China Entrepreneur Network (CEN) at the University of Michigan and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology are elated to release the first edition of “A look at American & Chinese Entrepreneurs”. Through “A look at American & Chinese Entrepreneurs”, we hope to interview an American and a Chinese entrepreneur to learn about their startups and entrepreneurial experiences. We also hope to learn more about the U.S.-China entrepreneurial similarities and differences. For our first edition, we have interviewed Chinese Entrepreneur Linka Lin and U.S. Entrepreneur Len Middleton.
“What You Take Away Shouldn’t Be a Bag of Jasmine Rice”
As one of the three co-founders of Storius, Linka is a Chinese entrepreneur who is currently living in Bangkok, Thailand, and working for Storius, Movers, and the UNDP. We are fortunate to conduct a Zoom interview with her to understand more deeply about her journey as an entrepreneur at Storius and what she has to offer for future entrepreneurs. Storius is a company that develops a mobile application for users to listen to audio guides produced by locals in order to have an immersive experience when travelling in foreign countries.
Inspired by her personal experience, Linka wants to impact tourism through a tourism app that would promote interactions with locals and deeper understanding of their culture and history. Moved to Thailand at the age of 23, Linka loves exploring, lives in an old town in Bangkok, and is able to visit different ancient temples and learn about the fascinating history of Buddhism in this country; this experience was further enhanced by the companion of her local friend, who provided the local perspective of these culturally significant locations. In contrast, when Linka’s parents visited her in Bangkok, she was annoyed by the fact that the trip solely consisted of riding on a bus, eating, and walking around almost purposelessly. They had no interaction with the locals and had “zero understanding of why people do what they do”.
Another experience that motivated her to start Storius was when she overheard tour guides at the Grand Palace of Thailand talking about jasmine rice and encouraging the tourists to buy some to bring home. They completely overlooked the rich history of how the different structures and artifacts are closely associated with the relationship between Siam and China almost two hundred years ago. Linka observed that current tourism is very defined and artificial in the sense that many culturally or historically “interesting places were not given the opportunity to show themselves” and that there is “very limited facilitation between the tourists and locals”. With this in mind, she and two other co-founders started Storius.
As a co-founder, Linka places emphasis on team building and maintaining positive team dynamic; concepts from the book Principles written by Ray Dalio were implemented throughout the working environment at Storius. Two key concepts were radical transparency, which is not too common in Asia, and ‘giver mentality’. It is crucial for colleagues to express feelings safely with the team when feeling frustrated and make decisions based on the greater good. By reinforcing these two ideas, Storius is able to develop efficiently as everyone has the same vision and has no personal feeling or attachment when receiving criticism.
The current global pandemic is affecting normal operations of companies from every industry – Storius is no exception. According to Linka, “everything is operated online,” and being “unable to meet everyone physically” certainly decreases work efficiency. While there isn’t an immediate and effective solution to it, Linka has been looking into various ways to connect with her team virtually. Despite sounding like common sense, Linka emphasizes that it is important to “remind each other to turn on camera during virtual meetings,” because seeing each other’s emotions dramatically increases the interactions and communication efficiency.
Always enjoyed creating value from scratch, Linka was very active in participating in various startup competitions in her early 20s and has won multiple major awards for her work – however, designing a project in a competition isn’t exactly the same as starting one in real life. At the age of 23, Linka won the Startup Weekend, which is a 54-hour weekend event where aspiring entrepreneurs demonstrate their innovative ideas, with an idea to create a platform on which people can essentially teach each other skills from different fields effectively. While this award was a recognition of her abilities, she encountered failures when implementing it in the real market. She couldn’t bring a coherent team together and the original idea was changed so many times to cater to market needs that she became frustrated at the end.
But with a growth mindset to accept failures, she learned a lot about teamwork and building a startup from this experience. In fact, participating in different startup competitions and programs is what Linka advises aspiring entrepreneurs to do in preparation for the real one. Not only do they provide valuable learning experience, they also connect people from various cultural and academic backgrounds.
Linka highlighted the importance of having an action-oriented mindset. When asked about the timing of starting Storius, she answered that people “will never get the answer if they only think”. After starting the startup, it is also necessary to “always go back to [and rethink about] the intention”. While the company’s form, operations, and workers can always change, the intention should not.
To wrap up, in Linka’s words, creating a startup should aim to simplify and “improve situations that people are not happy about.”
“Practice Practical Entrepreneurship Not Academic Entrepreneurship”
Len Middleton is an Adjunct Professor of Corporate Strategy, International Business, and Entrepreneurship at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Middleton is also the Co-Director of the Global MBA Projects Course (international field studies) where he does student-consulting projects with Fortune 500 corporations, incubator companies in Ireland and Israel and world-class nonprofit organizations providing strategic direction and results. He teaches an MBA elective course in "Strategy Consulting" and the Executive MBA projects course with Andy Lawlor. He is also a board member of the Samuel Zell and Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies and a faculty advisor for the Tauber Manufacturing Institute. Middleton is a board member of several corporations.
Our team at China Entrepreneur Network at the University of Michigan had the pleasure of talking to Middleton about his international experiences and insights in the startup and incubator space. Specifically, Middleton illustrated his work with University of Michigan MBA students to develop and plan Venture Capital ecosystems that are needed for startups to succeed. Middleton also imparted to our club members key advice to help them be successful future entrepreneurs.
Firstly, based on his experience working on the entrepreneurial community KIC in Shanghai, Middleton states that a well-defined ecosystem of entrepreneurial stakeholders are needed to make entrepreneurship prosper in a community. Middleton says that in addition to the typical entrepreneurial players (Venture Capital, Incubators, and Business Consultants), players such as Professional and Alumni Associations and University and Research Institutions are incredibly important as well. Middleton mentioned that in his opinion, the biggest differences between the American and Chinese entrepreneurial environments were that leading U.S. universities in entrepreneurship such as Stanford University and the University of Michigan invested heavily in practical entrepreneurship experiences. On the other hand, leading Chinese universities still prefer relatively more academic approaches to their entrepreneurial curriculum. However, innovative Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen are quickly adopting changes that fosters large entrepreneurial ecosystems as well.
Additionally, Middleton also emphasized the importance of location to startups by comparing the political and cultural differences between regions in the U.S. and China that affected the entrepreneurial histories in both countries. Essentially, Middleton compares the different ‘entrepreneurial personalities’ of large Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong to those of the West, Midwest, and East Coast U.S. states. Middleton states that the ‘tieless’ and relatively more relaxed working styles of startups in the West Coast could be compared to the relatively more casual Shanghai whereas cities such as New York and Beijing prefer more Traditional ‘suit and tie’ approaches. Furthermore, different startup types vary by locations (Tech startups in the famous Silicon Valley compared to hardware startups in the Midwest). Finally, clusters of startups usually form around locations with prominent incubators and venture capital firms which help ensure the long-term survival of startups.
When asked about the most important piece of advice that he could give to aspiring entrepreneurs, Middleton quickly responded with “Find a good mentor”. Middleton explained a veteran and experienced mentor can help guide young entrepreneurs through the many difficult challenges of creating startups. Despite already being a successful entrepreneur and mentor to many, Middleton himself frequently asks his mentors from across the world on advice as well. Moreover, Middleton explained that entrepreneurs need to think big in order to find good startup ideas. He states that entrepreneurs can find ideas by observing societal trends, finding solutions to common problems and filling gaps in the existing marketplace. Finally, he emphasizes the importance of taking risks to be a successful entrepreneur and that taking risks is the difference between simply having an idea or actually pursuing an opportunity.
In all, through decades of entrepreneurship and business experience, Middleton understood that entrepreneurship cannot simply be learnt academically but rather must be fostered organically through practice. He encourages student entrepreneurs to take more risks to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams!
Len Middleton 是密歇根大學羅斯商學院企業戰略，國際商務以及創業學的一位兼職教授。Middleton同樣是全球MBA項目課程（國際研究）的聯席主席。他通過學生咨詢項目為財富500強企業，愛爾蘭與以色列的孵化公司，以及世界級非營利組織提供戰略方針。他教授一門「戰略咨詢」的選修MBA課程並與Andy Lawlor 一起教授EMBA的項目課程。他同時也是Samuel Zell and Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies 的董事會成員和Tauber Manufacturing Institute的導師顧問。Middleton還是其他幾家公司的董事會成員。
Despite separation by literally oceans and mountains apart, a spectre is haunting Linka and Professor Middleton: the spectre of entrepreneurship (pun intended). Their journey life embodies the spirit of “just do it, ” instead of fantasizing about imaginary ideas and imaginary situations at length. As if they prearranged a story, their advices fundamentally break down to the three exact same steps:
On the other hand, Middleton and Linka’s stories are different due to their unique individual entrepreneurial experiences. Linka’s entrepreneurial advice stems from her personal experiences in Thailand whereas Middleton’s perspective is influenced by his decades-old experiences working in venture capital and academia. To a large extent, Linka’s perspective reflects the more Asian-style influenced version of entrepreneurship where personal relationships and traditional culture plays a large role. Middleton’s advice on the other hand illustrates the more rigidly structured western-style of entrepreneurship.
Middleton and Linka’s stories are also different from the way that they perceive entrepreneurship. For Linka, entrepreneurship is perceived at a local level and really emphasized how relatively “small” events such as participating in case competitions helped develop her entrepreneurship acumen. Middleton on the other hand sees entrepreneurship as more of a cultural phenomenon that happens differently in each country. Being able to see from both a ground-level and high-level view of entrepreneurship really shows the importance of entrepreneurship to every facet of life.
This article’s interview-hosts CEN UM and HKUST express boundless gratitude to distinguished guests Linka and Professor Middleton for descending from the ranks of juggernauts to impart their knowledge onto aspiring entrepreneurs. We believe without doubt that their message will change the life of at least one young entrepreneur out there starting from their parents’ basement, garage, college dorm room, startup incubator, you name it.
Stay tuned to your CEN group chat for more updates from “A look at American & Chinese Entrepreneurs” for insights on American and Chinese startups: what’s similar, what’s different?