The women in Shanghai are stunningly gorgeous these days. Without exaggeration, when I walk down busy Nanjing Lu, every second woman I see is dressed in designer labels, make-up tastefully applied, coiffure styled according to the latest fashions, and sashaying on heels at least 1 inch high. This is the new Shanghai. It is far different from the Shanghai I visited only 3 years ago.
There is no question in my mind now that Shanghai could rival NYC, London, or Hong Kong. Since I was last here about 4 years ago, Shanghai has more than doubled the number of subway lines. Digital displays in the train stations accurately state the arrival time of the next couple of trains down to the second. Shanghai’s clean, modern, and air-conditioned stations and subways make NYC’s urine-smelling, tardy, and musky MTR seem outdated and in complete disrepair. Shanghai commuters busily fiddle with their smart-phones since mobile service is available underground. In NYC, this would be a luxury.
To say that over a quarter of the world’s cranes exist in China would be stating the obvious. Dust from all this progress, covers the glass skyscrapers and condos already finished. In spite of Shanghai’s recent housing bust, condos are still easily selling at over $1000 per square foot, and houses are as out-of-reach to even the well-to-do here as brownstones are in Manhattan.
It seems everybody from around the world wants to be in Shanghai. The expat community is large and vibrant. Westerners, including those Chinese who have returned after being educated abroad, are the thought-leaders and trend setters here. One could easily thrive here without speaking a single word of Mandarin. Plaza 66 is crammed with designers seeking legitimacy as global brands. If you ain’t here, you ain’t nothing.
Sometimes when I sit here hammering away at my laptop at Element Fresh, I can hear the buzz of entrepreneurship which fills the lunch conversations spoken in English, French, and Chinese. Entrepreneurs and expats are chattering about China-this and China-that, making business plans and elevator pitches that seek to ride the China wave. It’s the same kind of buzz one would overhear in Menlo Park and Silicon Valley in the pre-bust days.
One cannot fully appreciate the macro-economic statistics about China without seeing these things on the ground. While the world is in a slump, China is still expected to grow between 6-8%. It’s banking system is robust and has injected tons of liquidity into the system to keep the machine going. China continues to have a growing list of superlatives. The automobile market still grows faster here than in anywhere else in the world. Macau has overtaken Las Vegas in terms of overall gambling and entertainment revenue. China already has the world’s largest base of Internet users at about 300 million–almost larger than the population of the United States. Baidu, a Chinese search engine, is already the ninth most visited site in the world.
All the hyperboles, progress, and “world’s biggest / world’s most / world’s first” claims set the stage for an extremely fertile entrepreneurial environment. Chinese people are by nature already entrepreneurial. The rising middle class have long adopted an “every man for himself” attitude in an opening economy where Deng Xiaoping once remarked, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”
My entrepreneur friend who has spent several years in China and Hong Kong is witnessing this pragmatism firsthand: “China is so successful because they get shit done and they do it fast. That’s why they’re the world’s manufacturer.”
My other colleague, an executive at a global tech company noticed something similar: “In Europe, they spend all their time planning and take a very long time to act. A client recently produced an executive summary that was 200 pages long. Japan’s like Europe. But in China, it’s the complete opposite. I met the CIO of a Chinese insurance company, did a strategy workshop in the morning, and by the time we got to wrapping up at the end of the day, they were already asking for a proposal.”
China’s success reminds me of one important lesson about entrepreneurship. Sometimes you don’t need a brilliant idea, or even be a first-mover, to start a successful business. You just need to get off your ruminating ass and just do it. This is a lesson especially applicable to those locked down by the golden handcuffs of a cushy job and a steady paycheck.