Magazine

Hard Choices: Betting on China's Startups


Kai-Fu Lee, the founding president of Google China talks about leaving fertile Silicon Valley to invest in promising new Chinese companies

I had been working at Google for about four years. Google China was my baby, and the people were like family to me. I had a team of 700 people I had hired and a business that had increased market share from 10 percent to 31 percent. It was difficult to leave, but the idea of starting something on my own had been on my mind for a while.

I thought about launching a startup in the U.S., but all of Silicon Valley is a giant incubator: the networking, the knowhow, the values, the availability of capital and technology. It's appealing because of the beautiful sun and fresh air; it has an open environment where great innovations were conceived. The stuff that happens naturally there doesn't happen in China, where there's a need for an organized approach to innovation. China is not an easy environment right now, but it's a place where I feel I can make a bigger difference.

I decided to launch Innovation Works to invest in Chinese startups. I could have picked other options. Private equity companies have done well in China. Investing in the privatization of state-owned companies has been lucrative. But for every major choice you face, you have to think, "Why me?" and "Why only me?" If the answers aren't compelling, you have to ask why you're doing it.

I tend to make my choices analytically, and I make them quickly. That doesn't mean they're not tough. Once I make a decision, though, I don't regret it—even if it causes difficulties.

If we don't invest in Chinese startups now, we will miss a huge opportunity. China is hard to understand because no country has moved so fast. Chinese people currently spend more time on the phone than on the computer. The user habits are different than in the U.S.: 30 percent of Chinese go online at Internet cafés. Chinese Internet users are young and hungry for knowledge. The country's talent is tremendous—brilliant, in fact—but they need mentors. At some point, there may be a Chinese Silicon Valley. It could take a decade or so. And I want to help in building it.


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