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Chinese lessons in entrepreneurship: Choose the right track and insist on doing the right thing

Published 14 June 2021 in Technology • 4 min read

Julian Ma, founder and CEO of Inceptio Technology, the self-driving truck startup, and veteran of Tencent, Motorola and G7, advises would-be entrepreneurs to stick to their true passions and focus on people, not things.

Over the last three decades, Julian Ma’s career has taken him from China to the US and back again with spells in technology, consultancy and strategic management. Now, having just turned 50, he’s three years into his own startup – self-driving truck company Inceptio Technology, a business he helped found to transform the way goods are moved along China’s expressways.  

The essence of entrepreneurship is to do what no one else has done in the past, whether it is technological innovation or business model innovation,” says Ma. After three decades in tech, he notes: “After you’ve accumulated a certain amount of experience in your favorite field, you start seeing new opportunities earlier than others. 

 

Early years 

After graduating from Shanghai Jiaotong University in 1992, with a major in electronic engineering, Ma started his career at Motorola. Frequent trips between China and the United States gave him exposure to advanced technology and management concepts, leading in turn to the idea of studying for an MBA.  

“After working for Motorola for a few years, I began to think about what I would like to do in the long run,” says Ma. “I wanted to further strengthen my advantages in the business field, and at the same time continue to make myself more tolerant in diversified cultural exchanges.” 

So he enrolled in the MBA program at IMD, reasoning that the rich practical experience of his professors and diverse backgrounds of his MBA candidate peers from around the world would offer just the sort of education he was after. 

The school’s approach to teaching was important. “One case stands out in my memory. It was about a bicycle company called Baldwin Bicycle. Professors from all different subject areas – finance, marketing, strategy, etcetera – came together and  guided us to find solutions as an integrated whole. Many years after graduation, I still often recall how that case equipped me with the capability to analyze and view things from a holistic perspective.” 

But his cohort was just as key: “Looking back, the cross-cultural exchange experience accumulated during the year played a crucial role in my long-term career development,” says Ma. “The international thinking and communication skills I acquired studying for my MBA helped me better understand other people’s ideas, and to be more tolerant and effective in collaborating with people from different cultural backgrounds.” 

 

Into consultancy 

After graduating from IMD in 2000, Ma returned to China and joined the American consultancy firm Kearney. For the next eight years, he worked with companies in diverse industries before eventually heading up the firm’s telecommunications and high-tech practice. 

In 2008, when many of China’s top Internet companies were starting to look for strategic management talent from outside the industry, Ma joined social media giant Tencent 

After a spell heading its corporate strategic development department, he moved to running its search, map and mobility business – which in turn led him to develop its vehicles connectivity arm and launch its autonomous driving team.  

His next move was to become the president of G7 Networks, the largest online fleet management company in China.  

One year later, he founded Inceptio Technology with the backing of G7 and other strategic partners. There his first step was to put together an A-class core team, pulling in figures from some of China’s biggest tech and transport firms – Yang Ruigang, former director of Baidu Robotics and Autonomous Driving Laboratory, Tian Chen, former Huawei US Technology Vice President, Huang Gang, former General Manager of Dongfeng Commercial Vehicle, and A Yushun, former general manager of YTO Express operations. 

With the right people in place, the next challenge was figuring out how to maximize the advantages of this diverse team. 

“Everyone has their own way of doing things,” says Ma. “Those who develop software tend to “fast iterate” their products to make every new version stronger than previous one. Those with manufacturing backgrounds want a complete plan covering 12 months, which must then be executed rigorously. There’s no right or wrong here – just different ways of thinking. The most important thing was creating an inclusive and diverse environment.” 

So far, things seem to be working out. Although just three years old, Inceptio’s first mass-produced self-driving truck, the industry’s first at Level 3, is on schedule to be market-ready by the end of this year.  

 

Ma’s success secrets: 

Follow your passion: “Choose an industry that inspires you, then keep accumulating experience for a long time. Interest is vital, as you will only persist if you’re interested in what you do. But it’s the continuous accumulation of experience that will help you develop business acumen and see new opportunities earlier than others.” 

Acquire critical thinking: “Cultivate your ability to see the essence. No matter what industry you are in, you need to find the key success factor of that industry, then firmly do what you think is right. Focus is very important.” 

Optimize human factors: “When you’re young, you pay most attention to things. Later, you realize that the human factor is more important. Communication, trust, diversity and inclusiveness are key to achieving sustainable success.  

Expert

Julian Ma

Founder and CEO at Inceptio Technology

Mr. Ma is in charge of the overall company strategy development and deployment. Before Inceptio, Mr. Ma served as the Corporate Vice President at Tencent, where he was in charge of corporate strategy, location-based services (LBS), search, and autonomous driving business. He has extensive experience in managing large R&D teams. He also served as a Board member for NIO, NavInfo, and ZOOX. Mr. Ma holds an MBA from IMD.

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