China is very much the 21st century land of opportunity. New companies are constantly springing up, and with that comes countless startups. Whether the startup is focused on manufacturing, tech, or something else entirely, many are looking for foreigners to fill important roles in marketing, sales, customer service, copywriting, and design. These new ventures can offer great opportunities to foreigners looking to build a career in China, but with that comes some inherent risks. Below we outline the pros and cons of working in a Chinese startup.
For people who are proactive and interested in self-improvement, startups represent a fantastic chance to try your hand at multiple roles and responsibilities.
In established companies, work responsibilities are usually much more compartmentalized. Staff are typically focused on just a few tasks, which can lead to workers becoming very specialized, but their scope of skills will be narrow. In startups, however, there are fewer staff and often the roles are more general.
That means you will likely be responsible for more areas in your day-to-day work, and as the company evolves, you may have the chance to work in emerging areas too. For example, in an established company, a marketing position may only involve dealing directly with advertising platforms. In a startup, it may involve copywriting, design, social media, and PR.
For some, that might sound scary, but for positive thinkers it’s a chance to try something you wouldn’t normally get to do in other companies, and from it learn some valuable skills. Who knows? You may even find your true calling in a role that you would have never tried otherwise.
Promotion isn’t always about your own personal ability or performance. There are many external factors which are, unfortunately, usually outside of your control. Your manager might only be in their early thirties and have no intention of moving on anytime soon. There may be cronyism or nepotism in the workplace.
A startup, however, is different. Those same barriers to most promotions simply do not exist. Possibly because those positions don’t exist yet, or in some cases, the department doesn’t even exist.
As a startup grows and expands, specialized departments emerge when they are needed. It is those who are there at the beginning that usually head up these new departments. If you play your cards right, the only way is up.
Although it’s not true of all startups, one common trait found at most new ventures is that when it comes to holidays and working hours, they can be remarkably flexible. Typically, as long as your work is complete, you can take some time off.
It could be something small like leaving early in the afternoon because you came in and finished your work in the morning, or something big like taking a month-long trip home after you finished all your major projects for the year. It’s an approach that rewards those who think in terms of finishing projects as opposed to watching the working hours tick by.
The one caveat with this is to be careful not to get yourself in a position where your workload is so unreasonably heavy that you never actually finish, and thus can never take a holiday. For some, that month-long trip home ends up being a cruel illusion.
Generally speaking, Chinese startups are run by a younger, more internationally-minded generation of Chinese entrepreneurs and business people. While it’s probably not going to be like the perfect Western working environment you envision in your head, you should still be able to see some significant strides away from the traditional Chinese workplace culture, with some of the more archaic habits being dropped in favor of a more international approach.
This international approach could involve more acknowledgement of Western holidays, more comprehensive staff benefits, something small like a snack room, or something as life-changing as commercial health insurance. If you are lucky, there will be a greater emphasis on assessing work performance and mapping out career paths, as well as better management of workflow and projects.
Like any startup anywhere, Chinese startups are always in danger of being here one day, gone the next. Many of these companies work on the tightest of budgets or are investing heavily, gambling on being profitable before the money dries up.
It is bad enough being in this situation in your home country, but when living abroad, when your job provides with your work visa and residence permit, it can be a lot more traumatic if the startup folds.
The issue can be worsened by unrealistic expectations from owners and investors. For example, a lot of Chinese people made their money in property and manufacturing, two industries where the road to profitability is clear. Startups are usually focused on the tech industry, where making money isn’t so straightforward and profitability is harder to measure.
Owners and investors often erroneously apply their experiences in property and manufacturing to the startup scene, leading them to make knee-jerk decisions. These decisions can cost people their jobs or even see the company shut down altogether.
Overtime is already a harsh reality in many Chinese companies, but in startups the practice is even more prevalent. In the same way that you might be allowed to take a holiday as long as your projects are completed, such luxuries can be reversed to pressure staff into working unreasonably long hours to make sure the work gets finished.
In most startups, you will rarely get away on time at the end of the day. You may find yourself being dragged in on Saturdays, and when the pressure is on, don’t be surprised if you are in the office well into the night.
As with any new company, the chances are, a Chinese startup isn’t going to be paying you the big bucks.
They may offer clear paths to raises when you or the company as a whole reach certain milestones, or they may even offer a stake in the company or some kind of profit-sharing option. Some also offer massive annual bonuses in return for working overtime and not taking any leave.
But when counting what is tangible, it is best to focus on that monthly pay check. That’s all you can really rely on. So when planning both your monthly budget and financial future, it is wise to not factor in anything that has been promised later. Things can quickly change in a startup and it can be very difficult to recover what has been promised once things do.
Small startups usually have small HR teams too. In some cases, the team can amount to just one person.
This can lead to HR being stretched trying to deal with a number of issues, whereas in a larger, more established company, there would typically be a person or even a team assigned to a single area of responsibility.
HR is of particular importance to foreigners working in China because they are going to be involved in applying and renewing visas, interacting with the tax office on your behalf, and making sure the correct payments are made on time.
If any one of these things goes wrong, it could be a big issue for you. Do you really want an overworked and potentially inexperienced and under-qualified HR person responsible for some of the most important things in your life?
Working for a Chinese startup can be an amazing experience, though one filled with many challenges and potential pitfalls. But keep your wits about you, and you might end being part of something that changes China (and the world).
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