Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Bo Shao, a co-founder and the chairman of Evolve, a philanthropic investment firm composed of a foundation, Evolve Foundation, and an impact investment firm, Evolve Ventures. With an initial capital of $100 million from the Shao family, Evolve aims to support organizations that relieve inner suffering and facilitate inner transformation. He is also the co-founder of Parent Lab, an app that helps parents meet common parenting challenges (a new version launches on April 10th).
Prior to Evolve, Bo was a founding partner of Matrix China, a leading technology venture capital firm in China, which manages more than $7 billion and has funded more than 500 companies, 50+ of which have become unicorns. He is also a serial entrepreneur who has co-founded five companies that have either gone public or become leaders in their respective industries.
Bo was born in China and was a winner of more than a dozen national mathematics competitions during high school. When he was 17, he left China for Harvard College on a full scholarship—one of the first such scholarships Harvard granted to a person from mainland China. After receiving his A.B. summa cum laude in physics and electrical engineering, he worked for Boston Consulting Group and Goldman Sachs and received his MBA from Harvard Business School.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Bo, it is nice to see you again, sir. And I wanted to perhaps set the stage by pulling from one of our very first conversations we ever had, and it involves ketchup. It might sound like a strange place to start for those people listening, but perhaps you could provide just a bit of context and that’ll be a way we can jump in.
Bo Shao: I grew up in Shanghai, China, and my father is a math teacher, was a math teacher, I guess. He’s retired now. And he had always been very strict with me and he had many good qualities as a father, which I won’t go into here. But one of the things he did not do so well was he was angry all the time. And often for a certain period of years, he was angry and also he would unpredictably get very, very angry and get very scary. So I think one day maybe when I was five — no, actually I know exactly how old I was. I was around 10 years old.
He brought ketchup home in a bottle — of a beer bottle. I remember it was a green beer bottle and we never had ketchup before. We grew up poor like everybody else in China. And I think I stole a taste of it without his permission and he flew into a rage. I do not remember whether he hit me or not, but it was very scary and I’m sure I cried. And it was a terrible time. And then a couple of days later I came home and I saw him in a good mood. And I think that somehow gave me courage to ask him again, “Can I try the ketchup?” Which actually is surprising because after that episode, usually I would not have worked up the courage to do something similar, but in that case I did because he looked so happy.
So he said to me, “Bo, you can have…” My Chinese nickname is Shao Bo, he’s like, “Shao Bo, you can have as much ketchup as you like.” I was shocked and not only I tried the ketchup and he actually bent down to hug me. And I remember exactly where that happened. It was in front of the kitchen. I have a mental picture of that location right now. And I don’t recall too much.
To be fair, I can’t say he did not hug me ever. He probably did, but it left such a deep imprint in me of getting this almost — I didn’t ask for a hug and he gave me a hug and in a very tricky situation. And that left a very deep imprint on me. And I think that later on, I found out that I won my first math competition. I think it was in fifth grade, it was a math competition involving all the students in Shanghai and Shanghai was at that time, probably a city of 12, 13 million people. And I was clear number one in the math competition.
Tim Ferriss: And that’s why he was in such a good mood?
Bo Shao: I think so.
Tim Ferriss: Could you paint a picture of what poor looks like? What it looked like for you? Because I remember you mentioned rations and things like that, just so people have a little more detail.
Bo Shao: First of all, I didn’t know I was poor. Everybody was poor so I didn’t know I was poor which is actually a good thing. But the way we grew up, when I was four or five years old, we didn’t always have meat on the table. Everything was rationed including milk, rice, oil, cooking oil, meat certainly, very rarely any kind of seafood. I think vegetable probably was not rationed, I can’t remember. And you get these little tickets you have to carry to a grocery store in addition to the money. I think my father was making maybe certainly less than $10 a month. My mother was also making $10 a month as well.
Tim Ferriss: So the tickets are like food stamps in a sense?
Bo Shao: Yeah, food like that. But there’s a ticket for meat, there’s a ticket for cooking oil, et cetera.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. And you had mentioned your father was a good teacher and I’d love for you to pick up there. And also I’d love to hear how and when poker or cards may have entered the picture.
Bo Shao: Because we were so poor, we didn’t have ways of setting up math. These days, if you want to train math, you have lots of tools to do it but back then we didn’t even have an abacus. So he initially started just writing down arithmetic problems, like 5+7, or 15+28 on a piece of paper and asked me to add them. He has to write hundreds of these equations and then you’d solve them. But then he one day had an inspiration, actually it initially started with my sister who is three years older than me and said, “Oh, why don’t we use a deck of cards?” And obviously ace is one and two is two and then jack is 11, king is 13, et cetera. And you add up the deck of cards.
Initially you actually add up only 10 cards and then to 20, and then to 40, involving one to 10 and eventually to 52, involving one to 13 times four. The total sum I think is 364. And then he would take one card up from the 50 card two cards away and ask me to add up the rest. And he would set a time limit so I have to get it right within a certain time limit. And I think I trained for several years into this method, and I actually became so fast that I think I was able to add up 52 cards under 12 seconds or so. And actually just to be able to show the cards so quickly —
Tim Ferriss: I was going to say, I don’t even think I could show the cards in 30 seconds.
Bo Shao: I’ve developed a particular way of going through these cards and I think I was doing basically more or less four or five calculations a second. And it turns out actually it’s just later on, as I understood a bit more about neurobiology, is that actually it takes about 100 milliseconds for the brain to recognize an image. So just to be able to see the card clearly and take it in, and then process the information takes one 10th of a second already, or sometimes depending one 10th to maybe one sixth of a second. So to be able to add five cards in one second is probably close to the limit of human biology I guess.
Tim Ferriss: What else did you absorb from your parents? And maybe it’s worth also backtracking for a second and asking the question, what lesson subconsciously or otherwise did you take away from that experience with your dad? With the rage over the ketchup, and then the “Have all the ketchup you want” hug from your dad that seemed to coincide with winning that math competition?
Bo Shao: I’m still actually discovering how these imprints have affected me. And my experience and my understanding is that I was so imprintable as a child. I think all children are very imprintable, that I carried away certain things with me that might not — it’s not his intention. I want to be clear about that. But it’s nevertheless is what I carried away with. And one of the deepest impressions that I received was that my value comes from my performance. In fact, specifically, to be almost number one, that’s my value. And if I am not number one, then I’m a person with no value.
And I feel a heaviness as I talk about it because it’s such a burden. And it was a creative solution in some ways, because indeed I became number one in many things when I was growing up. Particularly math, I ended up winning first prize in dozens of national math competitions in China. And I felt safe. That performance enabled me feel safe. I think my impression is that actually I was treated better after that. My father had less of a rage, he was so proud of me and I felt my life changed for the better. Significantly better because of that performance.
And then as I grew up, I needed to perform well in everything. It’s not just math competitions anymore, not just college or the first job, but this almost compulsion to perform, started to dominate everything including driving. I need to be always on the fastest lane and more importantly perhaps, I always need to plot the most efficient route to a place. I remember when I initially got my Tesla, I needed to look at the Tesla maps. I need to look at Google Maps. I need to look at Waze so that I can see which map provides the best route and I can look at post mortem and see, “Oh, which one was more accurate?” So the next time I will use this map for this route, et cetera, et cetera. And of course I gave a lot of pressure to my wife, enormous amount of pressure to my children. It’s one of my deepest, I think, patterns of behavior.
Tim Ferriss: You ended up going to Harvard at 17. How does a poor kid in China end up with Harvard on the map? I understand you won these competitions, but how did it end up that you were able to go from where you were in Shanghai to Harvard at 17, if I’m getting the age correct?
Bo Shao: I think I came to the US on my 18th birthday, if I remember right. And this is largely thanks to my father. He saw it early that going to America for higher education will open up entirely different world of opportunities. So he started working on that very early and back then, going to America for PhDs were relatively known. Quite a lot of people go because you get research assistants or teaching assistants so that you actually get paid to study. But for college, there were no such thing so you needed to get a full scholarship. The reason it needs to be full is nobody in China back then could remotely afford a college education in the US. Remember when in the 1980s when the China economy initially opened up, people who got rich first were called [foreign language], which means people who have 10,000 RMB. That’s considered to be very rich. They even get a special name, so like millionaires or billionaires that we use now.
10,000 RMB is a big, big deal. So actually even when we started applying for colleges, we couldn’t even afford the application fees, which is like 35 or $50. I needed to get waivers of application fees from these colleges. But really thanks to him, I applied to 20 or so colleges in the US when I was in junior high school and got into a bunch of them. And a number of them gave me a full scholarship including Harvard and off I went.
Tim Ferriss: When did you start studying English?
Bo Shao: Well, Chinese middle school and high school education have always emphasized English as a part of core curriculum. So we did study English in middle school and high school. Now the teaching quality wasn’t very good because most of those English teachers never — no, actually all of them. None of them have ever been overseas and their accents are atrocious. But we would learn grammar and all those things. So I think I was able to probably read — actually, no, I take it back. I don’t think my English was that good, but then I’d get some cramming school outside of the regular school to learn English and that helped me. But until I got to —
Tim Ferriss: So the cram school, just for people who might not know what that is, that’s like an additional night school that you would go to to strengthen your abilities in a certain subject.
Bo Shao: Yes, that is correct. And I remember my English was always — definitely I was very unsure and not confident about my English. Until one summer maybe somewhere in middle school, where I spent probably half the summer listening to a few tapes. It was a textbook called New Concept English, I think from the UK. And I’d listen to those tapes over and over again until I pretty much memorized it. I could even talk, not just the texts of the lessons, but also including the copyright. Everything that the speaker was introducing, the book and everything.
Oxford Cambridge Press or whatever, all of those things I listened to so many times. I remember it was a little recorder. It was actually not a little, it was probably the size of a laptop but several times thicker. A recorder with these plastic buttons. And I’ll click rewind, play, rewind, play, rewind, play probably thousands of times during the summer. And I basically was able to mimic the speaker on the tape and memorized without trying to most of the things that he was saying. And then after that summer, my English just ceased to be a problem, it became something I became very comfortable with.
Tim Ferriss: What prompted you to listen to those tapes thousands of times? Was it the pending trip to the US for college or was it something else?
Bo Shao: No, I don’t know why. This is way before even going to the US appeared on the roadmap. It’s a good question. I think there’s a part of me that just really wanted to be excellent, I think. And this is actually a very important learning as I, actually in the past few months that I’m starting to realize. Let me explain this, this is actually important. I have this pattern of behavior that require me to want to be perfect in every situation, which is a burden.
And one of the reasons that I was unwilling whether that’s consciously or subconsciously to let that pattern of behavior go, is that I’m afraid that if I don’t follow this strict pattern, I will cease to be excellent. All the things that made me great or successful will disappear. And then I become lazy and all that. And I think subconsciously I was holding onto that pattern for fear of that happening. But as I connect however now with, I was just talking about, is that actually nobody forced me to do this. And I did it because there’s an innate drive in me I think, to do a good job of things I do, of things I touch.
And that the more in some ways I get in touch with that innate drive, but it’s not a pathological compulsion because when it’s innate drive, in certain situations it’s appropriate and certain situations it’s not appropriate. It’s a great tool in my toolbox. It’s a great trait of mine. But if I actually have more confidence this is within me, that’s my inner quality, then the more willing I’ll be letting these other pattern go. Does it make sense?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it does make sense. I think that if it is your default and you are not aware that you have a toolkit with other tools, and if you don’t have that developed self-awareness, then you are sort of sleepwalking through parts of your life with a hammer looking for nails, right?
Bo Shao: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: But as you develop more awareness of your capacities and also the side effects of misapplying the tool both for yourself and other people, then you develop different strategies, right? And you can also be easier on everyone including yourself in certain places. And like you said, there are times when it makes sense to pull out the big guns and focus on something intensely, but it doesn’t have to be figuring out how to shave 12 seconds off your trip to Starbucks by looking at 17 maps necessarily, right?
Bo Shao: Yeah. I mean, you could even go one step further that if the reason I had developed this particular coping mechanism or pattern of behavior or professionalism, is because I have an innate inclination. Because people react to trauma. I use the word trauma referring not to just say one time big event kind of a trauma like abuse, but trauma could happen over a long period of time of a repeat exposure to certain stimulus that does not meet one’s need. And I was exposed to a particular situation repeatedly. But however, my sister and I responded to that same situation differently because of our different innate inclinations. And so it’s no surprise that I developed this pattern of professionalism. That’s always there that I couldn’t control because I had innate inclination that’s good. But then it became almost bastardized or misused to cope with a situation that was very, very difficult.
Tim Ferriss: And the situation was the just overall household dynamic? Is that the situation you’re referring to?
Bo Shao: It’s difficult for me to talk about a bit here.
Tim Ferriss: And we can always cut things out later.
Bo Shao: Part of it is because it’s memory, but also I want to make sure that if my parents ever hear this, that they know that I love them dearly and they’ve done so much good for me. But there are certain things that simply when needs were not met. And one of the situations was my father was angry and very demanding and very controlling to the extreme. And also he was physically punishing as well so I was scared. I was scared, I think to the end of my wits. And some of this rage becomes at very unpredictable times. So I think I was constantly vigilant and constantly making sure I was performing. And also another thing in the family dynamics was that there was very little attention paid to how I feel. For the longest time I treated feelings like an evolutionary waste product like an appendix.
Rationality and analytics is what I’m built for and emotions just gets in the way and it’s serves no purpose. So I think for a long time until maybe the first time I met with my wife, I don’t think I had many feelings. I didn’t know what they were really.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, just to speak to that because I think part of the reason we bonded and ended up speaking for as long a time as we did when we first met is that that’s I think some shared experience that we have, in the sense that when you think emotions are a liability, you compartmentalize or dissociate in such a way to focus on the things that you feel you can control and apply like rationality, right? And becoming as Vulcan-like as possible.
But over time, and I’m sure we’ll talk more about this, things have a tendency to squeeze out the corners, even if you think you’ve put them in a nice tidy little box.
Bo Shao: Absolutely, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I would love to come back to your chronology just a little bit, and we’re going to dip in and out of a lot of these topics. When you first came to the United States, do you remember what things or any things that were very surprising to you? Whether about the US in general, about the students you ran into, anything at all. Did anything jump out at you as incredible, unbelievable, confusing, anything at all?
Bo Shao: There was too many things to count really. I came from a country back then in 1991 where people didn’t even have phones in their homes, most people. And when I had to call home, I needed to make sure I arrange a time with my parents over regular mail or over the previous phone call, so that they can go to my neighbor who had a phone and they would wait by the phone when I call, right? But when I got to the US I remember, I guess vignettes might be illustrative, was that when I landed in Los Angeles on my way to Boston, I needed to call home to make sure that they know that I’m okay. And by the way, it’s hard to for me to imagine now that my oldest daughter’s off to college, to imagine a parent sending their kids off to college knowing that they may never see him again.
Because for them, going to America, it’s not just getting on a flight. Seriously, they may never see me again. And so some of the courage they displayed and the selflessness they displayed is breathtaking. But when I called home from Los Angeles airport, I was using a public phone, which is the first time I had ever probably seen a public phone. And I remember having to put in maybe several dollars worth of quarters into the phone, but the phone refused to connect. And I put more money in, it would still refuse to connect. So eventually I became frustrated and I switched to the phone next to it and that pay phone worked. I put in a couple of dollars or something like that. I connected and told them I was okay.
And as I was on the phone, a cleaning lady came by and was cleaning all the phones. And she puts her finger into the coin return slot which I didn’t even know existed by the way, until she put her finger in and into the phone that I was previously using and she got out a whole handful of quarters, probably $10 worth of quarters. And she was so happy. She looked at me and smiled and it took me several days, maybe weeks after I arrived in Boston to realize, actually, those quarters were mine. Those quarters were basically — I think the phone must have been full or something or was malfunctioning, so all the quarters I put into the previous phone basically went straight down into the return slot. But I didn’t realize it and it took me several days at least, probably longer to say, “Oh, that’s what happened. She was taking my money.”
Tim Ferriss: What did that feel like to you? And if you could describe also as you’ve continued on your journey, what that was like. I think this is important connective tissue for some of the rest of the avenues that we’ll be exploring.
Bo Shao: Well, when I got to Harvard, my focus was on grades. I needed to be number one. So I remember taking as many classes I could. The normal course load there was four courses.
Tim Ferriss: How many non-Chinese had you met before you got to the US? Had you met many non-Chinese?
Bo Shao: I think I met, really spent time with, was one non-Chinese person, and his name was Nicholas Kristof, he’s the New York Times columnist, and now I think he just announced he’s running for the governor of Oregon. But back then he was living in Beijing as a journalist and he was interviewing for Harvard.
Tim Ferriss: He was an alumnus who was interviewing folks.
Bo Shao: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Got it.
Bo Shao: I think I took the first train ride alone to go from Shanghai to Beijing to meet him, to be interviewed, I think he was the only non-Chinese person that I met. I might have met a cousin who was born in America, who came back to China. But as far as a white person who was concerned, I think he was the first one.
Tim Ferriss: Then you get to Harvard and you’re like, “Oh, my God. There’s so many laowai.” Then you’re like, “Wait a second. I’m laowai!”
Bo Shao: Yeah. Yeah. I think I was so out of it. I was so unsophisticated that none of these thoughts much occurred to me. I was just so focused on studying. I just needed to study.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, wow. So you just had blinders on. You’re like —
Bo Shao: Yeah. It’s like just —
Tim Ferriss: People from all over the world? Whatever. Distraction. We focus on grades.
Bo Shao: I remember, also, one of the first classes I needed to take was Exposé, which is a writing class, which is supposed to be a hellish, difficult, a writing class for a college entrance as a freshman. I did very well. I think my first essay was read to the class, which is pretty amazing. Because I never written a English essay before until that point, not counting the application essays. The first essay got an A, but eventually my whole grade for the course was A minus. I was very unhappy about that. I remember calling the professor and complaining that how he could give me A minus.
Tim Ferriss: How dare that professor.
Bo Shao: He was very confused. He said, “A minus! really good, and it’s amazing that you’re writing so well, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” But I said, “Well, but I write well. Why am I getting A minus?” I was so focused on grades at the time.
Tim Ferriss: I want to flash forward. I’ll often bookend things like this because I want to, in part, flush out the picture in the mind’s eye for listeners of China. Because it’s very easy to look at the other, whatever the other is, and be like, “Well, all people in Afghanistan X, the Chinese Y, the Americans Z.” I’d like to humanize a bit, also, Chinese people. Because China is not, as much as people might think so in the Western world, it’s not uniform top to bottom east to west. I mean, there’s a lot that happens in China, many differences regionally, and so on.
But present day in the last few years, you’re helping bring MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to China. I would like to hear you describe why you are doing that and why you think it’s important. Why it applies. This will just be a way of also edging into a couple of different topics. Then we’re going to go back to your bio and begin to talk about BCG in 1999 and consulting projects for the Singapore government. We’re going to go there. But first, I want to just ask why MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in China, or to China?
Bo Shao: We’re trying to work on it there. I’m not sure we how much progress we are making, but it’s a very worthwhile effort for us because in some ways, people everywhere share most of the similar aspirations. And regardless of their color or social economic status, go through very similar traumas in some ways. As I got to know many of my fellow countrymen over years, particularly the successful ones, actually. That as they share some of the stories about themselves that they never told other people, that we all have so much her hurt inside of us and everywhere. These hurts, some could be very easily felt. Some of it is deeply buried and maybe even subconscious. So many people, and I would say so many of us, because I’m certainly one of them, develop certain views of oneself that we somehow think that we’re something wrong with us, that we are not worthwhile, that we have no value other than the things we do.
It’s just breathtaking how much suffering there is. I use the word suffering in the Buddhist sense, even though I’m not a Buddhist. So MDMA and other psychedelic medicine that have huge healing potential, that I feel really passionate about help bringing that to the world. Certainly I’m not the main person doing it. I like to contribute where I can to bring that to the world, including China. In China in particular, China went through some very tough periods after World War II. There’s a period called the Cultural Revolution. Prior to that, there’s an anti-rightist movement that lasted more or less for 15 years, that really traumatized an entire generation of people.
Tim Ferriss: Can you speak to what that trauma looked like? Because I think a lot of folks listening, they won’t be able to conjure any images of what happened during either of those.
Bo Shao: I could start with something personal. In my family, my grandparents’ family were relatively well to do. When the Cultural Revolution came, there will be Red Guards will come from house to house to search for all the valuables. You have to give them up. Every single thing you have. If the Red Guards want it, you have to give it. There are stories of people as I was growing up, heard that some people bury some treasures in the backyard because they don’t want to give it up. Then Red Guards would come and pour water on the backyard. When the water sinks in a particular place, they would dig it up. Those, obviously, they will confiscate that and probably either torture or kill the people who try to bury it, or imprison the people who try to bury it. It was this incredible terror that happened to people.
Then there was also this race to show your purity, your ideological purity, toward the sort of totalitarian, what do you call it? Proletarian? What’s the right —
Tim Ferriss: Proletariats.
Bo Shao: Proletariat revolution. You have to chant the right things and you have to in every turn —
Tim Ferriss: The proletariat. The workers, or the working class people regarded collectively.
Bo Shao: Yes. That’s right. You have to chant, you have to follow all the dictates of Chairman Mao. In the middle of the night, you might be forced to get up and you cannot complain. If you complain, you are disloyal. To go on the streets at two o’clock in the morning to march and to shout slogans at the top of your lungs.
There’s a story that if somebody — actually, there’s a real story that my father actually tried to help somebody. Somebody who’s a good teacher, was denounced of not being loyal to the party, and he spoke up for this person and then he got in trouble for it. Later on, much to his dismay and disappointment and anger, this person made up stories about him. Instead of being grateful and helping him, the other victim actually made up stories about my father to protect himself. Because the more you denounce other people and tell secrets about other people, the more protected you are. You show your loyalty. During Cultural Revolution, many children were forced to tell on their parents. That created, you can imagine, the amount of distrust that creates amongst everybody.
Tim Ferriss: Terrible.
Bo Shao: I was so scared. My father was put on for a few times because he came from a rich family, and also because I think he helped this other person, he was put on a platform in front of hundreds of people, denouncing him, spitting on him. He would wear tall hats that could be very heavy for hours while standing in front of hundreds of people denouncing, shouting things at him. He didn’t get the worst deal. There were people who got more or less lynched. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands of people. And millions. I think it was millions of people were sent to the countryside to do manual labor, to reform their thinking.
It was really — I mean, this is all from secondhand because I was too young. I was only a few years. Some of it happened before I was born. But other times, I was maybe one or two years old, so this is all through secondhand. But there’s so many stories. This is a period of time that is not often discussed. But I would say this whole country has PTSD.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Bo Shao: It’s very hard to imagine going through that. I mean, war, of course, can be very traumatic. That’s in a physical form, of course, and very scary. But when a country goes through this kind of a internal convulsion where people are betraying each other left and right every single day, it’s hard to imagine the impact on the psyche of a generation of people.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for sharing all that context. I think this is really important on a number of levels, I think, for people to gain an appreciation of. I say people, probably referring to those who haven’t had firsthand experience. One film that may be interesting to folks, and I don’t know if you’ve seen it. I’d be curious to hear if you have. But there is a Chinese filmmaker named, I don’t know the tones on his name, but Zhang Yimou. Y-I-M-O-U.
He made a film called To Live, which is I guess, [foreign language], that was initially denied theatrical release in mainland China but later, I believe, was made available. It covers the working class experience through a number of very difficult periods of modern Chinese history from the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s to the Cultural Revolution.
Zhang Yimou has a beautiful cinematography style. It’s usually very color saturated and stars a number of folks who have appeared in many of his films like Gong Li, who I had quite a crush on when I was in China in ’96. Oh, my God. But that’s also an option for people who might want to — this film, To Live, was released in 1994. So people can try to find it.
I’d love to come back to your experience in the US. We flash, then, to say — and you tell me if this is the right place to start. Maybe there are things that happened beforehand that are worth noting. But it seems like you have your first job, sort of real official job, BCG, where your mandate is to give advice to these big companies and were paying you guys a fortune. At some point, I don’t know if it was BCG, but you had a consulting project for the Singaporean government. Is it fair to say that was an important turning point and milestone for you?
Bo Shao: That was definitely a turning point. I think I made a few big decisions in my life that all worked out and there was a general theme of getting closer to who I really am versus what I was made to be by the environment. But one decision was starting a company, and I was inspired by a field study that I did with a couple other students at the end of my business school, studying what internet models worked at the time and which of those can be successfully adapted to Asia. This is in 1999, really at the height of the internet boom in the US.
What we discovered was that most business models didn’t make a lot of sense. There was a lot of hype, lot of bubble. But we thought the eBay business model really is incredible. So I looked into whether anybody was doing that in China and the answer was no in 1998. So I said, “Oh. Okay. When I graduate, I will go back to start the online auction website in China.” That was a huge step for me because up to that point, I was this steady person. I was a math geek. Then even when I got a job, it was one of the most established and prominent firms, it’s all very understandable. It’s like a very steady thing. I also left my sort of my back door open. There’s a way to back because I actually got a deferral in a PhD program in physics when I initially took my job at BCG. So I had a backup. So, always very safe and steady.
But, going back to China, not getting a green card from the US in 1999 to start a company whose business model I couldn’t even explain to my parents. I’m convinced to this day they do not know what that business is. Because you could say I don’t even sell things. I didn’t even sell things. I was building a platform for other people to sell things. I didn’t have a store, even. No departments. It’s mind-boggling what that platform really means. So, that was a big, big step. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, whatsoever, despite business school.
Tim Ferriss: I want to, well, ask a couple things. How did your parents respond to this?
Bo Shao: Well, to their credit, they didn’t say a thing. I was living at home. Then when I got back to China in 1999, I had an office in another apartment, really, it’s not an office, in an apartment building. I couldn’t find anybody to work with me really. I didn’t know anybody, really, other than my high school classmates. Because I was out of the country for what, by then, eight years, the only people I knew were my high school classmates. My first recruit was a high school classmate of mine who was trading stock at home. He didn’t have much to lose, so he joined me. I couldn’t find even programmers. Back then, building an internet website is not a thing.
Tim Ferriss: It’s not a thing.
Bo Shao: No.
Tim Ferriss: Yet.
Bo Shao: Right. In 1999 China, it was all dial-up modems back then, by the way. There’s some internet access, it was all dial-up modems. My kids don’t even know what dial-up modems are these days. Yeah, I was the only guy. I found two part-time programmers who used to work for the Shanghai electricity bureau. They never built a website before ever. They were IT maintenance people. But they knew some Microsoft ASP programming language. They didn’t want to quit their jobs. So they would go to their regular bureau jobs, government jobs, and work from 6:00 p.m. to like midnight every night, build the website. Then they’ll go back to their regular jobs. Good thing the job is not very demanding, so they could sleep during the day in the office. At night, they work for us, work for me, I guess.
So we have these basically four employees, three employees and me. Then they built the website after I think two months, surprisingly. I just finished the website. Of course, as soon as they launched, it promptly crashed. It was a long — but thing is, my parents didn’t say anything. They just said, “Oh, okay.” Really to my father’s credit, particularly, he knew that he didn’t know what he didn’t know. He trusted me to make my own decisions.
Tim Ferriss: Now, this is a leading question, of course. But is there any element of you already having brought honor and reputation to the family through winning the competitions, going to Harvard, where effectively, you had already passed any sort of test that you might need to pass in your father’s, from his perspective? Or do you think that’s not a factor?
Bo Shao: I think he was incredibly proud of me, for sure. Winning so many math competitions in China was a big deal. When I initially was thinking of going overseas to study, we even got a call from the Shanghai government saying that, oh, they wish that I do not leave before my senior year, because in senior year I have the chance to participate potentially in the math Olympiad and win gold medals or whatnot for the country and that will bring honor to the Shanghai government and all that. So he was very proud of me from that. Of course, going to Harvard is a big deal as one of the earliest — I think another student from Shanghai and myself got the whole foreign student thing directly coming from China started. Well, that was the first year. I think after that every year was two, three students getting full scholarships.
So he was very, very proud. Though, putting myself in his shoes, imagining my own kid giving all of that up, even including a green card in the US, which is this incredible, a valuable, unattainable thing most people view, to go back to China to start something. The startup thing, entrepreneurship is unheard of more or less in China back then. If you’re an entrepreneur I guess you start a food store or something. You don’t start companies really back then. So, for them not to say anything to me, to question and whatnot, I think it’s still a big deal. I really —
Tim Ferriss: It’s still a big deal. Yeah.
Bo Shao: Yeah. I really, really value them for it. Really appreciate it.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s take a look into your experience during that time. Because it does seem pretty wild, given all of the factors. BCG can pay well. Consulting certainly can pay well. You’re coming out of Harvard. Your parents previously making $10 to $20 a month, suddenly you’re in a position to get a green card to take any number of jobs that would pay you who knows how much money. I have no idea. But you know, 50,000, 100,000, who knows more, maybe. What was going on internally in your mind, or otherwise, that gave you — because you’re a certainly highly rational person, so I don’t believe the decision to go to China to be an entrepreneur was an impulsive move that wasn’t thought through. How did you think through the pros and cons and risks of doing that? Because from the outside looking in without any explanation, it does kind of look crazy.
Bo Shao: Interesting. Let me think. Well, I was very rational for sure. Actually, for a while, I was deciding between going back to BCG versus going to work for Goldman Sachs where I summer interned during the middle of my business school.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Both known for paying more than minimum wage, generally.
Bo Shao: That’s right. I think I definitely could have made more than a hundred thousand dollars a year at age 25. But, let me see. I was preparing even a spreadsheet, listing the pros and cons. I think one person I met who was a senior person at BCG in China asked me a question, was like, “What do you want to do? Putting aside all these pros and cons, what do you want to do?” That sort of stumped me, actually, because I didn’t really know what I wanted. All my life, frankly, nobody really asked me that question, what I wanted, up until that point.
Now, I think one big decision I made for myself was to be with my now wife, then girlfriend. That was a huge thing for me, which we can go back to. But, in terms of career, I was just going through whatever the most popular thing was. BCG when I graduated from college was the most popular career choice, BCG and McKinsey, and got an offer from both. Then after BCG, going to business school was the most popular choice after two years. So I got an offer from both Stanford and Harvard Business School. That was the clear choice. Going back to China, however, was not a popular choice. I think about 12 Chinese students in the Harvard Business School graduating class of my year, I think I was the only person going back to China. Then actually a few years later, all, I think 10 of the 12, eventually all went back to China. That’s a different story.
But that was not popular back then. And starting companies certainly wasn’t popular. I guess — well, take it back. I think starting internet companies in 1999, 1998/99 might have been a popular choice. But I don’t think I was driven by that. I think it was driven because I really saw an opportunity and I felt that it’s such a good business, and that it should be created. I think there was this kind of belief that this is a business worthwhile to be created. Since nobody else is doing it, I should be doing it. Now of course, I didn’t know that back then, several other companies were preparing to launch. So I definitely wasn’t the only, or even the first one, to launch. But I felt like this is something that should happen.
Tim Ferriss: If we look at that decision, you had this conversation with a BCG partner in China who asked you what you really wanted, and you saw this opportunity. Did you also have a contingency plan in the case that it didn’t work out?
Bo Shao: Oh, yes I did, actually. Actually, I told BCG, their senior partner in China, that I will start the business for few months and then after a few months, the business should be in good shape, then I’ll go back to BCG.
Tim Ferriss: “We’ll have it all figured out in a few months.”
Bo Shao: “I will figure everything out, it will be steady, it will be autopilot, and then I can go work at BCG.” No. I have no idea what he thought about my — I think his name is John Wong, and what he thought about what I said at the time. But he was very generous and he said, “Okay. That’s okay.” And he agreed to it. So I think he held my place for at least a year, I think.
Tim Ferriss: So this is really important. I know I’ve said that about a number of points. But it’s so common for, I think, I would usually — you were talking about dial-up modems. I need to stop using the example of people on magazine covers, because now the only time you ever see magazines is in the airport. They’re just not really a thing anymore. But the profiles, and so on, that you read about entrepreneurs tend to be turned into these romanticized action movies. There’s certainly a lot of action. But when someone says, “Zuckerberg dropped out of college.” Right? People hear that and they think, “Oh, my God. He threw it all away, burned the ships, bet it all.” And it’s like, “Actually that’s not what happened.” Because in many of these schools, you have the ability to defer graduation or come back over a certain period of time, or maybe at any point in time. It’s, I think, helpful for would-be entrepreneurs to hear that oftentimes the best entrepreneurs do take calculated risks, but they also mitigate risk. Right? So you had had this conversation and you had, in a sense, a safety net of sorts so that you could do this experiment and see what would happen with the company. I think that it’s really helpful to peek behind the scenes.
Bo Shao: That’s a good point.
Tim Ferriss: So if we go back to the company, at the time when you were first getting started with the IT guys who were sleeping in the office during their day job and working at night, what was the name of the company?
Bo Shao: It was called EachNet. Like each and everybody’s net.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. EachNet.
Bo Shao: Yeah. In Chinese, it means “interesting exchanges.”
Tim Ferriss: Interesting exchanges. How do you say that in Chinese? Or what was the name?
Bo Shao: [Foreign language] E means exchange. Chu means interesting, or fun.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Got it.
Bo Shao: So the sound actually works. The translation works.
Tim Ferriss: That’s cool. It’s a transliteration, but you also have the meaning.
Bo Shao: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Which, by the way, anyone listening, if you ever ask a Chinese person to “Write my name in Chinese,” part of the reason it’s so hard is you have to think very carefully about what the characters mean. You can’t just grab the phonetics and —
Bo Shao: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: Just throw something on paper. You have to be very careful about what the actual meaning is. Actually, I don’t know if I ever told you, Bo, when I first went to China and was studying at the Beijing, what is it in English? I can’t even remember. The Beijing [foreign language].
Bo Shao: Oh, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: The Beijing Capital University of Economics and Business.
Bo Shao: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss:I had been given my name, my Chinese name, at Princeton, which was [foreign language], which is like [foreign language] So it’s sort of “expense” in a way, is the meaning, [foreign language] would be like a “tip,” like in Spanish or whatever. But so funny enough, you were saying that your parents would call you “Little Bo,” right?
Bo Shao: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: If people use that with me, my name meant “tip.” So that was problem number one with my Chinese name. So Fei was for my last name Ferriss, right? And then TingCheng. So the T sound was Tim and they used Cheng with [foreign language], right? So because I was always so blunt in class, it was like —
Bo Shao: Oh, I see.
Tim Ferriss: “Tim very honest,” because I was a pain in the ass. But the problem with that name or one of the problems, well, I’ll give two examples of problems, when I got to China and you’re telling people your name and it’s a strange kind of transliterated foreign name, it’s not always clear what the hell you’re saying.
And so some people thought my name was [foreign language], which is “airport,” right? So, that was a problem. They were like, “Your name is airport; that’s strange.” Other people heard my name as FeiTing Chang instead of Cheng, and so “Tim very long” also has problems. So ultimately we changed my name to FeiYu Chang and Yu is like [foreign language] but without the [foreign language] at the bottom, it’s a pretty rare character. But anyway, so this is just a long way of saying you have to think very carefully about how you name things in Chinese.
Bo Shao: Yeah. By the way for the readers, for the listeners who do not know Chinese, I would say your Chinese is actually really good. Your Chinese pronunciation is very good.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, thanks, man. It’s very rusty, but I hope to get back at some point, get back to China, because the China I know is 1996 China. I mean, this is like People’s Liberation —
Bo Shao: Oh, yeah, my God —
Tim Ferriss: Green jackets, Silk Road with DVDs, burners inside jackets and bicycles. I mean, that’s the Beijing I know.
Bo Shao: I’ve got to take you back to China. You will be just shocked. Your jaw will be on the floor.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah, visit the sci-fi future. So coming back to EachNet, when did you actually feel like it was working or you thought to yourself, “Oh, my God, this might actually work.” When was that moment, or what were some of the signs, any signs, where you were like, “Okay, maybe this is the thing.”
Bo Shao: It’s a constant roller coaster. So there are many moments I said, “Oh, this is working.” But then there other moments, “Holy shit, this is not working.” It goes up and down. There’ll be times when initially we raise, I think I’d raise a small NGO round like a few, $300-400k, but then we raise $6.5 million, I think in October of 1999, and that was a lot of money back then. And these days a Series A of 6.5 million is really, is very small, but back then, it’s actually a fairly substantial amount of money. So definitely I thought, “Oh, things are going well.” But then it turns out five months later, I spent it all. Five months. And the thing is, I didn’t even know I spent it all. At one point my financial controller came to say, “Do you know that we have no more money? That we are not going to pay everyone’s salary next month?” I said, “Really? I didn’t even know.” That’s how little I know about really running a business. It’s actually really, thinking back —
Tim Ferriss: It’s pretty embarrassing for a math champion.
Bo Shao: That’s right. So that’s clearly things were not working, right? And then we need to I guess what do you call it? In Chinese will be [foreign language], which means that you have to tighten your belts, I guess.
Tim Ferriss: Tighten your belt. Yeah. What did you spend all that money on?
Bo Shao: Advertising.
Tim Ferriss: Ah.
Bo Shao: We were one of, I think we might be the first internet company in China to do TV advertising. So it made a big wave.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, TV. Wow.
Bo Shao: Yeah, so we had commercials made. It was very exciting and all that, and we got lot of users, and of course our website crashed all the time. And at one point I was afraid to go onto my own website, the thinking being that I might be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t want to add any load to our servers. That’s amazing, wow.
Bo Shao: I just give that valuable opportunity to somebody actually will find the site useful.
Tim Ferriss: Right, so quick question. The TV commercial. I bet you still remember parts of that TV commercial. What did you say? Do you remember any of it in Chinese? And then you can explain what it is in English. Do you remember any of it?
Bo Shao: I vaguely, I recall that our logo look like two Es facing each other, two Es with the other one being a mirror image of the other E facing each other. And I remember TV commercials around sort of like, I remember this logo of two Es, one is orange, one is green instead of talking to each other or playing with each other or something like that. That I do recall. But what they actually said to each other, I do not recall anymore.
Tim Ferriss: What was your tagline? Did you have a tagline for the company in Chinese or anything like that?
Bo Shao: Yeah. The Fun in Exchanges. [Foreign language], which in English means, “The fun in exchanges.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s good. I like that. All right so, awesome TV commercial, you’re not even on your own site because you don’t want to crash the servers, and you run out of money and your controller’s like, “Bo, we have a small problem. We’re not going to be able to make payroll.” What happens?
Bo Shao: Well, we were able to get —
Tim Ferriss: Tighten your belts.
Bo Shao: That’s right, I think actually got the team in play together and say like, okay, “We have no more money and we all need to take a pay cut.” So I think we all took like a 50 percent pay cut, our existing investors putting it up a few million dollars to bridge us. They were ultimately willing to do that, which I’m very grateful for. And then we went on a fundraising tour. And of course in, I think it was around February or March in 2000, the market crashed. The initial reception was very positive. People, without knowing the company, said, “We’re going to write you a $50 million check.” And but then the market crashed, and all of it basically went away.
Tim Ferriss: Just evaporates.
Bo Shao: I remember Credit First Boston was our banker to try to raise money for us. And we had a lead which shall remain unnamed. And was willing to write a 20 million, initially it was 50, and then became 20. But the one day I looked at and I read Wall Street Journal and on the front page, it says, “This firm is in trouble.” And when I read that, I said, “Uh-oh, that’s not good news. They’re probably not going to honor their commitment.”
So I thought about what I’m what I’m going to say. If the firm calls me to renege on their verbal commitment, their term sheet. And I said, I decided to ask them for five million instead of 20. I said, “If you give me five million,” I’ll first guilt trip them saying how much trouble they got me in, because I was counting on their money and all that. And then it was, I’ll make a request. “I need five million, not 20. If you give me five, I will raise the rest of the 20.” So lo and behold, the next day indeed, this person from this firm called and said —
Tim Ferriss: Good thing you saw that newspaper.
Bo Shao: Yeah, right. And he said, they need to just withdraw altogether. And I gave him my prepared spiel and he said that he will go back internally to see what he can do. Now, if I had said that, “Oh, this is all, thank you, I understand,” or “This is over,” If I didn’t make a specific request and I didn’t prepare, this would’ve been over.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Bo Shao: Instead, I made a specific request that has a chance of being honored. And then I had a very good friend who went to the boss and tried to reason and tried to cajole. And so eventually we did get five million. And then I begged many people to put in half a million, or a million, or whatnot. And eventually we were able to raise $20 million.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Bo Shao: And that’s how the company survived, and then thrived.
Tim Ferriss: Did you have a backup plan in case the immediate answer was no? Did you have, say if they say no to five million, “I’m going to come back with this other request?”
Bo Shao: That was Plan B.
Tim Ferriss: No, yeah.
Bo Shao: No, there was no backup. I think we would have to dissolve, I think, yeah. Well, I mean, I don’t know what the existing investor would’ve done, but I think it would be hard pressed for them to put up a lot more money without profitability in sight.
Tim Ferriss: I have to ask you, Bo, because I’ve noticed this in many of our conversations, you have an incredibly broad English vocabulary, like “cajole,” right. I mean, you have a very nuanced English vocabulary, which is not always the case, it’s actually rarely the case I find, with a lot of non-native speakers. How did you accumulate such a vocabulary?
Bo Shao: I guess I have Harvard to thank.
Tim Ferriss: What, was it Harvard? Because I know a lot of people, I know a lot of native speakers I went to Princeton with, do not have your vocabulary.
Bo Shao: Okay so, here’s the story. So what happened was actually, this is actually not, I know the why, the reason, it’s a good, so what happened was when I was applying for a college in the US in 1990, when I was in China in my junior year of high school, I couldn’t provide standardized testing results because SAT was not offered in China at the time. Now, I think it is. So I can take the TOEFL, which is the English test for foreigners, which I passed and did very well in. But the school still wanted some kind of standardized test results of just, like the SATs. And in fact, I couldn’t apply to MIT because of it, because MIT was not willing to give a waiver of SAT.
If I got into MIT, I probably would’ve gone to MIT, given my orientation at the time. But I was able to convince Harvard and other schools to take the GRE, and GRE being the Graduate Record Examination, which is for PhD programs. And that was offered in China. So I took the GRE test and aced it, I think I got 2260, I think was like the third highest in the country at that time or something like that. And that helped the application process. But one of the GRE, I don’t know if it still does or not, but it had a verbal section, which is basically testing of vocabulary. And I remember it was much harder than the SAT verbal sections, much —
Tim Ferriss: It’s much harder. Yeah, much harder.
Bo Shao: So I remember getting this huge book of words that I needed to remember, and I just spent several — one or two months just studying that book, remembering every word.
Tim Ferriss: What happens internally, or what do you do when you need to focus for an extended period of time? Because you have that as a superpower. When you need to say, sit down, if you had a new test coming up and needed to sit down and study something, what does Bo’s studying look like? And that could be things that you do, or how you prepare, but it could also be your internal state shift, or internal monologue, or self talk, anything.
Bo Shao: I think it turns out that I learned how to meditate without knowing that it was meditation. I have a very good ability to focus because of that. And I think the meditation I did was when I tried to add the poker cards together, when I was very young. And to add 50 cards, 52 cards together in that 12 seconds, I needed to get rid of all thought. If I start worrying, if I start trying to consciously add it, it wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be that fast. So I need to get myself out of the way. I remember looking up into the sky or into the ceiling and just for, there’s a particular way I blanked my mind. But the mind can still see of course, but there is a particular process of suppressing thought, I guess, or getting out of the egoic kind of self and with no attachment, also.
Another key thing was no attachment to the result, because the more attached I became, the more agitated, and I was thinking that it wouldn’t work, and then I failed. And it actually there’d be times when I was basically cried because I could do 20, 30 times in a row and either they were wrong, or it took too much time so that it doesn’t count. I need to get 10 times right under the right limit every day. And the limit kept decreasing as I became more successful. And my father set it that way. So I would, sometimes at the end of my rope, I needed to blank my mind, and also not to feel any kind of attachment to how I do. And that’s when I did my best work. And I think I was, and to me, that’s in some ways just meditation and I think I was able to develop that muscle without knowing that it’s actually really a form of meditation.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, it certainly strikes me as meditation. And I think a lot of athletes also enter meditative states without calling it meditation. Thank you for answering that question. I’ve actually always wondered that about you. So if we come back to EachNet, how’d that turn out? Just so people kind of know how the movie ends in a sense?
Bo Shao: We can do a whole session on this, but I want to be very short about it, but it’s basically, it became successful, became the largest e-commerce company in China. We sold it to eBay for a price I couldn’t say no to in 2003. And I retired after that, and unfortunately that was actually my, I was planning to run it, but a family tragedy prevented me from doing it. I needed to be with my wife to support her. So end up not running the firm a couple months after I sold it. And then eBay did not do well.
I still feel sad about it because it was my baby. And for many reasons, a multinational company like eBay couldn’t do well in China. So we went from 80 percent+ market share in e-commerce down to five percent in the matter of a few years. Jack Ma at the time was in the B2B business e-commerce, but he launched the e-commerce B2C, C2C e-commerce business right around the time when I sold my company. And their company is called Talbot, and the new company started is called Taobao, which became the biggest e-commerce player in China after about 10 years or so, while eBay really struggled, despite having a huge head start. So, and I guess people say this, the rest is history.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned your wife, and you mentioned also earlier in the conversation how important it sounded like meeting her and committing to that relationship was, could you expand on that? Especially because you also confessed earlier that you viewed emotions as distractions.
Bo Shao: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So I’d love for you to say a bit more about all of that.
Bo Shao: Yeah. I think I met her and I just simply fell in love with her, head over heels. There’s no other, just a truck hit me and I didn’t even know what happened. It was —
Tim Ferriss: Where did you meet?
Bo Shao: I was in business school and she was in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. So she was the last year, last few months of her time there, and I was doing my first year of business school. And I fell in love, became very irrational, I started just basic, I believe that she is meant to be with me and I’m meant to be with her. No fear, no worry. I went all out and the biggest mystery in some ways is that she loves me back. She loved me, and loves me back. Even though I was very flawed at the time.
But I guess in front of her, I was emotional. I was extremely passionate. I was considerate. I let all the things I suppressed, I think, show up in a way that was not conscious. It was out of my control. And without her, I don’t think I would be the person that I’m today. So it’s not only I have a life companion and my best friend, but also that being with her enabled me to blossom. That whatever that was hidden deep and buried, blossomed.
Now, to be clear, I only was that way with her. For the longest time, I was still the same cold, unemotional, analytical, judgmental me with everybody else for many years after that. So there will be, very incongruent, Jekyll and Hyde kind of scenarios where I will be just lecturing my employees in a very kind of analytical and judgemental way. Then my phone would ring. I’ll pick up. I became like a little kitten, talking to her in small voices “I love you,” and “I miss you,” blah, blah, blah, and I’ll hang up. And I went back straight to the old, straight-faced robot that I was. It was, many people have commented that what I was like at the time.
Tim Ferriss: So you retire, well, how old were you when you retired? And I’m going to put that in quotation marks.
Bo Shao: Yeah, I was 29 years old. I was surprised actually, because after the first few months of, really first week of ecstasy, I was famous on TV all the time and everything — life was the same as before.
Tim Ferriss: Funny how that happens, yeah.
Bo Shao: And it was a bit disorienting because I think I go to picture, I think most people probably do, that somehow you sort of, when you reach that level, your life will become different. Somehow, like in some ways we are, I wasn’t even sure what I was searching for, but whatever I was searching for I thought like, “Oh, if you get that kind of success, whatever you search for you would’ve received it. Found it.” But actually, it didn’t happen. I was still the same old me, and very little changed.
Tim Ferriss: We may just have to have a round two at some point, and obviously we talk a lot separately, so maybe we can figure that out, but I know that we have, let’s just call it, how much more time do you have Bo, like 20 minutes, 30 minutes?
Bo Shao: I have 30 minutes or so.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, okay. So we have another 30 minutes, and we may dig into this separately. You ended up doing many things after that. You were a founding partner of Matrix China, which manages more than $7 billion and has funded more than 500 companies, 50 plus of which have become unicorns. There’s more to the resume, obviously, and you continue to be hard-charging in a lot of ways —
Bo Shao: Yeah, and the resume is not the most important part about me, which I want to —
Tim Ferriss: Right. So this is the segue, which is, the way we met was in part around the discussion of inner journey and turning the eye and attention inward. Right, we didn’t meet at a business networking event. We weren’t doing a joint venture together. We met in a very personal context. How did that start for you? How did that process, and I know process is a broad term, but when did that become a priority and how did it become a priority for you?
Bo Shao: Yeah. First I would say that I had no interest in any kind of inner work for a long, long time. In fact, I would look down on people who go to retreats or meditations, whatnot, and I’d say, “What the hell are these people doing? They don’t have better things to do in life?” I was sort of, I found it almost disgusting, despicable back then, actually. So I had no interest, but life, I think has a way of, if one pays attention, I guess, to send little reminders. So the first reminder I got was, “Hey!” I was still the same me with some of the same kind of patterns and behavior, the same level of happiness and joy that I had before the big success and looking back, I realized that compared to the life I have today, the life back then was more of a black white television, and today is more colorful television.
It’s hard to describe the difference if I only watched black and white television all my life. And the reason I use this example was because I grew up with a 9″ black and white television, which felt totally fine for all my life. And without having seen an 80″ color television, the 9″ black and white looked completely adequate and comfortable. And I think that’s where I was back then. My life didn’t have a lot of color, didn’t have joy, I never cried, really. I never laughed, never smiled, really. I never even felt lonely, interestingly. I felt alone, but not lonely. But I think some of these things showed up a little bit like, oh, I sort of start wondering, what am I missing? There’s a little, little, little things that I think, but very small. On that alone, I don’t think I would’ve embarked on the journey.
Another reminder was how different my life was with Jenny, my wife, versus with other people. And also I see how she behaves with other people in a way that’s sort of beyond my comprehension. I remember one time she was, we were having dinner with a friend and the friend started talking about how he lost his father, and my wife just stood up and went to hug him. And I was dumbfounded.
It never would occur to me to do it. He was telling a story, I’m listening, but I was not in touch with the emotional content, the story. And my wife clearly was, and she is one of the most empathetic person alive that I know. So some part of me started wondering, “What’s going on? What am I missing?” And also I noticed that I could work with people for a decade and not become friends with them, but she would then go to dinner with their significant other, the four of us would go to dinner or lunch, and then she becomes friends with them — but not me. Even though I’ve known them for 10 years and she knows them for like one day. So that sort of started like, “Am I missing something? Is friendship something I value?” Because up until a few years ago, I didn’t consider myself as having friends, but I always told myself I don’t need friends. So that was a —
Tim Ferriss: I want to ask, actually, just a follow up there, why did you not consider yourself to have friends? Is it because you viewed getting close to people as having little upside and a lot of potential downside? Why did you see things that way?
Bo Shao: Yeah, it was not a rational decision. I think deep down if I were to answer honestly, it is because I think I don’t deserve a friend. And I thought, and still a part of me probably still thinks that there’s something wrong with me, that I don’t deserve any friends, that nobody would really take an interest in my feelings and in what I have to say unless what I would have to say is useful. So, when I’m a position, I’m a board member, investor, or somebody who could educate or whatever, or help, then I feel comfortable, like this relationship has substance. But if it’s simply a friendship, a part of me doesn’t understand it, doesn’t feel that why would you or other people take an interest in the inside of me. I didn’t have that trust.
Of course, this has a lot to do with how I was brought up, and I’m still in the process of understanding and feeling it fully. But I’ve told myself for the longest time I don’t need any friends, at least that’s the conscious thought. But deeper down, realization happened much more slowly, and I think it’s still happening as we speak. It’s a continuous journey of discovery and being free from those patterns I developed, right?
Tim Ferriss: I know you’ve —
Bo Shao: So I think that’s —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, go ahead. Please, go ahead.
Bo Shao: I was going to say that’s the second thing, in terms of friendship or relationship with other people, I see myself with Jenny in a different way, I see Jenny with other people in a different way. That’s all got me thinking a little bit. Is it okay if I continue on this one?
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. Of course.
Bo Shao: All right. And the third, which I think is probably the biggest one that I couldn’t avoid looking at was being a father. I was a terrible father. And for a while on the Chinese Twitter, Weibo, I was reasonably popular, and a lot of people followed me and my motto, I guess, whatever I wrote right under my name, was “a perfect husband but a so-so father.”
And I think I was giving myself too much credit. I don’t think I was a so-so father, I think I was a terrible father looking back. I didn’t know how to be one. I knew how to be a teacher, I knew how to be a disciplinary, but I didn’t know how to be a father the way I understand it now. I didn’t know how to spend time with them, I did not know how to give them love and attention, I didn’t know how to give them support when they need it, emotional support in particular, when they need it.
And I also just did not enjoy being a father. I remember my wife will remind me to go spend time with my kids when it’s eight o’clock at night or something like that before they went to bed. And my thought at the time was, “Why should I?” And I felt some kind of resentment being called to do my job. It was really funny thinking back, but back then I really didn’t enjoy it.
And that got me thinking a little bit, “Hey, there’s something missing here.” People talk about being a father being enjoyable, but I really didn’t enjoy it. And also, I knew that I was doing something wrong because I was repeating some of the mistakes that my father made. That was sort of shocking because you would imagine that you would never do what was done to you that you didn’t like, but I was repeating the same thing. And if my wife didn’t stop me, I would’ve been worse, far worse.
So one of the things that my father, for example, did to me is if he got really angry, he would throw me out of the home or threaten to throw me out of the home. And I did that to my son, and that was very traumatic for him. He still remembers it today. Even for like two seconds, closing the door, it was so bad, but I didn’t know what else to do. That was all I knew. When I got desperate as a father, when something happens outside of my control, I got desperate. So I guess I resorted to what worked because, from a short-term perspective, what my father did to me worked. I became obedient.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Thank you for sharing, Bo. I’m really glad that we’re having this conversation. I think it’s going to be meaningful to a lot of people. And I’d love to hear, as you began observing these behaviors, as perhaps Jenny called things to your attention and you decided to try to change or at least become more aware, what are some of the things that you found helpful? What are some of the tools or modalities that end up being helpful? Because I would imagine in the beginning, certainly I had this experience myself. It’s hard to know where to begin, right?
Bo Shao: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: It’s kind of like a chimpanzee with a mirror or something, like you’re looking behind the mirror or like, “Am I supposed to see something over here? Am I suppose to see something over there?” And I would just love to hear, because I know that you have have tested many, many, many different things, what are some of say the tools, modalities or otherwise that you have found to be personally helpful?
Bo Shao: Yeah. I definitely tried many different things. In some ways, I’m like you, Tim, but when I get on something that’s important, then I would want to get to the bottom of it. I want to learn the best or from the best. Well, first of all, I would say that there are three components to being a good parent that I’ve learned, and these are not necessarily — they might be orthogonal to each other, meaning being good at one component doesn’t mean necessarily going to be good at the second component. So the three components, in my view, is one is understanding what’s going on inside of our children’s heads and what’s going on in their biology, in their psychology.
The main thing is, children are so different from us. We assume that they should have executive control of their body or of their mind or their actions. But the reality is, for example, for a boy, their prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until they’re in their 20s. So when they are 12, expecting them to behave in a disciplined way is simply not right, so understanding what’s going on inside of them is hugely, hugely important.
Tim Ferriss: From a developmental perspective, you mean.
Bo Shao: That’s right, from a developmental perspective. Both from a physical and neurobiology as well from a psychological development perspective. And there’s huge amount of science out there that unfortunately hasn’t been made available and accessible to parents, which is one of the things one of our companies is working on.
And a second is, as parents, why do we get triggered? Why did I get triggered in certain ways? My reactive patterns, which were usually formed very early on in my own childhood. Maybe my own insecurity gets reflected in certain things and then, that’s why we got triggered.
So, for example, if a parent always wished they went to the best schools, and they’re feeling down on themselves for not having gone to the best schools, they’re probably going to be more demanding of the child. And if the child has bad grades, they probably tend to be more triggered. So there’s all sorts of things we need to understand of our own self and our own childhood that would enable us to be a better parent.
In some ways, I went into a lot of these workshops thinking that I just need to learn a tool or trick or some kind of way, like positive discipline or whatever it is, to be a better parent. And to a certain extent, those tools and modalities help, but foundational wise, I needed to become a better person, quote unquote, in some ways to be a better parent.
And that has everything to do with our inner journey as an independent person and has nothing to do with us being a parent actually. That’s something that it’s really, really foundational. And then the third is what’s in the relational field between a parent and a child and becoming aware of that relational field any moment in time is really critical because when that relational field is not right, no amount of teaching on the rational side and analytical side will help because the kid’s brain is underdeveloped. So when they don’t feel safe and connected, they can’t listen.
When a typical parent sees children not listening, maybe their reaction is try to say things more clearly or repeat things. It doesn’t really help. And what’s needed is for the children to feel safe and connected, and then they will listen a hundred times better. These three components, understanding the children inside of them, understanding ourselves, understanding the relational field, for me, that’s the foundation.
On top of that foundation, there are lots of tools that’s actually very useful, and I find that to be so important. It’s shocking to me, now looking back, that being a parent is probably the most important job in one’s life. There’s nothing more important. It’s probably the most difficult job and we are least prepared for in our lives. We go to school for teaching math, we get driving lessons to get a driver’s license so we can drive, but to be a parent there’s practically no preparation.
Tim Ferriss: So if we look at those three foundational pillars, I think it’s a really good reminder to sort of look at the first principles, at least as you’ve sort of arrived at them as these pillars, so that you don’t get lost in a sea of tactics without any sort of elemental discipline about how you approach them, right? Because you can just end up with this Frankenstein’s monster of approaches but doesn’t really have any focus to it.
I know that, for instance, you’ve explored nonviolent communication, I know you’ve explored The Work, so testing beliefs that you have in certain ways, and people can find more on that if they look up The Work and Byron Katie, what are other books or resources or tools that you have found particularly effective for you in helping any of the pillars that you described? Any of those three?
Bo Shao: Yeah, well, we are working on it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, right.
Bo Shao: And when I say we, that means we are starting — I’ve started the company three, four years ago that will have done now, really three years of research and development trying to collect the best parenting tools, the best research around child psychology and development into something that’s accessible and easy and customized for parents to understand. And that’s ongoing. We have a product, but I think we’ll get better in the next couple months when we launch the full version.
But one of the things I find, and the reason taking so long, is I feel that there are so many different kinds of kids and the parenting challenges can be very different. And then certain ways of parenting works for certain kids and certain situations, and there’s no one-size-fits-all. So it’s really important to collect all the tools out there and develop a framework, a knowledge graph, so that the right tools and modalities and tricks can be recommended to the right children, the right parents, the right situation.
For myself, as we work on this, one particular thing that has worked for me is something called Hand in Hand Parenting, started by this lady, Patty Wipfler, and there’s a website called — I think you search for Hand in Hand Parenting. I find there tools to be very useful for me. They have a particular emphasis on the relationship between children and parents, so that’s a particular emphasis. But I’m not sure they would necessarily help everybody, but I think they can help a lot of people. I think there are other — I don’t want to mention it because I don’t know them as well, but I think in the next couple months, our app should be ready for prime time.
Tim Ferriss: Great.
Bo Shao: Then, I’m hoping that we’ll help up a lot of people.
Tim Ferriss: So Hand in Hand Parenting. I believe you have also, correct me if I’m wrong, spent some time with The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. But a lot of those commitments, I’ve had Jim Dethmer and Diana Chapman on the podcast, apply to personal relationships, not just leadership. And this is actually something my girlfriend and I are spending a good amount of time on right now is trying to make implicit agreements, which really aren’t agreements, they’re assumptions, right? Implicit assumptions, explicit commitments, so that there’s cleaner understanding, less misunderstanding, et cetera.
We could go in a number of different directions, and I know that you’re doing certainly a lot with Evolve, both on the foundation side and on the Evolve Ventures impact investing side, and people can find both at Evolve VF, that’s V as in Victor, F as in Frank, so evolvevf.com. I would like to ask you, because I know that you have supported research and have developed quite a bit of familiarity with the field, what do you think is missing right now from the discussion around psychedelics or therapeutics related to psychedelics at the moment?
Bo Shao: I think psychedelics is one of the most powerful tools that we are given, both for healing of trauma as well as opening ourselves up to a certain aspect of reality that has profound love and unity and safety that’s inherent to us and to reality that we normally do not see, and those experiences simply just can be profound.
For me, these experiences are the starting point rather than the end points of one’s personal journey. I think they play an incredible role to motivate people. It’s almost like, “Here, let me take you on a helicopter tour of the terrain so you can see what the big picture is, you can see what the destination looks like.” But then the helicopter will land you back more or less where you started, but then you need to do the personal work so that you could experience that one-time insight more regularly in life and then also to apply it in one’s life is really difficult.
I think spiritual experiences tend to be overvalued, “Oh, I had this incredible breakthrough. I saw…” whatever, God, the Buddha, or Guanyin, or these incredible vista of reality. These are so clear, and our culture values these kind of milestones or things you can talk about so strongly, so highly that the hard work sort of almost — there’s this kind of myth of medicine doing the work for us, which is almost its model of the Western medicine, if you take this medicine, it cures you, and psychedelics sort of can fit into that kind of conversation or framework.
But for me, it’s incredibly — maybe the most important tool we have for healing and for opening up, but one needs to do the hard work to integrate those experiences into our daily lives, as a father, as a wife, as a spouse, as a friend, as a CEO, as an investor, as an executive, as an employee, all of those things. And we have so many patterns of behavior that’s deeply ingrained in us over our childhood and growing up that one or two or 10 one-time experiences do not erase them.
A teacher might talk about waking up and waking down. And waking up is actually not easy, but it’s easier than waking down. And when I say waking down means integrating the waking up experience, what you see back into our body, back into our daily lives and work, and practice it, and then overcome the patterns. And that’s the hard work that maybe do not get much attention, I think.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s easier to spin a colorful story about the waking up. And it’s understandable and it’s compelling. And it’s often fleeting if we sort of return back to all the invisible scripts that —
Bo Shao: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: — run each and every one of us, like you said, right? It’s very easy to step off of the helicopter and just turn around, away from the terrain you just surveyed and walk back to where you were.
Bo Shao: That’s right. If anything, sometimes it can even add to your ego, “Oh, I had this experience. I’m enlightened now.” Right? If for certain personalities, having some of these experiences actually could be negative.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s true. It’s perhaps surprisingly common how messiah complex is, and it’s good to be cognizant. Now, if people go to the evolvevf.com website, they can see on the for-profit side, they could see your investments, which I think is actually — it’s a fascinating read. People can look at the investments on the for-profit side. They can look at the grants on the foundation side, certainly learn more about what Evolve does and what Evolve doesn’t do, the leadership team. Is there anything else that you would like to say or share about Evolve or any requests you’d like to make of the audience or suggestions or anything really that you’d like to add to the conversation?
Bo Shao: I guess I would say one thing, which is, I think, coming from a rational point of view, going back to rational, what I find is we spend a lot of time optimizing our lives, particularly our work, right? Finding the right job, negotiating packages. If we’re assigned a task and work, we prepare a lot for it. We spend hours and days and weeks on working on particular things. If we need to learn a skill, Excel or whatever it is, we spend our time learning it.
However, when it comes to internal work, whether it’s to understand ourselves or understanding ourselves as a parents, parenting skills, finding a meditation teacher, all these things, what I found is most people don’t spend nearly as much time finding the right teacher, finding the right material. It’s almost like this kind of just latch onto the first one. If it works, great. If not, I give up on it or whatnot. It’s not the approach what it normally takes in other work.
But for some reason, when it comes to inner work, there’s a bit of almost casualness, maybe because they don’t know there are better resources out there. So, one thing that I would encourage everybody to do is when it comes to inner work, whether it’s meditation or trying to become a better parent or whatnot, really spend at least as much time as what you spend on doing external work.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s very good advice. It’s really, really good advice. It’s so easy to become attached to the first teacher you find in a given discipline with respect to inner work, which is very understandable, right? Because you are sort of, on some level, shown a side of yourself or a side of reality with or without any type of pharmacological intervention. That is so unusual, perhaps so compelling, so beneficial, that you can attribute that experience and the value of that experience to the person who helped facilitate it, right? And sometimes it’s well founded, but sometimes it’s misplaced and you can become attached to an external agent who is acting upon you, which can be disabling in a way.
Bo Shao: Yeah. One more thing, Tim, if I can say is —
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely.
Bo Shao: — is that we started this conversation, I think talking about, I find people who are dedicated in a work, like despicable or disgust or whatnot, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Bo Shao: And it’s so funny that my views are so different now. And for a long time, I didn’t want to commit myself. For me, inner work has always been kind of afterthought, like if it fit into my schedule and my calendar, I would do it maybe once a quarter, once a month, or something like that. It was never my priority.
And at one point, I think maybe three, four years ago, I said to myself, “You know what, for the next quarter, three months, I’m going to place as a priority my inner work,” whether it’s therapy work or different experiences or not. I said finding the right teacher or going to retreats, that’s my priority. But only for three months, because I wasn’t ready and willing to commit to too much. And once I made, however, even that temporary commitment, my progress changed.
So, if there’s one more thing I can say, it’s around that, is giving yourself the space to make a commitment, at least a temporary commitment and see what happens. Right? You can say, “Well, this is only four months. I’m going to do this regularly or whatnot and place as a priority on top of everything else I do. And see what happens.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Excellent advice. Bo, it is so nice to see you and hear your voice, my friend. It’s nice to reconnect.
Bo Shao: Same here.
Tim Ferriss: I want to say, [foreign language], which by the way, folks, if you’ve ever wondered where “Long time no see” comes from, it comes from Chinese. And people can learn more about Evolve, I recommend people check it out evolvevf.com. And I love that in your bio there is no social media and that’s a rarity. You’re one of, I guess, two guests — are you active at all on social media or is that something —
Bo Shao: No, I —
Tim Ferriss: — you have deliberately removed because that —
Bo Shao: I deliberately removed myself on Weibo 10 years ago, or something like that, when I noticed that I was posting to please other people, and it became something that added to my ego and then it start to grab me. And I start tracking how many people reply, how many people forwarded, how many people applauded, and it was not source of happiness.
Tim Ferriss: Hmm. Good for you. Good for you, man. So good. That is inspiring. I may need to pursue that myself. And Bo, is there anything else you would like to say before we wrap up this conversation?
Bo Shao: Let me see. I think that’s — one company — I deliberately didn’t mention this, that’s parenting thing, which I thought I wasn’t quite ready yet is called Parent Lab, lab as a laboratory. I hope that company will help a lot of people. In the next month or two, depending on when this podcast gets out there, hopefully people find it useful.
Tim Ferriss: Wonderful. And I will also, for everyone listening, provide show notes for these episodes. We’ll have links to you, everything we’ve discussed. And if that is live, we’ll have a link to that and you can go to tim.blog/podcast to find all episodes, but you can go to tim.blog/bo. We’ll create a short link and that will forward directly to the links and resources and so on from this particular episode.
Well, Bo, thank you so much for carving out the time today.
Bo Shao: It’s my pleasure. That was fun. Thank you.Tim Ferriss: Super fun. And to everybody listening, be safe, experiment often, be easy, easier on yourself than you think you should be at least at times, give exception, and be merciful with yourself. And thanks for tuning in.
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