Interview Seedlink EN

Seedlink is a machine-learning artificial intelligence company. We founded the company with a very diverse group of people; first started with two Chinese founders, one is from Shanghai, one is from Northern China, a Dutch cofounder who happened to be in our coworking space, and myself with a Chinese-American background. We use natural language, the way people speak, the words that they use, to create behavior profiles. And match that with companies, for a better fit, the way people fit in the company and their jobs.

Is there an innovation environment here in China? I think what it really is, is a desire for progress. When I first got here thirteen years ago there was garbage all over the streets in Shanghai. I couldn’t find anything to buy reasonable clothes. Now fast forward, every brand is here. So you can literary just get anything. It’s among the leaders in F&B, just in the last ten years. So is it an attitude of innovation? Or is it just a constant strive for progress, or are they any different? I’m not so sure.

Chinese colleagues are generally more guarded about personal information, they don’t open up as much so there’s less of a team dynamic. The Dutch are extremely open about most things. Also in China, there’s one thing that every foreign entrepreneur or business person needs to know is that culturally how the kids have been brought up here is very very different from Western cultures. So in the US after school you will go to play ball, do sports, you hang out. You do things together. In China there’s this concept of after-school study. So their whole days are filled up with studying, studying studying. And that often means that they don’t learn to collaborate the same way as Western counterparts do.  They never had to get along with siblings, like you do in the US or in the Netherlands. In China management, people are often told what to do. In the Netherlands often people want to be consulted on what to do. What might be considered good management practice in the west, they might misconstrue that as weak management. Especially at the lower levels where they might not have a global mindset. 

If you’re gonna operate and manage, then Chinese language skills are essential. Another pitfall for foreign entrepreneurs is often they select for language ability, rather than actual skill and execution ability. So they hire someone they can communicate with, rather than someone who can do the job. As far as finding talent, that’s a huge challenge here. Especially as you get to the upper levels of management. The only real way forward is actually to develop your own managers, which takes time. So if you are going to come to China, you have to be committed to stay here for a number of years.

So you talk about negotiation in the West, a negotiation usually stops when the contract is signed. In China that’s usually when negotiation begins. So I think there’s a lot of nuance in how to deal with contractual obligations here. It’s more about your relationship with people than about what is on paper.

The importance of a local business partner is quite high. So I have done both businesses without and with a local business partner. And the amount of headache I had when I didn't have a local partner is like ten times more than when I did have a Chinese partner, they just took care of it for me. All the issues with the government, taxation, all these pieces. Otherwise you’d have to hire one for each one of these functions. It is not impossible, but it is more costly and more difficult. So I highly recommend it, it takes time to find someone you can trust, who you think is on the same level as you, but clearly having someone that’s a local that understands culture, how the government works, is a huge advantage. More important than anything else I would say.

What I would advise Dutch startups. I would recommend if you’re a later stage startup and looking to come to China, that you invest in finding a really good local GM. If you are earlier stage and you don’t have the capital to hire someone here I think it makes a lot of sense to find a partnership with a local company that you can trust, and also be very committed to staying here.