8 Questions for Richard Robinson, Serial Entrepreneur

Richard Robinson has founded many start-ups but is currently the President, International of Youlu. He is also the co-founder of ChopSchticks, a group which brings American comedians to Asia, and an amateur stand-up comedian. He shares his humor and experiences with us in this interview.

When and why did you first come to China?

I’d spent three years travelling and working my way mostly around Europe in the early 90s and became enamored with overland travel. My favorite train travel writer, Paul Theroux, is from my hometown of Medford, Massachusetts. I loved his book The Great Railway Bazaar about his trans-Siberian train trip so I did the same in ’93 going overland through hitchhiking and train travel from the Swiss Alps to Hong Kong—11 days of travel over 30 days.

When we rolled over into China from the Mongolian border, the dragon swooped down and dug her talons into me and hasn’t let go since. After graduate school in ’96 I moved to Hong Kong and have been here in Beijing since 2000. I now have two little guys who were made in China and more or less a life sentence here.

What projects have you worked on in China?

I moved to Beijing with Renren.com (the 1.0 version, not associated with present-day website) and after we sold the company I became an entrepreneur in the wireless services/entertainment space. I’ve been in the wireless space ever since and have become deeply committed and involved in the entrepreneurial “geekosystem” ever since.

Any advice for foreign entrepreneurs in China?

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

There’s lots to watch out for in the gladiatorial arena that is the start-up scene in China. Start-ups are hard anywhere they’re launched. Most fail. Here in China it turns into a multi-dimensional chess game with governmental regulations, bureaucracy, unethical practices, churning staff, overfunded competitors, et cetera, et cetera. But here’s the thing to remember: local companies deal with the same exact challenges. Them’s the rules and there are plenty of other places in which to play the start-up game but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m now on my fifth start-up and focus the majority of my time on that. The company is working to add value around the mobile phone address book. I started the company with the co-founder of Renren (the one now listed on the NYSE) and some other awesomely talented Chinese guys. We’re just over 2 years old and now have 100 staff and millions of users (www.youlu.com and www.youlianxi.com). I’m the Co-founder and President, International and take the “kung fu ball of power” that the team lovingly crafts and push that out to the rest of planet Earth.

I’m on the board of the University of Southern California Alumni Association here in Beijing led by the indefatigable Mike Signorelli who previously helped to grow the Shanghai chapter. We have nearly 200 members and great events. University of Strong Connections!

How has living in China influenced your work/study?

Tough to say, as I’ve been here 15 years—if you count the four years in Hongkers, which some consider “China Lite”—but my entire professional working life has been in mobile Middle Kingdom. I automatically exchange name cards with two hands and I take phone calls during meetings but I still don’t dig jellyfish or chicken feet so those may cancel each other out. The fact is that China is challenging and I have my “China days” like all other 2-5-0 laowai, but I love this place and will go kicking and screaming out of here.

Based on your own experiences, what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about China?

Well, in my field of Internet/mobile there’s an international perception that China is just a copycat culture with little innovation—Facebook clones, Twitter clones, Groupon clones, etc. While there certainly is substantial “international arbitrage” with proven concepts being rapidly copied here, that does not tell the whole story of the dynamism, ferocious competitive drive and local innovation all happening here in China.

What is one of your most memorable China experiences?

Boy, I have a bunch; it’s too tough to pick one: the Hong Kong handover, the birth of my sons, taking comedian Russell Peters on a China tour, seeing the Olympics opening ceremony, going to IKEA on a weekend, sitting in stop-and-go traffic for three hours for a 45-minute meeting, running in the “fog.”

What is your favorite hangout spot in China?

I particularly like Dali out in Yunnan. As for Beijing I love to get out of the city and up near the Great Wall whenever I can. Take that Shanghai with your endless urban sprawl!

Photograph courtesy of Richard Robinson.