December 26, 2010

stanford trip: shenzhen

we got up early for the drive to shenzhen which included a bridge over oyster gardening cages. after a painless walk through the futian immigration station, we crossed the border into mainland china!

shenzhen is huge. it seemed like we drove forever without leaving the city, which is one of the newest cities in china. it’s home to miles and miles of apartment buildings, more than i had ever seen. our first meeting was with BYD, a battery and automobile manufacturer with headquarters outside the city. BYD received a lot of attention when warren buffett invested 10% in 2008 with an eye toward the company’s stated emphasis on electric vehicles and clean fuels. despite its humble beginnings as a mobile phone battery maker, the company has aggressive goals to become the largest auto maker in the world by 2026. the highlight of the visit were the “marketing” videos they showed us, which painted BYD as an innovative organization poised to save the human race from its own destruction. seriously. they saved the best for last with a promotional video about their corporate social responsibility work in tibet. a medley cover of michael jackson’s “we are the world” served as the soundtrack, replete with an autotuned stanza. after the meeting, we toured their showroom and checked out their model vehicles which were delightfully spacious and comfortable.

traffic in shenzhen made us late for our next meeting, so we got sandwiches on the bus. the food on this trip was some of the best i’ve ever eaten, and with the exception of this one meal, i was exceedingly happy. but those “american-style” sandwiches were downright sketchy. think: crustless whitebread with soggy veggies, mystery lunch meat, and a cold fried egg. in my mind, it was tasty goody’s reciprocal cuisine.

our last meeting in shenzhen was with tencent, the internet giant whose famous penguin mascot was a big hit with our group, particularly when they gave us each a plush penguin in a gift bag. this was definitely one of our more interesting meetings on the trip. tencent runs some of the very top social networking, IM, portal, email, and search websites in china. their success has come largely from scalable monetization schemes. they describe their business model as “providing high quality free services to attract a massive user base, then charging for paid services to address individual needs.” they’re pioneered the online micropayments market with “differentiated privileges” that chinese users are willing to pay for (e.g., pay to have your name show up in blue text). referencing maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one company rep said, “we’re providing self actualization for normal chinese people.” they also shared some tounge-in-cheek jokes about their scale: “the 4 largest countries in the world are china, india, facebook, and QQ” (tencent’s social networking platform). when asked about their perspective on facebook’s potential entry into china one rep said, “the biggest threat to tencent is zuck’s girlfriend.” at the end of the meeting, one of our brave trip leaders asked a provocative question about tencent’s role in chinese online innovation, as they’re sometimes seen as a behemoth that appropriates others’ ideas and (in their own words) “crushes” the competition. they seemed to dodge the question, but did say, “just because we run faster from behind doesn’t mean we’re not innovative.

at the shenzhen airport, lighters were not allowed through security. we encountered some cultural distance when we saw locals pulling lighters out of their bags and just dropping them on the ground – lighters littered the floor throughout the snaking security line. this was particularly funny when we landed in shanghai and exited baggage claim only to find a bin of “free lighters” for the taking.

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