While often mentioned, the challenge and power of communication are something truly magnificent. I recently found myself travelling through Shanghai and Beijing as I visited our portfolio companies and colleagues in China. There has long been a belief that China will continue to grow more powerful because the young generation is learning English and therefore language will no longer be a detriment in doing business. But, as I discovered on the trip, English is not as pervasive as one might think, at least not in mainstream population, yet. That same language barrier, along with strong regulation, is also a big reason for the success of local companies rather than their Silicon Valley counterparts.
I took a taxi from the hotel in Shanghai to Hongqiao station where I was going to take a high-speed train to Beijing. As usual I had the hotel doorman give destination instructions in Mandarin to the taxi driver. Soon after we started our journey, the driver turned to me and asked something in Mandarin with a smile, as if I was a fluent speaker. I, of course, had no idea what he was saying. I simply shook my head. Not getting a response, he said the same sentence more loudly and more slowly (similar to what many of us have done when communicating in English to someone who didn’t quite understand us). Rather than get frustrated, I simply smiled, finding myself, as I often do in my travels, in yet another awkward situation. I was, however, slightly concerned since I was catching a train to Beijing followed by a flight to Delhi, and did not want to miss the train. The driver, as a next step, put his palm perpendicular to his lips and made a hissing sound (like a train). Relieved, I gave a thumbs-up sign. We both smiled, since he had just used the universal sign for a “choochoo” train to communicate. I realised afterwards that Hongqiao is both a train station and an airport. The driver was simply trying to figure out whether I was flying or taking the train. In between, I had escalated the issue to Google, and had the train station images ready in case the conversation got any more frustrating.
The communication challenges did not end on the trip just in China. On the flight from Beijing through Seoul, I ran into another fairly common situation that highlighted this particular topic. As I approached the jet bridge to board the aircraft, I saw two elderly Punjabi ladies sitting on the floor with their bags, in no mood to board the plane. Next to them was an Asiana staff member with a wheelchair urging one of the women to sit in it so that she could be wheeled onto the aircraft. The women were screaming at the young man in traditional Punjabi (some of which even I had trouble fully comprehending). As a good citizen, I stepped in to help translate. Basically, one of the women had left her walking stick in the main hall, and was insistent that she get it back since she couldn’t walk without it. I asked the young man to go to the hall to see if he could find the stick.
After a couple of minutes, a different young man with an Asiana uniform came down the elevator. The women now screamed again at young man #2 (mistaking him for man #1), and yanked at his jacket asking in Punjabi if he had found the stick. I cleared the confusion by indicating to the women that this was not the same individual, and that they should really board the aircraft (and that I would arrange for a wheelchair once the aircraft landed in Delhi). There were close to 30 Punjabi elders on that flight who had made the long journey from Canada without speaking a word of English, and yet had no fear of making the journey. I was in absolute awe. I also found out that this group made this journey twice a year, which was even more fascinating.
The above two back to back incidents, while seemingly trivial, highlighted for me the strength of being able to effectively communicate, and frustration by lack thereof.
The world is indeed flat, and becoming flatter. While not prevalent today, entrepreneurs, especially in the US, need to be aware of global trends, cultures, and local nuances. In the US, the euphoria reminiscent in many ways of the late 90s is back (speaking from a Silicon Valley perspective). Valuations are up, capital is flowing, IPO pipeline is building and home prices are flying through the roof. Startups are getting real traction, leveraging technology trends around mobility, cloud and the alphabet soup as a service. But that traction and focus are still primarily US-centric. The reality is that startups overseas are starting to think global from onset (because they have to). The US counterparts don’t think globally, because they can afford to.
Here are three facts that all entrepreneurs should keep in mind. One, that among the top languages spoken globally, English ranks 5th (Mandarin and Hindi are the top two). Second, the next several billion who are currently disconnected from the web and mobility revolution are from the emerging world. And third, those same billions are catching up fast, thanks to cheaper smart devices, reducing cost of access and proliferation of local language digital offerings. Therein lies both a threat and opportunity for entrepreneurs.
US entrepreneurs need to realise that, while many of the technology innovations are being driven from US hubs like the Bay Area, meaningful billion-dollar entities will increasingly come from the emerging world. China has already shown it with companies like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent becoming global in nature through investments, acquisition and reach. Similar shifts will take placefor companies in India, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and in the years to come, Africa. Ray Kurzweil said that innovation acceleration is not limited simply to US companies, especially given the flattening of the world when it comes to technology proliferation and adoption.
Therefore, understanding global market and being able to maneuver in those regions will be critical for companies, large and small. The art of communication will be crucial to success or failure. That art involves not only language but cultural nuances, the head nods/tilts of India, the often-misunderstood passive aggressive nature of Asian cultures and the like. Often understanding what one says versus what he/she means in different parts of the world can make a big difference. The developed world is demographically aging, while the emerging world is young, aspirational and leapfrogging by leveraging technology. Nowhere is the latter more apparent than in the world of mobile communication.
The world over the next decade or two will be flatter and even more global in nature, from a market standpoint with significant demographic changes, and billions more becoming connected. Age, consumption, global power heat maps will shift fairly drastically. Entrepreneurs from the emerging world are hungry, and increasingly more prepared to go global because they have to. US entrepreneurs often are happy with the large local markets and don’t feel the urgency to think globally. I predict that competition over the next 10 years will come at a faster pace from companies from outside the US than US entrepreneurs realise. Starting exploring or at least understanding overseas markets earlier might pay dividends later on for those who are forward thinking. At the same time, entrepreneurs with the same long-term vision will need to hone not only their business acumen, but look more at their communication skills and make an effort to understand the flat world and global markets. Companies and entrepreneurs who are prepared for it will reap the benefits. Those who are not (or are overconfident or arrogant) will be disappointed.
(Mohanjit Jolly is the managing director, Draper Fisher Jurvetson India. The views expressed are strictly personal. They do not represent the views of the organization he represents.)
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