Q&A: Rebecca Fannin on China’s tech scene

After spending many years in Silicon Valley as a technology writer covering venture capital and the dot-com boom, Rebecca Fannin followed the VC money to China, where she became one of the first American journalists to report on the astronomical growth of Chinese entrepreneurship. Inspired by her interviews with many high-profile entrepreneurs in China, such as Jack Ma from Alibaba and Robin Li from Baidu, in 2010 Fannin decided to create the media and events company Silicon Dragon Ventures, which she sees as a platform where innovators from the U.S. and Asia can exchange ideas and learn from one another. Fannin has written two books on emerging tech nations, and her third book is launching soon.

Fannin is set to moderate the panel on technology and innovation at SupChina’s third annual Women’s Conference, which will take place on Monday, May 20, at the Harmonie Club of New York. Ahead of the event, she spoke with us about her transition from tech journalist to media entrepreneur, her thoughts about China’s tech sector, and her new book.

SupChina: How did you get into journalism? How was your transition from journalist to media entrepreneur?

Fannin: I studied journalism at Ohio University. And when I graduated, I went to New York City and worked in magazines there for many years, including editor of International Business magazine. Then I moved to Silicon Valley and started working as an international news editor at Red Herring magazine during the dot-com boom. It was a very exciting and great time to be a journalist covering the venture capital sector, what was happening, and what started to happen with China and India on the rise and other markets in Asia.

This is an exciting trend to write about and I followed the story to China first. And I started to write many articles about what’s happening in China from the ground up at that time. I interviewed a number of leading venture capitalists. I was one of the first Western journalists covering this topic very early on. Then I began interviewing the founders of the companies they were investing in. This is how I began profiling people such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Baidu’s Robin Li, and Joseph Chen from Renren, the Chinese equivalent of Facebook at the time.

SupChina: What inspired you to start Silicon Dragon? What’s its focus and mission?

Fannin: As a journalist, I wrote my first book, Silicon Dragon: How China Is Winning the Tech Race, which was published in 2008. That told the story of the original internet entrepreneurs and their venture investors in China. They were very much like Silicon Valley. From there, I got inspired by the people I interviewed, and that’s why I founded Silicon Dragon as a platform to bring together the ideas from the U.S. and Asia together and report the trends.   

Silicon Dragon was started as a content group with a newsletter, web and mobile content, and regular events. We launched in 2010 with events in three locations, Silicon Valley, New York, and Beijing. Now we are in our ninth year and we have expanded to 10 main forums annually in key hubs globally, videos and podcasts. We have held more than 100 events in leading technology hubs, including Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Tel Aviv, London, New York, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, and even India. We have taken Silicon Dragon global. It’s an exciting time to be a media entrepreneur instead of a journalist writing articles at a desk.

silicon dragon chat ai superpowe 720x340SupChina: How would you describe entrepreneurship in China? What can American entrepreneurs learn from their Chinese counterparts?

Fannin: The whole work ethic of Chinese entrepreneurs is unbeatable. It’s very fast moving. Some people say the 996 work schedule is common in China [9 am to 9 pm, six days a week], but it’s actually more than 996. It’s 10-10-7 in reality. There is very little work-life balance here. It’s easy to get caught up in the whole tech boom. Once you are in it, it’s hard to stop.

SupChina: Speaking of the 996 work culture, there is a huge debate recently about it in the Chinese tech scene. What’s your take on it? Do you think the overwork culture will change anytime soon or will it get worse?

Fannin: I certainly understand the backlash. But I’m part of this workaholic culture.   Certainly some people work themselves to death, but some people thrive on that. It really depends on your own attitude.

In China, it’s hard to decompress. People in Silicon Valley surely work very hard, too, but they don’t work these ultra-long hours as Chinese entrepreneurs do. In China’s case, I don’t think it can get much longer hours. At the end of the day, it really comes down to your attitude and your own personal decision. I don’t think you will see a massive movement to change the current culture.

The 996 culture mainly exists in startups. When you work for a startup, you have to put your energy, passion, and time into it. There is no way around it.

SupChina: What misunderstandings do you think Americans typically have about Chinese tech companies?

Fannin: They regard Chinese companies as copiers and knockoffs of Western products. Definitely in the previous era, this was the way things were. But nowadays, we’ve seen some business models and innovations coming from China first, like mobile payment, mobile ecommerce, e-retailing, and bike sharing. There are many areas where China is getting ahead. Take drones, for instance. The leading drone company is from China and it has a very substantial share in the industry.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen some failures  along the way. In the case of bike-sharing startups Ofo and Mobike, they raised a lot of money and they over-expanded. They went outside China before they were ready. The lesson here is to make sure to have the Chinese market sealed up before going global. As young entrepreneurs, you really have to structure your growth and have the management in place before being so ambitious to take on overseas markets.

SupChina: Are there any Chinese tech companies that you are particularly excited about at this moment?

Fannin: I’m excited about a company called Little Red Book. I find its business model very fascinating. The company has online celebrities recommending beauty products on the app and getting users to purchase. It’s a really unique business model. It’s a very young phenomenon appealing to a large group of digitally savvy people in China. It works well there and I see its potential of going global. Social commerce upstart Pinduoduo is another one. So is AI startup SenseTime. I can also think of DJI, the Chinese drone company. The founder of DJI is very determined and innovative.

SupChina: You have a new book coming out in September. What can you tell us about it?

Fannin: The book is called Tech Titans of China: How China’s Tech Sector Is Challenging the World by Innovating Faster, Working Harder & Going Global. In the book, I delve into Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, and a whole new group of new tech companies such as Toutiao, Meituan, and Didi. And companies that have come up in specific sectors, such as AI, the sharing economy, electric cars, drones, robots, and mobile payments. These are all covered in  the book. The book talks about the whole evolution of the Chinese tech scene. Over the past decade, the market has matured. Ten years ago, I couldn’t even imagine that it would come this far. So if you look at any measures like venture capital, fundraising, investment, the number of startups, the number of unicorns, the figures have surged in China, particularly in the past five years.

I also discuss how the U.S. and China are competing for  global tech leadership. In a few cases, American companies are competing with their Chinese counterparts in China. But for the most part, American tech and Internet companies are not getting ahead in China. I have a chapter about a few U.S. tech companies that are succeeding in China. It’s kind of an interesting take because there are  not that many U.S. companies that are doing well in China. The reverse is also true. There are not many Chinese companies succeeding in the U.S.

I also look at the U.S.-China tech war between China and Made in China 2025, especially how this policy is impacting the global tech scene and how China has incredibly ambitious plans to become a tech powerhouse.

(Ended) 3rd annual SupChina Women’s Conference: How women are shaping the rising global power