Su Di: Bringing ‘Garage’ concept to China

Su Di, founder of Garage Cafe Photo provided to Sino-US.com

Before Su Di decided to start Garage Cafe, he was a veteran salesperson in Chinacache, due to be promoted and receive some share option in the company. But he abandoned what could have been a lucrative job and comfortable life to pursue his own dream.  

Like many entrepreneurs who start their business from scratch, Su was not sure about the business model and future direction of Garage café. But he still believed that in an era of rising startups seeking funding and investors looking for good projects, it is important to build a platform to connect the startups and the investors. And it turns out that he was right.

At first sight, Garage Cafe looks similar to other cafes like Starbucks and Costa, but the job board near the half-a-meter tall counter and the salon corner with platform and PPT make the difference. While people gather in front of the job board to look for partnerships, startups stand on the salon platform to share their ideas and discuss problems. Sometimes Su invites giants like Sina, China’s largest news portal, or 58.com, the largest recruitment website in China, with a view to bridge investors and the startups.

“There is some idealism in his blood,” one of his friends once said, “he just wanted to make the Garage Cafe into the paradise of the startups.”

Power of execution

It all began with sales. When he was in college, Su did part-time jobs since his freshman year, selling computers in Xidan, while most of his classmates were concentrating on study. The price of selling a computer was high at that time, some 6,000-7,000 yuan (about $966 or $1127), so was the profit for selling one computer. Though there was no basic pay for a part-time position, an extra 100-yuan (about $16) bonus would be added for each sold computer. The highest record of Su was selling 15 computers in one single day.

Although doing part-time jobs affected Su’s study at school, it at least let him know how to play the first card in his life.

In 2001, Su, together with some of his friends, rent a store at the fifth floor of Huawei Shopping center in Xidan, selling computers for Bayi Space, a hi-tech company in Beijing. With high rent and less experience, they thought they would lose money, which, however, turned out to be an over-concern as they earned themselves the first bucket of gold in their lives.

In 2003, Su joined 8848.com, a major e-commerce company, where he witnessed the ups and downs of the first generation of the Internet industry in China. Though the website was shut down later, he came to know what it was like to do something from scratch, and also met one of the most important people in his career- Lv Chunwei, CEO of 8848.com, who gave him the most precious thing for an ambitious and growing young man - trust and support.

In 2006, Su took up his last job before starting Garage café. In the third month in Chinacache, he received a big order from Roxbeam Media Network Corporation led by Lv Chunwei, after which he became the supervisor of the sales department.

Su’s personal sales performance accounted for about 30% of the whole company’s sales income, and he believed that for discovering the potential market, small and medium-sized companies were much more important than only focusing on big companies. After having worked with more than 2000 Internet companies, some of which developed into big giants like 58.com, Su proposed to the company to establish an investment strategy department to identify good investment projects, with himself being in charge.

However, their method to find a good project was time-consuming and inefficient, as Su said, “traveling around the country, participating in meetings and joining dinner parties” often ended up with meeting only three or four customers per day.  

It was at that time that Su started to realize investors and startups should easily get to each other and there might be a place like HP Garage in America providing a cheap workplace for startups to do their business.

“In America there are many garages where startups can stay and have access to resources with low cost. China needs such a place too,” he said.

Job board at the Garage Cafe Photo: Sino-US.com

A start-up to help start-ups

“Matchmaker” is how many Chinese media call Su Di. Instead of the literal meaning “matchmaker” carries, the role of Su is much more like a bridge between the investors and the startups, though he himself was a start-up at the beginning.

After Su quit the job in Chinacache, giving up the share option the company offered him, he began to plan the innovation-and-investment-themed cafe, which targeted the Zhongguancun business street.

“Many garages in the US are located in the Silicon Valley, the Garage Cafe should also be in China’s most innovative district,” said Su.

In April 7, 2011, Garage Café was open, providing startups 24-hour free access to the WIFI there in exchange of only the purchase of one cup of coffee. Although the rent of the 800-square-meter cafe was about 1,600 yuan ($257) per month, the commercial electricity and water bills plus the labor cost were high. “Only when the revenue is about 50,000 yuan ($8,055), can we make ends meet,” Su said.

“This is not a good way to make money. There are so many ways to become rich, and this is not a wise choice. You should try to make more money,” one of his friends said to him.

But looking back to that period of his life, Su does not regret. “I think sometimes you need to have one-track mind if you want to start a business from scratch. Maybe that part of my life was just like this,” Su said half-jokingly, “If I was rich then, I would still make the same choice. Money is always less important than the values.”

While the original goal of starting the Garage Café was only to provide a cheap and convenient workplace for startups, the number of the service items in the Garage Café has been increased to more than 300.

Startups there can have technical consultation, legal services and immediate access to information on the startup industry. The contract with Microsoft provides startups who register in the Garage Café free software maintenance service for three years.

“It is just like our home,” one of the startups who spent most of the time at Garage Cafe said.

While the good reputation of the Garage Café has spread all around the world over the past two years, the beginning was not smooth as only a few people came by in the first few weeks. Su made Garage Cafe known by posting the ideas and business model of the Cafe on Weibo, Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and reposted with his own account, he said. But it turned out what he was doing and where the Café was heading was right as in three months the place began to get packed.

“The happiest thing about running a startup is not how much money you earn, but how many supporters you have,” Su recalled, “Someday when you become very old, and you look back, what is the most meaningful thing that you ever did in your whole life? This is the question that I kept asking myself.”

Garage Cafe Photo provided to Sino-US.com

Connecting with young generation

At the end of last year, the Ministry of Education promoted a new policy requiring universities to set more flexible course terms and encourage students to take a break during their academic career to do a startup to echo the country’s new efforts to transform itself from the world’s manufacturing hub into an innovation and hi-tech-driven power.

“This is the best era in Chinese history for young people to start a business,” said Su whom many post-90s startups in Garage Café call Su “Ge” (meaning big brother in Chinese), “and people need much more spiritual support than 10 years ago.”

In 2014, Su became one of the cofounders of You Plus, an international youth community established three years ago in Guangdong province. Treating the youth community as a “post-university era dormitory”, Su said the community helps to lower the cost of young people’s daily life, and provides them opportunity to make friends and exchange ideas.

The Beijing-based You Plus has around 400 rooms, and is open to startups with less than 10 members, under the age of 45, with no kids, and willing to make friends.

“I want to make this place into a home for young startups, and this thing is going to change the way of living of most of China’s young generation,” Su said, “Young startups are the most dynamic parts of the society and I want to gather them together, making their living place full of fun.”


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