In sectors like ecommerce and the internet, China has succeeded in creating an ecosystem so big and attractive that it drives innovation. Many innovative Chinese don't need to look for international markets because there is so much room to grow in China.
Take Didi, the ride-share app (which has now gone global). Many accuse of it of copying Uber’s model, but the simple truth is that it outplayed Uber in China, from marketing to speed to market. The company has constantly introduced innovations, like a service to send a driver for your car when you have had too much to drink, and an SOS feature to improve safety.
Such is the ride-sharing leader’s omnipresence that it is calling car ownership into question. China is increasingly seen by many Western carmakers as the laboratory for the future of transport, including bike sharing, a sector led by Ofo and Mobike. With access to capital and demand, both have become huge, fast.
China’s growing domination of AI, machine learning and algorithms is reflected by the success of companies like LingoChamp (Liulishuo), an English language learning application that evaluates your spoken English. With some 50 Million plus users in China alone, it has filled a need, enabling eager Chinese to learn English without access to native language teachers. LingoChamp also reflects how many of China’s entrepreneurs pass on Silicon Valley (several of its founders spent time in the USA), and now see more opportunity in China.
Meeting a more basic need is Three Squirrels, one of the country’s fastest growing snack food companies, typical of the ever-growing swathe of packaged goods and consumer companies able to come up with new products on accelerated cycles, unheard of in the West. All this and a delivery and logistics sector able to provide virtually anything on demand means that China has the conditions for continued innovation.
In fact, as one Chinese entrepreneur recently told me, Darwinian competition means Chinese businesses have no choice but to innovate. Those bike share companies? Within months, dozens of startups had entered the market. And eager Chinese consumers seem particularly skilled at finding loopholes in company policies, forcing companies to improve service at light speed.
The same entrepreneur said there are so many opportunities in China that entrepreneurs don’t need to conduct deep R&D innovation, which takes longer and is costly.
Which is where the government comes in. China has made impressive investments in key sectors. Clean energy, electric cars, clean energy, batteries, aviation, robotics, genomics, space, security – these and others have been targeted as part of China’s ambitious Made in China 2025 policy, which explains China’s priorities and where Chinese firms are likely to make big acquisitions or focus.
When China sets its sights on a goal, as it did with the 2008 Olympics, serious effort and planning move into place. Top-tier strategy consultancies have never been busier and have moved into providing leadership development, design and prototyping, analysis and execution, so that Chinese firms can keep innovating – and Western companies in China have a chance of keeping up with them.
By following the examples of Chinese firms, the West can learn much about scaling up and operating in fast moving markets, applying Chinese companies’ experience to our home markets. A Chinese approach might also better help us succeed in emerging economies like Africa. China may even take the lead in management and leadership, long considered the ‘expertise’ of the West.
China now has the money, an educated and ambitious workforce, a can-do spirit, impressive companies, and a dogged spirit to achieve that will carry it far.
Next time someone tells you China doesn’t innovate, suggest that they to take a closer look.
On my most recent trip to China, I sat next to a retired French executive who was making his first visit. A global, multi-lingual VP, he had spent his career between France, Spain, the UK and the United States, home to the leading companies of his day.
He was intrigued that I was taking a large group of 20-year old students from around the world on their first trip to China: they were heading, I told him, to the home of the leading companies of today.