Interview with Jan Smejkal, Air Ventures adviser and the man who stands behind Startup Grind (powered by Google Entrepreneurs) in China and the APAC region.

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Jan Smejkal is currently living in China’s Shenzhen and is dedicated to building both local and international community of start-ups. His name worth remembering, we will hear much about him in the future.

Jan Smejkal is a very active man managing to participate in a lot of great things. When he was deciding what university to study and where, after the Institute of Economic Studies he made a decision to attend Peking University HSBC Business School in Shenzhen, China.It is not a standard way for Czech youngster. A young boy who grew up in a small village in the South Bohemia, flying away to China and experiencing the world from a completely different angle.

So far, it has been and interesting story but why we sat down with Jan Smejkal for an interview? He managed to familiarize himself with the most populous nation in the world, studying at the Chinese University, but on the top of all that, he is a consultant in the Czech venture fund Air Ventures, moreover, he has excessive knowledge of Asia start-up scene, therefore he is trying to help start-ups and, ultimately, he is the Community Director of Startup Grind, a company which hosts the world´s best entrepreneurs and investors at the events all over the world.

Q 1: Hello Jan, at first please tell us: Have I forgotten to introduce any of your other important work?

Hello, CzechStartups. I would like to thank in advance for your interest!

In addition to what you have listed, I would like to mention one more thing into which I ventured a few weeks ago. I live in China for some time, and as you wrote, I try to understand the local start-up and technological community. However, my knowledge of Chinese language is far below the level of what I imagined (but I am working on it).

I was looking a long time for a good source of information in English, but I could not find anything. That does not mean that such information does not exists, quite the contrary. The only problem was that these sources are not gathered in one spot. That’s why I decided to create a regular newsletter on a weekly basis, whose content are very interesting articles and other resources, enabling you to get current information about what is happening in China. The newsletter is called China Biz-Tech Weekly.

Q 2: Our portal is aimed primarily as a platform for all those who are interested in the start-up scene, not only in the Czech Republic but all around the world. And you are working a lot with start-ups at the Air Ventures, as well as at the Startup Grind, which is a global platform that connects entrepreneurs worldwide. Why are you so devoted to start-ups?

At the beginning, I would like to mention that at Air Ventures I am playing a rather passive role. This means that if a portfolio company of Air Ventures wanted to go into the world, I am able to help them in terms of contacts and basic advice, if you want to call it this way.

Before I began to be fully devoted to Startup Grind in China, Asia and now in the Czech Republic, I worked for Rocket Internet, moreover, while I was studying at the Charles University of Prague I established my first business which was also attached to China. These experiences, for which I am extremely grateful to my good friend Peter Varga, showed me what interests me in my life and I find fulfilling.

What I enjoy the most is to work with people and the opportunity to be part of something great, and I think Startup Grind is a great thing without a doubt. At the same time, I am enjoying very much the process of building things from a scratch, because I feel that through this way a man can learn a lot of new things in a relatively short period of time. Therefore, it is quite possible that in time I will throw myself into something new again, but so far I am very happy. I’m learning and I meeting very interesting people virtually every day, so I have no reason to change.

Q 3: Where do you see the difference between start-up ecosystem in China and in the Czech Republic? And who is bolder and more assertive in the most important stage of entrepreneurship – at the first stage of business start?

When you omit the size of the market, as well as the ecosystem itself, I was certainly surprised how fast things are changing in China. People (users) I am extremely hungry for new things and technologies. As an example I will mention virtual reality. Most of us find out about the virtual reality only when Facebook bought Oculus company. It happened a while back (two years ago in summer of 2014), but the technology still hasn´t gotten to the “mainstream” customers. Now let’s look at China. The virtual reality in China began to speak properly only about six months back and today you can see on the streets and in shopping centres full range VR boxes in various showrooms… what I mean is that the hunger for new technology in China is unbelievable. Quite aptly captured it my friend Sharon Gao in her recent article – China has 1.3 billion so-called “Early adopters”.

The second interesting view may be that in the Czech Republic entrepreneurs are forced to think globally from day one if they want to build a successful start-up. This is not to say that in the Czech Republic cannot build a large and profitable business. Just look at the example of Tomáš Čupr and other successful Czech entrepreneurs. Anyway, if we are talking about start-ups as such and not only in this country but also in Europe, investors often require that the founders have to have an international mind-set.

This on the other hand you cannot say that about China. 1.3 billion people and about 800 million Internet users, who are also willing to spend money and try new things, it is a “global” market itself. Therefore, most start-up companies do not have global ambitions (yet) and they are fully concentrated on the local market, which in itself is extremely competitive.

Q 4: Chinese thinking is completely different than ours, the Czech and the European, that is a very familiar thing. Has it ever happened to you that someone would surprise you in China with an original idea, approach or simple enthusiasm for business?

China itself surprises me every day. As for the Chinese drive and enthusiasm, I was in awe when I first discovered that in China is completely normal (and not only when creating a start-up) that people go to work on Saturdays. I will say that not everyone does it, but many people that take for granted. I do not know what the situation is currently in the Czech Republic, but I remember that I have not seen a lot of people in co-working centres on weekends.

Another curiosity is a growing interest in education and the fact that many women in China plunges into the business. According to the Bloomberg server, women in China today will establish about 55% of all start-ups and businesses.

Q 5: What is Chinese, and also the other Asian´s states attitude to the state support for start-ups? Specifically meaning certain acceleration programs, special funds aimed at young entrepreneurs or incubators within universities. China is known for its huge corporations which usually receive some sort of state support, but for us it is a mystery whether the Chinese government supports small start-up companies as well.

State support in China is basically unlimited. Again, the scale is unimaginable. There are hundreds of billions of dollars that the Chinese government pours through incubators, co-working centres and investment funds into the ecosystem. As always, concerning the financial support, opinions differ. However, I would definitely recommend you to read this article from the New York Times, which also appeared in one of my previous newsletters. You will be able to understand a lot of things about Chinese financial support thanks to it.

The good news is that we, as foreign entrepreneurs in China, can get some financial assistance to as well. Whether through various competitions, grants or offices for free for certain period of time.

Q 6: We are close to the end of the interview, thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions about your interesting story and Chinese start-up ecosystem. We wish you a lot of success and strong nerves in your business. As the final question, what would you advise to Czech start-ups, which want to succeed in foreign markets?

From my experience, it’s all about education, and that I certainly do not mean only the title from great school, but also good contacts. As I mentioned at the beginning of our interview, we are launching Startup Grind in Prague. Our goal is to connect and educate not only young entrepreneurs. The first guest was Ondřej Fryc (ex-Mall.cz, Spread Capital).

To learn more about Jan Smejkal and his journey, try to visit his personal website www.jsmejkal.com,  or LinkedIn. His Twitter account has been mentioned before.