Seasoned Advisor, Entrepreneur, Keynote Speaker, Professor & Investor based in China, Richard Robinson talks with Jim James about start-ups, the Jack Ma University, the Stupid American Diet, and why relationship are true wealth.
He writes about himself:
Into my third decade in China where I advise and invest in companies and help them crack the Chinese and Asian markets. I also teach at China's top two universities: at Peking University's Guanghua Int'l MBA program I teach Entrepreneurship in China and at Tsinghua University's BI-Tsinghua joint program I teach 'pracademics' to senior execs.
Previously with 8 successive startups as a co-founder or senior exec, and with dozens of others as an investor, board member, adviser or mentor (HAX, Chinaccelerator & 500).
Initially I was a senior exec at 3 companies from private entities through to their listings, then went on to co-found 5 companies: 3 exited to publicly listed companies and 2 landed squarely in the 'L' column ;-).
Active in the geek-o-system in Asia/globally and speak frequently at conferences. (I MC'ed: Web Summit Lisbon & Dublin, TechCrunch Beijing, GMIC Beijing & Silicon Valley, Rise Hong Kong and TechInAsia Singapore & Jakarta).
Grew up in Greater Boston and my Boston accent and I went to study at USC in L.A. and Cambridge University in the UK. After graduation I was a wild-eyed backpacker working my way around the world as a bartender in the Virgin Islands, a concierge/ski bum in the Swiss Alps, an English teacher in post-revolution Prague, a house-painter in Norway, a grape picker in France and a BMW factory worker in Munich. In '93 I traveled overland from Switzerland to Hong Kong via Beijing on the Trans-Siberian and fell in love with China.
Got an MBA at the Rotterdam School of Management in The Netherlands '94-'96 & fell in love with the web. After grad school did a solo 4,000km bicycle trip through Africa from Nairobi to Cape Town vimeo.com/22348199
Labors of love to exercise/exorcise my creative muse:
- Write children's books with all proceeds going to charity;
- Produce / MC stand-up comedy shows across Asia with top comedians like Jim Gaffigan.
Lovely entrepreneur wife, 3 kids 'Made in China'. Perpetual Mandarin student.
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Welcome to this episode of The Silver Fox entrepreneurs. Today I've got the pleasure of introducing an old friend Richard Robinson. Rich Robinsons based in Beijing, although he is originally from Boston, Richard and I first met back in 97, when he was running a mobile games business in Hong Kong, and I was running an internet business out of Singapore, to welcome Richard to talk today about China and about health and where he sees the greatest source of wealth in his life coming from. So welcome mate. You know, Richard, thank you very much for joining us from Beijing. And Rich Robinson shared a little bit about yourself, your background and why you're silverfox entrepreneur.Ricahrd Robinson:
Jim James, ladies and gentlemen, such a pleasure and honor my old friend. We both have alliterative names Jim James, Rich Robinson, Clark, Kent, Peter Parker, I guess we are the aging superheroes of the startup world. Although I definitely feel more like a supervillain that's been beaten up over the last few decades as a serial entrepreneur. So I've been here for 25 years here in the Middle Kingdom as a serial entrepreneur. And I love the art of the start. I've been part of eight startups, three as an executive, private companies that went public and five as a founder, sold three to publicly listed companies. And I've been involved with hundreds of others as a mentor through 500 startups or China accelerator, or Stanford ignite, and dozens of others as a board member, advisor, major investor in the war room, so to speak. And I teach entrepreneurship at Peking University. Here in Beijing, I teach executives about innovation and going global. And I also teach at the Alibaba University done at home, Joe, about the spirit of entrepreneurship. I have three kids entrepreneurial life, and all my chips on red here in the Middle Kingdom.Jim James:
Great, Richard, this is I mean, you and I have known each other since 2007, when you convinced me to go to Dubai. And we learned about EEO. AndRicahrd Robinson:
Yes, sorry I would know, we've known each other since the late 90s in Hong Kong.Jim James:
Oh, that's right. My Word is a whole part of my life that just evaporated from my mind for when I had my.com back in 98. In Singapore. That's right. So we, you and I have known each other for Well, 20 odd years now. So tell me, I mean, you and I have been doing entrepreneurship for a long time now. So tell me, what's your view on why it's the best to be an entrepreneur later on in life, you know, as a maturepreneur, what have you found is different to when you were younger? And why is it better?Ricahrd Robinson:
I think both subjectively, and objectively and qualitatively and quantitatively, there's no doubt that it is the entrepreneur that is on the wrong side of 40, or the wrong set of 50 that is much better suited to the entrepreneurial pursuits. There is a narrative that it's about the young, naive optimist, who lives on ramen noodles, and is like, maybe Daffy Duck, you know, I'm so crazy. I don't know, this is impossible. And, you know, once in a while, those entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg will, will hit it big. And the press loves those stories. But I think the true best suited person for entrepreneur is somebody who's not a naive optimist, but I would say an informed realist. So you've been working in an industry, you have the experience, you have the skills, you have the network, and you have probably like an insider secret, you see that something is broken, you know that you can create a solution to that problem. But more importantly, you know, that you can exploit that opportunity. It's not just about creating a solution to a problem. It's really about exploiting an opportunity. And that really takes the skills and network and the, you know, industry know how to be able to get that done.Jim James:
And I think you're right, one, one minor comment, he said, being on the wrong side of 50. You know, for those of us on the other side of 50, I might argue is the better side of 50 when you talk about exploit, there's a big chasm between having the idea seeing the opportunity and making it into a sustainable business that you've done that multiple times. Do you want to just take us through some of the learning some of the steps, some things that you kind of know how to do when you start a new business? What's your kind of toolkit, your checklist? Just walk us through that, can you Richard?Ricahrd Robinson:
Certainly, I think there are very learnable skills around the foundation of entrepreneurship, you know, the ideation and team building and product development and marketing. And then, you know, raising capital and the, the expansion of that. And I think that a lot of those skills are already internalized by people who have had a career, whether it's, you know, it doesn't have to be entrepreneurial, it could be in the, even in the, you know, government or corporate or some sort of, you know, nonprofit organization. There are a lot of team building skills around that. But I think probably more importantly, it's being resilient, and having the desire to be a continuous learner. And to cross the river by feeling the stones, so to speak, there's an expression in Chinese, which is a larger shirt, oh, which means to cross like a Russian River, but you can't see what's underneath, you have to kind of use your toes to kind of definitely find the right foot and touch the rocks by going across. And I think it's a mix of those skills have that sort of fundamental, you know, sort of basis of doing business, but also the ability to not be discouraged. And to me, relentlessly resourceful, and find your way across. And I think that wisdom that comes with age is very helpful around that.Jim James:
Richard, I love that. And Your Chinese is much, much better than my Mandarin. So how do you think it's different starting a business away from where you live? I mean, you started businesses in China, I started them in Singapore and China. How do you see it as being different? If you're not in your home country?Ricahrd Robinson:
Yeah, you know, it's, it's both a risk multiplier, as well as an ability to dip into new new opportunities. So I think the risk multiplier, of course, you know, Someone once told me, you don't have to necessarily understand Chinese to be successful in China, but you have to understand Chinese. So even if you don't speak the language super well, you have to really understand the local culture to be able to get things moving, and maybe you have a lack of a network. And, you know, so that that's a, that's the risk multiplier. But you can also bring in western sensibilities, and you can bring in global connections and sort of your your approach that can give you perhaps a competitive advantage in that market. And it's not always guaranteed. And I think these days, China is much more difficult for foreigners, I think, probably a place like Indonesia, which is got 3800 US dollars and GDP per capita. It's 4000 GDP per capita. And then there's a lot of things that are unlocked in the digital economy and other opportunities, a little more chaotic and Ross and more opportunities there. So I think I think there's, there's certainly there's certainly that. And I think also what do I know, you know, is that old Saab, like the fish that's swimming in the, in the ocean and older fish, and he sees two younger fish and 'Good morning, sir. Good morning, guys. Hey, guys, how's the water? Oh, the water is great'. And then he swims away. And they said, What the hell is water? So I don't even know if I my entire career out here. So I'm not even sure what it is like to work in the West versus working in the, working here in China. So I'm kind of broken in that regard.Jim James:
Well, it's interesting you say that when one of the aspects of running a business is differentiation, that you know, you need to be different. And one of the things I found working both in Singapore and China was that by being a foreigner, I was already differentiated. And I didn't have to do that part of the work. You know, you had to build systems and brand but you you're very you're Nature meant that you stood out in the market that can also sometimes just be a massive, massive win without having to do anything extra. You mentioned China, Richard, and you mentioned it's getting harder? Can you share your insights? Why is it getting harder? Do you think? Is it political? Is it economic? Or is it just that the competition in China from domestic entrepreneurs is getting stronger?Ricahrd Robinson:
Certainly, all of the above. I mean, I think it was much more wild west when we first got here 20 years ago. And I like to say that in China, everything is possible, but nothing is easy. That's certainly still the case. And, you know, the natural progression and evolution of the country has made things a little more buttoned up and a little more, you know, challenging to just comply. But then at the same time, you know, in my business, which is the business of doing innovation driven on enterprises, right, I think there's sort of two distinct types of entrepreneurship. One is, we know exactly what the business model is, we know exactly what the product and services, for instance, I'm going to start a consulting service or I'm going to open a restaurant or I'm going to open a, you know, clothing boutique, like those business models have existed for centuries, even. But the kind of innovation driven stuff that I've been doing, which is let's create an app or a service, where it's not quite been done before, you know, that's sort of Silicon Valley type innovation. There are many, many ecosystems, you know, the Silicon Roundabout in London, Berlin, my hometown of Boston, Los Angeles, Singapore, but unquestionably, qualitatively and quantitatively, the only ecosystem that is anywhere near close and in some ways rivals and even exceed Silicon Valley is Beijing. And one measure is the number of unicorns, number of companies valued at over a billion US dollars. Beijing actually has more than Silicon Valley, and is actually producing more now than in Silicon Valley is actually exceeded it. So here in Beijing, if you're an internet entrepreneur, ecosystem is highly evolved and extremely well funded. And there's just gladiatorial type competition. So that's the world that I live in here. There's a big perception previously, the China was a copycat culture, and then Big Brother sort of protected everything, but what I live in breathe every day is innovation and competition.Jim James:
And Richard, how do you compete, you know, as a foreigner, and experienced a seasoned, of course. But how do you how do you succeed in that gladiatorial ring? I know you're a great fighter, but any secrets because starting a business in a foreign market has got to be for me anyway, one of the hardest things. So how do you get up every every day, and go back into battle?Ricahrd Robinson:
In the Indian, so I think I focus on my strengths, which is I bridge companies going abroad, the last startup I founded, I was president, Co-Founder, but I was all about taking this kung fu ball of power, if you will, that was generated here in China, and then phew that out around the rest of the world. There's a lot more of that happening these days. A lot of companies have global ambitions and global footprints, and they need that. And then these days, I do a lot of investing and advising, and I help companies bridge into China as well, too. And, you know, that gives me a defensible position these days.Jim James:
So that's an interesting point. One of the things that you and I discussed before is that we both started companies for many, many years. And then moving into more of a mentorship and in your case teaching role, how you sort of redefining and reinventing yourself in the market, from a from a positioning point of view, and what are you doing, to let people know that you're playing a new role?Ricahrd Robinson:
Yeah, great question. So, you know, my wife, Emma, who, you know well, really helped me to really define who I am. Like, really, really like, figure it out my purpose. And I think if I could summarize myself in two words, I would say curious connector. So I love learning and I love. I'm an extrovert extrovert. So I love connecting people, to people, but also people with ideas and opportunities and companies. And I love to be a continuous learner. I love this exercise by Tim Ferriss. He talks not about goal setting, but about fear setting, what's your fear, and my biggest fear, unquestionably is stagnation, I don't want to become irrelevant. I want to stay in the game. And I think I never want to retire. I have a 30 year plan. I'm 52, I want to stay engaged well into my 80s. And I think as a person who can connect and cajole and counsel, no, that's really where I fit. And so teaching, I've found is a fantastic way for me to sharpen the axe, I'm forced to learn by teaching, and I have to keep it fresh. And I have to bring in use my connecting powers to bring in amazing guest speakers, young and old entrepreneurs and people in the ecosystem. And my advisory work the same I get to harvest but also refresh and expand my network and expand my knowledge into new verticals like Ed Tech, I wasn't involved in education technology a couple years ago. But now I've helped three companies do that. And now I feel pretty good network and pretty good view of that. So I found that, definitely, as I age, I can really focus on my strengths, but I harvest my wisdom and my connections. And then I find the real sweet spot is where I have an intersection of multiple verticals. So to be able to, for instance, say, right now I'm helping a company that's doing mobility, but also leveraging artificial intelligence, and also leveraging your electronic vehicles. And like, you know, that's that those are those are like an intersection of a new industry that I can quickly build up my connections around.Jim James:
Great, Richard, you've always been an amazing connector and an amazing originator of ideas, too. And one of the things that you've always inspired in me is around around fitness. You talked about being 50. But if anyone was to meet you, they would not think you're 50, you look amazing, and you're super fit. How do you do that? You want to talk about how because when I met you originally, that was not the case. So you want to tell us about the physical journey, because staying young is also a physical issue as well as an intellectual one. So can you share what you've learned and your wisdom, your practices there?Ricahrd Robinson:
Yeah, nice. Good question. So I i crumbled, and literally crumbled in my 30s, I was always fit, I was always very keen exerciser. And then I subscribe to the SAD, the Standard American Diet, which is eat whatever you want, whenever you want, however much you want. And so I think diet is absolutely unquestionably the pillar. And there's three levers that I pull, there is the diet lever. You know, what I eat, there's the time lever, when I eat, and there is the caloric lever, how much I eat. And I'm always pulling the first two. So for diet, it's really simple. I tried to get 10 different colors of vegetables into my body every day. Data really shows that, you know, if you just jam a lot of different colorful vegetables in your body, then that's a amazing building block. And then the other one is I really tried to eliminate sugar, it's really just poison. And then for timing, I subscribe to a 16:8 oran 18:
6. So if you eat within a time restricted window, it's it's hugely beneficial for a number of reasons. You can look at circadian rhythms and look at Dr. Sachin Panda or Rhonda Patrick, or Dr. Peter Tia. And then the third level of caloric restriction. I pull that once a month, I do a one day fast every month 24, 36 hours, and then once a quarter, I do three to seven days of water only fasting which is perhaps being Number One thing that we can do is we're aging. For health, it has insanely beneficial outcomes by having a extended fast for more than 48 hours. It's basically eats a toffee g eats all, you know, damage cells and boost your immune system and probably kills cancer cells. So that's, that's a that's diet and for exercise, I basically do strength cardio and flexibility. And I, you know, put that into my schedule, it's basically become part of the fabric of my life. And then sleep. There's this book called why we sleep that just came out. And it is, you know, Jeff Bezos says, I get eight hours of sleep a night because it's good for my shareholders, like sleep is the ultimate, you know, sort of superpower to be showing up as the best version of yourself. And the other two things that I do is I meditate, and I also do a lot of sauna use, there are incredible benefits for doing four plus days in, in the sauna. And, you know, who knows, I could get hit by a bus or have some sort of genetic disposition. But I mean, what is wealth? If you don't have your health, and to really, really, I spend at least an hour, a week reading about new studies of health, and I really become an avid students of that, and it's paid incredible dividends.Jim James:
Can you just explain a little bit about your approach to keeping relationships going, because you travel a lot, you're, your wife, Em, travels a lot. You have, you know, children from one marriage, and you're building a new family, if you're comfortable sharing, because I think a lot of people are in that position.Ricahrd Robinson:
Yeah, I'm glad you asked that question. I think, as I get longer in the tooth, I'm convinced that it's important to be vulnerable, and to be you know, authentic. And, you know, I'd started a company in oh seven with my, then ex wife, then wife, now ex wife. And, you know, she moved in with the COO, and got pregnant. And, you know, we have two boys together. But now we have this messy, manageable, modern family, I've remarried, you are at our lovely wedding, I've really met the amazing love of my life. 15 years younger, and we have a little three year old girl. And my ex has a little seven year old girl. And then we share these, you know, to half Chinese kids. And it's big, messy, manageable, modern family, but it all works and love joy, forgiveness, and I'm the godfather of you know, that little girl. And yeah, what's the what's the point to be grumpy about it? You know, the universe rewarded? And I have this beautiful daughter, my life and this this? You know, what? Oh, God, God daughter, who and we call them sisters? Right? So I think I think that's one thing. But I think also I asked my students like, why are you here? Like, what's the point of being in an MBA class. And there's wealth and status and power and impact, and all of those things are important. But the one thing that trumps all of those things are relationships. And I think the great news is that there's this amazing TED Talk, TED x Beacon Hill, set in Boston, in my hometown, where they followed these men for 80 90 years, now they're following their children. And they asked them the predictor of their happiness in the future. And it turns out, it was all about relationships. It's all about relationships. So that's, that's really the good news is that relationships are the, you know, the ultimate sort of metric for success, right? Warren Buffett says, 'happiness or success is when the people you love love you back'. That's great. The downside is that a bigger predictor of ill health more than a sedentary or obese lifestyle is isolationism. And a lot of people are lonely and isolated, especially men, because they're not as great at maintaining relationships as women, and they kind of let relationships, you know, go to the wayside. And you have to be really intentional, like you and I did with the entrepreneurs organization and read on a monthly basis and, you know, maintain and keep these relationships and work with people. And that's why I love teaching. That's why I love mentoring, being with younger people adding value around that learning from them. You know, that's super, that's super powerful, giving my time and I always like to have a plus equal and a minus where I have a person older than me, more experienced, that I have as a mentor, that I have an equal, which is somebody who's a peer mentor, and we really kick each other's asses. And then I have, you know, minus somebody at least seven or maybe even 20 years younger than me, 30 years younger than me, that I, that I can mentor and, you know, guide.Jim James:
Richard, that's a wonderful, articulate answer and, and obviously a really sensitive one, which is what I come to know and love about you, too, as a man. Richard, thank you for sharing. And if people want to find out more about you, where can they go to find out about you as a man, what you've learned, what you're doing in China, and as an entrepreneur, as a dad?Ricahrd Robinson:
Sure, you have Richard, Richard Robinson, you know, a Twitter, and also Richard Robinson on LinkedIn, as well, as well, too. And I guess you can just Google, Google that and see the New York Times piece and Jim Daly piece and other stuff about my entrepreneurial journey in my life. And now it's a pleasure and honor to be on your podcast, my friend, and all the best.Jim James:
Thank you, Richard. I will put links to you and everything you shared in the show notes as well. So thanks to everybody for, for listening in. And the reason why I'm working on Silver Fox Entrepreneurs is precisely what Richard was talking about as men. Later on in life, we lose connection. And actually, it's the relationships and the learning from one another that actually will keep us happy and healthy, into our later life. So thanks so much for listening. And Richard, as always, I don't whether I'm in the younger or the past, or the negative or the or the equal sign on your relationships, but I'm just proud to be at least one of those.Ricahrd Robinson:
Who they will call my friend Jim James. Ladies and gentlemen, give it up.Jim James:
Thank you to Richard for spending his time with us today. And really useful, especially some of the health care tips and his view on relationships being perhaps the most important source of wealth. If you'd like to find out more about Richard, you can find him on LinkedIn, Richard Robinson, China is the only one there and he is a superstar on LinkedIn. You can also just Google him, Richard Robinson, China. That's us for silverfox entrepreneurs for this week. Thank you very much for listening. Again, if you like it, please subscribe under the apple, iTunes and leave us a rating. I look forward to tuning in with you next time. Bye bye