Web Startups and the Wudaokou Power Breakfast

This morning I took a cab and, thanks to intense road construction, walked the last five blocks, out to Beijing’s hopping Wudaokou district, home to more techie types than anywhere else I’ve seen in Beijing. Entering through a cozy bookstore as it opened for the day, I climbed a flight of stairs up to Lush, an international student hangout—with pancakes and great coffee, at last—to meet Calvin Chin, the guy behind the Web startup Qifang.cn.

Qifang is a new P2P (“person to person”) lending site connecting Chinese college students with individual investors—a model based on Grameen Bank-style microlending.

It makes sense that Web startups are booming in China today, but I’m most interested in where the innovation is taking place in Chinese Web-based businesses—beyond producing so-called “Copy to China” clone sites. When I first read about Qifang on Techcrunch, what grabbed my attention was how it tweaked an existing model (i.e., Prosper.com or Zopa.com) to fit Chinese higher ed.

Visiting Qifang’s Shanghai offices later this month should shed even more light on its progress, but Beijing, which Danwei.org founder Jeremy Goldkorn told me is the heart of China’s startup scene, seemed like the right place to begin talking about the industry as a whole.

With so much money being thrown around new Web-based projects, China draws a qualified comparison to the early Silicon Valley boomtown days. “In a way it might remind you of 1998 or 1999,” Chin said, “But here you have risk capital that’s a lot less tolerant.”

Not long ago, it took a “hardship” bonus to coax workers into moving here. “I don’t know whether I’m early or late to the trend,” Chin told me, “but I took an 80 percent pay cut to be in China.”