By Austin Dean
It’s hard to keep up with Chinese economic news: CEOs being detained by the public security apparatus, the release of economic statistics that no one believes, the fluctuations between the Chinese yuan’s value on the mainland and offshore, the day-to-day gyrations of the stock market. It’s enough to keep you up at night, or for those of us in the United States, get you out of bed early to see what happened in Asia while we slept.
No one knows what will happen next. The cautious optimists do not see a Chinese financial crisis around the corner, while the pessimists think a hard landing is imminent. If you want to find the real optimists, though, watch Chinese reality TV shows about entrepreneurs.
The original show in this genre was Win in China, which aired on CCTV 2, the business and finance channel. As James Fallows chronicled in 2007, the program pitted entrepreneurs in a series of challenges to win funding for their ventures. As one of the producers told Fallows at the time, the show wasn’t just about money. There was a larger purpose: “We want to teach values. Our dream for the show is to enlighten Chinese people and help them realize their own dreams […] There is no religion in China, so it is very important to promote the right kind of values. Today for our society, the entrepreneur can be our hero.”
After the season finale in 2007, Fallows hoped the show’s place in China’s cultural landscape would eventually become “an unsubtle and perhaps over-sincere effort to teach people the rules of peaceful prosperity” and not “another bit of evidence about the Chinese bubble: the way people behaved when they thought the good times would always go on.”
And that’s still the important quandary.
A more recent entry in the genre is We Are The Hero (Chuangye yingxiong hui), which began in late 2014 and also airs on CCTV 2. The most noticeable difference from Win in China is the age group — We Are The Hero is much more youth-oriented and aimed at the post-1980s and post-1990s generations. As one entrepreneur said in an early episode, his generation of post-90s youth is not only interested in making money, but also in doing something that that will make people remember them. Some might say this attitude comes off as arrogant, but it might simply reflect that people born in post-1990s China have only known economic growth. For them making money is a given. They want more.
Unlike Win in China, which followed contestants on a week-to-week basis, We Are The Hero runs through three to four entrepreneurs each episode. In that way, viewers don’t have as much of a chance to identify with a particular candidate as they did in Win in China. Win in China was more like The Apprentice, while We Are The Hero is a bit closer to Shark Tank.
After taking the stage on We Are The Hero, entrepreneurs give a pitch to a group of twenty investors who decide whether or not they’re interested in the idea being offered. The contestant moves on to the next round if they reach a certain threshold of investor interest. In the next segment, the contestants interview with two “tutors” (daoshi), who themselves are famous entrepreneurs. People serve as tutors on a rotating basis, and there have been some pretty big names, such as Yu Minhong, the founder of the English-language training school New Oriental, and Lei Jun, the founder of Xiaomi, often called the Apple of China. If the entrepreneurs are able to convince the two tutors they have what it takes, they move on to round three, when investors from round one can make offers. It is at this point that other members of the company take the stage (they’re backstage during the first two rounds). If the entrepreneurs and investors agree in principle to a deal, they sort out the details off camera.
The other big difference between the two shows is what types of ideas entrepreneurs pitch to investors. In the first season of Win in China, one contestant wanted investment in order to expand production capacity for making lingerie; another wanted to get into “direct-response marketing,” which, as Fallows wrote, was “the polite name for the infomercial business.” In We Are The Hero, it’s all about smartphones and the app economy.
We Are The Hero is actually a bit tame compared to a show currently being filmed, The Next Unicorn (Xunzhao dujiaoshou). The point of this show is to find the next billion-dollar company, which in the lingo of Silicon Valley and venture capital are known as unicorns.
The Next Unicorn is also explicitly international in ways the others shows are not. Although Win in China had a handful of international contestants, most famously Henry Winter, it was still very much a China-based show. The Next Unicorn, on the other hand, is filming in Shanghai, Taipei, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Silicon Valley, and other locales. Produced by CBN (Diyi caijing) and offering a $2.5 million dollar prize, the show will feature entrepreneurs based around the world. The Australian creator of an app that allows users to rate clothing flew to China at the beginning of the year to begin filming. As the founder said, “We’ve given our pitch a complete overhaul while keeping it obviously true to our vision. But it’s very tailored to the Asian market, its problems and how we would tap into that.”
Of course, The Next Unicorn is filming at a time when many are beginning to talk about “dead unicorns” or “unicorpses”—companies unable to continue raising money at high valuations that have to drastically shrink or close down their operations. In what venture capitalist Bill Gurley called a must-read article, Reuters chronicled the story of Shequ001, a Beijing start-up that delivered groceries ordered on smartphones. In less than a year, the company went from 2,000 employees to fewer than three dozen, with many of those who left still owed pay.
Maybe it is this show and not Win in China or We Are The Hero that will represent “the way people behaved when they thought the good times would always go on.” Stay tuned. The Next Unicorn is set to air in early April.