Stephen Wang, co-founder of RottenTomatoes.com and AliveNotDead.com, gives insight on being a serial internet entrepreneur in China. A native of Maryland who studied at UC Berkeley, Stephen made the leap from Silicon Valley to Xiamen, China in 2005. He’s been at the frontlines of two major cultural waves: the Internet boom and the amazing rise of modern China. Now based in Beijing, he shares his story in hopes of helping future entrepreneurs at home and abroad.
What brought you to China in the first place?
In December 2003, I had just broken up with my long-time girlfriend of eight years. Almost simultaneously, my grandmother, with whom I had been unable to communicate in Chinese, passed away the day after Christmas. These very personal circumstances actually gave me necessary motivation to plan a move to China.
In March 2004, I made my first trip to China to visit my college friend, Jimmy Zhuang, who had recently sold his Chinese internet company and moved back to his hometown of Xiamen. Patrick Lee, my co-founder at Rotten Tomatoes, had suggested a temporary change of environment in order to get me out of my personal slump, as well as to reinvigorate our professional ambitions.
This trip to Xiamen was an eye-opening experience. Patrick, Jimmy, and I spent the whole trip brainstorming a slew of ideas of how we could launch a new company together in China, and I felt an excitement that we hadn’t had for a long-time in the Bay Area because of the dot-com implosion.
What made you decide to move to China full-time?
Within half a year, we had successfully sold Rotten Tomatoes, and Patrick moved to Xiamen to start a new company with Jimmy. I remained in the San Francisco Bay area for awhile, and continued to run Rotten Tomatoes. But I kept returning to China on another six trips to keep track of their venture in Xiamen, and explore other business opportunities in Shanghai and Beijing.
After Rotten Tomatoes’ parent company was itself acquired in the summer of 2005, my friends approached me about moving to Xiamen to help their new venture. It was a rare, great opportunity to work with local, long-trusted, talented friends in China.
Also, while I had built two successful internet start-ups in the Bay Area, I felt that doing a third one there wouldn’t give me the new experiences and learning opportunities that a complete change of environment would provide. So I finally made the move at the end of 2005, right after my 30th birthday.
On a more personal note, with my grandmother’s passing, I had made a commitment to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese and I felt like I had reached the limits of self-learning over the prior two years. I needed to immerse myself in order to continue learning.
What happened with your startup venture in Xiamen?
I headed up operations at the startup for about a year. In that year, I helped transition the company into its current identity, the popular city portal XMFish.com (厦门小鱼网). I’m really proud of what our team has accomplished in the past five years taking local, online forums and transforming them into a powerful, positive online community. With over half a million “little fish” members in a metropolitan population of 3 million people, XMFish has become an indispensable part of Xiamen’s unique, colorful local culture and is regarded nationwide as a true model for online communities. It has also irrevocably tied my heart to Xiamen; I still return to Xiamen several times a year.
How did you start your current venture, AliveNotDead.com ?
At the end of 2006, I moved to Hong Kong to collaborate with another friend I had known since college. My partners and I had started Rotten Tomatoes because of a passion for movies, and I had the opportunity to return to this passion by collaborating with the Chinese film star Daniel Wu (吴彦祖) to build an online community supporting artists and celebrities, Alivenotdead.com.
The Alive Not Dead community started with six actors: international action star Jet Li; Chinese-American actress Kelly Hu; my friend Daniel Wu, and three members of his Hong Kong acting crew. From these six artists, we organically grew the community to encompass over 1,600 artists around Asia, encompassing the film, music, TV, and modeling communities. We provide the platform for the artists to express themselves and network with one another. I’m really proud of the way the artists themselves have used the platform to reach out to one another and accomplish their own creative projects.
What is Alive.cn, and how is it different from AliveNotDead.com?
Alive.cn is an online platform we started this summer, to help connect brands and advertisers to our artists and celebrities. It’s a natural extension to Alivenotdead.com. Brands can help sponsor artists’ online videos, performances, and more, and we help the celebrities find appropriate sponsors to make their own creative ideas real.
I’ve been assembling a great team here in Beijing to help combine social media analytics, endorsements data, and our relationships with brands and artists to make something that allows brands to get their message out and artists to fund their own creative works.
What is the toughest challenge for an entrepreneur in China?
As an entrepreneur, I feel I encounter a different set of challenges than many of my ex-pat friends in more secure careers like finance or academics. A large part of being a successful founder is your ability to convince partners, investors, and employees of your ability and commitment to see your shared vision to successful completion. Expats don’t have a great reputation on this basis.
A very important challenge is for me to express my commitment to building a company and reach success. I frequently hear people complaining about how local Chinese employees aren’t “loyal” or will easily hop from job-to-job, but I feel that it’s important to convey loyalty from both sides of the relationship.
How has living in China changed the way you view your work?
Probably like most ex-pats, I came to China initially thinking that I would work hard for three or four years and return back to the States. It’s been six years now and I’ve come to realize that the various professional and personal goals that I had set up for myself are really worthy of life-long pursuit, and not just notches on a metaphorical belt.
To build a lasting company of value requires a methodical build-up of knowledge, partners, and experience, as well as a lot of patience. Of the many ex-pats who come through China, few will leave any kind of lasting imprint behind in their few, short years here. I’m now committed long-term to contributing something of value and not just “taking away” personal experiences.
Finally, what is your favorite hangout spot in China?
My favorite thing to do in China is still to return to beautiful, relaxing Xiamen and enjoy seaside food and beer with friends, traverse the streets and alleyways in an old part of town for the best snacks and desserts, and working from the beautiful coffee and tea houses overlooking Yundang Lake or Gulangyu Island. Beijing is a great city, but Xiamen is still my retreat.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Wang.