Opportunities in China have generated high expectations from the elders and potential spouses of this new professional class.
China produces 600,000 engineering graduates every year. A former Google product manager thought hiring a good engineer would be easy when he launched his startup, Julu Mobile, in China in 2011. He learned hiring the best wouldn’t be easy.
However, I soon learned that hiring the best and brightest would be a lot harder than I thought. In my Silicon Valley experience, the best engineers look for audacious challenges, because the bigger the challenge, the greater their chance to prove themselves and reap the correspondingly larger rewards. Joining a startup company early is an exciting opportunity and potential path to glory for them.
In China, I have found that a different mindset dominates. When I started recruiting talent for my new company, before candidates asked about our strategy, they asked how much money we had. They wanted to know what my plans were for IPO. One candidate told me that he expected “a seven-figure package” (in US dollars). While there was some interest in our plans for China’s mobile market, their primary concerns were economic and reputational: how could I prove to them that they would become rich, and that our company would be famous? I don’t blame them for being skeptical of my tiny start-up, but I was struck by how much more risk-averse my prospects were than those engineers I’d worked with in Silicon Valley. Over the next months, I began to understand why.
Chinese young professionals today were born after the reform period of Deng Xiaoping, and have spent their entire lives in an economy that has grown 8 to 12 percent annually. They have seen astonishing growth in wealth around them, and expect the same for themselves. They are the legacy of China’s one child policy, sometimes referred to as the “six pocket” generation, since they grew up with two parents and four grandparents (six pockets of money) focused on their educational and career success. Blessed with nearly unlimited resources from their elders, those who have succeeded in school join top International and foreign companies where they can expect rapid promotion and income growth.
However, this unprecedented opportunity has also generated high expectations from the elders and potential spouses of this new professional class. In China’s family-centered culture, older generations depend on their offspring to provide for a significant part of their retirement, placing a strong expectation on these young professionals to do well financially.
Then there is the challenge of finding a spouse and starting their own families. On the Friday before one of my key hires, with an impressive background from a top global technology company, was scheduled to start work, I got a nervous sounding call from him. He hesitantly explained that he would not be able to join as agreed — his girlfriend’s mother had decided that my company was too risky a proposition, and that he should keep his “safe” job. I was shocked. Shocked that he would make a decision on this basis, and shocked that he thought it was a sufficient explanation to reverse his decision.
However, for a young man in China, having a steady income and accumulating assets like an apartment is often a prerequisite for marriage, and even for dating. China’s population has developed a significant gender imbalance, with 119 boys for every 100 girls.. This means that women increasingly have their pick, and they tend to choose men who are stable and successful — those who already own an apartment. This cultural emphasis on stability is at odds with the mindset often needed in an entrepreneurial environment. Young women in China don’t face pressure to own an apartment like the males, but they do face pressure to find an affluent spouse. (Unfortunately, in China as in so many other places, there’s a dearth of women in the engineering fields, so I encountered few female candidates in my recruitment efforts.)
In spite of rising affluence, accumulating assets has become increasingly difficult, as China’s economic growth has also resulted in the runaway growth of prices. In a country where owning an apartment is a symbol of success, the ratio of real estate price to annual income is among the highest in the world. For example, in Beijing the price of an apartment has tripled since 2005, averaging 27 times the average annual household income, five times the international average. Those who do buy apartments typically do so with the considerable help from their “six pocket” families, increasing the pressure for financial success.
Unfortunately for entrepreneurs like me, it is hard to show prospective employees examples of local companies that have created extraordinary wealth for their employees. Even successful Internet companies like Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba are closely held and most of the gains from their IPOs went to the top managers. For smaller companies like mine, there is less of a track record of acquisitions that would make employees optimistic that they would see an exit for themselves.
To overcome these factors, I learned to pay a lot more attention to the personal and family dynamics of hiring. I spent more time explaining how employees would benefit financially if we succeeded. We offer generous housing fund benefits to help employees save for their down payments, and invite girlfriends and significant others to all company events. I have also found ways to target candidates who have more interest taking on technical challenges than making money.
China is full of talent, and as there are more entrepreneurial success stories for the employees of startup companies, I suspect it will be easier to attract the best.