What’s it like moving to China to set up your own business?
This is what I wanted to learn from Benjamin Speyer, Founder and CEO of Serica, when he joined me on the Tech Founders series. Thankfully, the conversation didn’t disappoint!
Hailing from Sheffield, England, Benjamin decided to leave the UK behind and start a new life in Hangzhou, China in 2014. It’s here that his experiences led him to start Serica, a global technology and financial advisory that empowers innovators to leverage the agility and scale of the Chinese market to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.
It was very interesting to hear Benjamin’s own guidance to budding founders who are considering entering China. During our conversation, he gave some excellent examples of the things he’s had to learn and adapt to since his arrival, as well as the differences between how business works in China and in the West.
Benjamin shared that he had wanted to be an entrepreneur since his teenage years but, in his words, held a “cynical” view (in light of the 2008 recession) that he wouldn’t be able to realise his entrepreneurial ambitions in the UK. Therefore, he reasoned, “if the 19th century was dominated by Britain, and the 20th by the US, the next century is probably China’s century”
It was this theory that influenced his decision to move there. Throughout our conversation, Benjamin referenced his admiration for Chinese companies’ ability to rapidly scale, commercialise, and evolve new technologies. This, naturally, makes it a lucrative environment for any tech founder. However, a developing market like China has many challenges, not least the language barrier, cultural differences, and contrasting professional practices. This led me to the first of Benjamin’s observations on the cultural differences: a lack of consistency in attitude and practices from business to business.
He also refers to something that Serica calls “ecosystem clusters”. These are large groups of companies that aren’t seemingly connected but decide to work as a team to take a share of the market. Alliances such as this, he points out, are rarer in the West (but are becoming more common) and praised Alibaba’s response to Amazon’s entry into China as an example of its effectiveness. In situations such as this one, new entrants into China cannot operate as a “lone wolf” but instead must find a way to integrate themselves into these ecosystems.
Benjamin recognises that while China and the West have very different cultures, economies, and political systems, we also have an enormous amount in common when it comes to tackling major global challenges like climate change, food security, and poverty alleviation. China’s massive scale and speed provide innovators with an ideal testing ground to roll out solutions to these issues, but its opaque market and underdeveloped legal systems can leave companies floundering without the right assistance. Developing a basis of trust with local partners is essential to growing and sustaining a successful business there.
I was curious as to how these cultural differences manifest themselves in developing a strong network in a large emerging market like China. Hearing how business culture is less formal and the separation of personal and professional blur, people are not just interested in each other’s professional lives but personal lives too, since it gives them a stronger foundation of trust; as Benjamin puts it: “people want to know who you are as a person, not just your credentials”. Although this is something he initially struggled with, it’s something he has adapted to and now welcomes.
Though he took a risk in venturing into a new market with little experience before entering, I’m delighted to see that the bold decision he made turned out so well.
You can watch the interview with Benjamin in full here or catch up with the rest of the series here.
Director, Hays National Technology - UK&I
Harry Gooding is part of Hays Technology, working across our Enterprise Technology Practice and supporting new initiatives around skills development. After beginning his career in recruitment, he then worked in VC backed start-ups and scale-ups for six years across two different portfolios before joining Hays.