In 1998 he moved to Hong Kong and became an executive at RenRen, the Facebook of China. At the internet bubble's peak, Robinson says "for one farcical moment" the company was valued at $1.6 billion, but then it crashed.
By 2000, he had moved to Beijing in order to plunge into the just-emerging world of technology startups. At the time, Robinson did not speak fluent Mandarin, and he had few connections. What he did have, however, was openness to the differences in the way business gets done in China.
"I think all that traveling I had done before opened my mind," he says. "When you're getting your ass kicked around the world, it makes you realize you need to be able to accommodate what's around you."
Since then, he's launched five companies in China, most with a focus on mobile gaming. He sold his stakes in the first three companies, one of which was bought by Tencent, China's biggest internet company, in the summer of 2012. His current project, Youlu, makes business apps that scan business cards and optimize professionals' contact lists. On the side, he runs ChopSchticks, which brings comedy acts like Jim Gaffigan and Louis CK to perform in Asia.
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His success, of course, is more the exception for foreigners than the rule. The problem, he said, is that many companies come into China expecting to do business the same way they do in America. Even tech giants like Yahoo, Google, and eBay failed to adapt quickly to the local market, he said.
When they came to China "it was like an Indiana Jones movie where everyone is going after the gold and they all end up dead," he said. "Google, Yahoo, eBay — all dead, dead, dead. To this day, there is no successful foreign internet company in China," he told GlobalPost.
Others simply get overwhelmed by China's size and take on too much risk.
"Some people come in and totally lose their mind in China. They just lose the plot. 'This is China, so I have to do things completely differently here and overextend myself.' I see so many companies come in here [that] don't put in the checks and balances."
The key, he said, is to find trustworthy local partners, and to learn to understand Chinese ways of doing business — even if you aren't fluent in the language. Without good, trustworthy connections, Americans can quickly find themselves drowning in China's massively competitive marketplace.
Asked what advice he had for people considering coming to China, Robinson warned to prepare for bureaucracy, and to avoid any industry that could run afoul of government censors, who remain acutely wary of foreigners.
For tech entrepreneurs like Robinson who can swing it in the Middle Kingdom, the rewards are clear: China's internet population stands at more than 500 million and is growing. What's more, Robinson says: relative to Silicon Valley, it's cheap to start a company in Beijing, and cheap to fail.