Missionaries vs. Mercenaries

I recently read Kai-Fu Lee's AI Super-Powers, which is a fantastic book on understanding the recent technological developments in China.

Living in China and witnessing these advances has been exciting. For example, I still remember when I saw some of my friends exchanging red packets (红包) on WeChat back during the 2014 Chinese New Year. And now mobile payments and transactions is so ubiquitous here. AI, big data, O2O, startups - all of these things are huge in China.

One of the ideas Lee proposes is that many Chinese entrepreneurs have succeeded because they are warriors or gladiators who never give up (no matter what the cost). He draws a distinction between companies and founders in the West vs. those in China. In the West, many startups are:

"mission-driven. They start with a novel idea or idealistic goal, and they build a company around that. Company mission statements are clean and lofty."

On the other hand, many Chinese companies are:

"first and foremost market drive. Their ultimate goal is to make money, and they're willing to create any produce, adopt any model, or go into any business that will accomplish that objective...The core motivation or China's market driven entrepreneurs is not fame, glory, or changing the world. Those things are all nice side benefits, but the grand prize is getting rich, and it doesn't matter how you get there."

In Silicon Valley, this distinction is often labelled as "missionary vs. mercenary", an idea first popularized by John Doerr, a famous investor at Kleiner Perkins. He states how truly great companies are led by missionaries, and not mercenaries:

"Mercenaries are driven by paranoia; missionaries are driven by passion,” he says. “Mercenaries think opportunistically; missionaries think strategically. Mercenaries go for the sprint; missionaries go for the marathon. Mercenaries focus on their competitors and financial statements; missionaries focus on their customers and value statements. Mercenaries are bosses of wolf packs; missionaries are mentors or coaches of teams. Mercenaries worry about entitlements; missionaries are obsessed with making a contribution. Mercenaries are motivated by the lust for making money; missionaries, while recognizing the importance of money, are fundamentally driven by the desire to make meaning."

Lee concludes that, "Over the coming decade, China's gladiator entrepreneurs will fan out across hundreds of industries, applying deep learning to any problem that shows the potential for profit...Corporate America is unprepared for this global wave of Chinese entrepreneurship..."

Maybe I'm an idealist, but I would still prefer to see more missionary leaders who care more about making a difference in people's lives vs. the bottom line.