Bowei Gai goes in search of the startup world outside Silicon Valley
When Bowei Gai moved to the US from China as a 12-year-old, he could never imagine wanting to go back out. His parents came to America looking for better opportunities.
“They had a vision of what America was and they loved it,” says Gai, the 28-year-old founder of CardMunch, the business card iPhone app acquired by LinkedIn in January 2011. America had the jobs, the innovation, the dreams. As it turns out, however, China has advanced so much in the last decade that it might have made more sense for his parents to just stay put.
“I never thought I would go back out to see what else is happening, but so much has changed in the last few years,” Gai says. Now you have companies and startup communities springing up everywhere. “You have to start looking outside Silicon Valley to find the next big innovation.”
So, he’s going to do just that. In January, he will embark on a mission to "document and connect the world startup community."
A graduate of Carnegie Mellon, Gai found a life in San Francisco after interning at HP, Oracle, AMD, and Apple. He started his first company, Snapture, right out of college, and went on to start CardMunch, which he sold after just 13 months. His new project is keeping him mired in tech and startups, but it’s taking him far away from the Valley. For the next nine months, Gai and friends will travel to 29 countries, from Argentina to the Ukraine, to learn about their startup ecosystems and report back to the world.
Gai got the idea for The World Startup Report after the unexpected success of a slideshow he put together based on a trip to China last year, during which he met with entrepreneurs, investors, lawyers, and journalists in the country. His ensuing report, which he called a “15-minute crash course” on China's startup ecosystem, quickly jumped to Slideshare’s front page and was published widely in China and the US. He says he fields daily inquiries about the report.
It struck him that he was in a unique position to put together these reports. While many people, such as 500 Startups’ Dave McClure, travel extensively, they seldom have time to write down what they learned. Gai realized that it’s difficult to find the sort of information he had put together on China online – especially for the non-BRIC countries that aren’t widely covered by tech blogs.
So, after visiting Mexico and Lithuania on similar trips, Gai has taken it upon himself to do more reports. He, along with some fellow entrepreneurs and investors who will accompany him for different parts of the journey, is covering his own expenses, and the resulting reports will be offered online for free. “This is something I can do to really give back to the global startup community,” Gai says. “The more we democratize this information, the better we can help each other, and that’s going to create a better world startup community.”
While many tech publications remain focused on Silicon Valley as the center of startup activity, startup communities are developing all over the world, and sometimes in the most unlikely of places. Gai says he wants to uncover the untold stories behind those ecosystems.
In Lithuania, for instance, he found a young country with talented engineers – it was the hub for research and development during the Soviet era – that is trying to capitalize on one of the longest periods of peace in the region’s history by starting new tech companies. He has also discovered that 10 percent of all Startup Weekend activity comes from Mexico, a country of 100 million people that can capitalize on its proximity to the US while serving Latin American countries. Burma recently hosted a BarCamp attended by 5,000 people. CloudFactory, a startup based in Kathmandu, Nepal, wants to create 1 million Web jobs for workers in developing countries. Kenya and Ethiopia, meanwhile, are leading the way for mobile payments, even through feature phones. The stories go on.
Gai has a few sponsors on board for the trip, and Dave McClure and Foundry Group’s Brad Feld are also lending their support. Overall, however, his approach to World Startup Report is DIY. He planned his flight schedule using human-powered flight search engine Flightfox and will be using Couchsurfing and Startup Stay to find accommodation, as well as taking advantage of personal invitations. Once the trip is complete, a book could be in the works (be sure to read our own Sarah Lacy’s book on international entrepreneurs). Gai, however, is still not sure if the World Startup Report will become a permanent gig.
For now, at least, Gai’s next starup can wait. “If I’m truly helping people out,” he says, “I can give up making as much money for a mission like this.”
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]