The startup journal XII: Our years in corporate culture gave us a chance to found startups

As a tech media outlet, we’ve been observing a rising trend that executives left large tech companies to found their own startups in China’s tech scene in the past a few years.

I’d like to share a story about Dr. Yu Kai, the former director of the Institute of Deep Learning at Baidu, who founded a startup, Horizon Robotics. Unlike Baidu’s vision in developing cloud computing technology, he set his eyes on the “smart home” concept, aiming to make brains for electronic appliances.

I met Dr. Yu in 2015 when profiling “the brain” behind Baidu’s deep learning project for my former employer, the South China Morning Post. In a small meeting room with a large white board, we talked about how he saw the future of artificial intelligence and how it will likely impact human life.

I remember that we even discussed the film “Her”, a fictional story about a writer falling in love with a “Siri”-like operating system and was later abandoned. Dr. Yu asked me to focus on a bright future that he believed in – a beautiful tomorrow where robots can liberate humans from danger. For example, they could call a truce during war to avoid human deaths. Recalling that, I think we may have found an answer to fighting ISIS.

Anyway, Dr. Yu struck me as a dynamic but relaxed person. He spoke very vividly to guide you into his scientific world, which can be complex and abstract. He knows how to tell a narrative to make his story lively and relevant. He was so different from the many leaders of the corporate world who almost all talk in the same way, with expensive suits and carefully combed hair; nor was he like many other scientists I interviewed who are typical nerds, including some Nobel Prize winners. I adore nerds but they can be very similar to one another, too.

My instinct was somehow right. The same year, Dr Yu announced his resignation from Baidu and founded his startup. I also quit my job at the SCMP and started the journey of my own startup. I can see some similar characteristics between him and myself.

I may also be too dynamic to stay at a corporate company. I have too many new ideas that I want to explore instead of sitting in my cubicle, reporting to my boss and making phone calls. I’m passionate and a go-getter. I’m a dreamer and a storyteller who is willing to call upon others to do something meaningful together.

That’s perhaps the reason why I ended up with my business partner, like others who paired up to carry out their startup ideas. We are all storytellers who pitch investors a narrative that a business idea would work, share with our readers or customers a product that can change their lives, and inspire our colleagues to make our dreams come true.

We’ve certainly learned from corporate culture to be professional while finishing tasks on time, to communicate in a civilized way using a common simple language and to yield to a system, allowing it to maintain its order. But that culture can eat you up. You are losing your creativity, courage and motivation to try something new. You are replicable and replaceable because you were just a cog in a machine.

I’ve always thought that everyone has their own unique talents. They just have to find the best way to express themselves and find a way to make their ideas work. There are the ones like myself who keep on trying to explore our paths. There are also the ones who give up too early and settle for a quiet life without having lived their dreams.

Specially, an environment like China may feed those who are more willing to explore, because what we have is far from perfect and everything is uncertain and changing, while in the western world, many are not willing to give up their comfortable lives or have too much to lose.

That’s why new narratives can be written, stories like those of many of my former bosses at NetEase, one of the largest Chinese portals, who have become billionaires in recent years. Among them is Tang Yan, the founder of Momo, a tinder-like dating app which has lured in 60 million registered users to lead the SNS market in China. Momo was listed on Nasdaq three years after it was founded in 2011.

These kinds of stories have inspired thousands or even tens of thousands of entrepreneurs to leave large Chinese tech companies to found their own startups.

After all, dreams are worth fighting for and I am one of the thousands.

Read the startup journal series here.

(Top photo from Pixabay)


Wu Nan

Nan is the Founder and Editor in Chief of AllTechAsia. She is an award-winning journalist with honors from Foreign Press Association in New York and Hong Kong Journalists Association. For years she worked for top-notch media outlets including South China Morning Post and the Wall Street Journal. She co-founded the NetEase Annual Economist Conference (NAEC), a leading economic forum in China. She holds a master's degree in Journalism at U.C. Berkeley and is a 2012 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Write to her: nan[at]

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