New York City by a factor of 500. While Uber faces fierce regional competitors such as Didi Kuaidi in China and GrubTaxi in South East Asia, it’s the only app other than Facebook that is used in most Asian markets.

3. Fate of other Social and Sharing apps are less certain.
We may be tempted to presume that Twitter, Instacart and Airbnb will follow Uber’s footsteps and gain traction in Asia – that was simply not the case. Many of them are crowded out by regional clones that are designed to thrive in local markets: instead of Twitter, Weixin, Whatsapp and Line are all the rage. Others are addressing problems that simply do not exist: instead of Instacart, many well-off Asian households continue to send their maids to grocery shop in wet markets and local convenience stores.

4. Newspapers and bookstores are still well and alive.
I’m amazed by the number of people reading newspaper in public spaces and the popularity of bookstores. Disruptions we experienced in US are coming at a much slower pace in Asia. My friend, who is a senior executive at Bangkok Post, explained the mystery. While readership has been in slow decline, advertising dollars are holding strong for local newspapers as digital marketing infrastructure is less mature.

5. Women fare better in Asian workplaces
According to a 2015 survey by Grant Thorton, women make up of 32% of Corporate China’s leadership role.

Wonder what the percentage is for US and UK? 20%.

Asia has a strong childcare infrastructure through a combination of help from family members and domestic helpers. In fact, I was shocked by the lack of help that most U.S. parents faced when I moved to the US 15 years ago – how could anyone put in hours at work, be a good parent, and still keep their sanity? I’m still baffled after all these years.

6. However, it’s still not easier to be a woman entrepreneur
Only 14 out of the 100 Hong Kong based startups surveyed has a woman co-founder. Leona Wong, the Executive Director of an industry group that conducted the survey, was equally dismayed and surprised to find out this reality is not too different from what we observed in the US startup scene. If you can read Chinese, this is an article that captured our conversation on the state of women in the workplace and startups on both sides of the Pacific.

7. US is still admired and copied by business leaders
In US, people are concerned that China is taking over our dominance in the business and technology world. In Asia, China is more feared than admired. While cell phone makers like Xiao Mi is gaining traction in Asia, many considered Chinese technology firms as imitators of American ingenuity. US, especially Silicon Valley, is still revered as the global engine of innovation.

8. Scale Matters
Scale Matters – this is the big ah-ha moment of my trip. I take scale for granted — in the US, the biggest question that all startups faces is how to scale up quickly to capture the market of 300 million people. In smaller markets like Hong Kong or Singapore with populations under 10 million, startups have to curtail their ambition as the size of their native market is inherently small and regional expansion is challenging due to vast differences in language and business practices. From the perspective of a venture capitalist, it’s safer to put bold bets in US, China and India than in smaller markets.

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