Young entrepreneur a startup 'poster boy'

QI Junyuan exemplifies the generation of university graduates who turned their backs on easy, lucrative career paths to follow their dreams and start their own businesses.
Ti Gong

Qi Junyuan, founder of Teambition, gives a speech in May to introduce his business and thank his customers. He was named by Forbes last year as one of the 30 most outstanding entrepreneurs under 30 years of age in Asia.

QI Junyuan exemplifies the generation of university graduates who turned their backs on easy, lucrative career paths to follow their dreams and start their own businesses.

Some make it; many don’t. Qi, 27, is one of the success stories. He founded an online platform for workplace collaboration that now has nearly 4 million users worldwide.

Qi, who graduated in 2012 with a degree in management information systems from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, was named by Forbes last year as one of the 30 most outstanding entrepreneurs under 30 years of age in Asia.

His Shanghai-based platform is called Teambition, offering software that allows companies and employees to communicate with each other in aspects such as project management, file sharing and storage. It was named as one of the best apps of 2015 in China by Apple. Upon last year, it has received US$17.97 million in venture capital along with an undisclosed sum from Internet giant Tencent.

The service has been described as a mix of Slack, Trello, Flowdock and Dropbox. It’s available in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and English.

Qi has become the epitome of the young entrepreneurial success story. He is frequently the subject of media articles, which depict him as a diligent talent who works at least 100 hours a week. He wrote over 220,000 lines of codes to start the software that catapulted him to fame and wealth.

In his junior year at university, Qi wrote a proposal for a website allowing patients to consult doctors online and entered it in a school business competition.

He won the competition, which helped him secure a 2.5 million yuan (US$371,600) startup investment from an angel fund that he and several schoolmates used to found a company called Shanghai Huiyi Information Technology Co.

The success didn’t last long. In his senior year, the medical website had lost almost all its employees and its offices stood vacant.

Such setbacks aren’t uncommon in China, where university students and graduates are keen to start up businesses but only about 5 percent of them are successful. The reasons are multiple.

“Graduates know too little about the problems of starting a business and are often short of funds to develop their ideas effectively,” said Xu Liang, an independent venture capital investor.

There was a redeeming angle to Qi’s first attempt at a startup. It led to the development of software that ultimately formed the basis of Teambition.

The idea came to Qi because of the difficulties his team confronted while trying to juggle class schedules with the need to constantly discuss and refine startup issues. They found that emails couldn’t deliver documents efficiently nor provide a satisfactory platform for online conferences and that chat tools such as MSN and QQ couldn’t store large documents. In effect, cyber teamwork didn’t work.

“We realized there was no effective tool to enable teamwork online,” Qi said. “So we decided to create one. That software was the prototype for Teambition.”

Qi said he doesn’t dwell on past failures, but uses them to pursue new skills and knowledge.

“He has a gift for entrepreneurship that allows him to shift strategies swiftly, and the focus to keep on track,” said investor Xu.

Qi launched Teambition in June 2013, hiring 210 employees. Nearly 60 percent of the staff are experienced programmers.

Wu Bin, founder of capital investor Edge Ventures, said many investors are keen to find promising startups and get in on the ground floor of new ideas. They tend to look past more experienced businesses.

“Despite lacking experience, the young learn fast and are adept at applying advanced technologies,” Wu said.

Qi said determination is one key to success in startups.

“Investors are willing to lend me money because I am trustworthy,” he said. “I have held on longer than many competitors who tried to create similar products to mine. Entrepreneurship doesn’t mean you have to succeed immediately. It is a continuous process of refining products and improving company performance.”

Jiao Tong University actively encourages students to put their ideas to the test. The university has established the School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation to help nurture startup projects. “Students nowadays have more support and opportunities to try out their ideas,” Qi said. “But it’s not a sprint. It’s a long race.”

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