James Chou, Managing Director at Microsoft for Startups, North Asia Region, feels it’s time for Chinese startups to step into the global limelight, and Microsoft is here to help.
From May 10 to 12, BEYOND Expo 2023 in Macau, China, shattered boundaries, embracing startups and businesses from Southeast Asian countries and fostering international interaction. The Managing Director of Microsoft for Startups, North Asia Region, James Chou, witnessed with delight how BEYOND evolved into a global platform.
In an interview with Chou, who delivered a keynote presentation on the topic “How ChatGPT and Generative AI change the retail and consumer industry?” at the Expo, he shared valuable insights on the transformative journey of Chinese startups towards worldwide recognition, exploring the impact of technology, globalization and the role of Microsoft in this landscape.
BEYOND Expo 2023 Macau
Under the theme “Technology Redefined”, BEYOND Expo 2023 encompassed three sub-brands: sustainability, healthcare and consumer tech. The expo aimed to reshape our perspective on technology and businesses by spotlighting innovation and sustainability. Macau’s role as an international exhibition hub allows the event to serve as a bridge, connecting global companies with mainland China and enabling them to expand their presence in the APAC region.
Covid was not kind to Macau’s typical bustling environment credited to casino gaming—a billion-dollar industry in the region. However, that compelled Macau to explore its untapped potential and bet on an innovation hub’s new image.
On that note, Chou notes that BEYOND Expo acts as a “springboard” for Chinese companies and startups seeking cross-border expansion while welcoming international investors. It not only enables Macau to diversify its economy beyond the gaming industry but also continues to position itself as an international hub. By facilitating connections between Western and Chinese markets, BEYOND Expo provides Chinese startups with valuable exposure and insights into the global business landscape.
China’s call for a digital economy and new growth opportunities
China is undergoing an economic transformation, and Chou is jubilant to witness a shift in China’s focus towards the digital economy—e-commerce, digital advertising, cloud computing and more—with a nationwide policy supporting digital transformation. This has led to the evolution of big business-to-customer (B2C) companies—like Alibaba and Tencent—into business-to-business (B2B) companies, emphasizing digitization as a significant area of investment.
According to Chou, for startups, 2023’s mantra for success is to become digitally equipped while embracing the transformative power of artificial intelligence (AI) and carbon-green technology.
Like everywhere else in the world right now, generative AI—such as ChatGPT—has emerged as an exciting and attractive area for venture capitalists in China, with its potential to drive innovation. “Generative AI is a tool to increase productivity and creativity,” affirms Chou, underscoring how it empowers even laypeople to get hands-on experience with large AI language models and bring about innovations.
“Now, you have large language models that are actually democratizing innovations,” Chou says. He gives props to how natural language processing tools like generative AI can lower the barrier of entry and enable Chinese startups to leverage abundant data harvested from the domestic market for innovation and expansion. Combined with their expertise in certain vertical industries (companies that focus on a shared and specialized market or niche), this propels them beyond being “a mere copycat for Western innovations”.
Additionally, China prioritizes carbon green technology and environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives, reflecting a commitment to sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions. Finally, deep tech startups are gaining attention due to China’s focus on self-reliance and developing cutting-edge technologies.
How Microsoft’s all-inclusive product suite helps China’s startups do more with less
Microsoft for Startups is a global project helping early-stage companies develop cloud-based software solutions to advance in their fields. In China, Microsoft for Startups has broader goals, focusing on two pivotal areas: connecting regional startups with multinational companies to expedite digital transformation within China and aiding Chinese startups to expand globally.
Speaking about how Microsoft is advancing the innovation space for startups, Chou mentioned two programs that Microsoft for Startup has launched: the Founders Hub and the Pegasus Program. While the Founders Hub is a self-service tech platform providing founders with resources like Azure, Open AI, GitHub and more for free, the Pegasus Program is an exclusive two-year initiative launched in March this year that aims to provide enhanced support for startups to secure enterprise customers. It grants selected growth-stage startups access to guidance from industry experts, resources and up to US$350,000 in tech credits for Azure, GitHub, Open AI and LinkedIn.
Of course, tech is not an all-encompassing solution. Chou acknowledges that AI, often like a new startup, can have its pitfalls and needs to be used responsibly. That is why Chou emphasizes Microsoft’s six key principles underpinning responsible AI development—accountability, inclusiveness, reliability and safety, fairness, transparency, and privacy and security. He says, “This new technology is here, and you need to take advantage of it.”
Expansion hurdles for Chinese startups
When it comes to establishing global businesses, a crucial aspect is developing cross-cultural and global understanding, regardless of the company’s offerings. In spite of Microsoft’s overseas presence, Chinese startups ought to jump over a few hurdles in the competitive business landscape.
“[Chinese startups] have to overcome the cultural differences,” Chou states staunchly, drawing from his experiences. The limited know-how of the universal consumer base and a focus primarily on the domestic market hold back their potential. Chou puts the limelight on the importance of “market adaptation”, making a point of the need for these startups to swiftly charm new audiences beyond China by understanding their preferences and needs.
To start bridging these cultural gaps, Chinese startups have tapped into the talents of the younger generation to look for professionals who have been greatly exposed to Western cultures. This includes people who have been trained by multinational companies or have studied overseas since a young age, like Gen-Z.
The future of Chinese startups lies in taking their capabilities global
Chinese corporations have solidified their dominance on the Fortune Global 500 list of largest companies by revenue. Remarkably, for the third consecutive year, China has claimed the highest number of companies on the list compared to any other country. In 2022, a total of 136 Chinese companies secured their positions on the prestigious list.
While this achievement is undeniably promising, Chou points out the prevailing reality that these companies predominantly generate revenue within China, with their focus historically centered on the domestic market. However, they need to understand the gravity of international recognition and slide into the global realm to secure more opportunities. Therefore, many excellent Chinese technological startups can follow their customers’ globalization footprint and develop their business globally as technological suppliers.
In terms of the future of Chinese startups and the economy, Chou brings to the forefront several key points. Firstly, Chinese startups are expanding their presence beyond the domestic market and entering international markets at an earlier stage. This shift is driven by the success of smaller Chinese startups like TikTok and SHEIN, which have achieved transnational recognition. Additionally, the traditional advantage of China’s hardware supply chain is being supplemented by the competitive products and services offered by Chinese startups.
“I certainly see more and more Chinese startups playing a global role,” Chou divulges, expressing confidence in the talent and competitive products and services offered by Chinese startups despite the fierce competition within China. He believes that they have the potential to be forerunners in the global business arena.
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