China's start-up and comedy king
Richard Robinson was a globe-trotting adventurer till he landed in China. Now, he's a serial start-up entrepreneur and sometimes comic who runs ChopSchticks.
By Ron Gluckman/Beijing, China
RICHARD ROBINSON TENDED BAR in the Virgin Islands, taught English in Prague, picked grapes in France, painted houses in Norway and toiled at a BMW factory in Munich. But little prepared him for the adventure that awaited him in Hong Kong.
In 1999, he joined Renren, a leading online bulletin board system in the days before the Internet took off.
“We were like the GeoCities of China,” he said, referring to an early web hosting service that nurtured communities, before social networking. Mr. Robinson was vice president for sales and marketing, with 76 employees. “It was like a rocket ship,” he recalled. “We opened offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, Singapore, Silicon Valley and New York.”
Renren raised $37 million and then took a backdoor listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, valuing the company at $1.5 billion. Mr. Robinson had gone from itinerant backpacker to multimillionaire. Just as quickly, he was wiped out in the dot-com meltdown.
“I had options worth over $10 million,” he noted. “On paper.” Renren lost 98 percent of its value and was eventually acquired for less than $30 million.
But one of the company’s legacies was moving Mr. Robinson in 2000 to Beijing, where over the last dozen years he has been a serial entrepreneur, involved in various start-ups, mainly focused on mobile Internet and gaming in China. He’s also a fixture on the conference circuit as a resident Chinese information technology expert, a director of many start-ups and a founding member of many networking associations.
“I like to create something out of nothing and build it to where it has value,” he said. Not all of the ventures have proved to be successful, he noted. “The default setting for a start-up is failure,” he explained. “And not just failure, but magnificent, awful, total failure. That doesn’t get said enough. Being a start-up is not sexy at all.”
It helps to have a sense of humor, and Mr. Robinson, a 46-year-old Boston native and amateur comedian, knows about laughs. In his spare time, he runs ChopSchticks, Asia’s biggest comedy booking outfit, and has brought international stand-up comedy to China, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Bangkok.
When Louis C. K. made an unpublicized visit to Beijing in 2012, Mr. Robinson not only quickly organized a show in a historic Peking opera hall that sold out in minutes, he opened for one of the hottest comics on earth. “There we were, two balding old guys, divorced, with two kids,” he said. “But, of course, he’s the famous one.”
But among booming Internet ventures in China, Mr. Robinson probably has more recognition. “He’s a great entrepreneur, very experienced in China,” said Dave McClure, head of 500 Startups and a globe-trotting venture capitalist. Mr. McClure also organizes Geeks on a Plane, taking high-flying technology entrepreneurs on global jet-working trips.
Mr. Robinson joined one tour, and the two men have remained in touch ever since. “For folks coming to China, he’s a huge help,” Mr. McClure said. “He’s really married into the culture, knows the language, and is a fixture there. He really knows what is going on in China.”
Before he became enmeshed in China, Mr. Robinson lived a peripatetic life, traveling the world with a backpack. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California in 1989, he traveled widely in Europe and Africa. By his estimation, he visited more than 83 countries and territories. He then completed an M.B.A. at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands in 1996.
“When I started grad school, I had no idea what I would do,” he said.
But the moment he arrived in China 20 years ago, he sensed it was the place to hang up his backpack. “I could smell the opportunity,” he quipped. “It was smell-ortunity.”
It was the same exhilaration he felt when he first explored the World Wide Web at his university library. “Right away, I knew I was going to be an Internet entrepreneur in China,” he recalled. “It was like these two big ideas that were perfect together, like chocolate and peanut butter.”
Mr. Robinson most recently was involved with Kooky Panda, which created socially connected mobile games. Before that, he started Dada Asia, a mobile entertainment company that had operations in 10 countries. He previously co-founded Shouji Mobile Entertainment, among China’s leaders in customizing and testing mobile applications, with a customer list that included EA Mobile, Disney Mobile and Vivendi Games. Shouji was gobbled up by China’s huge Tencent.
“I’ve known Richard pretty much since he moved to Beijing from Hong Kong,” said Kaiser Kuo, another longtime participant in the China technology scene, who also played guitar with Tang Dynasty, one of the mainland’s biggest heavy metal groups. The two were involved in several ventures. “I recruited him to a mobile start-up I was involved in 2001,” Mr. Kuo said. Afterward, they worked together at Linktone, a mobile entertainment company.
“I know him to be someone just overflowing with enthusiasm and energy in everything that he does,” said Mr. Kuo, who now heads international communications for the Chinese search engine Baidu. “I’ve seen him in good times and bad — and some of those bad times were flat-out horrible — but he’s got this unflappable optimism.”
Kooky Panda turned out to be one of those bad times, and Mr. Robinson had to shut it down last year. He said $850,000 was lost. Yet investors offered to bankroll future projects. In this industry, Mr. Robinson said, you aren’t judged by your latest at bat but your previous home runs.
“Woody Allen said something like 80 percent of success is just showing up.” On reflection, he added: “Failure is like scar tissue, more than a badge of honor, in this business. It’s like a suit of armor.”
Mr. Robinson usually has his next venture running before the last one is sold or shut down. For nearly four years, he has worked on Yolu, a mobile app with various capabilities. For microbloggers on Weibo, often called China’s Twitter, Yolu offers features comparable to LinkedIn. A business card reader included in the app is intended to optimize contacts and connections.
Mr. Robinson’s approach to work differs from that of many of his peers: He limits phone and email time. “I shut the phone off and don’t even look at it in the morning,” he said.
“I start my day with a little meditation — maybe only 15 minutes,” he added. “Then I dig into my first task.” Focus is essential. “I’m most productive in the morning. I avoid email, and all distractions,” he said. “Email is somebody else’s to-do list.”
The entire day plays out with the same precision. He and his wife are divorced, and he takes his two sons to school in the morning, then commutes to work by subway, where he checks his mail for the first time by phone. And multitasks.
Mr. Robinson relishes the challenge.
“China is a highly competitive, gladiator-type competition,” he said. “That’s what people don’t get; it’s not about the government or censorship, it’s competing.”
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter
has been living in and covering Asia for international
publications since 1991, based in Beijing, China from 2000-2004, and 2009-2013.
This piece was published in the New York Times in
Words copyright Ron Gluckman
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