"China is fostering a culture of innovation throughout its society — but most notably in its startup businesses."
China is fostering a culture of innovation throughout its society — but most notably in its startup businesses. Multinationals can take advantage of this increased energy by investing in Chinese startups or taking a cue from how the successful ones — the "unicorns" — are meeting the demands of a growing Chinese consumer base.
Multinationals must also be mindful of what Chinese workers desire most from employers, which is the ability to have a healthy work-life balance, according to Mercer's Global Talent Trends 2019 study. Currently, this is a very real challenge for employees working at tech startups.
Developing a Culture of Innovation
To foster this culture of innovation within its industries, the Chinese government is making it easier for entrepreneurs to experiment and grow by implementing more "benign" business regulations. It's also ensuring that there is efficient infrastructure and local support in place.1
One sector that is particularly thriving under this new spirit is insurtech. For example: ZhongAn Online, a digital insurer backed by Ping An, Tencent and Alibaba, has launched a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform for insurance companies, giving them rapid access to ZhongAn's accumulated data on medical claims, medical insurance directories, drug prescriptions and local hospital information across the country.2
Another insurtech example is the partnership between Rui Xin Insurance Technology and China Lending, which aims to help the insurance company develop its own consumer financial platform offering China Lending's products. The two companies will also collaborate to develop more insurance products and attract more customers on both of their platforms.3
These insurtech partnerships exemplify how China is now setting the stage for experimental collaboration and innovation that challenges the status quo.
Taking a Cue From Chinese Unicorns
Across many sectors, thousands of Chinese startups are disrupting industries — and stealing customers from established companies — by developing innovative business models to sell even more innovative products.4
Indeed, China has 120 successful startups, more than half of the 234 unicorns globally.5 Chinese startups are excelling because they can quickly reach scale in the large market, and they can tap a growing talent pool, particularly professionals with PhDs — twice as many as those in the U.S. They are also exhibiting a higher risk tolerance that's enabling them to conduct "fearless experimentation" to push out new products as fast as possible.
With the rise of digital disruption, these unicorns are eager to take big risks and put their country back on the map as an innovator.5
How Multinationals Can Leverage This Energy
Hengyuan Zhu, associate professor and deputy chair in the Department of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategy at Tsinghua University, believes that startups are successful because they are practicing "contextualized innovation." This entails collaborating with local customers within the country to make sure products meet the specific demands of those localities — and multinational companies operating in China should take a cue.6
"If they want to be successful, multinational companies will have to give more decision-making power to their local branches in China," Zhu said. "They need to do this so that they can leverage global resources, integrate into the innovation system and innovate in China for Chinese customers."
An innovative workplace culture must be counterbalanced for organizations to be successful. For instance, organizations need to be willing to experiment but in a highly disciplined manner. Carefully taking this line of thought into consideration in all aspects of the workplace will ensure the success and application of a productive, innovative culture.
Dealing with 996: An Unhealthy Work-Life Balance
There is a rising backlash occurring in the Chinese tech community, particularly among startups, that centers on what is known as "996.ICU." The name comes from the typical work schedule for Chinese programmers: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.7 Some startups are forcing their workers to abide by this schedule, either explicitly or by demanding certain KPIs in an unreasonable amount of time. Others are encouraging these schedules by appealing to long-held beliefs within the Chinese culture.
For example, Alibaba founder Jack Ma has stated, "No company should or can force employees into working 996 . . . But young people need to understand that happiness comes from hard work. I don't defend 996, but I pay my respect to hard workers!"7
These sentiments are contrary to what the majority of polled Chinese workers shared during the Global Talent Trends 2019 study — that the foremost condition that would help them thrive in the workplace is the ability to manage their work-life balance. This also ranks ahead of their desire to have opportunities to learn new skills and technologies and have a fun work environment.
Multinationals considering investment in Chinese startups or taking cues from unicorns may consider adopting many of the attributes of those successfully innovating while fostering a healthier work-life balance for Chinese workers — which can ultimately benefit the organization's bottom line, as well.
1. Jun, Zie. "Whole-of-society effort drives technology development in China," Global Times, 25 Jun. 2019, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1155732.shtml.
2. Fintech News Hong Kong. "ZhongAn Technology Launches AI-Powered Data Platform for China's Insurance Industry," Fintech News, 14 Aug. 2018, http://fintechnews.hk/6308/insurtech/zhongan-technology-saas-insurance-data/.
3. China Lending Corporation. "China Lending Forges Strategic Partnership with Rui Xin Insurance Technology to Develop Online Financial Services Platform," PR Newswire, 15 Jul. 2019, https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/china-lending-forges-strategic-partnership-with-rui-xin-insurance-technology-to-develop-online-financial-services-platform-300884622.html.
4. Greeven, Mark J; Yip, George S. and Wei, Wei. "Understanding China's Next Wave of Innovation," MIT Sloan Management Review, 7 Feb. 2019, https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/understanding-chinas-next-wave-of-innovation/.
5. Nheu, Christopher. "The Secret Behind How Chinese Startups are Winning," Startup Grind, 1 May 2018, https://medium.com/startup-grind/the-secret-behind-how-chinese-startups-are-winning-44876b196626.
6. Zhu, Hengyuan and Euchner, Jim. "The Evolution of China's Innovation Capability," Research-Technology Management, 10 May 2018, http://china.enrichcentres.eu/sharedResources/users/4807/The%20Evolution%20of%20China%20s%20Innovation%20Capability.pdf.
7. Liao, Rita. "China's startup ecosystem is hitting back at demand-working hours," TechCrunch, Apr. 2019, https://techcrunch.com/2019/04/12/china-996/.