Interviewed by Hans Tung and Zara Zhang.
GGV Capital’s Hans Tung and Zara Zhang interview two “GGV Fellows,” David Sun (a data scientist on Apple’s Siri team) and Bo Ning Han (a recent Harvard grad working on a startup in Beijing), on their life stories and their takeaways from the GGV Fellows program. What is the GGV Fellows program? Read this blog post to find out more.
If you are interested in applying to future batches of GGV Fellows or our other events, please join our listeners’ community via WeChat/Slack at https://evolvingeast.com/engage, where all related announcements will be posted.
Hans Tung: Hi there. Welcome to the show, where we interview movers and shakers of China’s tech industry, as well as tech leaders who have a U.S.-China cross-border perspective. My name’s Hans Tung. I am the managing partner at GGV Capital, and have been working at startups and investing in them in both the U.S. and China for the past 20 years.
Zara Zhang: My name is Zara Zhang. I’m an investment analyst at GGV Capital and a former journalist.
Hi everyone. Before we jump into today’s show, I highly recommend checking out the last episode of the 996 podcast if you haven’t already. During the last episode, Hans and I discussed the challenges and opportunities that Hai Guis, or Chinese overseas returnees, face as they come back to China. That episode has very useful background information that will help you make sense of this episode.
On today’s show you will hear from a few of our GGV Fellows. What is GGV Fellows? It is a program that we launched this year which was designed for sea turtles or Chinese overseas returnees to get re-acclimated to the Chinese startup ecosystem and business environment. During the program, 34 global-minded young leaders came to Beijing and completed a one-week, intensive training on tech and entrepreneurship in China.
Our 34 Fellows were carefully selected from over 400 qualified applicants. They come from top institutions around the world. The most well-represented schools are Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley, and many are currently working at Silicon Valley tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Uber, Apple etc. All of them are native speakers of Chinese or equivalent and are fascinated by the meteoric rise of China’s internet sector over the past decade. Among the first class of the Fellows, two-thirds were professionals and a third were in school. Their ages range from early-20s to late-30s. They represent a diverse range of talent and skill sets including engineering, product, business, and marketing.
During the program, the Fellows visited the headquarters of eight Chinese unicorn internet companies and heard from a total of 21 founders or executives who shared lessons on what it’s like to start and run companies in China’s business environment. Our speakers came from some of the most valuable tech companies in China including ByteDance, DiDi, Xiaomi, Xiaohongshu, Kuaishou, Face++, Zuoyebang, Liulishuo, Keep, Hello Chuxing and others. During these closed-door sessions, the speakers shared not just tips for success, but also candid stories of failures and pitfalls that they ran into along their startup journey. The program is designed to resemble a lightweight MBA on all things related to China’s startup ecosystem. And by the way, if you’re interested in learning why we organized the program, we actually have a blog post in which we discuss the rationale for starting GGV Fellows. You can read the blog post by following the link in the show notes.
Now you will hear a few interviews with our GGV Fellows on their life stories, what brought them to the program, and what they took away from it.
Hans Tung: Hi everyone. Today I will interview one of our GGV Fellows, David Sun, or Sun Qiwei in Chinese. David’s currently a Data Scientist at Apple in Cupertino. He’s originally from Suzhou, China, and attended college in Germany at Jacobs University in Bremen before heading to the University of Pennsylvania to obtain a PhD degree in double-E, electrical and system engineering. Welcome to the show, David.
David Sun: Thank you Hans. My pleasure.
Hans Tung: So how was GGV Fellows for you?
David Sun: Well, I guess you’re asking about program, but first of all I think the Fellows were absolutely amazing in my inaugural class. The program itself, I think, it’s frankly amazing if not surreal. Personally, for me, I didn’t quite know what to expect. But when I was in Beijing, it was a week of packed schedule, of closed-door conversations with senior executives and founders of the hottest startups in China, and office visits. So, it was eye-opening for me to be there.
Hans Tung: How many meetings per day roughly?
David Sun: Well, jokingly towards the end of the program, everybody was almost near the burning out period and it’s almost like a 996 schedule we’re having.
Hans Tung: Like this show.
David Sun: I think it’s roughly 10, 9 meetings at least, a day. And we’re doing lunch meetings and we’re eating in the bus and we’re told to hurry up, to use the bathroom at the next company when you arrive there.
Hans Tung: So, Zara and Erica, Fischer, Caiyao, they did a great job of scheduling and organizing this and ushering you guys along?
David Sun: Yeah. I think not only carefully curated this program and all of the conversations and visits, it was also very thought as an- we jokingly say it’s an immersive boot camp for anyone who wants to do a Chinese startup.
Hans Tung: And how many of you went on this trip together?
David Sun: Roughly 36 of us, I believe.
Hans Tung: Out of an applicant pool of over 400. So, you guys are all very lucky and well-deserved.
David Sun: Definitely it’s what I felt as well.
Hans Tung: When we thought about this program, we didn’t expect to be seeing this many applicants. On top of that, most of the 400-plus applicants had very strong resumes, so it was very hard for us to choose. We were flattered and very impressed. And we’re glad that this community is forming and want to foster that.
David Sun: Yeah. I think the team did a really good job in terms of marketing and soliciting applications. There was this joke thing we say, it’s Liebian 裂变, chain reactions, because they ask every single Chinese to refer at least three or four of their best friends. I personally actually referred a number of friends and I personally feel guilty about them not being selected.
Hans Tung: Well, thank you for your support. My next questions is just share a bit more about yourself and your life experiences. I notice that you have lived in eight different cities, so I would love to hear more about it. I personally have been in nine, so I know what that has done to me. So, I’d love to hear what that’s done for you as well.
David Sun: Sure. I left for Germany when I was 16 for college. When I was in Germany, I did a number of internships and also just backpacking on random trips and locations. And after that I moved to the States for my PhD studies.
Hans Tung: So, you did college in Germany?
David Sun: In Germany, yes.
Hans Tung: And you left for there when you were 16 or 18?
David Sun: 16.
Hans Tung: 16. So you started school early?
David Sun: I used to be in a program called Special Class for Gifted Young. It’s a collaborative program which is between my high school and the University of Science and Technology in China. We had a lot of renowned grads like Zhuang Xiaowei, the first and youngest tenured professor at Harvard. But at the time when I was 15, I looked around and felt something was wrong. I always felt I was rushing myself in this accelerated pace of study. And I personally felt there’s something more to life than academic excellence.
Hans Tung: And this program was in Suzhou?
David Sun: This program was in Suzhou High School. It was one of the only in the nation at the time because there just weren’t that many people to participate, I guess. So, I made a decision to actually go and see the world instead of going to college. I took a year, basically to prepare for the tests. And in retrospective- I think you’d definitely echo- being open and traveling across different countries at a young age, in particular during my teenage years, really helps to shape a global mindset and building up this open-mindedness which is, I believe, critical in navigating through an ever more increasingly globalized world. And internationally, I feel that really helps me to understand and appreciate and respect diversity and differences in cultures, beliefs, and societies.
Hans Tung: Why did you pick Germany?
David Sun: Frankly, I applied to a number of places. I felt most of my friends would end up in the States for grad school or for work. If I couldn’t be the best, I’d like to be a little bit different. And I was a petrol head and really into cars and football, so Germany’s kind of a reasonable place to choose.
Hans Tung: What were the most surprising things about Germany that you didn’t know before and you discovered when you were there? And what were the things that impressed you the most?
David Sun: I think one thing that impressed me most about Germany is time management and dedication. They’re almost the same thing. I think there are a lot of urban legends on Chinese social media about how Germans are carefully curating, managing, and documenting everything. Just two examples for this. First of all, when I was first in Germany, I had a host family. And Germans really don’t like mobile phones. They’re not really communicative in general. They actually have the lowest penetration and also phone usage in all OECD countries if you look it up. I read on The Economist a while back. They would phone up their friend and say- I believe it was in September- they would say, “The winter’s coming. Should we grab tea together on the second Sunday of November?” And then the other person would say, “Let me check my calendar.” They’d take out their little book, they’d find that date, and then they’d be like, “I’m available and let’s meet for tea at 2 pm at your house.” And they would never phone each other again. They would just show up on time. It was incredible. When I come to the States, it was Quaker time when I was at Penn. Everybody’s half an hour late. And then Berkeley time, 15 minutes late. And then Germany time is time. And then the second thing about their managing of documentation, I went skiing my first year in the States and I broke my glasses. It was holiday season, and nobody would actually give me a prescription in time. Out of despair, I phoned the optical shop back in Germany where I had my glasses about three years ago. I gave them just my first and last name.
Hans Tung: And of course, they had your record.
David Sun: And they had my record. They emailed me over in 10 minutes. And I think this kind of dedication to documentation and time management is what made the country so efficient and so good at craftsmanship. When you think in terms of building an actual physical object, cars in particular, there’s so many pieces and movements in there. You just have to be so meticulous.
Hans Tung: And precise.
David Sun: And precise. So that’s the takeaway. I wasn’t very organized before going to Germany.
Hans Tung: So that changed for you?
David Sun: It was a big change for me and really helped shape me for better, I believe.
Hans Tung: Okay, good. Now onto the US. It was for a PhD at UPenn? What was your impression of Philadelphia?
David Sun: I was leaving my consulting job at KPMG when I was moving for grad school. Connor actually came to my farewell party and he emailed me the first week I was in the States. And the email title said, “Hello David. How is United States?” And then the body of the email said, “Is it really fun just like in the movies?” And really, frankly, when I first got into the States, we actually had somebody renting a house for us and it was in West Philly. I’m not sure everybody knows how West Philly’s like. It’s basically Chicago inner cities, slightly better, where if you call 911, people come after an hour because policemen don’t want to be in danger. So, it was a huge shock for me because it’s quite different from Europe in general and also quite different from the movies I have seen about the States. I’m talking about American Pie and Friends and other things. But it’s an interesting experience to see how the landscape in an urban environment is in a different continent and also in a different political system. But Penn overall is great. And I want to say here for the record, Penn is one of the safest schools. We have a lot of security personnel.
Hans Tung: I’m glad you said that. I was going to ask just to make sure.
David Sun: Yeah. We take care of everybody.
Hans Tung: That’s right. You’ve got to pay respect to UPenn which is great. I’ve been to UPenn a couple of times. I enjoyed both experiences when I was there. So, what prompted you to join Apple? And how long have you been at Apple and do you ever get the entrepreneurship bug to do something on your own?
David Sun: That’s a lot of questions. I’ll answer first why did I join in the first place. My first job after grad school was at a political consulting firm, the legacy branch of Monitor, which took care of all the US agency clients, public opinion monitoring consulting. I did for about a year and then I realized it’s not quite the thing for me. I think I enjoy problem-solving and critical thinking and quantitative things more than what might make me most successful as a consultant, especially in the public opinion consulting environment. Towards the end of 2017 I got a call from a recruiter at Apple and he said if you’re interested in doing something cool with artificial intelligence and I basically jumped at the opportunity. I said, yeah, it’s probably time for me to move to tech.
Hans Tung: How did you go from a PhD degree in electrical and systems engineering to public opinion consultancy?
David Sun: My PhD’s actually in systems engineering and my concentration is on human behavior modeling. What we do is apply quantitative modeling and computer simulations to understand and predict human behavior. My lab back in the ‘80s and ‘90s did this profiling of all the world leaders and tried to predict, basically, military conflicts around the world.
Hans Tung: Based on what was on the public speeches?
David Sun: Based on public speeches extracted and formulated personality models of those leaders. And I personally, with my PhD work, we actually published how to predict and model coalition dynamics in regions of conflict like Syria with different military factions and ideology claims, how they form different coalitions. We also used a model to do US election back-testing in 2008 and we were able to achieve a very highly accurate model that predicts down to the zip code how, collectively, people would vote for a particular candidate based on ideology. And that was very interesting.
Hans Tung: Where do you get the data on people’s ideology.
David Sun: Basically, if you look at US elections, there are published positions of those candidates. And there are also the Annenberg National US Election Survey, one of the largest panels composed of- it was hosted by Penn as well at the time. What they do is they ask about what are your positions on the top six or eight issues that are controversial and divisible including taxation, welfare, immigration, and then there’s the pro-life and pro-choice kind of topics. And then based on those questionnaire responses, you can basically place an individual and then groups of individuals in a high-dimensional ideology space. And then there are also the interests and alignment with the published statements of the political candidates. And then you can see which candidate will give them a higher perceived utility. Individually, there are noises and people who are irrational or just misinformed. But collectively, noises cancel out and they form a near-perfect behavior in terms of making the better choice for themselves.
Hans Tung: Fascinating. So, from there, where did you go next?
David Sun: From there, I was one day given this report on Syria about different ideological groups in Syria. And it said State Department: For Official Use Only and I traced back to the author of that document. Turns out that the former partner of that practice was a Penn alumni and so was the Vice President. So, I reached out naturally, and I said, “Look. It’s pretty cool and I’ve been doing PhD work on this. Do you think you can have me as an intern?” And that’s how I started with them. It was really nice.
Hans Tung: What did that internship lead you to?
David Sun: The internship led to a full-time offer naturally. And I joined the firm being one of the first data scientists, leveraging technology to help them to extract people’s what they call narratives of things and then tracing public opinion on core social issues for a number of clients from US Government to financial services agencies and just general consumer friends.
Hans Tung: And how did you go from there to Apple?
David Sun: I think that really helped me to build a lot of more solid engineering technical skills. I felt there was this insufficiency for me personally in terms of a particular technical area. I actually had a couple of offers at the same time. One of them I still remember was to be a Content Strategy Manager for Coursera, deciding what curriculum they’ll be adding. So, like a mini-provost for branching out their studies. But my argument to myself is that I think it’s easier to go with the technical track, an engineering track, when you’re younger because you think faster and you’re more energetic versus if I go for managerial consulting track and then do an MBA. I think it’s much more difficult to come back to the technical field because the pace of innovation and the pace of change in the tech world is just so fast. And I want to stay tuned until I’m ready to make the jump.
Hans Tung: So, you were in school at UPenn and you reach out after reading about this research and start working for Monitor. You start as an intern and then become full-time. And then how did you go from Monitor to- what city were you in for Monitor? New York?
David Sun: Monitor’s actually in San Francisco. It’s Monitor 360, the former government practice.
Hans Tung: Okay. That takes you to the Bay Area. And then how did you go from Monitor to Apple?
David Sun: I think after the first year I realized that I was not sufficiently trained in technical and engineering backgrounds. I basically made a judgment call that it would be better for me at a young age to concentrate more on the technical track until I’m ready to make the jump entirely to strategy or management side. And it became interesting for me to actually look for tech firms in the area. I wasn’t seriously looking at that time until the end of ‘17. And I got a call from a recruiter at Apple and he said, “Look, we have this really cool thing going on here. We’re expanding a secret AI project that I can only tell you after our first phone conversation. Would you like to do the interview with us?” And I did and naturally, everything just followed afterwards.
Hans Tung: And what are you doing at Apple now that you can share?
David Sun: I think for the official tagline, I am developing and enhancing the natural language understanding capability of Siri, the voice assistant. And that’s all I’m allowed to say.
Hans Tung: And do you feel that by doing that, it improves your technical background and experience?
David Sun: I think definitely it does. I think one of the things I did not realize until I joined is that there is an inherent advantage to large tech firms. It’s the scale of their problem. When I was at Monitor, our clients are really looking at probably thousands or quarter of a million, half a million sizes of data and asking us why and those kinds of probing questions. But at Apple, whenever we develop networks and roll out a specific feature, we’re serving in hundreds of millions a day. I think that’s really valuable experience. And also, it really helps you, and almost forces you, to think big and think at a different scale.
Hans Tung: And then when you’re at Apple, did you ever see anyone around you do a startup? How did you come to know about innovation in an entrepreneurial setting?
David Sun: I think at Apple, the first month and second month I joined, I actually saw two colleagues departing, one for a self-driving startup and the other one went on to do ICOs, cryptocurrencies. I guess it was a bit late for him to do that. But anyway, in terms of entrepreneurship, I have always been a firm believer in startup life. I think in order to do great things, I would say for anyone with a mission to realize their dreams, they should try to work for themselves and commit their life, or at least a period of their life, to at least one attempt to build something they believe in. That’s my personal credo so to speak and I’ve always been seeking opportunities to do so. I have done one startup back when I was in grad school, an iOS social app that got FbStart funding. But in the same time, I realized it’s not quite truly my passion. And we had a very competitive competitor at the time when we launched, and it didn’t go quite well. But then I think that dream still just persisted in me. And personally, for me at this stage, I’m trying to build as much of technical background as I can and also just building important connections that will become useful when I do decide and find out what my passion is.
Hans Tung: Let’s say you can raise $5 million today. What would be your startup idea that you would want to spend a lot of time in?
David Sun: I think there are two considerations I always have when I want to do a startup. One is how confident I am to realize it. And secondly, how much of a positive impact it will have on society. I have actually long been thinking about doing a startup in the area of strong and general artificial intelligence in language understanding. I think this will be a critical trend in the next decade for reasons that are almost obvious. Number one, there will be a new form, a much more efficient and natural form, of human-computer interfacing methods.
We’ve been using clicking and typing as the major form of communicating with computer systems ever since the invention of it, for nearly almost a half a century now. But we humans aren’t quite programmed to just use our fingers to communicate. The most natural form of communication for anyone, as we’re doing right now, is through talking. And this really requires this computer system to have this capability to fully understand and take in what our intents are. And language systems would help bridge the gap. I think that has two very important applications. For one, if you think in terms of the human-computer interface, this would help to bring technology so much more personal and incredibly easy to use for even people who have no computer skills at all. And that, I believe, there are plenty. And secondly, there are massive troves of data existing in the internet space and in the broader public domain that are in text and not in any other form. We currently are still doing string word-matching to find information. And we have humans reading, analysts reading through pages of documents from prospectus to due diligence documents to files and industry reports to get maybe one or two useful pieces of information. But what if the computer had the capability to read, to understand, to summarize, and also to do the QA in a near or super-human level? I think there have been some startups in the area, in some vertical industries, doing this already. But I think it’s still a relatively under-developed field that is inherently challenging. And I personally just like challenging things.
Hans Tung: And it’s natural language processing in a very specific vertical use where people will pay a premium for the benefits it generates?
David Sun: Correct.
Hans Tung: Okay. That seems like a solid idea. So now you’re at Apple, Cupertino, and the new campus is amazing. It’s very easy to just work there for the rest of your life and never leave because it’s so beautiful and so self-sufficient. What prompted you to decide to apply for GGV Fellows?
David Sun: First of all, about Apple, the campus is indeed amazing. But in terms of why I wanted to apply for GGV Fellows, obviously I do have the dream in the long term to do something on my own and to be good at it and making an impact that’s very tangible and personal. I don’t believe you can quite do that in an enormous organization, in any enormous organization. Secondly, I think with the current economic and political trend, China is taking an ever-increasingly important role on the world stage, economically and politically. It’ll be a natural thing to do to be in those environments. Just like in the old times you would want to go to Venice, Florence, Milano to be a merchant. I think if you want to do a startup and you want to do a venture, you want to go to an environment where it’s business-friendly and also the overall society is providing this good foundation for your business.
I recall vividly one thing I read on Wired about reports of Steve Jobs in his final days going to see the construction site of Apple Campus. He appeared very upset and his fellow men asked why aren’t you happy about the new campus. He said he just realized everything has an end. Not to bring this into any depressing tone, but I think overall for every single business entity, it’s fundamentally cyclic and there will always be the next big thing. It is important for those individuals who can to take the leap of faith and commit to what they believe in will be the next big thing and eventually build it. And I hope I can be one of them.
Hans Tung: Along the way, it seems like you were also impressed by Peter Thiel.
David Sun: Yes. I think he is a marvelously brave, intelligent person. He’s almost contrarian in a way in the tech world. I read his book and almost every single executive and founder we’ve met in China on this GGV tour was talking about Zero to One and talking about the process of building something out of nothing. I think that’s a very helpful and informative writing that he has had.
Hans Tung: So, amongst your one-week trip in China with GGV Fellows, who was an actual live speaker that you heard that impressed you besides people quoting Peter Thiel?
David Sun: I think it’s Lin Lin, Stanford grad, Chief of Staff of Kuaishou. Kuaishou is the social network side for video clip sharing. It’s a very controversial service and widely criticized for public domain by some people who think they’re sharing distasteful and boring or just-
Hans Tung: Low-brow content from Tier 3, 4, 5 cities.
David Sun: Yeah. I think that’s the perception almost everybody in the class had before him coming in. I talked to a lot of people and they were like, “Why would a Stanford grad go and do this kind of things.” And people gossiping and people wanting to ask him so many questions. But then he came in just being very candid and very relaxed, and he’s like, “Look, I know you all have this perception of this infamous company I work for, but here’s our mission.” So, he shared the value of Kuaishou which I really echoed with and a lot of people in the room did as well. It’s about recording everyone faithfully. He said there are three things good in life: the truthful, the kind, and the beautiful. If you think about Instagram and then there’s the Douyin and Xiaohongshu, it’s the beautiful. And then NGOs or World Food Organizations are the kind. And Kuaishou is the truthful. That’s a very interesting perspective. And he compared his business to the artists composing a Qingmingshanghetu 清明上河图, a famous painting of all the daily lives of working class people in Song Dynasty. For those who don’t know, it’s like realism paintings in 19th Century French art circles depicting the life of working class people.
Hans Tung: That’s right. This happened almost 800 years ago.
David Sun: Yeah. So basically, he’s arguing that it is the modern version of an art piece that is faithfully recording the daily lives of people who, in the pre-Kuaishou era, were simply omitted in history and the media archives. And I had this kind of aha moment and eureka moment of, “Wow. This is what they’re doing.” This is kind of eye-opening and really just astonishing for everybody in the room and they were like, “We didn’t know you were doing charity work.” And I think to a certain extent, it is. They were talking about universal values. They were talking about how we should give everybody the opportunity to share, equitable access, and went into a very meaningful and deep conversation. That was the most unexpected part of all the workshops we’re attending. I personally was very touched by his candidness and also their vision, at least their advertised vision, as well as just how openly he was willing to share business and regulatory hurdles Kuaishou was facing when growing so fast and moving so fast. So that was, I would say, the most memorable piece.
Hans Tung: Any big takeaway after one week, things you learned or things that you feel you can take away and help you to do something else new later?
David Sun: I think without a doubt it would be realism. Not Kuaishou’s style, but realism in the sense that I think a lot of us who have been studying overseas and going to elite institutions and working at big tech companies are living in bubbles. We didn’t quite have an actual grounding in markets outside Silicon Valley, outside school. Getting a reality check felt slightly painful, a little bit discomforting, but fundamentally reassuring. And for me personally, I think a lot of my friends and me personally had over-romanticized the idea of doing a startup. Not romanticized, but almost to the extent of fantasizing getting exorbitant valuations after six months, after six months, after six months of doing this marvelous unicorn. And the reality when we visited all the companies and talked and really learned from all those founders and senior executives is that I think the idealism is there. The passion and the urban legends, some of them are truly real. But the amount of effort, dedication, and the firmness of your faith and belief in actually executing it and being the persistent leader of the organization takes a lot of courage, a lot of perseverance. I think I went there with a lot of curiosity and I came back with a lot of respect.
Hans Tung: I was a founder twice. Both companies didn’t do that well. But it is the hardest job on earth to be a founder/CEO and lead your troops from zero to one. As a VC, I think no matter how hard I work, it’s an easier job. And like you said, we all have a lot of respect for the founders we back.
David Sun: Yeah. And that was kind of the key takeaway.
Hans Tung: Do you have any plans to return to China to work in the future? And how would what you learned from this program impact you to make your decision going forward?
David Sun: I think first of all in the long run, as I said earlier, the economic trends are really going in favor of China and Asia and a lot of emerging economies. I foresee for the next few decades. And it is a natural thing to be there and to be on the ground and, using a war metaphor, fighting the battle or to build a business venture in those economies. The program itself really helped me in two ways. One, as I said, getting a reality check to fully understand and have that kind of breadth and depth in such a short period of time is simply incredible and unparalleled. And secondly, it also helped me with a lot of social programming with our Fellows in the class, building important connections of people who might become partners in the future. So overall, I feel this is a great program that really helped me to find directions and to make more informed choices in the future.
Hans Tung: If you have any suggestions for next year, how can we do it better?
David Sun: Make the next class work harder. Do 007.
Hans Tung: In terms of size of the class, do you think 36 was good? Or do you think it should be more or less?
David Sun: I think it’s about right. If any larger, it would be difficult to build a cohort and a sense of camaraderie in such a short period of time. I would say 30-40 people is about the right size.
Hans Tung: Interesting. Do you feel you got to know almost everyone in the group?
David Sun: I tried to be as social as I could and I only, I would say, had relatively deep conversations with about three-quarters to half of the class.
Hans Tung: So, you’re right. It’s about the right size. Any bigger would not be as effective. Then the last question, a fun question. If you have 10 days for vacation this year, where would you want to go and why?
David Sun: I would go to Israel. I think Israel is the other Silicon Valley other than Zhongguancun, Shangdi, and actual Silicon Valley. I was almost going to go on a client trip at the beginning of ‘17, but then there was a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, and I had to cancel last minute by the firm. I’ve heard a lot of great things. One thing I really like to do is whenever I go to places, I read on their history and culture. My Promised Land about the whole Zionism and the movement, the returning back to Israel, was very touching for me. And I really want to be there and witness this myself.
Hans Tung: Thank you very much. It will be on our podcast.
David Sun: Pleasure. Thank you, Hans and thanks, everyone for organizing the GGV Fellows program.
Hans Tung: Thank you.
Zara Zhang: Now you will hear an interview with another of our GGV Fellows, Bo Han or Han Bo Ning in Chinese. Bo went to Harvard for his undergraduate studies and graduated in 2014 and has worked as an engineer at Google as well as at a startup in LA before returning to China last year. So, Bo, could you tell us more about your background, where you’re from and why you’re here?
Bo Han: Sure. I was born in Beijing in 1992 and then when I was three, we moved to Hawaii. I lived in Hawaii for about seven years and then I moved to Connecticut, my first stop in the mainland. Lived there for a year. Then I went to middle school and high school in Indiana. I went to college at Harvard and then lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles. And then last year in July, I came back to Beijing.
Zara Zhang: Why?
Bo Han: I’m co-founder and CTO at a tech startup with my cousin and we’re focusing on English education for the zero to six age range. Currently, most of our development happens on WeChat, specifically WeChat Mini Programs or Xiaochengxu 小程序.
Zara Zhang: And why did you apply to GGV Fellows?
Bo Han: Before, most of my life and work experience has been in the US, so I thought it was a really good opportunity to learn more about Chinese tech. I’ve also previously listened to the GGV podcast a lot. I got a lot out of that.
Zara Zhang: I think you’re quite special because I have a lot of friends who spend the vast majority of their lives in the US even though they were born in China. And they identify with the term ABC or American-born Chinese even though they were born in China. And they may not even speak Chinese whereas even though you left China at age three, you’re still extremely connected with Chinese language and culture and you still identify as a Chinese person. Could you talk about why that’s the case?
Bo Han: I think most of us are very influenced by our parents. And my parents, I think, are pretty different from most ABCs’ parents. They studied the humanities. My dad is a history professor and my mom studied Chinese in college. So, from a very young age they really cared about me learning about Chinese history and Chinese language. I remember as a kid my mom, pretty much every day, would read the Yuwen textbooks with me, even though it was at a slower pace than a normal Chinese kid. But I think even with all of that, after coming to China, I’ve had to downgrade my sense of my own Chinese ability. Before, in the US, I would consider myself like a supposed native speaker. But after coming to China I feel like I’m more of, at most like a middle school level of Chinese.
Zara Zhang: I think you’re extremely fluent, but I think a lot of it is not language but the nuances of the culture and society that you can’t get in textbooks.
Bo Han: Also, the Chengyu 成语. They’re very difficult.
Zara Zhang: So how has the adjustment been? How long have you been here now?
Bo Han: I’ve been here for about half a year. I think the adjustment has been pretty easy. I think mostly it comes down to the attitude where I’m very interested in Chinese culture and Chinese tech, the changes that have been happening in society. I think living in the US for so long I am just so familiar with US society and US culture that it’s just really interesting to learn more about a different culture. But also, I feel like it’s my own culture, so connecting with my own roots.
Zara Zhang: Could you talk about your experience with GGV Fellows? After you came in, what were your expectations and how did the program turn out for you?
Bo Han: Even before GGV Fellows, I felt slightly overwhelmed because in the group chat you sent five or six different books in Chinese about tech.
Zara Zhang: Yes. I made everyone read this book list, all Chinese books on Chinese tech.
Bo Han: I started reading one of them. It’s an overview of 2008 to 2018.
Zara Zhang: Jidang Shinian 《激荡十年》.
Bo Han: Yeah. And then I started timing myself. So, I’ve read one chapter. How long would it take for me to actually finish this book. Then I realized that I couldn’t actually finish the five or six books. And then I didn’t actually finish that book by the time the event started. But I think after going into the event, I realized that I could follow along. And then every day was really action-packed, but it was like a fire hose style of learning. Really just got an overview of a lot of different industries and then also companies at various stages. Even though I think the earliest stage company was still pretty large, like Series A possibly.
Zara Zhang: I would say most of the companies we interacted with were unicorns, but there were a few that were more early stage. So, what was something that left the most impression on you?
Bo Han: I think there’s two aspects. One is the actual companies that we learned about. I think one of the really interesting companies for me was Moka. The co-founder, he left China I think as a-
Zara Zhang: Orion Zhao.
Bo Han: Yeah. He went to Berkeley for college and then most of his work experience was also in the US. But he came back to China, I think, when he was 23 or 24 or something like that. And he decided to go into the 2B industry which I thought was really interesting given that he didn’t have prior experience. But it seems like he has a really good attitude toward learning and just talking to a lot of different people. I think that’s a really good skill set to have.
Zara Zhang: Why did you identify with him?
Bo Han: I think his outlook is very Silicon-Valley-inspired. I think it’s just inspiring how he managed to build a company even though he didn’t have prior experience in that area or in China really.
Zara Zhang: You have worked in Google in Mountain View and also a startup in LA. How would you compare what you saw in the US, the tech space there, versus what we’re seeing here? What are the major differences in both just people’s attitude and work environment?
Bo Han: Well, there’s two aspects to it. One aspect was listening to the GGV podcast, I got the impression that every company was very 996 all the time, all the employees were 996, a little bit like sweatshop conditions. But I think after visiting the companies, I’ve gotten a little more nuanced understanding where 996 is more of a mindset where people are thinking about work more often than people in the valley. And I think that’s definitely true, especially within co-founders or higher-level employees within companies. They’re constantly thinking about how to run their company. And I think part of that possibly stems from the amount of competition that exists in China. Once you have a somewhat successful or seemingly successful business model, you’ll have a lot of competition that comes in. It seems less the case in Silicon Valley.
Zara Zhang: So, what would be your biggest three or a couple of takeaways from GGV Fellows?
Bo Han: One of the interesting takeaways was the other Fellows who would have very good job opportunities in the US, they’re very seriously considering coming back to China. And I think that really contrasts with a lot of the people who emigrated to the US in the early-90s and late-90s, basically my parents’ generation. I think the mindset back then was if you could stay in the US, that was your best option.
Zara Zhang: Oh yeah. Leave China.
Bo Han: Yeah. I think that’s a really good sign for China that it’s able to attract these people back. Even better sign is if you’re able to attract completely different immigrants. I think that’s a sign of the health of a country.
Zara Zhang: For you, do you feel you’re welcome in China? Do you feel like you belong when you’re here?
Bo Han: Yeah, I think so. Although the funny thing is in Beijing, a lot of people ask me, “Are you Japanese? Are you Korean?” Because they listen to my Chinese and they think it’s a little bit off. But I haven’t actually experienced that in Southern China. Maybe it’s because in Southern China it’s like, “Oh, you just have a different accent.” And I think the more someone has spent time in the US interacting with ABCs, the more they’re impressed with my level of Chinese. And then the more someone is actually completely native Chinese, the less they’re impressed with my Chinese.
Zara Zhang: You’re a special case for our Fellows. Almost everyone is what we call a Hai Gui or overseas returnee who probably left China from 16 to 20-something to attend college or high school or grad school in the US or other countries. They may have worked in the US for a couple of years and now considering coming back. But you left at a really young age. So, when you were speaking with the other Fellows, did you feel like you had a different perspective on certain things than the rest of them?
Bo Han: I think so. I think for me, even though I don’t purposefully try to do it, I think subconsciously a lot of my thinking is still impacted by American or Western ways of thinking. But I think having grown up in a Chinese household as well, I can understand and sympathize with a lot of Chinese ways of thinking as well. I think things that came up that was interesting to me was when we visited Face++. There were two other Americans in the group, Fischer and Benj, and I think they brought up some privacy issues. And listening to them talk about privacy issues, I could really sympathize with that as an American. But at the same time as a Chinese, I could predict the Chinese response because I lived through that growing up.
Zara Zhang: You can identify with both sides. I really think that’s a gift. Most people can only live their life and be one, not the other. But we’re living in an age where you can actually be both and sympathize or empathize with both sides of the story and identify with a larger set of people.
Bo Han: That was really one of the biggest takeaways from living in Indiana. Previously, when I was living in the US in Hawaii, Hawaii’s a very Asian state so if you’re Chinese, you’re just part of the majority culture. Then after moving to Indiana, even though I grew up as an American, people saw me as a Chinese. So, then I ended up having to explain a lot of Chinese culture and people would have preconceived notions of what Chinese people are. And then also when the 2008 Olympics happened, they would ask me, “Did you know the Chinese gymnasts are faking their ages and stuff? What do you think about that?” So, I think living in the Midwest actually really shaped my identity as a Chinese person. It really reinforced my sense of, “Okay, maybe I’m not completely American.” Maybe if someone grew up in San Jose or the Bay Area where everyone else is an immigrant, maybe their understanding of what an American is would be very immigrant-American.
Zara Zhang: So, was it a difficult decision for you to move to Beijing because you have not lived here for over a decade?
Bo Han: No. It wasn’t difficult at all. I think what really helped was the fact that my parents had moved back to- or they moved to Hong Kong in 2012, so I no longer had any family in the US. And then also, coming to Beijing, I’m working on my startup with my cousin. So, I think just having that family support also really helped. And then also when I was working in the Bay Area and LA, I was pretty frugal, so I saved up some money. I think that helped with the risk part.
Zara Zhang: And you see yourself here for at least a few more years?
Bo Han: Yeah. As long as funding doesn’t dry up. Yeah, I’ll try.
Zara Zhang: Could you talk a little bit about the startup you’re running?
Bo Han: Yeah. We’re targeting a zero to six age range.
Zara Zhang: What’s the name?
Bo Han: It’s called Qianqian Mama 千千妈妈. We’re focused on the zero to six age range and mostly developing Mini Programs that focus on content and then also games that center around that content, so trying to expose Chinese kids to English content and then trying to reinforce the concepts that they’re learning.
Zara Zhang: And you say you’re mostly building a product around WeChat Mini Programs. That’s quite different from what you used to work on in the States. Did you have to learn everything again?
Bo Han: I think the fundamental programming aspects are pretty much the same no matter what new framework comes up. But definitely the details of implementation are different. I had to go through a lot of documentation in Chinese which involved looking up a lot of words, and then also going through different tutorials, and then also learning how developers in China work. Where do they go when they have questions about bugs or how to implement something?
Zara Zhang: So as long as you’re a good, smart engineer and you can read Chinese, it’s not that difficult adjustment to move here?
Zara Zhang: Is there any last word you want to say maybe to either our audience or prospective GGV Fellows applicants?
Bo Han: Yeah. I think given my background, I really want to encourage other Chinese-Americans or members of the Chinese diaspora to really keep in touch with China, understand history, especially recent history, maybe why your ancestors decided to go abroad. I think that’s really interesting. I also think from a practical perspective, it’s really important to learn Chinese. There’s a lot of unexpected opportunities that you can get just from that language ability. When I was in high school, I never would have expected the Chinese tech industry to have grown to this level. And back then, I would never have been able to predict that right now I would be in China, working in China.
Zara Zhang: Yeah. But it’s possible because you speak Chinese.
Bo Han: Yeah.
Zara Zhang: Okay, cool. Thank you.
Bo Han: Thanks Zara.
Zara Zhang: That’s all we have for today’s episode. If you’re interested in applying to attend the next batch of GGV Fellows program in January 2020, please join our WeChat group and Slack channel where all related announcements will be posted. You can join these groups by visiting https://nextbn.ggvc.com/engage/.
Hans Tung: Thanks for listening to this episode.
Zara Zhang: GGV Capital is a multi-stage venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley, Shanghai and Beijing. We have been partnering with leading technology entrepreneurs for the past 18 years from Seed to pre-IPO. With $6.2 billion in capital under management across 13 funds, GGV invests in consumer new retail, social, digital internet, enterprise cloud and frontier tech.
GGV has invested in over 290 companies with more than 45 companies valued at over $1 billion. Portfolio companies include Airbnb, Alibaba, Ctrip, Didi Chuxing, DOMO, HashiCorp, Hellobike, Houzz, Keep, Slack, Square, Toutiao, Wish, Xiaohongshu, YY and others. Find out more at ggvc.com.
I would like to receive news and updates from GGV.