Learn From Leaders With Daniel Hsu

Daniel Hsu

VP of Partnerships & Corporate Innovation, Bits x Bites

Daniel Hsu is the rare individual who has worked in both massive corporations and budding startups, as well as the venture investing world. He started his career as an engineer at oil major ExxonMobil and later oversaw sustainability and strategy for two China CEOs at global retailer Walmart. He has also worked in scrappy startups, including hardware venture D.light where he helped the CEO with everything from CRM to e-commerce to strategic partnerships. Daniel combined these experiences at venture firm Village Capital to develop corporate partnerships with notable clients including Microsoft, MetLife, UBS, Hershey’s. As of 2020, he is the VP of Partnerships & Corporate Innovation at Bits x Bites, China pioneer food tech VC.

Daniel has deep experience across China. First visiting in 1999, he has worked in China on three separate “tours” for a total of nine years and counting. He started out in rural Hunan, later living in Nanjing, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. He is bilingual in English and Mandarin.

Daniel holds an MBA from MIT Sloan and an MPA/ID from the Harvard Kennedy School. From his current base in Beijing, he advises organizations large and small on corporate innovation, venture acceleration, sales operations, and other topics.

“You cannot stay unchanging in a world that, all around, is changing.” – Antoine Saint-Exupéry

Five Questions With Daniel

Q1: How did you get to where you are today?

Where I am today is the result of a multitude of decisions.I made, perhaps the most impactful one being in my very first job, as an engineer in the oil industry. The work was challenging, the people were smart, and the pay was good, so good in fact that most people in the industry stayed for life. In my much older colleagues, I could see my future laid out very clearly. If I stayed in the industry, I would retire comfortably in a big house in suburban America after a few decades. 

Terrified, I quit.

I came to China in 2003 and began the first of many adventures. It was this first, unorthodox decision that started me on what has been an exciting and fulfilling path. The tendencies behind that first decision—dissatisfaction with the status quo, taking calculated risks, and an appetite for adventure—have continued to guide me to where I am today.

Q2: Something you’ve changed your mind about in your career

I used to share the common perception that venture capitalists were always right, that VCs had sort of magical insight on startups, and that others—especially entrepreneurs—should hang on their every word. 

Later I discovered that VCs don’t in fact know it all. Industry statistics show that most VC investments fail to return and that most funds are not profitable. Many VCs made their names in times and industries that have changed dramatically since. Yet many like myself are taken by the hype. We overweight VC opinions over those of the actual founders who, in their daily battle for survival, see the newest patterns far before industry experts name them trends.

I’ve changed my mind about the infallibility of VCs and now take VC advice with a grain of salt. In parallel, I am much more curious about entrepreneur perspectives, what they are seeing that the rest of us are missing.

Q3: One habit that has the most impact on your life 

I’ve never forgotten a piece of advice a middle school teacher gave me: 

“If you’re not early, you’re late.”

Turns out the vast majority of people plan to be on-time, or by analogy, to do the bare minimum. When life happens, they end up missing deadlines or falling short of basic requirements. By simply setting a higher bar for myself—to be “early”—I not only built in buffer for uncertainty but also found myself standing out from the crowd simply by force of habit. 

Q4: One of the most important lessons you learned from your career?

Create your own opportunities. Don’t just do a good job and expect opportunities to find you. Do a great job strategically, to develop future opportunities.

As a “straight A” student accustomed to advancement based purely on performance, I had to learn later that my career would not be so clear cut. In corporations, my performance alone did not determine my promotions (or lack thereof). Also important were teamwork, personal networks, and other ambiguous factors. In the startup world, I had to create my own value without any pre-existing playbook, whether interviewing prospective customers in rural Indonesia or recruiting corporate partners for a first-ever health accelerator in Mexico. Later, I learned how to use thought pieces to create advisory roles, consulting projects, and other opportunities, something I never imagined I’d do when studying engineering in university.

While this may be obvious to entrepreneurs, I share it here for other academic overachievers like me. Instead of waiting for an open role that fits you, why not just create your own? I’ve learned that such “out of the box” opportunities are, by definition, more interesting and, as a result, often more rewarding.

Q5: What books do you recommend founders to read?

  • The War of Art by Steven Pressfield on how to fight the Resistance and be creative like a pro.
  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu as a sci-fi epic that also provides glimpses into the Chinese world-view.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie as a timeless reminder of how not to be a jerk.

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