Lost In Shenzhen: The Irish-Chinese Connection

Shenzhen DublinGlobe.com

Honorary Dubliner Howard Hunt goes east, and discovers a land rife with opportunities for smart tech operators.

Ever think about hacking Angel List as a way to get your startup noticed? There’s a great article on the matter here. This doesn’t just apply to finding investors: a well thought-out profile will also help you find co-founders, clients, and other like-minded people. It’s swamped now, but a couple of years ago, it was a secret-handshake, stealth version of LinkedIn. Everyone in the Berlin startup scene was reaching out to each other via Angel List, and we joined the party early and made some unexpected friends.

And who are we? A hardware startup developing a new kind of console for outdoor gaming and e-sports. The unexpected friends we made were Irish/French tech wizards based in Shenzhen, China. Sean O’Sullivan and Cyril Ebersweiler from Haxlr8r, a hardware accelerator specializing in hands-on prototyping and preparation of hardware products for manufacture. They reached out to us through the Berlin Angel List network, and wanted to know if we would like to live in China for four months. A quick Google search later (Shenzhen is right next to Hong Kong), we were off to China to learn how to build hardware.

Within a week, we had our minds completely blown.

Shenzhen is four times the size of Manhattan. Three of the top ten tallest buildings in the world will be in Shenzhen. It’s like Gotham City from the Dark Knight movies, and somehow manages to be super primitive and third world, yet completely over the top and high-tech and futuristic in ways that, a year later, still have us shaking our heads in disbelief. It was hot and crowded. The elevators would break down in Tom Cruise-grade high skyscrapers, and yes, there were people in uniforms employed to push crowds of commuters onto the subway trains. We loved every minute of it and couldn’t wait to get back home to Europe.

But the thing about China that really smacked us around was the sudden, dawning realization that their mobile tech is just better. QQ, their version of Skype, is better than Skype (If you have ever used the management tool, Slack, imagine Skype and Slack combined, and you have something approaching the flexibility of QQ, especially in terms of its super-fast image file-sharing application). Wechat is Whatsapp meets Instagram meets Snapchat meets Tumblr, and the freakish thing is that the Chinese launched WeChat a year and a half after Whatsapp with a full toolbox of original features that, even now, Whatsapp and Facebook are struggling to match. Xaiomi, China’s $199 smartphone, has the in-your-hand feel of an iPhone 6 and the clean operating system of a Samsung Galaxy S6. You can’t buy one yet in Europe, but if you could, you’d probably want one. The biggest paradigm shift in technology right now? The fact that the phrase ‘Made In China’ means something very different to what it did five years ago.

So if you’re a mobile developer, you owe it to yourself to check out some Chinese apps in the near future. Ignore the fact that they are written in Mandarin, and get busy with the functionality. We’re talking UX and UI that will be the industry standard of the next generation of mobile apps for phones and headsets. Check out Momo, PengPeng, WeChat, Miaopei, Weibo, and QQ Mobile. Get a bunch of friends to sign up for WeChat, and explore the ‘Shake’ option. I was watching the Arrow/Flash crossover the other night, and the improbable hacker babe from Team Oliver Queen did some hackerish, MIT genius-level wireless transfer of contact data from her phone to Barry Allen’s, except it’s the exact same thing bored, tech-savvy Chinese kids have been doing with their phones since 2013.

China still needs to develop a solid culture of innovation (300,000 nearly identical mobile game clones are released in their app stores each year), but by sheer force of numbers, Chinese programmers are starting to code original, stylish, super-fast applications, and our days of leading, not following, might be coming to an end.

So, as was the case with Angel List three years ago, perhaps it’s time to jump on this bandwagon early. Irish presence in China is strong right now. Along with Haxlr8r, Liam Casey’s PCH Access and Highway 1 offer startups investment and resources to develop manufacture-ready hardware in Shenzhen, with the added bonus of road-tested R&D facilities, PCH factories and assembly lines to choose from. On top of which, there are plenty of interesting job opportunities in China and Hong Kong.

And if you’re stuck when it comes to the language, there’s always Google Translate.

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