Failure versus face: how can Asia produce startups despite its culture?

Anh-Minh Do
6:33 pm on Sep 26, 2013


You can blame China. It’s the biggest, most influential, and most long-standing civilization in Asia that came up with such aphorisms as:

A family’s ugliness should never be publicly aired.

By ugliness it means misfortune. And since Chinese civilization has dominated, conquered, influenced, and traded with almost every civilization in the Asian continent, rest assured the Middle Kingdom’s values have spread far and wide. Asians don’t want to lose face, much less misplace it. This is a nightmare for building a healthy startup culture.

What face does for failure

As some historians and translators have noted, it’s impossible to translate ‘face’. But it boils down to doing what is acceptable and honorable in society in light of what other people think of you and yours. Failing will surely result in losing face. Is it any wonder then why Asian parents want their children to become doctors, engineers, and lawyers? These are secure jobs that are guaranteed careers. The Asian status quo is wealth, good family, and health. Breaking the status quo is certain to cause a loss of face. It’s too risky. But that’s what startups are about.

There are companies overcoming failure in a world of face

And yet, Asia still produces startups. People are taking risks. As Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, said recently:

For years, we were considered to be crazy guys, people telling lies, people wanting to raise more money, people wanting to IPO. It’s okay, you know, people want to look down on you, as long as the people who support us grow.

So where did Jack, and other entrepreneurs of his kind, get the balls? Where did they get the courage to stand up in a world where people are constantly tearing you down for every little mistake? The answer to this question is where hope for Asia lies and the reason for the new growth that we keep seeing out of the continent.


Where does the defiance of face come from?

Asia today is unlike South America and Africa. South America didn’t have any leading tigers like Japan that could land a top spot in the G8. And Africa has been sadly stuck in its own centuries-long economic quagmire. By comparison, Asia, despite its rise in only the past few decades, has been vigorous. There are a few key reasons for this:

Asians want to be Western: For whatever reason, Asians love Westerners. They love lighter skin [1], and they’re singularly focused on the next trends coming out of the West, whether it’s odd things like drinking red wine or Hollywood movies or an obsession with Silicon Valley’s latest trends. This is especially true for parents who want to send their kids to America and Europe for education. This obsession with the West plays a big role in Asian societies. They want to be Western, and the only way to do so is with robust economics and tons of Western-inspired innovation. We can see it in Korea’s film industry. Obviously, this has rippling effects over entrepreneurs, who play a huge part in economic growth and innovation.

  • The entrepreneurs that do make it have balls: In an environment of face obsession, it has to be the hardened ones that can make it to the top. It is not a task for the weak willed. And if you are thinking of being an entrepreneur, you’re already harder than the rest.
  • Government support: Some startups, especially in the more draconian governments in the region (I won’t name any names today), can attribute much of their success to government support. In other words, they’re exempt from losing face already. They get government contracts and licenses to do business that others don’t get. It’s a guaranteed win.
  • Multiple projects: If you took a microscope up to all of the startups that we talk about here at Tech In Asia, something we don’t write about much is that many of the founders are working on multiple projects at once. It’s one of the secret sauces to avoiding failure. If you’ve got three of four projects ongoing, you’re still alive if one dies. You’ve escaped losing face.
  • Hiding away: There are also those who avoid losing face altogether. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, founders in Asia often hide themselves when the going gets tough. What better way to not have to deal with a loss of face than not have to face it at all? You would never see this in the Valley, where people proudly stand tall when they have failed.

At the end of the day, it’s these elements and more that play a big role in Asian entrepreneurs being able to face the heat of a face-obsessed society and doing the dirty work of building a successful startup. It’s this culture of face defiance we need to see growing in Asia. It will take on its own flavor and color. In the Valley, it’s a subculture. In Asia, it’s a counterculture.


Or maybe not, I think we should all take a page out of ol’ Confucius’ book, as he said:

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up every time we do.[2]

(Editing by Steven Millward)

[1] I realize this is a rather touchy subject. But it remains true, Asians love lighter skin. This is historically connected to the Asian view of labor. Blue collar folks who worked out in the sun would have darker sun and would therefore be of a lower class. This has subsequently transferred over to racial disrimination in modern society.

[2] That’s right. I quoted Confucius. Deal with it.

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

  • YuuZoo

    great story, we’d love to tell you our story someday

  • Ms. T

    Wow. Spot on analysis! “: Failure versus face: how can Asia produce startups despite its culture?”

  • Alex Goatcher

    Face is bollocks. Need anti-patterns. Don’t get them unless try and fail.

  • TD

    Good points. I would add that it is the cross-pollination of people that is the main reason. Much of Silicon Valley’s growth is driven by immigrants and diaspora from Asia and Asian-Americans. I would bet much of the start-up growth in Asia is generated by Asians educated in the US or Asian-Americans returning to their roots. Beyond technical skills and capital, are the business values learned in America. The most important being…meritocracy and individual effort should trump family or political connections.

  • HKEcoStartup

    Couldn’t agree more, “For whatever reason, Asians love Westerners”. Before we had our funding, we asked the investors why the valuation is lower than similar startups, despite we have revenues. They said “Because you’re f*cking Chinese, not American”. No hard feeling, it was pure business.
    This’s not American fault. Just face it, Asians tend to look down on other Asians, they try hard to be more white by distance themselves from their root.

  • Working in Asia

    Great article! Thanks

  • bluerhinoit

    haha, funny article, but really a stab to the heart, especially for asian reader like me.

    quoted from your article “In Asia… many of the founders are working on multiple projects at once. It’s one of the secret sauces to avoiding failure.” <- this has inspired me for my upcoming projects, man, u made my day!

  • Bhagaban Behera

    Working on multiple projects might be the recipe for failure. Startups don’t have much resource or time either. So its better to double down on one idea and take it to its glory. One idea getting 100% focus is better than 3 getting 1/3rd focus. So pick your best idea and focus on it – till you become someone like Richard Branson or Elon Musk. If the first idea doesn’t work, move on to the next. Working on multiple ones at the same time, just delays failure. You don’t have time or focus enough to see what’s working and what not.

  • Calvin

    IMHO, face is definitely important but not quite in the way described. Fear of failure is a bigger issue in less developed economies where people are brought up with a survivalist mindset. This has more to do with practical realities than face, and is becoming less of an issue in the wealthier societies and with the younger folks. However, face is still critical because people are afraid to put up a bad impression in front of their bosses, their associates, peers, friends/family or other key people. This forces people to go with safe and established approaches that are not only less likely to fail, but which are more easily understood and accepted by others. This is the type of thinking that leads to “yes” culture. The focus on discipline, a double-edged sword in my mind, is also to ensure that you don’t lose face by missing out on details and putting out a bad show.

  • steven goh

    in contrast, i’d wager that face in asia drives some companies to astounding success (e.g. alibaba, NHN, a range of japanese companies .. ). i’d argue that the fear of failure in asia sees a wider range of grass roots entrepreneuralism. if you think that entrepreneuralism is defined only the silicon valley example then of course things here would be found wanting. that would be a mistake. the fact that there’s as much wealth in this region as there is, that economic growth is often at a grass roots level and even the existence of countries such as singapore should be testament to the level of entrepreneuralism here. i’d go so far as to say that the greatest startup in this region is singapore as an almost body corporate and the role of face is ostensibly part of the formula which has created this country (and for whatever it’s perceived faults, it’s admired by most others .. ). should all be proud ..

  • Ron

    I have lived in Shenzhen for 4 years. My wife is Chinese. I live with the “people”, not in a miniature western area of China. I deal with the people on a daily basis. I seldom see foreigners unless I travel to another area of the city. Interesting article. My own experience is that NOTHING happens in this culture that is not in some way “face” related. This includes marital relations, school, business, extended family, etc. Face is the single most pervasive thing in this country. Just my experience.

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