THE END … OR IS IT?

Dear readers,

It’s with a twang in my heart that I’m announcing the retirement of Beijing Tech Report. I’ve recently begun writing for Tech In Asia as their local guy in Beijing, which is an exciting opportunity for me to keep writing and actually get paid to do so. It’ll be pretty much the same stuff, just more of it and somewhere else. The good folks at TiA offered me the job after reading my work here, and I have all of you to thank for the best and most empirical encouragement of all—making the little line on Google Analytics jump up. I’m extremely grateful to everyone in the local startup/tech community for welcoming me with open arms. You’ll still see me around (probably even more than before), just with a different business card. Keep sending me stories, updates, and invitations.

Beijing Tech Report is the most worthwhile thing I’ve done since I came to this city just nine months ago. Your support and acceptance will not be forgotten.

Good night, and good luck,

Paul August Bischoff

WHAT’S WRONG WITH CHINICT

I haven’t met a single person who’s ever attended a CHINICT conference, past or present, that had a nice thing to say about it. To find out why CHINICT suffers from such a poor reputation, I decided to attend CHINICT myself, despite the opposite advice of many. Hopefully, I can provide some constructive criticism for the conference or, at least, dissuade future attendees considering paying the absurd 2,000 Euro price tag.

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Expectations are set too high. This is my biggest beef with the conference. CHINICT’s homepage touts “over VIP 700 on-site participants, 100 journalists, 2 million online viewers.” On the same page, it claims to be “the largest conference on China tech innovation & entrepreneurship.” Those two statements are already in contradiction. Just two weeks prior was the annual Global Mobile Internet Conference, which also highlights both technology and entrepreneurship. I’m not sure how CHINICT defines “largest,” but GMIC slaughters CHINICT in terms of attendance (12,800), surface area (four floors in the National Convention Center), and speaker prominence (people you might have actually heard of). CHINICT didn’t even seem to meet it’s own standards. Looking over the single auditorium, the audience would be lucky to break 200, many of whom are hackathon participants waiting for their turn to speak. The 100 journalists and two-million online viewers was probably a stretch, too. Adding insult to injury, the conference was reduced from two days (May 20-21) to one.

So once CHINICT’s attendees arrive, they are bound to be disappointed. The event could seriously benefit from less embellishment in its marketing scheme. A smaller venue would also feel more intimate and encourage more audience participation. When well over half the seats are empty, the audience is left to separate into tiny groups who never really interact.

On-stage dialogue is unprofessional. Many of the keynote speakers don’t have speeches prepared—one of them told me they had been booked within just a week of the conference—so CHINICT resorts to interviewing them. The problem is that these are not seasoned interviewers, and it shows. One interviewer repeatedly tried to make a joke about how much he needed to urinate, but couldn’t because he had more interviews to do. No one laughed. Then it was the self-proclaimed “face” of CHINICT Frank Nazikian’s turn to talk to an attractive young radio host, one of only two female guest speakers for the entire event. Nazikian spent a good portion of the interview openly flirting with her. I bet the supposed two-million people watching online were impressed. At least that part was interesting, though. I had trouble staying awake through the rest.

CHINICT is unlikely to get many repeat customers or returning guest speakers. Almost none of the people I spoke with at the event had ever been before, and they weren’t too keen on coming back. Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin’s appearance as a keynote speaker last year seems to be the only thing anyone remembered from past iterations.

And just to drive the nail into CHINICT’s coffin, I feel I should tell you about Kittyful. Kittyful is an app used to take and share pictures of cats. If that sounds stupid to you, that’s because it is. Kittyful was the winner of last year’s CHINICT Hackathon (apparently in desperate need of mentors) and was promoted heavily prior to the conference. That’s because Nazikian, the organizer, is an investor. When he introduced the Kittyful team on stage, Nazikian claimed to have come up with the idea for the app at last year’s event.

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At this point, you might be asking, “Why would a middle-aged man be so interested in an app for taking and sharing cute cat photos?” When I talked to one of the app’s developers, he revealed that the app’s original name was Buttiful (not sure about the spelling), and it’s original purpose was to take and share photos of people’s butts. I’ll let you put two and two together.

By the way, the included lunch sucked.

INTERVIEW: MENTION CO-FOUNDER AND GMIC WINNER NILS PIHL

 As a reporter, I meet a lot of people who talk too much. But on the rare occasion that every sentence is as thoughtful, profound and passionate as Nils Pihl’s, I hardly find it objectionable. Pihl is the cofounder of Mention, LLC, which won this year’s G-Startup Award at the Global Mobile Internet Conference for a gaming analytics tool called Traintracks. I caught up with him after he had some time to let the victory sink in to discuss a variety of subjects. I’ve embedded the audio from our coffee shop chat below, along with a table of contents so you can skip to the section you’re interested in.  

Contents

  • 0:00 Why Mention came to Beijing, and why they stayed until now.
  • 1:45 For most startups, coming to Beijing is a great idea.
  • 2:21 *Finding good programmers: the pros and cons of China.
  • 5:12 The problem Mention is trying to solve … Real-time, meaningful gaming analytics.
  • 6:34 What the hell is Scala?
  • 7:30 *The quandary of Chinese programmers.
  • 8:42 Jeff and hiring new people.
  • 10:16 *Why the best developers shouldn’t be in Beijing.
  • 10:59 Technical consulting in China
  • 11:51 Mention’s pivot from brain-computer interfaces
  • 16:07 Traintracks: a business or scholarly tool?
  • 17:58 *Engineering human behavior and debunking psychology theories
  • 20:32 How game theory and memetics explains “’nade-spamming.”
  • 21:48 *Defining behavioral analytics
  • 23:14 Why do we use Facebook?
  • 24:02 We are too product-focused.
  • 24:41 Mention’s competition and the astrology of game psychology
  • 26:29 The team is the product.
  • 27:58 Selling Traintracks to investors: “We’re 100 times faster.”
  • 29:43 *The ethics of getting gamers addicted. (Whales, Atomic bombs and the Ultimate Potato Chip)
  • 33:47 Video games as the “most formidable” form of art
  • 34:39 *Most common advice to consulting clients: intrinsic vs. instrumental rewards
  • 37:34 Keep asking “why?”

Sections marked with an asterisk (*) are my personal favorites. If 40 minutes isn’t enough to get your Pihl fix (pun intended), check out Mention’s Youtube page, Decoding the Game.

ALIBABA CHALLENGES BAIDU TO BE CHINA’S GOOGLE

Baidu is often referred to as “China’s Google,” and for good reason. About 70 percent of the Chinese market uses Baidu for search. However, as we are all aware, Google is much more than search. Like Google, Baidu also has image search, maps, video, news, et cetera. It’s even looking into real-life augmentation technologies akin to Google Glass.

But recently, Alibaba, famous for owning Taobao, has made a few major purchases and developments that make it look more like Google than the current lead impersonator. Alibaba bought an 18 percent stake in microblogging platform Sina Weibo, music service Xiami, and online mapping company Autonavi. In addition to these, Alibaba already has its own search engine, cloud storage service, and mobile OS.

Many new endeavors from both parties went public recently, so let’s recap. Below I’ve made a simple table to compare Google, Alibaba and Baidu side by side and determine which is the most “Google-like.” A product or service listed in green means its a top contender of the relevant category in its home country (US for Google, China for Baidu and Alibaba). It’s by no means a comprehensive list, but I’ve included what I think are the most relevant.

UPDATE: The day after I posted this, Google released its All Access Music service. However, the subscription-only service only has the three major music labels and doesn’t look set to dethrone Spotify or Pandora anytime soon, so I’m not gonna go through the trouble of fixing the graphic. So there.

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As you can see, Alibaba might not have as wide an array of products and services, but, simply put, people are using the ones it does have. A stronger foothold in search and the upcoming developments in online maps could be all it needs to dethrone Baidu as the “Google of China,” but that might be easier said than done. And I have to wonder, if Google is ever allowed to run in China as it does in the west, would the other two even stand a chance?

GMIC PANEL: THE FUTURE OF AUTO TECH IN CHINA

Automobile technology is one of the most underreported segments of tech journalism, in my opinion. As Felix Scharf, Head of New Mobility of Volkswagen, put it at the GMIC panel on mobile internet behind the wheel Wednesday, “Cars are the most complex consumer products out there. After that, it’s just rocket science.”

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So when I got the chance to sit down and speak to Carsten Isert, BMW’s head of research in China, I jumped on the opportunity. BMW just opened it’s 4th and newest global research facility in Shanghai late last year.

“We try to have more like a startup spirit there: close short connections and good cooperation, everything small and innovative, try to make things fast,” Isert says. “You don’t have a big company spirit there, which you more or less don’t get in Germany.”

What’s coming to China’s roads in the next few years? To be honest, not much you won’t see in the Western markets, first. Isert says he doesn’t see China becoming the first priority as long as BMW’s headquarters remains in Munich. The big eye-catchers—remote control vehicles, self-driving cars, electric motors with range extenders, et cetera—will all probably be available in Europe and the US first.

But the demographics of Chinese car-buyers do have some advantages, according to Isert.

“Chinese customers are generally very open to innovation,” he says. “They’re very technology oriented, and the customers are much younger.”

That means in some cases, such as mobile technology, new functions actually favor the Chinese market. It’s up to Isert and his team to give those 7 Series-driving 40-and-unders what they want. He says the process for integrating a smartphone app is much faster than researching and developing a new engine or chassis. Whereas a new function typically takes three years of research and three years of development before it’s put into cars on the road, mobile technologies can take as little as three months altogether, Isert explains.

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Aside from that, not all the tech put into Western models can just be ported haphazardly to their Chinese counterparts. They first have to be localized specifically for Chinese drivers and road conditions. Isert used traffic jam assist, which allows your car to take control and drive for you on congested roads, as an example. You wouldn’t want the computer that waits in line for a toll booth on the New Jersey turnpike to be the same as the one getting you out of Worker’s Stadium after a football match.

“This is a thing that is not so easily transported to China,” says Isert. “Of course we are working on it, but due to the different traffic situations, it cannot be taken as it is to China.”

And of course, Isert isn’t just looking to implement new tech in China, but to find the tech coming from here to give to the global market. What might that include? Isert was hush-hush about most of his research, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

A LOOK AT WHAT’S NEXT

Before my May holiday vacation, I had the opportunity to attend a NEXT Beijing meetup to get an idea of what goes on, how it works, and why the teams of entrepreneurs in the lean startup ”pre-accelerator” joined up. Nine teams are currently enrolled in the five-week regiment, and I poked my head in around the halfway mark along with a handful of volunteer mentors from the community, including venture capitalists, angel investors and experienced entrepreneurs.

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My first impression of Beijing’s premiere NEXT program was that it was a support group for local entrepreneurs. The first few minutes of the three-hour weekly meeting are spent introducing new faces, venting frustrations, and giving feedback. But the tone soon turns from empathy to tough constructive criticism. Each group presented the prior week’s homework—results from customer development surveys they wrote and distributed. The purpose was to recognize key insights that could prove vital to the success of each team.

“Even if they have a product, they probably have a lot of questions about how are we gonna sell it, who really likes it, or did we build the right product?” says Kevin Dewalt, the ringleader of NEXT Beijing.

Some of the teams already have a minimum viable product and are securing investment. Others are only in the concept stages. At every level along the way, Dewalt explains, NEXT can help startups.

“All this approach does is mitigate risk,” he says. “You’re not gonna discover the next Twitter doing this. I mean, you might, but this process won’t lead you to the next Twitter. What it will do is prevent you from wasting a year of your life building something nobody wants. So you try to take the riskiest parts and pull them in the front and try to validate those early.”

Dewalt says at least two of the teams will probably “pivot,” or change the focus of their startup. The participants I talked to say the time, money, and energy saved is invaluable.

Those participants represent a broad range of interests and backgrounds. They come from South America, France, Spain, the United States, China, Canada, Australia, and Israel, among others. Their prospective businesses included putting near-field communication chips in luxury goods, hot flash fashion for women during menopause, and a fresh coffee delivery app. The program utilizes a web platform called LaunchPad Central to monitor their progress.

With a certification from the Startup Weekend nonprofit, anyone can start a NEXT program in any country. But, Dewalt says, “I can’t imagine any other startup city in the world that has a program like this, with people from all over the world.

NEXT is the brainchild of Steve Blank, a professor at Stanford who uses the approach in his courses. Dewalt says NEXT most resonates with experienced people, despite some of the startups seeming a bit wet behind the ears. Sitting in on the teams’ discussions, I was certainly inspired and wanted to contribute to their success before realizing I’m just a blogger who really knows nothing about starting a business.

Dewalt says he doesn’t plan on running another five-week program, but encourages someone else to pick up where he left off. Perhaps, one day, I’ll come up with a million-dollar idea. When it happens, I certainly hope NEXT will be available wherever I’m living.  

INFIPURE: NOT FOR MOUTH-BREATHERS

Imagine an air filtration mask that doesn’t make you look like a mysophobic Hazmat worker if you wear it all day. In fact, most people don’t notice it at all. It filters Beijing’s relentless PM2.5 particles, doesn’t fog up your glasses or make your face feel sticky, and won’t break your wallet. Well, I’m happy to say that Infipure’s invisible air mask could make all your dreams come true, and after a week of testing, I’m already a huge fan.

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Less a mask than a discrete pair of noseplugs, Infipure’s daily disposable filters are assembled right here in Beijing. They’re currently sold on Taobao in packs of eight for about 22 RMB. They filter 99.3% of PM 2.5, a smidge lower than the popular Totobobo model’s 99.85%, but markedly better than the 3M N95 model’s 95%. But Infipure partner Francis Law says penetrance, the percentage of particles that get through the mask, isn’t the only factor consumers should take into consideration.

“When you do these test results, it’s all about flow rate—how fast you shoot the air into the material,” Law explains. “We looked at a lot of our competitors. They say they can filter up to 99 percent, but when you see the [result] they publish, they publish it at a slower flow rate. We want our test results to be more like breathing.”

Impressed with the concept and statistics, I took a couple boxes for a test drive. The mask is easy to insert into my nose and fits pretty snugly. My breathing wasn’t noticeably restricted. It feels comfortable, but I do get the recurring sensation that I have a booger that needs picking.

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I’m very tall, so most people look up my nose involuntarily. That said, very few of them noticed I was wearing it until I told them so. It’s great for indoors when you don’t want to be the paranoid guy who wears the mask all the time but—let’s be honest—the air is probably nearly as bad as it is outside.

I handed a few of the samples out to some friends on a night out to the bars. For those of you who frequent Temple Bar near Gulou East, you’re probably familiar with your clothes and hair reeking of cigarette smoke by the time you finish your first beer. Infipure is tested and proven to filter out cigarette smoke, too. My friends and I noticed the difference. One of my less-than-sober compadres pulled me to the side and yelled over the music, “Dude, this is seriously adding years onto my life right now.”

After 12-hours of wearing a pair on a smoggy day, the filters are noticeably stained black and gray, which leads me to believe the seal is good and they are working. The three sizes are a welcome option. I have a huge schnoz that lifts most face masks off of my face, including Totobobo, thus ruining the seal and sending a jet of air into my tear ducts upon every exhale, impairing my vision while cycling through already precarious traffic. With Infipure, I just have to keep my mouth shut.

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Infipure’s journey into the Chinese Market

Infipure created a custom material, called NoPM, that’s manufactured by a multinational company overseas. They sent sheets of it to a third-party agency in the US and a government agency in China for testing. When Infipure applied for the Chinese patent of their NoPM material, no one else had ever made a similar product. That means they had to write their own product standard, where, Law says, they kind of screwed up.

“We wrote a product standard that was tougher than it needed to be,” he says. “We wanted this badass product that no one could copy, or just make other people’s lives difficult, but it just made our lives more tricky.”

As a result, all the masks are assembled in the same sort of factory where Hazmat suits and other medical-grade equipment is made. They then have to be sent to another facility to be gamma-sterilized. Law says his team wants to increase production at a bigger factory further away from Beijing to cut costs, but finding a clean one that’s up to date on how patents work was a challenge.

“They’ve been in business for 20-some years, they’ve never signed a non-disclosure before,” Law says, referring to some factories that said they can’t control their workers’ high turnaround rate if one of them decides to go into business making knockoffs.

Infipure is slowly working towards a patent in the US. Law says the roughly one-year-long Chinese patent process was bureaucratic, but much easier and cheaper. Still, he says, “if someone chooses to copy us, we don’t know how enforceable it is.”

For now, Infipure only sells the product on Taobao, which Law says is low cost and only requires a good distributor. He hopes his product will be on the shelves of 7-11s and maybe some local pharmacies within a month. Selling through local retailers is the company’s current hurdle. Pharmacies in Beijing are extremely fragmented without a single predominant chain. Law says an SKU to sell at a 10-store pharmacy chain alone can cost 5,000 to 6,000 RMB. To sell at a supermaket like Carrefour can cost up 300,000 RMB, plus other fees.

In the future, Infipure hopes to add scents to its filters, create a carbon filter, and make a child-sized version if they can get around the “everything is a choking hazard” stipulation. They are also considering more healthcare-related products, including tap water filtration.

BEIJING’S BIGGEST BARCAMP (AGAIN)

The fourth and biggest installation of Beijing’s grassroots event featuring a day full of TED-style presentations has come to pass at the Microsoft Research Asia building in the Haidian district. Well more than 400 people came out to watch 45 speakers, both Barcamp veterans and new faces. At 30 minute intervals, attendees can choose from four different rooms to hear the speech of their choice. The variety of topics was also bigger than any of the three previous Barcamps. The sessions I went to ranged from the psychology of video game monetization to fashion tech to Chinese charities to Sino-Arabic relations.

It’s all free, including lunch. The audience is getting more diverse, too. Barcamp Beijing started out with mostly expats talking about tech, but organizers told me about 50 percent of the audience today was Chinese. Still, probably 70 percent of the presentations are in English.

The next Barcamp will probably take place in July or August, but if you can’t wait to get your community-driven public speaking event fix, FoodCamp is coming up Sunday, April 28. This is one of several planned off-shoots of Barcamp with a narrower, deeper focus. I can’t give the exact details, as the first one will be a low-key beta version.  Others still in the works include Healthcamp and Artcamp.  If you’d like to go, try contacting the Barcamp staff.

WINE ON THE WEB: BRINGING GOOD TASTE TO CHINA

I’ll be the first to admit that when I walk into a wine store, I have no idea what I’m looking at. I always envy those knowledgeable connoisseurs who know the French pronunciations of every type or how a wine will taste according to its country of origin. Steve Han, the founder of TasteV, had the same problem just a couple years ago.

“Wine is everywhere, but in my experience, I go to a place, I buy wines, and I pay a price much more than I used to pay in California,” Han says. “Some of those wines are okay. Some of those wines are just bad. I have no idea how to pick.”

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To solve this problem, he and his team created a website to find good wines and recommend them to Chinese consumers. Only one in 20 wines make the cut, and most of them come with expert and/or customer reviews. This might lead you to think only the most expensive bourgeois bottles are listed, but Han wants to ease the stress of choosing a wine at every price tier. Many of the most popular bottles are sold for less than 100 RMB. Very few of the wines sold in China are scored by the big magazine reviewers, and they don’t care to rate the cheap stuff.

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But cheap doesn’t mean bad, says Han. His customers often belong to the expanding Chinese middle class. They want to taste good wine, and they’re spending their own money to do so.

“There are wine drinkers who don’t care—who are perfectly happy drinking Great Wall,” he says. “They don’t care. Those are not my users.”

Find better wine, share better taste

The wine market in China is booming. Han says building relationships with suppliers wasn’t too difficult, as many of them don’t have a retail channel. The real challenge is creating a standard by which to rate a wine’s quality and value. Everything is human-based. You won’t find a spreadsheet with statistics and specs here. TasteV has two experts on staff, as well as a circle of collaborators who help choose the wines, which are guaranteed to be genuine.

TasteV ships wine all over China from a warehouse in Beijing. In the city, you can usually receive your bottle within a day of ordering it. The company has a lot of competitors out there, but Han emphasized beating them isn’t the point.

“Our purpose is to put good quality boutique wine into our customer’s hands, and they’re not doing that,” says Han.

TasteV’s website functions in both English and Chinese, but they unfortunately stopped developing the English half due to lack of demand from expats. Han says expats are often better at choosing wines from a store and tend to already have more refined taste.

I’m certainly not in that category, so Han suggested I be very open-minded and taste everything. He says it’s just four or five basic principles to learn and apply to better appreciate wine. But without knowing the right food to pair with it, appropriate temperature, et cetera, even a great wine can taste horrible.

COOLIRIS SHIFTS FOCUS TO CHINA

Cooliris is a gorgeous iOS photo gallery app that allows you to share all your photos from the cloud to Facebook, Flickr, and Google Drive, among others. Of course, those services are mostly censored in China, where almost 70 percent of smartphone owners use Android, anyway. So before Austin Shoemaker, the CTO of Cooliris, gave his keynote speech at Chinabang Friday, I had to wonder what exactly he hoped to accomplish.

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As it turns out, the Cooliris team has been busy cozying up to Beijing’s tech giants, including Tencent and Sina, to integrate QQ and Weibo into their app. They already released a localized Chinese version of Cooliris that works with Renren earlier this year. Shoemaker says integration with Chinese platforms can be trickier than in the US, but the tech and startup ecosystem is improving quickly.

“There’s a set of larger platform companies that have emerged. They’re very strong, have lots of users, and they provide APIs,” says Shoemaker. “Smaller companies can start to build on these platforms within the Chinese environment similar to the way people build on Facebook or other APIs in the US.”

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Shoemaker says he hopes cooperating with Tencent on QQ will eventually lead to integration with WeChat, which does not provide a public API. Tencent’s WeChat, or Weixin, is one of the few Chinese tech apps looking to expand beyond China’s borders. Because of the size of the market, many Chinese developers don’t see the point in going international when the domestic audience is sufficient. Derek Tan, who works on business development for Cooliris in Singapore, compared the startup scene in Southeast Asia, where the small fragmented market forces more collaboration, to China.

“It’s feels really domestic,” Tan said. “The startups and platforms and the VCs are still fundamentally supporting their own ecosystem.”

Still, China is too big of a market to ignore. Besides expanding to more Chinese social networks this summer, Cooliris also has an Android app in the works for later this year. To get around distribution issues concerning the 200-plus Android app storesin China(as compared to two in the West), Cooliris hopes to enlist the help of those social networks in directing their users to right place. Cooliris users on Android could actually replace the default gallery app that Cooliris also originally created.

Plans for monetization via value added perks like storing longer videos and high quality pics are also in the pipes. But you might be asking, what’s so good about Cooliris that would make me want to use it at all?

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Upon first seeing it, the fullscreen interface looks great and runs smooth as silk. I’m most excited about having a central hub for all my photos from which I can quickly pick and choose which photos I wish to publish where. No more tediously uploading photos separately to different social networks and cloud storage. Cooliris works across all of your devices to organize photos based on time, location, and who you were with to make, as Shoemaker puts it, a much more complete record of your digital memory.

“The things that we’re doing and the way that we’re doing it will, I think, set a bar that is very high.”

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