Shenzhen – HQB
I moved to China in year 2000 following the shift of production towards China. In Italy I was providing industrial automation solutions for 20 years already with my own company. I was doing pretty well with my small team of specialists.
In the late '90 it was becoming clear to me that with my company we were going to face more competition and fewer opportunities to sell our solutions in Italy. Our main customers were multinational companies and large Italian corporations, but all of them were focusing outside of Italy.
Names such as Siemens, Danieli, Pirelli, Bull, Pilkington were calling us to develop and deploy solutions for plants in faraway places, especially south America and Asia, where most of production moved.
It was for me an obvious step to move out of the crowded automation court yard of post‑industrial Milan and reach those places where industry flourished and automation was most required.
Since 1995 I was spending several months every year in East Asia, mostly China, and in 2000 I developed and deployed an important SCADA application for China Post with Siemens at the new mail centre in Guangzhou.
After over 6 months in the city, I decided it was time for me to move to Guangzhou on a permanent base. My thinking was: 1) I have developed relations with China Post which will help me start a business network and make the name of my company known, 2) Guangzhou is in a favourable position to reach most destination in China, but also South East Asia being very close to the main hub of Hong Kong, 3) The Pearl River Delta has an incredible high concentration of industry and all of it is or will soon direly need innovation and automation.
I was right on all points, but I largely underestimated my absolute ignorance of China, and Guangzhou especially.
Relations in China are important but it takes much more than a successful project to open all doors, especially in Guangzhou, and many doors will never open, not the main doors at least. I was mostly representing myself, strong only of the totally unknown name of my tiny company and of a single successful project that was not obviously related to my name. I had nothing to show in a place where people make choices by referral, brand and size, before competence. Not to mention that products, not services, were at the core of all technology business, while I was eminently a service provider.
Geographic position does not mean business proximity. Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong and of the Pearl River Delta, but that does not make of the city and its universities and competence centres the absolute reference for innovation. Other cities in the area have also very good logistic connection, especially Shenzhen which I dismissed as a "City without a soul" because of its lack of history and cultural identity.
Finally, I was right in seeing the dire need of innovation and automation in all the manufacturing sector of the Pearl River Delta, but I was alone seeing it. My potential customers, the owners of those manufacturing companies, had no cognition of that. There was no way for me to sell to them something that they could not perceive as needed and valuable, not to mention that I had the typical arrogance of the westerner expert who thinks to know better and dismisses local engineers as incompetent.
It took many years to learn the lesson. Between 2004 and 2008 I was a manager in a large international corporation and I developed high-level business relations in all Asia, but yet I could not strengthen much my business network in Guangzhou. After that I remained focused on the large Asian region providing consulting services but also developed a side business in Guangzhou opening a restaurant and a bakery. I learned more about the business ecosystem of Guangzhou, but I honestly cannot claim to have succeeded in my attempt to integrate and thrive in the business life of the city. I gained a valuable experience thou.
Then, never too late, I got hints from one of my oldest friends in Guangzhou and joined local groups in the social media focused on entrepreneurship, technology and innovation. By far the most active of the groups was TROUBLEMAKER, based in Shenzhen. It was an eye-opening experience to see how active and cohesive was the community of makers and innovative entrepreneurs in the group. A continuous storm of ideas, events, opportunities, a feverish ferment of geniality and its application, just next door. All that I was missing since I first arrived to China and I could only connect remotely in some hot spot in Europe and California or in specific on-line interest groups, was there, calling for me.
And, sure enough, it did not take long before a casual comment on a call for firmware experts in the social media group landed me an invitation to join TROUBLEMAKER, a very, very unique space, at a very unique time.
So here I am, sitting next to visionaries and teams engaged in all sorts of projects, all sharing ideas and firing jokes, listening every day to new people who join attracted here by the incredible aggregation force of Henk the main inspirer, the whole team, and that we are sitting in the middle of where every future technology becomes a product, the Huaqiangbei free zone.
What do I do here? I am a consultant and a mentor. Here I do exactly what I am good at. I make 40 years of experience available and I learn everyday more from the experience of the others sitting and working around me.
I help individual members and teams who join TROUBLEMAKER, and strong of a unique, competent, and dynamic team I offer consulting and mentoring service to the many companies coming here to seek help with the ideas and products they are developing.
I realise now how wrong I was all these years about Shenzhen. It is a very young city with a very deep soul. A soul that sends its roots in a millennial history of working together for the common good sharing resources and opportunities to build everyday something new.
The most dynamic part of China is here and also the most interconnected inside and outside China. Probably the real centre of the "country of the middle", at least for technology and innovation.
People here are all same, all migrants, all foreigners, all far away from motherland, all in need of mutual support and all ready to lend a hand and get through together. And yet all striving to create and perfect an idea, a product, a successful business spurred by fierce and yet fair competition.
How much more there is to learn and how faster is the pace here! I want to invite everyone who reads this post to come and visit and be part of this pulsating heart even just for one day.