Venture capital monsoon a boon for expats

Updated: 2015-03-20 12:16

By Matt Hodges(China Daily USA)

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Venture capital monsoon a boon for expats

Sherpa's founder Mark Secchia is partnering up with a local food delivery company to further tap the local market. Provided to China Daily

The new American Dream is being built in China - by expats working in league with local companies and investors to tap a rising middle class with higher quality-of-life expectations, writes Matt Hodges.

Most expats in Shanghai either use or at least know of Sherpa's, the food delivery service launched by Michigan's Mark Secchia in 1999. Even for Chinese, who make up a minority of its customer base, its army of orange-and-black couriers are a familiar sight. They may not be as ubiquitous as the mopeds delivering McDonald's or Pizza Hut, but they have become a big part of the urban landscape.

Showing something of a Midas touch, Secchia took $50,000 seed money in 1999 and turned it into a $20-million-per-year business targeting foreigners in Shanghai, Beijing and idyllic Suzhou in Jiangsu province. Sherpa's 313 client restaurants now serve 92,000 dishes, yielding about 3,000 orders on a good day, or one every 10 seconds online at peak times.

"I lend a foreign face to Chinese companies, and Chinese companies lend themselves to me. It's a partnership," said the 41-year-old, who dabbled in consulting, food delivery and export businesses before settling on Sherpa's. Entrepreneurialism runs in his blood: His father used to run a logging firm.

Like many others, Secchia is busy living the China Expat Dream. Chinese are natural-born entrepreneurs, and that DNA in many ways defines Shanghai. It also rubs off and clones more in its image. A skewed percentage of the city's upwardly mobile residents harbor dreams of running their own show, both foreign and Chinese.

"The large businesses of the future are being built right now, and we think a lot of them are being built in Shanghai," said Scott Williams, vice president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai (AmCham Shanghai).

The non-profit business organization has about 1,800 members, 35 percent of which are small businesses. "That's a substantial amount," he said. "Those in start-up mode or looking to attract investors are in the hundreds."

On angels' wings

Foreign entrepreneurs can also turn to: incubators like Chinaccelerator, which supports local and international IT start-ups with mentors, working space and investment; local support systems like Shanghai Angel Investors; or "impact labs" such as Transist. This American-run operation invests up to $500,000 as debt or equity in young companies that show they can create social and financial value.

"We see more desire to partner than five years ago, and there's a greater desire for project-specific innovation partnerships, especially for goods and services that support lifestyle improvement," said Williams.

A fast-changing bureaucratic landscape is also making it easier for non-Chinese to register a company with limited or no capital. Many returning Chinese or Americans with experience in Silicon Valley are seeking, and increasingly finding, investors.

"That's the special thing about Shanghai - there are so many different types of people trying different things," said American-Chinese Kevin Yu, who set up SideChef in January 2013.

The $5 app offers 1,500 recipes and partnerships with Michelin-star chefs and celebrity food bloggers. It was named one of the best apps of 2014 by USA Today and has offices in Shanghai and Santa Monica.

"We raised money from angels and institutional investors. Chinese investors are definitely getting more into early-stage investors, especially in high-tech, innovative fields," he said. "They're interested in companies that are trying to invent."

Diana Tsai runs League X, an agency for high-growth China tech startups specializing in storytelling, design and power partnerships. The company partners with local venture capitalists and works with their portfolio companies. It is also doing China's first startup ecosystem report in partnership with Silicon Valley-based Compass.

"What we've learned is there's far more money here than good startups. There's a lot of money here that is looking to follow instead of lead. There's a lot of talk of 'visionary entrepreneurs'," said Tsai, whose mom hails from Shanghai.

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