By Eric Rutledge
After learning about my research on start-up businesses in urban villages, Hans Stam graciously invited me to visit him at Troublemaker, a shared maker space he co-founded in the Huaqiangbei Subdistrict of Shenzhen.
Hans Stam says he discovered Shenzhen just like most other expatriates now living in the city – by accident. But for the Holland native who sold his first tech start-up to Microsoft for €500,000, his run in with China’s buzzing computer hardware capital seems less fortuitous than he leads on. As the Chinese Central Government pushes for innovation and entrepreneurship to lead the country into the future, Shenzhen is competing with other major cities like Beijing and Guangzhou to be recognized as China’s Silicon Valley. And by many measures the southern Chinese city of 20 million has a good start, including a vertically integrated computer hardware industry, a blossoming cloud computing industry, and leading universities like the Harbing Institute of Technology (Graduate School at Shenzhen) and Tsinghua University (Graduate School at Shenzhen). The city is also home to tech giants like Huawei, the largest telecom manufacturer in the world and Tencent, the company behind WeChat instant messaging with over a billion active users.
In the Huaqiangbei Subdistrict of Shenzhen, Stam and three other co-founders are helping young expatriates turn their ideas into products in a shared work space called Troublemaker. Troublemaker rents desk space to start-ups, independent inventors, and anyone else trying their hand at creating something new. The rent includes access to an adjacent “micro-factory”, business consulting services, and an introduction to angel investors. “I saw a problem and I wanted to solve it,” Stam told me during an interview in the shared space. The problem Stam saw was the difficulty of prototyping and manufacturing products. Troublemaker solves this problem by allowing its customers to turn over a hardware prototype in a matter of hours or days, not weeks or months. By locating above the world famous Huiqiangbei Electronics Market, Troublemaker users have access to abundant, high quality, and inexpensive hardware parts. The innovators simply purchase their pieces downstairs, then come back up to the seventh floor and use the micro-factory, better known as a maker space, to create their prototype. Stam explains, “If you want to build a prototype in Europe, your first prototype is going to take 3 months. Here, it’s one week.”
But for new innovators and entrepreneurs, navigating the start-up process and taking their gadget from prototype to mass production can be difficult. This is especially true for expatriates, where building a relationship with factories and understanding the business culture are common barriers that lead to failure. For start-ups that need business support, Troublemaker is ready to help. Robert Mavatne, CEO of Troublemaker told me, “We know plenty of angel investors.” And although Troublemaker doesn’t take equity in new start-ups itself, if a young entrepreneur is interested in obtaining seed capital in Shenzhen, Mevatne can make the introduction. After an introduction, a start-up firm is likely to receive funding. According to recent Financial Times survey of Shenzhen-based start-ups, 92% of respondents said they had received some sort of venture capital funding and only 16% said they had trouble accessing it.
But back at Troublemaker headquarters, Stam seems less focused on seed money and more focused on bringing people and ideas together. “The maker space is not a space, it’s a community… Troublemaker is about the network,” Stam explained. That network includes mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, printed circuit board specialists, and more. By bringing together the right people in the right environment, Stam believes innovation will happen, “It shouldn’t be all about entrepreneurship, it should be about fun and solving problems”.
Despite catering to expatriates, Troublemaker and other maker spaces around Shenzhen play an important role in developing the innovation and entrepreneurship that the Chinese government is aggressively pursuing. Maker spaces allow students and other emerging innovators to gain practical skills. According to Stam, manufacturing a tangible product is very different than dreaming up a design on a computer screen. Troublemaker’s micro-factory offers an affordable, accessible place for aspiring hardware designers to develop their skills. The company is planning to bring on interns from Chinese universities and Stam and other experts already teach free innovation lessons at local grade schools. “Shenzhen Middle School No. 2 is my favorite… kids speak good english there, so its easy,” Stam said
Looking to the future, both the Chinese Central Government and the expatriate micro-factory have growth on their mind. As local governments across China continue to pour money into innovation and entrepreneurship, Troublemaker has already opened up shop in Norway and is planning new maker spaces in Berlin and Seattle. Stam is planning to fly clients from the German capital to Shenzhen, introducing them to the ease of turning out new prototypes in Huaqiangbei. With regular flights from Germany to China, perhaps the next Hans Stam is just one flight away from discovering Shenzhen like most other expatriates – by accident.