“It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint”: Han Xin Qi (Feature Part I)

4 min read.

Han Xin Qi, co-founder of co-working space provider Woo Space, reveals more on her MBA life at Harvard Business School, what it means to be an entrepreneur and her views on the new norms for the co-working space industry amid COVID-19. 

About Woo Space

Woo Space was founded in 2015 by Cornell University graduates in their late 20s, Randy Wan and Han Xinqi, with Randy serving as CEO and Xin Qi leading on the Operations front. The company built a network of 23 locations in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, covering a total area of 100,000 square meters and serving over 700 enterprises. It counts Matrix China, China Equity, Plum Ventures and Cyanhill Capital as its investors. 

In 2018, Chinese co-working space unicorn Ucommune acquired rival Woo Space. Founded in 2015 by real-estate veteran Dr. Mao Daqing, Ucommune is the largest and most recognized co-working space brand in China. As of September 30th, 2019, Ucommune covered 42 cities including all the tier-1 and new tier-1 cities in Greater China as well as Singapore and New York City.

Regarding the acquisition of Woo Space, Mao expressed his admiration for the Woo Space team for having deep insights into the needs of young people in the co-working space and their willingness on developing the potential of youths. He is also inspired by the team’s astute ability to identify good location and their knowledge of cross-border relationships within the e-commerce industry.

86insider caught up with Xin Qi as she tells us more about her current exciting MBA life at Harvard Business School, her entrepreneurial journey and what it takes to innovate and stand out within the co-working space in the midst of the pandemic.

The interview has been edited for brevity. 

Getting to Know Xin Qi

Xin Qi was already exposed to different cultures and races at a very young age — she received high school education in Hwa Chong Institution Singapore and completed her undergraduate studies in The Cornell School of Hotel Administration in the United States. She worked in New York for three years before returning to Beijing to set up Woo Space with Randy. Her intention to further her studies back in 2018 while she was still with Woo Space stem from her parents’ beliefs that a bachelor’s degree would not be sufficient these days and whether or not it is an Asian mentality, it would help most to advance in their careers. 

For Xin Qi, the choices were very clear, she was either enrolling in Stanford Graduate School of Business for its reputable Entrepreneurship program or Harvard Business School (HBS) for its General Management Program (GMP). She later enrolled in the latter, with her mind set to equip herself with the necessary General Management skills required to help scale startups to greater heights. 

MBA Life: Cherishing True Friendships

It is, however, not purely because of career advancement that she enrolled in HBS. Her reason might surprise you — she wants to make more friends. In the eyes of many, she is already a successful entrepreneur but chose to head back to the school environment, where she can “get to know people without strings attached”. She emphasized that genuine friendships are important to her as she wants relationships that blossomed simply “because I like you” and not for business purposes.

In the crucial early stage of starting up Woo Space, those who were involved were college friends or friends from outside of work. Randy, who was also her school mate, was a natural fit as Woo Space’s CEO. She became rather selective and critical when meeting new people and making friends; especially in Beijing, where everybody claims they know someone who would be capable of doing “this and that” and she became rather suspicious of strangers and that is why she appreciates school as it is to her, “a bubble that is pure and she would like to think that there are no hidden agendas”.

MBA Life: Being Humble and Curious

Despite her stellar background in having founded Woo Space, Xin Qi is ever so humble, with her initial academic goal and interest in wanting to learn more about leadership and how she can better motivate people. In spite of that, her takeaways from school were probably different from her peers, many of whom were professionals from consultancies and are probably “brilliant individual contributors but have never really been managers and do not know how to handle team members who are not Type A and motivated.”

Her interest shifted to modules such as Macroeconomics, Politics and even American History as she got to know a lot more about entrepreneurship and how it contributed to the success of the American empire that we know of today. She really enjoys learning about other entrepreneurs (from a totally different perspective) — both conventional and not so conventional such as Coco Chanel and opium traders — who have played significant roles in the societies from different times at different locations in the emerging globalization market.

Photo: Xin Qi performing at Woo Space’s annual anniversary celebration

Her Proudest Moments

She struggled to identify her proudest moment and proceeded to point out a few pivotal ones instead. The first was nailing the scholarship to study in Singapore, the second being her acceptance into Cornell University, which was her dream school at the point of time and lastly, founding Woo Space. “Every year on July 25th, we would have a carnival-like anniversary celebration for the opening of our first office in Beijing. We would have booths for our tenants to showcase their businesses, panels for VCs and every time I felt proud and that is very different from the pride I had back when I was working in a consultancy firm. All the success did not happen overnight; it gradually happened, one by one and sometimes you lose track of the number of locations.”

All the success did not happen overnight; it gradually happened, one by one and sometimes you lose track of the number of locations.

Entrepreneurship: Not a Calling But Right Evaluation, Timing and Skill Set

When asked if she was inspired by someone to take the entrepreneurial path, Xin Qi admitted that no one in particular did that, in fact, she never thought she would do it as it was in her opinion, risky as compared to working for a corporation. She worked as a consultant for three years in New York but increasingly started to lose interest in professional services and became keen on operations as she would be able to see the direct impact she has helped to create for a business in real time. Coincidentally, right about the same time, the Chinese telecommunication bubble started to grow and a lot of people began to jump on the startup bandwagon.

She was inspired to do the same and if all else fails, her backup plan was to return to business school. She evaluated what she wanted to do, her skill sets and the sectors that were doing well at that point. WeWork was raising a lot of funds in the States at that juncture and it was a feasible idea to serve the entire community of small and medium enterprises. To her, “managing an office is very much like managing a hotel, selling a room is also very much like selling a desk”. The co-working space industry resonated with her particularly because her hotel internship experiences taught her how to deal with customers and both industries shared commonality in service operations. It was not her calling but she knew she had similar soft skill sets that were transferable between the two industries.

…managing an office is very much like managing a hotel, selling a room is also very much like selling a desk.”

Entrepreneurship: How It Really Was Like On a Daily Basis

Xin Qi shared her thoughts on entrepreneurship. “Having a startup is not all that fun and exciting or as relaxing as people think, it is actually very stressful. If I have to say, the startup experience is: We have two or three days that we are happy and the funding kicks in, we have enough cash in our bank and every so often when we have annual celebrations, we take a pause and finally have time to look at what you have achieved. But those are the rare occasions that I can go “hey you have done a good job” but it is more common for us to be putting out fires, fixing mistakes and telling myself that I have to get to work immediately.”

But those are the rare occasions that I can go hey you have done a good job but it is more common for us to be putting out fires, fixing mistakes and telling myself that I have to get to work immediately.

Entrepreneurship: Company Culture and Keeping Employees Motivated

When Xin Qi was leading Woo Space, six out of seven of her direct reports were older and more senior than her. It certainly revealed her confidence in leadership despite being only 26 back in 2015.

Xin Qi approached it from the angle of an employee, “What if I were an employee, how would I feel about working for this company?” She likes the collegial culture adopted by Oliver Wyman, the previous consultancy firm she worked in, — everyone is called a consultant until they are a partner and therefore the level and seniority really were no biggie— and chose to integrate that into Woo Space’s culture, with the aim of having an employee feeling good about the company. 

She subscribes to the following formula:
Happiness at Woo Space = Happy Employees + Happy Customers + Good Profits + Happy Owner/Founder

“We conduct training sessions very frequently, sometimes weekly or even monthly and we talk to our employees. These sessions help our employees understand why they are doing what they are doing; for instance, it is necessary to have constant checks for good hygiene as it creates a comfortable environment for our clients. We also find out from our clients if they require help such as fundraising and more. We are intertwined with our clients in terms of growth and success. Startups are prone to failure and if we are able to help them succeed, we would succeed as well.”

“Our employees are happy because we not only empower them, but also provide housing and meals. We treat them as equals, help them thrive and allow them to love what they are doing by taking care of them and sometimes our clients would hire our staff away from us as they are really capable. It is not frowned upon as it helps clients to utilize Woo Space for its services and technology,” Xin Qi added.

In a nutshell, though cliché, Woo Space’s culture is work hard, play hard. Xin Qi does not condone behaviors that elicit office politics and she made sure sabotaging does not happen under her watch. The focus is on delivering expectations and performances but at the same time having the “we are family and watch out for each other” culture. There are monthly briefings with objectives and KPIs set. If employees fail to meet the expectations, they are not dropped but rather, the manager provides feedback to help them develop and grow. There were also semi-annual promotions in terms of titles and responsibilities. At the end of the day, if the company was not a right fit for them, it was alright to choose to leave and admit that the company did not work out for them.

Happiness at Woo Space = Happy Employees + Happy Customers + Good Profits + Happy Owner/Founder

“It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint”: Han Xin Qi (Feature Part II) is accessible to premium users only. Read on to find out Xin Qi’s main takeaways from her entrepreneurial journey, thoughts on WeWork and Ucommune’s future and advice for young aspiring entrepreneurs.

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