Shanghai Onboarding: 7 patterns shaping innovation in China

Impressions from my first visit to this vibrant Chinese city

I’ve just returned from a week in Shanghai, where I was training entrepreneurs to innovate smarter with Game Thinking. This was my “newbie on-boarding experience” in China — here’s what I noticed about what’s powering Chinese entrepreneurship.

1. QR codes are everywhere

I’ve read about how prevalent QR codes are in China — but experiencing it daily, all around me, was mind-blowing.

When I flipped on the TV in my hotel room — QR codes. When my gracious host took me to lunch — more QR codes. When I gave a talk at Innovation Week — even more QR codes.

All these interactions are facilitated with integrated payment systems that remove friction when you’re purchasing goods & services. Because Chinese social media is consolidated and controlled, everyone uses either WePay (from Tencent, makers of WeChat) or AliPay (from Alibaba).

Nobody pulls out their wallet. Everything revolves around your smartphone.

The ease of purchasing goods & services in China is on display everywhere. As I walked around Shanghai I noticed brightly colored bikes parked on every corner, like the ones shown here. These are rentals that you can hop on, swipe your QR code, and then ride away to wherever you need to go. When you’re done, you just park it — and go. Why would anyone own a bike?

As we walked down the street after my Innovation Week talk, we ran across this lit-up vending machine library, where — with the swipe of your QR code — you can check out a book to read.

2. Chinese people are accustomed to surveillance

This is one of the entrepreneurs that I met — a gentleman who’s outfitting parking lots with an attendant-replacing robot and network of cameras installed at every spot. I asked, “Does it both people to have so much surveillance?”

He looked at me, amused. “We are used to that here — we assume that the government is watching, always.” He continued, “And practically speaking, it cuts down on crime.”

This theme was echoed in many of the conversations I had with Chinese entrepreneurs. They’re accustomed to being watched by the government, and they route around the limitations in myriad ways.

Services we’d never launch in the US due to privacy issues can be successful in places like China, because the cultural attitudes and operating environment are so different.

3. Relationships rule — everyone “knows a guy”

In China, it’s all about who you know. I heard a dozen pitches from entrepreneurs building a hardware/software solution — and when I asked them about manufacturing, they all had the same answer: “I know a guy…”

Those relationships — along with a tightly integrated supply chain — form the backbone of China’s ability to bring products to market quickly and cheaply. Business gets done over meals — like you see here.

4. Women are fully integrated into the workforce

I was heartened to see that 60% of my Game Thinking workshop participants were female. In China, women are fully immersed in the working world —one of the positive outcomes Mao’s communist policies.

My hosts told me that there’s an old Chinese saying:

“Women hold up half the sky”

The women I met in Shanghai were fierce, focused and ready to take on the world. I was impressed & inspired by their energy and determination.

5. Grandma & grandpa take care of the kids

One day, we went to a large bustling city mall for lunch — and in the food court, I noticed lots of older folks with little kids.

The puzzle pieces started to click together — THIS is the support network that enables all those women to be in the workforce. Grandma & Grandpa are taking care of the kids!

This inter-generational childcare arrangement is a fixture in modern China. I rarely saw parents out with their kids during the day. In fact, some Shanghai-dwelling parents have their kids live with the grandparents several hours outside of the City — and see them a few times a year. Very different social norms than what I’m used to — it challenged my assumptions, in a good way.

6. China’s film industry is exploding

Shanghai is a vibrant port city that naturally spawns innovation & creativity. It’s also an education hub for China’s fast-growing film industry. My workshop was sprinkled with innovative filmmakers who wanted to learn new ways to tell their stories. It was exciting for me to work with them — and learn about the exploding creativity & growing influence of China’s movie industry.

Did you know that the largest film studio in the world isn’t in the US? It’s a few hours outside of Shanghai, in the Zhejiang province. China’s film industry revenues are second only to the US — and it’s expected to surpass US box office revenues in 2020. The film industry is exploding in China — and the universities & post-grad education facilities are scrambling to keep up.

7. Big opportunity for games education & innovation

There’s a HUGE opportunity in the Chinese market for educational programs that teach innovation, creativity and game design. The hunger for my Game Thinking program was palpable — and I just barely scratched the surface.

China is no longer “the world’s manufacturing partner” — they’re ready to tell their own stories, create their own digital worlds, and build innovative products that leverage their unique cultural heritage and deep technical prowess.

There are enticing gaps in the market today, particularly in gaming. Most of the popular games I saw there were battle-based and combat-heavy — games that appeal largely to males. And yet, all around me, I see working women with disposable income. Where are the games for them? Someone is going to crack that market wide open — and I want to be part of it.

I was deeply inspired by my visit. If you’re working on something interesting for the Chinese market, get in touch — I’d love to hear from you.

Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur