Sometimes the world speaks to you through confluence. Confluence is traditionally defined as the coming together of two bodies of water (rivers, streams, lakes, etc.) but can also just simply mean the joining together of two things. Whichever way you choose to define it, I recently had a striking realization after reading two articles that were talking about two different things, but had me wondering one thing: What is the true driver of progress in Asia?
The first article was published by Fast Company and was entitled, “Leaders at Alibaba, Youku, and Baidu Are Shaking Up China’s Corporate Culture” (January 2012). In this article, Fast Company highlights three major startups that are causing waves in Asia: Alibaba, Youku and Baidu. These companies are chosen because their approach is a fundamental departure from “traditional” Chinese culture. Alibaba, for example, also known as “the eBay of China” has “The Tao of Belonging” because their CEO, Jack Ma, provides a more “nurturing” environment—one that marries its employees (en masse), provides microloans and even provides specialized nutrition plans for their pregnant employees. Youku, inspired by America’s YouTube, is following suit by growing a breathtaking pace while Baidu (China’s Google) is waging a fierce war with our Google here in the states.
These case studies were interesting, but when I later read an article by Wired Magazine titled “How to Spot the Future” (May 2012), something clicked. In this article, the Wired Magazine contributors pooled their knowledge and their experiences to pick out the top 7 commonalities and trends that they had noticed in all of “The Next Big Thing(s)”. They are as follows:
1. Look for cross pollinators: Interdisciplinary thought leaders mean progress. Think of John von Neumann who basically said, “Mathematics? Human behavior? Yup, game theory.”
2. Surf the exponentials: Notice when the market shifts steadily in one direction. As the cost of server space decreased for example, many companies like Dropbox finally have the freedom to exist
3. Favor the Liberators: Napster. Enough said
4. Give points for audacity: Everyone can make an app, but sometimes you need to dream big to push progress. Enter, Tesla motors
5. Bank on openness: In the age of social media, transparency and feedback are key
6. Demand deep design: Convenience is a dime a dozen, but intuitive design can demand a premium (See: Apple products)
7. Spend time with time wasters: Sometimes the best things come from the desire to have fun. For better or worse, without the pioneers in this field, I would not own a PS3, a Wii and an Xbox
Certainly, these companies are poised to hit all 7 of these triggers of progress. Alibaba, for example, cross pollinates by leveraging its known B2B shipping infrastructure to produce Alibaba Express, which provides smaller quantities to individuals. Youku, inspired by America’s YouTube, is “The Tao of Fun”. It depends on the exponentially cheap cost of data and is a liberator in a whole new sense through Hip Hop Office Quartet. Having dispensed with the Mao-inspired puritanical dress and the restrained character, Hip Hop Quartet is a self-produced show by CEO Victor Koo which satirizes office culture and celebrates the underlings (much like our The Office does in the states). Youku is bringing cat videos to all of Asia I’m sure, but should still be considered the brainchild of a (very inspired by YouTube) time waster. Undoubtedly, Baidu dreamt bigger than most by challenging the leading search engine. Clearly, confluence is at work when these “key drivers” (influenced by mostly American companies) have already been so strongly exemplified in the next generation of Asian “It” companies.
The two drivers that none of the major start-ups strongly exhibit are the transparency/feedback angle and the “deep design”. Although Asia (and China specifically) is progressing in leaps and bounds, these two drivers are really still in their infancy. Transparency is still stifled by government regulation, and “deep design” is still something that has been, up until now, seen as largely a luxury. China is not the birthplace of ergonomic chairs or the intuitive iPhone (conceptually any way), but it is the birthplace of getting the job done, for a reasonable price, and there is no shame in that. That ethos has brought many Asian companies to the forefront today (see: Lenovo). However, they always say that the devil is in the details, and the driver that could push Asia from good to great could simply be a matter of transparency and design.
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