Going down to the ocean, or xia hai , was a popular phrase in the mainland during the late 80s and early 90s. It is a euphemism for leaving 'iron rice bowl' posts at state-owned enterprises - willingly or not - and plunging into the ocean of the private sector. Whether the phrase conjured images of floating freely or of drowning in the open waters, mainlanders did not find either possibility very romantic. Those who had college degrees were expected to play it safe by getting a job at a big state-owned company. These jobs often came with perks such as child-care, medical insurance, housing and entertainment allowances. This lucky minority expected to keep their jobs for a lifetime, advancing in the ranks as superiors reluctantly retired. Dan Yuan had one of these jobs shortly after he graduated from Huazhong University with an engineering degree in 1986 - working as a manager at a car accessory factory in Changsha. The coastal-city boom eventually lured him south to Guangdong province and then to Shenzhen. Now, a little more than a decade after he took his college degree, he and a handful of others are leaving the tried-and-tested path to start their own businesses. Mr Yuan, 35, heads up his own 150-person company called Centuryman. Founded last year, it makes connectivity equipment for optical fibres and had 10 million yuan (about HK$9.32 million) in revenue in the past three months and has already started to turn a profit. 'It took me a while to find a job in Shenzhen,' said Mr Yuan, who arrived with no job and a few thousand yuan in his pockets. 'But then it just happened.' His first Shenzhen job was in the sales department of a company making optical fibre connectors. 'Doing sales was a great experience for me. It taught me about the market,' he said. Mr Yuan took some of his colleagues with him when he started his own firm last year. Other technology entrepreneurs in Shenzhen have tread similar paths. Most gained science or engineering degrees in the late '80s and worked in state-owned enterprises for a few years. Many grew restless with the state-owned system and came to Shenzhen - one of the mainland's first special economic zones, where Western-style capitalism was encouraged - to work in sales or marketing before starting their own companies. Junjie Shi, 36, chief executive of Shenzhen Wisdom Computer Software Technology and of Shenzhen CJOL Human Resources, said the phenomenon was the result of several factors coming together. 'Compared to the previous two generations, we had the most comprehensive education in science and technology,' he said. 'And when we came to Shenzhen, there was a clash of ideas. We heard and saw a lot of new things, and accepted new things. We learned to take a chance.' Mr Shi, an engineering major from Shanghai, came to Shenzhen to work as an information technology manager for a bank, a job he left in 1995 to build his own intranet service company. His businesses, with almost 90 employees, does everything from operating portal Web sites such as Shenzhen Window ( www.szptt . net.cn) to running on-line human resources and dating services and building Web sites for clients. Government support is one of the main reasons Shenzhen is playing host to hi-tech startups. Without collateral, and sometimes without guanxi - political connections - to get bank loans, these startups found government help essential in getting started. Long before neighbouring Hong Kong announced plans to speed up its hi-tech development, Shenzhen was offering young businesses tax breaks and low rent, as well as access to low-interest loans. Mr Yuan's company was started with two million yuan the government helped raise and Mr Shi's company got access to one million through government support. Pan Liu, chief executive of Shenzhen Dashi Automation Engineering, which designed the signal system for Hong Kong's MTR public transit system, also received government support. His company expects to go public this year, possibly on Hong Kong's Growth Enterprise Market. When interviewing prospective salespeople, Mr Liu asks them to rank certain factors in order of importance to the mainland market. 'If he answered connections, price and then technology, I would hire him; otherwise I will turn him down right on the spot,' he said. 'But in a mature market, we all know that the order should be the other way around.'