As I follow Neil Shen into the head office of DJI, the largest drone company in the world, its staff greet him with bowed heads. Wearing a black shirt, grey slacks and black Italian-made loafers, the 47-year-old is no stranger to this kind of reception.
Shen is one of China’s most successful investors — Forbes magazine puts his personal fortune at $1bn — and head of China operations for the Silicon Valley venture capital outfit Sequoia Capital. At home his rise at a western firm is widely seen as emblematic of the country’s growing status.
Indeed, some believe it to be only a matter of time before Sequoia Capital China produces more returns than its parent. But on the day of our meeting, in early July, the volatile Chinese stock market is in meltdown (it will fall eight per cent on that day alone). Although he has “only” $6bn under management in his China funds, Shen has, according to a recent estimate from Chinese state television, stakes in companies with a market capitalisation of more than $400bn. The downturn means this figure will have taken a substantial dip.
Shen, who has a reputation for coolly machine-like calculation, seems unperturbed. Though he admits to carrying three smartphones — to monitor the various service-providers, he says — he hardly glances at the screens.
“Things have not settled yet,” he says. “We need to wait for a few weeks. At the moment, the situation is not market-driven. There are thousands of companies that need money and only five per cent are public. If the valuations come down, that is good for us. The expectations of entrepreneurs were too high.”
A decade ago, you wouldn’t have found many Chinese internet entrepreneurs on a list of global billionaires. Today, they are numerous, from Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, and Pony Ma, founder of Tencent, which began life as a gaming site and is now a social media behemoth, to Robin Li of Baidu, the mainland equivalent of search engine Google, and Lei Jun of smartphone maker Xiaomi. And, while Shen is now primarily known as an investor, he, too — as one of the founders of Ctrip, the hugely successful Chinese travel website — was an internet entrepreneur.
In a technology landscape more complex, concentrated and fast-moving than even Silicon Valley, one or more of the key players Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu has a stake in every one of the top 10 apps in China. Moreover, both of the Mas (who are unrelated) have large family offices that alternately co-operate and compete with investment firms such as Sequoia and its big rivals Hillhouse Capital and Tiger Global Management. So, in addition to the direct competition that exists between all of them, there are numerous proxy rivalries that play out through the companies that receive money from them.
There are about five private Chinese technology companies with a value of more than $10bn and many others with a value of more than $1bn. Shen is an investor in most of them. As a venture capitalist, his role is to get involved in the earliest stages of a company’s life, when the technology is still untried and the ability of a founder to execute on their vision remains uncertain. To use the analogy of another, admiring tech investor: “Neil Shen would have invested in [Chinese basketball superstar] Yao Ming when he was five, and I would not have had the courage to invest in him even when he was 20!”
“You have to totally change your mindset when you are a venture investor,” Shen explains. “When you do private equity, you have so many reference points. The companies are basically static. In buyout investments, globally, you just improve the operating efficiency, put on a lot of borrowed money and you could make money. VCs in China can’t do that. The situation is much more dynamic. It is all about giving small and fast fish money so they can compete successfully with bigger, slower fish.”
Shen was the first outside investor in the drone company we are visiting. Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI), he tells me, is already making money (he estimates $200m profit this year) and is valued at $10bn. It commands 70 per cent of the world’s consumer drone market and is becoming omnipresent: the drone that crashed on the White House lawn in January was made by DJI.
Outside the conference room where lunch has been ordered in for us from the restaurant chain Spaghetti House, models of DJI’s latest drones, with names such as Phantom and Ronin, are being shown to a parade of visitors, both local and international. The room itself is sparsely furnished and decorated, save for one piece of framed calligraphy on a whitewashed wall. It reads: “Great Ambition Lacks Borders”: the last character — jiang (“border”) — is the same character as the “jiang” in the company’s title.
Shen lines his phones up on the table, where, for the next two hours, they periodically beep to the rhythm of plunging share prices. He tells me that he uses WeChat, the Tencent messaging app, far more than email. “Western companies don’t have the right mindset for China in many ways,” he says. “When you register for a western app, they always ask for your email address. But your mobile phone number is your identity in China.”
Shen’s success is a lot to do with understanding the local environment and adapting to it. He recently put money into LinkedIn and Airbnb, with plans to bring both into China. Last year he hired a CEO for LinkedIn China — he is on its board — and plans to introduce locally available products such as Red Rabbit, a networking app aimed at a less sophisticated audience than the wealthy English-speaking professionals who tend to use LinkedIn China.
Generally, Shen dislikes coming in at such a late stage of a company’s development. “I don’t feel as deeply involved,” he says. “When I come in early, it’s more of an adventure. I feel more like an entrepreneur again. Of course, you make more money, but you are so closely knitted. You say to yourself, ‘Hey! I identified this company when it had only 15 people camped out in some shabby office in Shanghai.’ You grow with them and they grow with you.” Just for a moment, the persona of a dispassionate investor seems to disappear.
Our lunch boxes have arrived, along with some cheap plastic utensils. Elegant porcelain cups, however, are produced for the hot coffee and steaming jasmine tea. The meal comes to us thanks to a service called Ele.ma (translated as Hungry!), in which, I am unsurprised to learn, Shen has also invested. The company, he explains, started in his home city, Shanghai, delivering food to university students who found their dormitory fare insufficiently appetising. It now operates in major cities across the mainland (an average order costs about $4, with restaurants paying the delivery service).
It is also part of a chain of mobile internet companies that, in such an opportunistic environment, inevitably trespass on each other’s turf. This poses problems for investors such as Shen. “It isn’t that it starts out as a conflict of interest,” he explains, as DJI staff run around making sure we have everything we require. “It is that they converge because the borders between their models are often times vague.”
Shen has chosen a lunch box that contains spaghetti with an unidentifiable meat sauce, while I am handed a suspiciously bright pilau rice with chunks of seafood and avocado in a cream sauce. We are both given another box containing a salad of cut tomatoes, eggs, olives, chunks of sausage and chopped ham. Since I don’t eat meat, I put that one aside. There are containers with soup with bits of meat as well. Shen, not known for a big appetite even when he is dining at Hong Kong’s fanciest restaurants, regards his box with a wary lack of enthusiasm.
Shen’s role at Sequoia is not the first time he has bridged east and west. Born in the province of Zhejiang, Nanpeng Shen grew up in Shanghai and attended Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where, according to friends, he was considered a maths genius. He ended up in the US at Yale School of Management and, after graduating in 1992, became one of the first people from mainland China to work on Wall Street.
“When I graduated from Yale, I spoke English OK, but at that time Neil Shen was not good at making pitches or presentations,” he says, momentarily slipping into the third person. “I needed a different angle. Because of my math, I had good analytical skills, so I could do derivatives. Lots of Chinese bankers on Wall Street started that way.”
By the mid-1990s, the Chinese market was coming alive as people’s wealth grew and, for the first time, they had money to invest. Shen was among a group of so-called “sea turtles”, Chinese who, having studied overseas, chose to return home. “I only became a real banker when I went back to China,” he says, putting down his plastic fork. “There, the cultural disadvantages disappeared. I could pitch to the Bank of China and pitch to the Ministry of Finance. I didn’t have weaknesses any more.”
By the end of that decade, when the first waves of the new tech economy reached the mainland, Shen was running China capital markets for Deutsche Bank. Internet companies such as Sina and Baidu were in the headlines and the race was on to create the Chinese equivalent of Google. Many of Shen’s classmates from high school, university and Yale were becoming involved, and he, too, decided to jump in.
In December 1999, together with James Liang, whom he had known since they were both 15 and had been nominated by teachers to take part in the first Shanghai computer programming competition, and two others, he founded Ctrip. “There was no Lonely Planet for China,” he recalls. “We knew Expedia was doing well in the US and we thought, ‘There is no information about travel in China, and an internet application for information and online booking would do well’. The internet was the perfect tool.”
The contrast with his former corporate life was stark: “I went from sleeping in five-star hotels and meeting with bank heads to a very different life.” Some security came from the fact that his wife remained an investment banker, he says.
But, by 2005, with Ctrip valued at more than $1bn, Shen was beginning to realise that, “It was natural for me to combine the roles of investment banker and entrepreneur by taking the role of an investor.” When he received a call from Sequoia later that year, he was ready to listen. The summons came as the mobile internet in China was taking centre stage, and Tencent had recently listed. Shen decided to join, attracted by the promise of “independent investment decisions from day one”.
A decade on from that decision, Shen is as fiercely competitive as ever. During China’s traditional spring festivities, Shen often invites investors to the tropical island of Hainan, where he owns a mansion on the beach, adjacent to Jack Ma’s. Unlike his guests, however, Shen himself rarely indulges in golf or cards. Instead, according to guests, he is constantly on the phone to entrepreneurs: both because he can’t bear to lose a deal, and to stop rival investors getting through to those same entrepreneurs.
When I say to Shen that this quality of drive and competitiveness is something I more generally associate with people from China’s previous generation, those who endured the bitter hardships of the Cultural Revolution and are trying to make up for lost time, he appears puzzled. But he pauses to think about it, and then tells me he plans to go to Scotland later in the month for some golf, as if to demonstrate that he does lead a balanced life.
“It isn’t about the money,” he says haltingly, as if he has never thought about this. “It’s so exciting. If some of the top companies in China were funded originally by Sequoia, wouldn’t you be excited if you were me?”
One of the things that complicates Shen’s job most is the tension that exists today between investors and entrepreneurs in China. In the eyes of some backers, entrepreneurs are spending too much money as they compete with one another for the attention and patronage of customers, subsidising users in the process. Shen tries to use his own experience to see it from both sides.
“Sometimes, there are tough decisions to be made,” he explains. “When you identify an entrepreneur to back, you have to live with their weaknesses. You reason with him, you argue with him, but you seldom go against the entrepreneur.”
Along the way, he acknowledges, there are bound to be stumbles. He recalls that he originally rejected overtures from JD.com, the Chinese equivalent of Amazon, and now one of the most valuable companies in his portfolio. “That delay was very costly,” he says, shaking his head as he closes the lid on his half-eaten food. It is not clear which he mourns most: the poor quality of our lunch or the cost of his hesitation.
It is getting late. After prodding doubtfully at a bright yellow jellylike substance that turns out to be mango salad dressing, the smartphones on the table begin to vibrate and beep once more. “Venture capital is a regret business,” concludes one of China’s most successful investors. And with that he finally turns his attention back to the gyrations of the market.
Henny Sender is the FT’s chief international finance correspondent
Illustration by James Ferguson
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