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Who is Joe Lesina


July 2016written in Dublin, Ireland

6 things I learned doing startup business in China.

In 2012 I raised money for my startup company theQcamera so I quit my job in Advertising, left my home, waved my friends goodbye and relocated to Hong Kong, China.

At the time I had no clue where I would live, what I would eat every day, what kind of people I would meet or how I would work with others. All I knew was that I was diving into a new experience unaware of how local culture would influence my business and myself in ways that I could never have imagined before.

So this article talks about culture and its impact in doing business through the lens of key personal experiences.


Superstition ruled everything around me
Superstition is serious business in China and I learned this the hard way. I was blown away when I found out that a massive 30 story building was made with a hole carved through the centre in order to “let the dragon pass” or from how the number 4 is missing from all lifts because that number is unlucky – yes number 4, not 56 or 789, very inconvenient apparently. Or how firefighters stormed our office one morning to save our chief engineer from jumping off the balcony. The poor man was just smoking a cigarette in his bright red t-shirt and the colour red in China represents courage, which made them assume a heroic last act. You're smiling and visualising how fun this is, but allow me to conclude with how our two months negotiation for a new office went wrong regardless of our extremely generous offer. Why would anyone in Hong Kong refuse such good deal?
The answer – Bad spirits.

This perfect office space boasted all white walls and hardware, located walking distance from downtown cafes and that new burger joint, exactly the way us hipsters like things. We only had issues with some ugly frosted windows that obstructed the whole view on the outside – we hated that, but no big deal, we thought, we'll just replace them with normal glass. Little did we know that a cemetery house was facing our office on the other side of the street and that's considered bad luck, hence the frosted windows to cover the spooky view. As death and ghosts are serious business in China, our promise to keep the damn windows was not enough to get us off the landlord's blacklist: "evil people who want to face bad luck and make spirits angry". Deal gone. Spirits very angry. True story.


Know your manners
Burping open mouth in someone's face is totally ok but blowing your nose in public is the equivalent of dropping a hand grenade on the floor. Business etiquette is no less quirky and it is extremely important to understand the rules and implications. For example, meetings are always introduced by an intense “business card swap party” where everyone exchanges their business cards – making sure both hands are used in the hand out process – and then keep those business cards visible on the desk, for no reason to be stacked on each other. Don't even think about packing those 15 business cards away in your pockets. Forget flat or agile organisations; the company's hierarchy dictates religion and job titles are more important than personal healthcare.

As work is deeply embedded in the Asian culture, honour and respect pay off vitally to social and professional success and these ethics keep a very formal and traditional approach. However, personal and informal relationships with colleagues outside the office are also crucial to "Asian success". Dinners, lunches and events are usually an excellent chance to get personal and as you might have already assumed, it gets funky in there too. It is not unusual or rude to be asked very personal questions about life, relationships and even sex life. I'll leave my experiences to your imagination here!


Hong Kong gave birth to its own real-life version of “Computer says no” – every client facing interaction ends in a “Cannot”. Customer service in Asia is responsible for some frustrating stories out there, and unfortunately, I collected some of those myself. Restaurants would shamelessly kick me out when I finished my meal, salesmen in shops would hand me land phones with more poor customer service on the line and hardware stores would refund me rather than dealing with my problem. Don't even get me started with banks refusing to update my accounts because my signature in the approval documents didn't match every ink dot with the one I used in registration.

Customer service isn't really the best Asian quality, actually, it's so bad that it makes you want to close down all the services you sign up for, but Cannot! The helpline there to assist service termination is even worst, making the experience turn into the first circle of a Chinese Inferno. But how can it be so miserable? I believe that decades of oppression from the government killed individualism nation-wide and a frequent low self-esteem infused in the culture is the result, eventually contributing to the very little care that many people have for each other.

This depressing painting is not often the case, I met tons of amazing people along my path and the case can be looked at as an opportunity if we consider how big the market for implementing good customer service is. Chatbots, new social channels and CX tools are here to break the hurdle of scaling. If local culture is preventing the development on the inside there is then a serious opportunity to bring a wave of change to China from outside.
To hell with circumstances, create opportunities.


Cyber hacking is real
It's a wild wild world out there, especially in China. During the implementation of our eCommerce backend, we contracted a skilled developer, who showed off many positive reviews from a reliable freelance portal. "Henry" lived in some gigantic city in the middle of China and we only talked to him remotely on Skype. A few weeks go by and we realise the man didn't really do much work other than eating peanuts and charging us hard for it. As we virtually fire the guy, Henry has the nerve to inform us that he now holds passwords and logins for all our accounts and it would be unfortunate if we didn't write him a great review on the freelance portal. At that point, we considered jumping on the first plane to whatever city he was blackmailing us from and declare cyber war to his whole neighbourhood but first, let's try logging in and reset all passwords. Well, that worked and peace was finally restored in startup land. We probably weren't dealing with the most badass hacker in Asia, more likely a talented bluffer who simply gave it a go and won each time but that stirred a few days of complete panic. He was reported to the portal and promptly kicked out of it, but no other legal implications whatsoever so watch out, he's still out there eating peanuts for your money.

In fairness, we discovered many trustworthy freelancers on the same websites so what's the lesson here? As bad as it sounds, taking extra care in trusting others is indispensable. We knew this already but being China still a developing country where corruption and scams are common and well connected to technology, the average western "trust" doesn't apply in the same way there.

I still like to picture Henry as a creepy looking short Chinese man sitting in a sweaty bedroom full of cables, screens and tech garbage while smoking cigarettes, hacking governments and blackmailing corporate leaders. Good luck to you Henry.


Yes means no
It was not just sign language we dealt with, it was the way concepts and messages were interpreted and processed by the people. As a foreign firm, this diversity strongly affected our communications and relationships with local partners, although we lived in the most “westernised” city of China, Hong Kong.

For example, there's a common practice from Chinese businesses to always say “yes” regardless of their capacity or capabilities. No Chinese company would mention that during Chinese new year's in February everything shuts down for almost a month – farewell to your timeline planning. Forget about relying on your idea of common sense, our briefs to our partner factories pointed out the obvious and the even more obvious. For example, the first test design of the rotating focusing wheel in theQ camera didn't rotate at all. It was dead stuck to the body of the camera and our manufacturing partners argued that we didn't specify that the thing should actually rotate for real. Duh. Is this crazy? No, it's only a different understanding of the world and we underestimated it.

Eventually, we learned about companies that offered relationship management between western and eastern businesses in China, where specialists who understand both cultures act as interpreters and facilitate the work between the two. This discovery turned out to be a life saver and it took us a long while to realise that we could not bypass it. Because our employees were Chinese ,we thought that the language barrier was broken but again, there's more than language to it and understanding when yes actually means no is vital.


There is no creativity ( yet )
China is famous for many great things, but certainly not for its creativity. The reputation for counterfeits and imitations spans from the fake Gucci bags in local street markets to global businesses like mobile giant Xiaomi and their blatant “One more thing” rip off keynote in 2014. Yet many Chinese companies are now beating their western competition in product specs, development, prices and they might even be leading incremental innovation at a faster pace. So what's stopping them from conquering Fortune's 100 or becoming the world's most valuable brands? These companies demonstrate scale, power and the right business acumen but they're lacking a key asset: Creativity.

Disruptive ideas, business innovation or “thinking outside the box” are extremely hard to teach, impossible to measure and cannot be transferred in ways other than to establish the proper setup and culture for creativity to develop. Because of many reasons hindered in its history, China lacks creativity from its heritage, ultimately affecting the way companies are led. The lack of cultural creativity knocked hard on our doors when looking to hire thinkers and decision makers we couldn't find any in China. Eventually, we opened offices in northern Europe to secure the level of creative thinkers we were looking for.

Despite all that, I came across a lot of niche communities, organisations and individuals with a great mindset for pushing innovation forward but not enough scale to influence. China owns all the good cards to deliver impeccable execution at scale and paired with a culture of creativity and innovation it can become most world's dominant superpower. Scared? You shouldn't be, I believe the creative gap reveals the doorway to a powerful alliance of different minds and cultures to deliver change together. The fundamental enabler here calls for us to become more open-minded and embrace diversity. Be water, my friends.


Understanding the culture of a different place is crucial to survival; that means comprehending how others think and why they do things differently. Because that's the true beauty of the world, we're all different but the same. The opportunity to work better together is unprecedented but first – we need to break down barriers and learn not only to accept but to understand each other and take action on it. Cause knowledge is power but knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do. 

Do you have other special experiences in Asia or anything you'd like to add to this story? Share them with me on Twitter.com/Joelesina I would love to hear about it!

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