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The new breed of boss
By Tan Weiyun

While most Chinese young people make a beeline for a secure, well-paying job with career prospects, some are taking risks and boldly going where they can be their own boss and do satisfying work. Whether a cafe owner, pig's feet seller, or online store owner, these young bosses say just do it.

They are creative and free-spirited, but they are also hard workers.

Many struggle in a difficult job market, some fall by the wayside, some succeed.

Because of the tight economy and surplus of job-seekers, the city of Shanghai is encouraging young people to start their own businesses.

Running a small coffee shop in the city sounds like a dream for many young people - it's hip, trendy and flexible, like many young people themselves.

Zhong Runjie, a 27-year-old electronics and IT engineer, is about to see his dream come true.

His Many People's Cafe is to open soon, at the end of October at the earliest. He is exploring several locations, mostly in industrial parks with many young employees.

In the past few months, Zhong created a joint venture with almost 90 young people who were hooked by his online pitch to invest in the cafe.

Everyone who invests at least 5,000 yuan (US$792) can become a shareholder and take part in the business operation.

Zhong, a native of Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China, got responses from more than 200 potential investors in Shanghai since he posted his business idea on a famous online forum in June.

"To have a street corner café is something I planned to do after I turn 30 and now I am just bringing it forward," Zhong says. After graduation in 2003, he did what many university graduates do: He found an ordinary 9-5 office position in an IT company in Shanghai.

But his cafe dream was always there. Early this year he learned of a successful cafe financing model, which he adopted. It worked in Beijing, Nanjing in east China's Jiangsu Province, and in Changsha in central China's Hunan Province. He quit his job.

"I just posted my idea on the Internet and didn't expect to get so much feedback," he tells Shanghai Daily. "I realized there were lots of young people out there, just like me, who had the same dream of running a cafe. Maybe we just need a push and I'm happy to be the one who pushes," Zhong says.

During the past three months, he has dedicated himself to the cafe. He drafted shareholders' articles of association, set up a timetable and divided the participants into 10 teams covering strategic planning, personnel, legal affairs, accounting, marketing and other areas.

His Shanghai investors come from all walks of life and most are under 30, including photographers, lawyers, accountants, baristas and bakers. Of the 200 or so who expressed interest, 88 finally decided to invest. "We are all volunteers who got together and all wish we can really do something," he says.

To ensure everyone's voice is heard, Zhong holds meetings twice a week and everyone is invited to express his or her views.

Each decision is made by a vote.

"Running a cafe is something that reflects the easy, relaxing life attitude of today's young people, which is exactly what we want to bring to more people in the city," Zhong says. "I'm pretty sure we will be successful the moment the cafe is open, since we have hundreds of potential customers, who expressed interest since the idea was posted."

Particular boss

Some young bosses are very particular about who comes onboard; some are eccentric.

A recent advertisement for a photographer and post-production designer at a media company received the most clicks on a job-hunting website. Requirements, in addition to the basics, include "willing to feed the cats daily," "bathe the cats" and "help the cats pee in the toilet."

"Pet lover" and "fan of the Manchester United" are pluses. The job offers flexible work hours, unlimited annual vacation and "cute cats' company."

The boss, 25-year-old Wang Linlin, says she wants a friend more than just an employee. "For a small company still in its infancy, we need someone who shares our life attitude so we grow together with the company," she says. "But being a cat lover and a football fan are just extra and not necessary; we care most about the applicant's ability."

A graduate of the Shanghai Institute of Visual Art at Fudan University, Wang quit her job as a designer in an art studio one year after graduation. She and her classmate Gu Xiaojian started a media agency two years ago.

"I'm aware that I'm a boss hard to get along with, so I made it quite clear in my advertisement that I hope to find someone compatible," she says. One applicant even asked if he could take his Labrador retriever to the office.

"Young bosses are sometimes unconventional. We are not those poker-faced, fancy suit bosses. We hope our team can be as energetic and creative as we are," Wang says.

The job market in Shanghai is highly competitive and many young people are discouraged. This year the city has 178,000 university graduates, an increase of 3,000 over last year. The city's social security bureau says 91 percent of recent graduates are employed or in graduate school, though many young people say it doesn't feel that way.

Nationwide there's a glut of job seekers. Around 6.8 million people graduated from colleges and universities this summer, far more than the number of available positions. National figures indicate that 70 to 75 percent of recent graduates have found work or are in graduate school.

While many people pound the sidewalk looking for work, some are trying another path to be their own boss.

Several years ago it was big news when a PhD student at prestigious Peking University was found to be selling pig's feet on the street. Many people were shocked at his doing mere manual work and thought he was wasting an expensive education and his parents' money.

Today, people are more open-minded and admiring of these risk takers who are starting a business, however small.

Li Honglin, a first-year graduate student at East China University of Science and Technology, is looking for investors for his roasted pig's feet shop. By chance, his friend and fellow graduate student Li Gongfu discovered a very nice pig's feet shop in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan Province, and saw a money-maker.

"A small shop like this can generate about three million yuan annual profit. We were both shocked," Li says. "We're thinking about introducing this business to Shanghai."

In May they decided to test the market by setting up a small booth selling roasted pig's feet near the university. To their surprise, within two weeks they were making a profit of 100 yuan an hour. "We are quite confident this project is going to make money if we open chain stores near various Shanghai universities," Li says.

In July they surveyed university students in order to set prices. More than 45 percent students said 8-10 yuan per serving was acceptable, 37 percent preferred less than 8 yuan, while 17 percent said they would pay 10 to 15 yuan. "We also found that roasted pig's feet was a very welcome project because everyone kept asking when we would open the shop," Li says.

Successful entrepreneur

While many young bosses are struggling, some have achieved success. Xu Zijian, 32-year-old founder of a venture capital company, was one of the earliest young pioneers to start a business 10 years ago.

The Fudan University IT graduate worked for a global computer enterprise for a year. Then, driven by his dream of entrepreneurship, he quit the company and set up his own software firm in 2002.

Within seven years, Xu had expanded the business from a small company with less than 100,000 yuan in start-up funding to a medium-sized enterprise with an annual sales volume of more than 5 million yuan and almost 30 employees.

The global financial crisis in 2009 dealt Xu and his company a heavy blow. "I was about to turn 30 that year and I was thinking that maybe it was time to shift to a new track and have a different life," he recalls.

In 2010 Xu and six partners founded a venture-capital firm to foster new and young companies, focusing on high-tech and service industries. Big challenges and high risks are part of daily life, especially when an investment of many millions of yuan in a young company doesn't make a ripple.

"Happiness always comes with hardship," Xu says. Now the company has gone on to make several successful investments.

As a man having taken senior classes in philosophy, Xu may have deeper insight into entrepreneurship and what it means. "To have my own business, in a way, makes it possible for me to take the helm of my own fate," he says. "To have my own business and pursue what I've dreamed of is not a matter of money but of deep fulfillment and immense satisfaction with my life."

The successful entrepreneur offers advice to struggling young bosses. "Always prepare for the worst. To be a boss means every morning when you open your eyes you will have to think about how to develop new clients while maintaining the old ones, how to pay the office rent and how to pay the wages. Trust me, to be a boss is no fun at all."

Help for young businessmen

To ease the job market, the city encourages young people to start their own business.

More than 90 percent of the city's colleges and universities have opened courses in entrepreneurship and around 85 percent have set up business incubator projects for student bosses.

In 2006, Shanghai was the first city in China to launch a foundation for young entrepreneurs, the Shanghai Technology Entrepreneurship Foundation for Graduates (STEFG). Since 2007 it has invested 10 million yuan (US$1.57 million) a year in 1,000 students. Today it has branch offices in colleges and universities and has fostered hundreds of young people who started a business.

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