Nikk Mitchell is a Kenyan born Canadian who has lived in China for over a decade. Nikk originally built a name for himself in the Virtual Reality (VR) industry by launching the first VR community website in China, oculus-china.com, which was eventually purchased by Facebook in 2014. In 2017, Nikk founded FXG, a technology company focusing on high-quality VR IP creation and bridging the divide between China and the international community.
Pandaily sat down with Nikk in Hangzhou to talk about his journey to the East.
Tina Wang: Reflecting on your journey to the East, what motivated you in the first place to leave your home country and start a career in China?
Nikk Mitchell: It feels like a destiny chance. It was my freshmen year at the Art Institute of Vancouver and I really didn’t like it. I wanted to try something different and unique. I saw a random job offer on Craigslist and I wasn’t even that serious about it, but I thought it would be so much different than what I’m doing right now. So on a whim, I sent out a job application and I got the job. I maxed out my student loan on a one way ticket. I thought that I’d stay in China for a year having an exotic adventure. But more than 10 years later, I’m still here.
TW: How did your experience back home influence you to start up a business in China?
NM: I was lucky to have a family that supports me to try out all kinds of weird things. When I was 12-years-old, I was already an entrepreneur. My mom taught me how to crochet, so I made hats and wristbands and sold them outside of school. From that, I would keep moving on to all kinds of random things.
TW: Can you paint me a picture of the first time that you fell in love with VR?
NM: About seven years ago, my Chinese friend and I had a small startup, making video games for phones. I saw a YouTube video of a guy named Cymatic Bruce, who was making videos about VR and seeing that video of somebody else in VR put me in a completely different place.
From the moment I saw that first video, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. So I called my partner over and showed him. And we threw out our mobile game that we were six months into development on and went 100% into VR.
TW: Why do you think China has the soil for VR?
NM: I think China is moving much faster than the West in so many different ways, such as economy and technological development. For example, mobile internet jumped off here so much quicker. In the West, we have Apple Pay, but only a fraction of people are using it. In China, using cash is like a foregone thing. I personally haven’t touched money in a year.
I think VR is going to be really similar to the mobile internet’s development in China. It will be a paradigm shift in the ways of people engaging with technology and media. It’s going to take the West a lot longer to break their habits, whereas China is ready for everything.
TW: You’ve witnessed many changes in China. How do you see this pandemic bringing new opportunities to the VR industry?
NM: The whole concept of a VR Zoom call has existed for the past five years, but people never cared about it until the epidemic hit. VR is a good solution if we are meeting virtually online. I personally use a lot of different online VR apps. A big one that I use is “VR Mini Golf.” My parents aren’t really tech-savvy, but this program is simple to use. We “meet” regularly in this program. I can actually “hang out” with my family in the strange sense of the world.
On top of family socialization, I use VR in business conferences. I’ve had up to 100 different conferences in VR, where people network with each other as if they are in the real world. For me, my lockdown quarantine was completely free. I don’t hate being stuck in my house for three weeks. I was going all over the world and hanging out with all kinds of people with the help of VR. I was just physically in my house, but mentally I was free.
TW: How do you see VR bridging the gap between China and the West?
NM: I am hoping VR will bring people together. As an international entrepreneur in China, I feel seperated. I’m not connected to the West, neither am I strongly bonded here. I don’t get to see my friends or family back home. But VR has totally changed that in the past five years. With VR, I’m regularly connected with people outside of my cultural or geographic group.
I hope more Chinese people will be making friends all over the world and doing business together. I don’t know if it will happen, but I am certain that VR opens the opportunity for deeper and more valuable collaboration between China and the West.
TW: You’ve worked with many local Chinese businesses, what’s your favorite project so far?
NM: I think it would be the Tibetan charity project. We used VR to build a virtual classroom and provide education resources for those living in impoverished areas. Our project helped the charity team to win the golden award for the eighth session of the China Charity Project Exchange Exhibition. To be able to create this experience allowing so many people to come together is really cool.
TW: What’s the most challenging part of being an entrepreneur in China?
NM: Everything (laugh). Not speaking the language is hard. Even if you do speak the language, it’s really hard to have a grasp of the culture. People talk in an indirect and subtle way here, so I need to guess the hidden meaning behind what they say. As a foreigner, I did get attention, but most people prefer working with people who are similar to them and this makes sense.
I’ve mentioned all the problems with me being a foreigner, but then I met Mr. Li Keqiang, the current premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. If I did not work hard to start a business here with the help of Dream Town (梦想小镇), I would never have a chance to meet many important people in China.
TW: What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs who want to start up their business in China?
NM: First, think long and hard about it. Get ready for more opportunity that comes with 1,000 more challenges. China has massive industry and is really competitive, so sometimes it turns out to be predatorial.
Be prepared to learn everything from scratch and come with an open mind. Don’t assume that you will succeed in China if you are accomplished in the West. Look at Amazon and Uber; so many companies that did awesome worldwide failed in China.
Be careful of what you do and be tough.