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Chapter 4

Shanghai Surprise

At first, we liked that we didn’t have to leave Jeff’s nice gated community except for my interviews. But after a while, we were getting stir-crazy after previously doing so much exploring on our careercation.

Because of the severe air pollution, we were cautioned against going outside. Plus the green space is limited only to the courtyard in the center of all the towering condominiums.

Jeff and Lina are extremely gracious hosts, and their family definitely enjoys a comfortable lifestyle. At the same time, it was interesting to see the tradeoffs people make to take advantage of the booming Chinese economy.

Everyday life in Shanghai was so different than in Seattle. We all make compromises when having a family, becoming an entrepreneur, or choosing a place to live. But Alice and I knew that despite all the allures of Shanghai, its pace, the environmental issues, and lack of nature meant Shanghai just isn’t our cup of tea. Which is funny, because we originally looked forward to visiting Shanghai. Seoul had been only a runner-up because of the tsunami tragedy in Japan, but Seoul turned out to be our favorite place. It just shows that everything works out for the best.

Business on the East Coast of the East

If the family side of the Shanghai visit was a bit of a letdown, the business side was exciting and eye-opening. The vibe felt like the opposite of Korea. In China, it felt like it was only a matter of time before someone should try their hand at starting a business. Entrepreneurship is much more welcomed and encouraged in China, where I didn’t detect that dark stigma that accompanied failure in Korea.

Familial piety remains a strong cultural value in China in spite of all the rapid changes. This doesn’t transcend to the workplace. The proliferation of opportunities in this economic boom lures young workers to jump from job to job.

Retention is a huge problem for business owners. During Chinese New Year, the country practically shuts down as people return to their hometowns. All these entrepreneurs worry their staff won’t return after the New Year. Many employees just take a new job and disappear. Consequently, the entrepreneurs all could relate to my story of the unexpected two weeks’ notice out of the blue. In China, employees provide insult to injury by just taking another opportunity without giving notice.

Jeff Gives Me the Green Light

Jeff and I arranged some time to go out without the kids or wives so we could dive into my new business idea. I shared with him my struggle to understand how my team was feeling, especially my concerns about morale and retention. It felt like a universal challenge that I shared with almost all entrepreneurs I interviewed. He nodded. So far so good.

I then outlined my approach to address this pain point.

  • Frequent. Once a year engagement surveys don’t cut it. I’d check in with employees once a week to start to get their temperature. The questions would change week to week, but we’d ask one consistent question to gauge the employees’ happiness over time.

  • Lightweight. Since we’re trading a big employee survey at the end of the year for much more frequent pulses, I would limit each survey to only one question. Not only is this good for response rates from the staff, but it also helps reduce the analysis paralysis that Andy and I felt when the deluge of responses came back. We often didn’t know where to even start digging for insights since there were so many data points.

  • Anonymous. Employees need a safe environment to share what’s going well and where improvements are needed. I felt that anonymity had to underpin the offering, and that leaders had to focus on the “what,” not the “who,” to spark positive change.

  • Automated. I know that entrepreneurs are busy and guilty of rushing to urgent issues at the expense of important matters that (seemingly) can wait. To that end, we would design the survey questions based on research, suggestions, and best practices to load into the solution. This makes it super simple for the CEO. Since the questions are consistent, we could provide benchmarks. Lacking comparison was an Achilles’ heel when Andy and I did our own surveys. We never knew if a 7.5 was good or bad since we didn’t have anything to compare it to.

After taking it all in, Jeff exclaimed that if we had a system like this, he’d definitely buy it. He did push back on localization and translation support. Plus, he wasn’t sure if the automated approach would resonate with entrepreneurs, who can be micromanagers.

But his enthusiasm caused me to toss and turn that night. Now I couldn’t wait to get to Vietnam for another gut-check with my friend Dave Hajdu in Saigon. If he thought the idea was compelling, his company could even prototype it for me.