Friday, May 24, 2013, 09:00
A zeal for risky business
By Andrea Deng

A zeal for risky business
Casey Lau, a veteran entrepreneur now based in Hong Kong, says the current scene of entrepreneurship in Hong Kong may be emerging as a giant ecosystem for the entrepreneur community, which is what has been very strong in the Silicon Valley.(Provided to China Daily)
A zeal for risky business
Cocoon is one of platforms that provide cut-price working spaces, and constantly host networking events, business idea pitching nights and entrepreneur speeches in Hong Kong. Such facilities have increased sharply over the past few years, encouraging more entrepreneurs to run their businesses. (Provided to China Daily)
“#TheHeatIsOn.” Casey Lau posted on his Twitter account a few weeks ago as he rallied the swelling ranks of Hong Kong’s community of fledgling entrepreneurs. Lau is one of the leaders who go around talking to those with a venturing spirit offering, “An Intro to the Hong Kong Startup Community.”

Lau is a Chinese Canadian who moved to the States, made his fortune during the dot-com bubble, then ten years ago sold everything and moved to Hong Kong.

That placed him in the vanguard of an invading army of entrepreneurs sweeping into the Big Lychee. They come from everywhere, Europe, mostly, but also North America, India, Japan, Israel, and so on. They’re a new generation of entrepreneurs in Hong Kong, and they’ve become hot stuff on the local scene — but only recently.

About three years ago, Lau and a couple of fellow entrepreneurs started hanging around in coffee shops, bouncing ideas off one another — business pitches and the like — each critiquing the ideas of the others.

“‘Oh, that sucks. That won’t work. No way.’ ‘Shoot, I’ll fix it then and come back next week,’” Lau said, drawing a quick sketch of the collegial, competitive and vaguely adversarial encounters.

“It was a support group. We called it Alcoholics Anonymous, for startups,” said Lau.

“(There were) Six guys at the beginning. Now there’re 5,000. It took us three years,” Lau rattled off, about five words a second.

That was how StartupsHK got started. The six friends began hosting networking events, drawing crowds of tech types by sending out messages on Twitter. Anyone who had a vision of becoming a mogul could get up in front of the audience and pitch his dream, laying out the plan to a crowd of fellow entrepreneurs, potential angel investors and kids in flip-flops from local universities. It was free, other than drinks and pizzas.

Today, StartupsHK also operates BootHK, a co-work space in Wan Chai. BootHK is an open space that has a bunch of open tables. Wannabe entrepreneurs work on their pet projects, network with other entrepreneurs and keep down the overhead to roughly HK$1,000 per month. They’d have to pay at least HK$7,000 for 300 square feet in some of the industrial buildings in Kwun Tong.

The space was about 1,000 square feet a year ago. Now it’s a 100,000 square feet to meet the demand of incoming entrepreneurs, Lau told China Daily.

“In San Francisco, you can walk anywhere and run into someone doing a startup. And those people become instant friends and form instant networks. Here, we’re trying to build that ourselves, organically.

“(The internet) has helped grow this giant ecosystem. It’s why Silicon Valley is so strong, there’re five or six or more startup events  every night from San Francisco down to Palo Alto.

“In Hong Kong, we’re starting to get there. We have one or two now every night. Before there’s once a week or once a month, then it gets bigger and bigger. And it’s all about sharing, lots of people come out and talk, some of them have no idea what they’re going to do yet. They’re the ones who just come and listen, which is great, coz at least we have something for them,” said Lau.

An irreversible rage

InvestHK, the government body responsible for attracting new business to the city, notes a rising trend of startup entrepreneurs from overseas, receiving assistance from InvestHK to set up in the SAR. Last year, 14 percent of the completed projects were startups. The percentage was only 9 percent in 2009.

Observers said the current tide of entrepreneurship is not just a result of a free and open business environment and the attractive East-meets-West lifestyle — which have always been one of Hong Kong’s attractions.

“The high cost of doing business in Hong Kong — notably rent — seems a bit exaggerated if one does not need to rent expensive office and shop spaces, as in the case for most startups. The cost of running a startup has been falling dramatically in the last 10 years because of the ‘democratization’ of information technology,” said Rachel Chan, founder of InnoFoco. Chan’s company was a partner in Make A Difference. Founded in 2010, Make a Difference is another support group. It hosts events for fledgling entrepreneurs to pitch their business ideas to invited potential investors. There are also experienced entrepreneurs on hand to provide advice to the newcomers.

“There are also the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. With the allure of the China and Asian market and the worsening economic environment in the West, Hong Kong has become an appealing location for entrepreneurs from around the world to realize their entrepreneurial dreams,” she added.

The current boom of entrepreneurship in Hong Kong is largely attributed to the expatriate community and returnees who have been educated abroad, Chan said.

“This will help foster a stronger entrepreneurial culture in Hong Kong, particularly in the new industry sectors. The new blood in the entrepreneurship scene will team up with some local talent, creating new job opportunities in Hong Kong,” she said.

Others believe the burgeoning entrepreneurship culture may be traced to a large number of new facilities and resources emerging in Hong Kong over the past few years.

StartupsHK is not the only organization stirring the community of entrepreneurs, investors and the young and eager TechCrunch fans in Hong Kong.

The Hive — a co-work space designed for entrepreneurs and freelancers in the creative industry — provides selected applicants with multiple floors of working space, conference rooms, mini-kitchen, printers and potted palm trees.

AcceleratorHK provides startup programs and customers techniques, investment and mentorship for mobile startups based in Hong Kong.

The number of angel investors has also been growing, according to Lau. “One year ago there’s none, or maybe a handful of them. Now there’re a couple dozens of them,” he said.

Not for everyone

Only one or two out of ten business ideas survive, entrepreneurs are always told.

“The ideas that people have are interesting. But either the startup people who are doing it don’t know how to execute it, which is probable, or maybe they’re too early in the market, or they’re bringing something that’s not really needed,” said Lau.

“Definitely it should be something that you believe in a lot. If you’re going to make an app that helps you to find happy hours in Hong Kong, is that going to change the world? Are you really passionate about that? If you’re not passionate, don’t do it. If you want to be successful, you’re gonna need the next five years of your life building this thing,” Lau added.

Meanwhile, it still remains a high risk career path for most local youngsters to be an entrepreneur.

Horris Tse Wai-kit, a financial modelling and investment specialist, tossed aside a job opportunity at a multinational company only two months ago to work full time on his own business as a consultant.

Tse, who mingled in both local and expatriate entrepreneur circles, said the risks entailed in making a down payment on a property, struggling through the startup phase and providing for their families are the looming obstacles for many Hong Kong young people.

Most local entrepreneurs he knows, he said, come from the middle class, or are those who don’t have to worry about providing for parents.

Some Westerners run their businesses part time, maintaining their stable “day jobs” to pay the bills. Hong Kong people, however, tend to work long hours and can’t spare time for their own business, Tse said.

In the meantime, thanks to events like business plan competitions held on local campuses, more local kids are being encouraged to brainstorm ideas and experience the entrepreneurial adventure: solving problems and dealing with risks.

“The atmosphere has been there, but we’re uncertain about whether the trend will sustain,” said Tse.

A zeal for risky business
The community of entrepreneurs in Hong Kong has been growing in recent years, largely attributed to the newly arrived expats from Europe, North America and elsewhere.(Provided to China Daily)

A zeal for risky business