Building a Cross-Border Startup

Vickey Li is the cofounder of OnePiece Work, a cross-border startup incubator from Silicon Valley. It leases space, but also provides consulting services to small and micro enterprises. Li views Shenzhen as a great place to start a business.

Vickey Li has had more than a taste of both American and Chinese corporate cultures. Educated in the US for senior high school and college, she returned to China after graduation to dive into Shanghai’s competitive real estate industry. That lasted three years before Li returned to the US to found her current company, OnePiece Work. Today she finds herself back in China, setting up a new office in Shenzhen. We caught her story at a recent event organized by Startup Grind Shenzhen.

Vickey Li at the Startup Grind Shenzhen event.

Why did OnePiece Work choose Shenzhen to set up its first branch in China?

I think the characteristics of Shenzhen people impress me a lot: they are like a new generation for the country: very hard-working, independent and open-minded. Also, the policymaking environment here is good – people here are able to work more freely and be more innovative.

Please tell us about trends in the cross-border service industry.

Where US-China cross-border business is concerned, there have been three stages of growth and development. The first was led by early adopters of online tools, such as the e-commerce and gaming companies. The second was when the large state-owned enterprises played catch-up, taking mature products into online systems. The latest lies in the disruption being caused by technology, such as 5G and AI.

China is no longer following a copycat approach to conducting cross-border business. In the early stages, it was tough for Chinese companies to compete. Building brands required hard experience. Low prices and high volumes, with support from the government, were the only way to succeed. But now that the industry has a simpler ecosystem and information flows faster, many Chinese cross-border companies are focusing on brand management and adjusting their business models. Overall, the trend is positive.

How do you compare China’s Greater Bay Area with the San Francisco Bay Area?

The corporate culture in each place is quite different. US companies focus on margins. Chinese companies value sales volumes. However, this is changing. Many US companies are interested to understand how to operate differently in the vast Chinese market, targeting consumers that have strong purchasing power. We are helping these kinds of clients.

It works the other way, too. Many Chinese companies in the US are learning how to fit into social norms and focusing more on margins.

What are the obstacles?

Our world today requires every company to make a product with an international perspective, but this is easier said than done, due to cultural differences. Anyone trying to run a globalized business needs to consider three key questions. Firstly, the product has to be diversified enough to appeal to a local audience. Secondly, it requires an effort to build a local reputation – you have to understand what locals care about. Thirdly, the leaders of the company have to see from a wider perspective and gain sufficient market insights in order to expand the product portfolio.

How can new brands increase their competitiveness and build their reputation?

At OnePiece, we offer more than co-working space. This is because we found that people need more than a place to work. Work-lifestyle balance is becoming more important, and in Silicon Valley we have seen the rise of niche coworking space providers that cater to changing social trends. Our goal is to help build a community of people who want to gain international insights and develop international products. The reason why we set up here is because we can see how talented entrepreneurs are moving across borders more rapidly and people need time – and help – to fit into the local culture. We want to help people to find a spot to settle down, no matter where they go.

We provide some early-stage education to help individuals make better choices in setting up in new markets. We also provide consulting services to companies that go beyond this, including the expansion of their online and offline sales channels.

What are the key thought processes that you have come to rely on?

I don’t consider myself successful. Challenging myself in this regard is key. Whenever I feel that I am getting ahead, I ask myself: Are you successful now? Then I will see how much more there is to be done.

I think a major difference as a woman leader is that I tend to focus on my sense of affinity. I’m a people person. I’m willing to listen to my team members and have fun with them together.

What kind of difficulties have you overcome?

Coming back to China after graduating was not easy. Neither was going back to the US after having established a career in China. I was inspired early on by the TV show Only You. In the simulated job interviews, I saw people who were so energetic and positive, which was quite different from what I had been seeing in the US. The culture in the US is like a comfort zone; people are easily satisfied. That was why I decided to go back to China after graduation. But after three years in Shanghai, I found myself in another comfort zone. So I planned my life over again, thinking about who I am and where I wanted to go. This is a self-evaluation I perform every time I face a dilemma.

How have you been influenced by both Chinese and American culture?

I’m still seeking my identity. But I think we all have to be more open-minded in a globalized world. China is a country with a long cultural history, which rubs off, and it helps a manager to think more cautiously and act more responsibly. The essence of American culture lies in the trust and respect between people. No matter where you are from, we are all equal. But in fact, there’s not much difference between the Chinese and American cultures. We should all adopt a globalized attitude and be open-minded.

What are recent highlights you can share with us?

I think the progress I have made recently comes from the support of my team. We only came to China three months ago. Even though I have a Chinese background, I face many challenges when working with a Chinese team. We have many professional people and they teach me how to work with the local authorities.

I think everyone on my team is mature, which is also my initial criteria when recruiting people. Mature people can learn from each other and influence others. I learned a lot from them and I hope I can help them learn more.

Learn more about OnePiece Work.

Learn more about Startup Grind Shenzhen

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