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Saturday, 8 October 2016

A Chinese intern’s experience at a Bengaluru tech startup

On July 3, 2016, I found myself surrounded by people with Indian English accents, not very easy to understand for non-native English speakers. I had arrived in Bengaluru, the Silicon Valley of India, where for the next four months I would be working at Helpchat. However, I would not be working as a coder or product manager. Instead, my role would be in the capacity of a consultant — helping the Helpchat team know more about China and its staggering mobile internet industry, while learning more about the Indian mobile industry. The role really excited me — it was a great opportunity to understand the behaviour of 40 percent of the world’s population (Chinese & Indian!) Here’s a quick overview of my initial experiences.

Why India and Helpchat?

To begin with, most people would be curious to know why a Chinese biotechnology graduate ended up interning at an Indian startup. The answer to this is actually quite personal. I feel very inclined towards business and tech and felt that before pursuing higher studies, it would be great to get some international experience and understand the world better. What better place than India to do that? Accordingly, I started to search for an opportunity through AIESEC.

I wanted to be somewhere I would be surrounded by brilliant people and get to learn new things. In a sea of Indian startups, Helpchat, an all-in-one app similar to Baidu in China, grabbed my attention. Given the fact that it is smaller than the Indian giants ( Flipkart, Ola, etc.) but not too small either, I felt it was just the place for an intern. I would also get an opportunity to work closely with the product team.

This was both interesting and challenging. There is a saying in China that if you can survive in India, you can survive in pretty much any part of the world. Here I had the opportunity to work on an advanced product in a diverse country, and there was no way I was going to let go of it.

Resembling the Silicon Valley and the Chinese startup ecosystem at the same time

I have to admit that I was a bit sceptical before entering the Helpchat office for the first time. Imagine a room full of Indian people who speak a language you struggle with, most of them being tech guys who think differently, talk in fancy technical terms, and type code with their headphones on. All this was enough to intimidate a young Chinese woman like myself. However, this stereotype was cleared the moment I stepped in. Painted in bright colours, here was a neat office with inspiring slogans and young, energetic Helpchat employees brainstorming. It was all pretty Silicon Valley-style — open plan offices, friendly and relaxed. I can say that with authority as I had seen the same during my visit to offices of famous high-tech Silicon Valley corporations and startups before coming here.

Sam, the Helpchat mascot in the Helpchat office
As the only Chinese citizen in the office, it was like I became a Wikipedia page on all things related to the country. People kept approaching me, introducing themselves, discussing the way Chinese entrepreneurs have solved various problems, and what the differences or similarities between the Chinese and Indian startup ecosystems are.

The hierarchy is pretty flat here! Even the Helpchat CEO, Ankur Singla, came to my seat out of the blue and grabbed a chair to sit down. Since I hadn’t prepared for it, we had an impromptu but really nice and inspiring conversation about a lot of topics, including my expectations and future. He also has a lot of admiration and respect for Chinese entrepreneurs and asked me a lot of questions about innovative apps from China.

With Ankur Singla, Helpchat Founder and CEO
I witnessed not only how people here worked hard, learnt eagerly, and discussed seriously, but also how people celebrated achievements, a colleague’s birthday, or simply shared food in the office. Mind you, this is not an office with just 10 or 20 people where it would be easy to collaborate, but one where over 150 people sit and work together. There is definitely some magic going on here.

The Helpchat team celebrating during an off-site
Chinese startups work endlessly because the competition in China is fierce and the development of the internet industry is fast. It is increasingly the same in India. For example, Helpchat strives to be the fastest tech company in India as Vishal (CTO, Helpchat) explainedhere. While the company officially works five days a week, a lot of folks are in the office on Saturdays and Sundays as well.

Although India is the next big market after China, I feel the country is yet to see the kind of aggressive competition between startups (barring a few like Ola vs Uber or Flipkart vs Amazon) I have encountered at home. The truth is that while the Indian market is evolving fast, it is probably still three to four years behind China.

My work here

I was surprised to see how curious the people at Helpchat are about mobile internet development in China. My job here is to make the company understand more about Chinese customers, its culture, various apps, and the things that are going on in the Chinese tech industry. Why? Because no one can deny how great some of the Chinese tech giants like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent have been in coming up with localised solutions targeted for Chinese users. By learning how the Chinese understand their people and localise apps, Helpchat would be able to accelerate its development towards building solutions for a billion Indians. The first assignment I got from Avinash (CPO, Helpchat) was to make the product team understand the Chinese news-reading behaviours and pop apps features so that their own news feature could benefit from them. Avinash asked me tons of questions while we were trying to understand the Chinese pop news reading customer behaviours and patterns. We dived deep into various apps that served this use case and discussed the reasons behind the differences and the logic behind the "weird" features. I was impressed by his sharp observations during our conversation.

Explaining Chinese apps’ UX to the UX designers at Helpchat
Bundling in India

Besides the Chinese news user behaviour and app analysis, I did the same for coupons, food, and public transportation with others from the product team. Every time, the first question I got was: "What do you use for x in China?" or "Do you have any app for y in China?"

The first app I always talked about was WeChat, followed by apps from Baidu and Alibaba Group, ending with standalone elegant apps with signature features. It was then that I realised how lucky I was to have grown up in a place with such a high performing mobile internet environment. As a millennial who has literally grown side by side with rapid developments in tech, unlocking my phone to get things done online is my first instinct. Since the BAT( Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) in China are bundling daily services into their apps, I can basically do everything from a single app like WeChat or Baidu maps or Meituan. Helpchat is trying to do the same thing in India; with most users having phones with less space and memory, a bundled app makes a lot of sense for a market like India.

Some interesting things I learnt

I am from Guangzhou, the paradise of food and one of the biggest cities in China. Since most of the people in India do not eat pork and cows are considered holy, I was quite concerned about how I would survive in a country dominated by vegetarian people. After a few days of having non-vegetarian meals, I decided to give a vegetarian meal a try, albeit with a little persuasion from an Indian friend. The food here is quite spicy for me, but I think I am already in love with the flavours of Indian cuisine. With thousands of varieties of food and sweets, India has increased my appetite. I think I may turn vegetarian after this experience!

The first Indian meal I tried
I also had a really interesting discussion with an Indian friend on why a lot of Indians are not interested in pork and beef. I was surprised to know that besides the religious reasons, Indians actually believe that vegetarian food keeps a person's mind sharp while meat makes people lazy. In China, vegetarian dishes are only a part of our food as a vitamin source, while meat is the main dish for energy. If people in China heard someone only ate vegetarian food, their first question would be: what happened to you that led to such a behavioural change?

Transportation is another thing I should talk about. I knew beforehand that Indian traffic was going to be crazy, but the first experience was still frightening — the noisy and unnecessary honking of cars, the dust and pollution created by the vehicles, autos rushing through the traffic, and everyone following a zig-zag lane. The traffic jams in Bengaluru were way beyond my expectations, too. Imagine: it can take you more than two hours to cover a 10 km journey. This is something which had never happened in my life, even in the most crowded city in China. Though I am frustrated with the traffic here, I am happy to see the Karnataka government building the metro. Roads, for a city, are like blood vessels for human beings. To develop a city, we need to build wide and proper roads first, something that is definitely missing in Bengaluru.

I live in an international intern house with people from all over the world. There is a map in my room on which all the previous inhabitants have pinned their pictures on the countries they belong to. Surprisingly, I am the only one from China and there have been only two people from Asia so far including me. Most of the others were from South America and Europe. With people from all over the world staying at the house, we often discuss things about India that surprise us. We discussed how Indians shake their heads when they mean to say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and how they wave their hands to stop the traffic when they need to cross the road. While there are trivial things to crib about, everyone staying in the intern house loves India and no one wants to leave after just six months or a year. I know for sure that I’m going to miss this diverse and united country when I go back.

Image of the map with pictures of people who have lived in our intern house
In the past two years, I have travelled a lot and experienced a diverse world, from Kenya to Thailand to the USA and now India. It is both interesting and inspiring to see how different people think and make use of the emerging technologies, especially mobile tech. I am surprised to see how smartphones have changed Chinese social behaviours and living styles in less than five years. With a large young population and culture as diverse as China, India can also use the power of the internet to regain its earlier glory.

Let's wait and see magic happen in India or be the ones to make it happen at Helpchat India!

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