What am I going to do with my life? That was my thought process going into Startup Weekend Fall 2013. I was simultaneously rejected for the Rhodes Scholarship, a consulting job, and had just wrapped up a frustrating week at a case competition; needless to say, I was not in a good mood. I figured that Startup Weekend would be a better use of my time than wallowing in self-pity.
Coming into the event, I had a vague idea for a product based off my experiences hiking. It quickly became apparent though that no one else was interested. Fortunately, I found an idea I liked, Rent My Dorm. Rent My Dorm was supposed to be the answer to a problem that plagues university students, where to get the necessities to fill your dorm. We proposed buying furniture, bedding, etc… in bulk and then renting it out to students. We soon discovered this was not realistic, as the costs for storing things in Hong Kong would make the idea prohibitively expensive.
The team then pivoted to Mungo, a mobile focused e-commerce platform. We would make it easier to buy and sell items on your phone with a particular focus on university students. Mungo was the idea we ended up pitching, but we didn’t win.
The original group’s collaboration ended with a project for our entrepreneurship class at CUHK. We further researched the idea, but our classmates and teacher were all unimpressed. As the Fall semester wrapped up, my group became to pack up and prepare for their moves back to the US and Europe. At that point, I had to decide to give up or keep going…I choose to keep going.
On my own
Like many recent graduates, especially in the winter, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had heard about a program at Cyberport called CCMF; so, I figured I would apply. Unexpectedly, two days after returning to the US for the holidays, I was invited back for an interview. I made the decision to forgo family time for the hope I could make this idea work.
Lesson One: “If you are not willing to sacrifice everything, you will never achieve anything”.
Through a stroke of luck, I was awarded funding from CCMF while still being unsure of what exactly I was going to do. I did some research and noticed that Hong Kong’s charities were particular lacking in donations because traditional Asian culture avoids second-hand goods. I then decided to rebrand Mungo to Traider. Traider was supposed to combine Trade + Aid. Like Mungo, we would make it easy to buy and sell goods through your phone; however, if your item remained unsold we would find a charity that could use it. Like many participants at Startup Weekend, I did not know how to program nor did I have the resources to hire someone.
I spent the next few months trying to cobble together a business, but I was not getting anywhere. I had heard Cyberport was sponsoring a Hackathon; so, I figured what did I have to lose. My team and I ended up winning and were awarded a free trip to Shanghai for MoDev. Unfortunately, I suffered a serious facial injury during rugby; so, as you can tell from this photo, it was not a highlight of my life.
Lesson 2: “If you want to start a startup, learn programming”
I came back from that trip with a fascination for the amount of people who only know “business”. To be a successful founder, you need two out of the three following skills: Hustle, Design, or Programming. Regarding the last point, I don’t mean the technical talent required to manage a banking server as many HK Universities teach; instead, you need the ability to creatively program and create technical works of art. Recognizing I cannot design to save my life, I decided to investigate programming and stumbled upon One Month. While there are many great coding resources: Code School, Code Academy, Code.org, Teamtreehouse.com, One Month was the only one that taught me to build something I would actually use. After finishing the course, I launched traider.hk, but I still had no one using it.
Last May, I again returned to the US, but I still did not know how I was going to make this idea work. From talking to advisors, I recognized I needed outside help; so, I contracted On-Off Design. On-Off Design proved instrumental in transforming the idea I had into a viable business. Through them, I discovered my true passion was reducing waste in Hong Kong. I noticed almost daily there were articles about recycling not being recycled or Hong Kong’s landfills running out of room; so, we decided to do something about it. EcoPort was born from this idea, to simplify recycling. We are working with companies to turn sustainability into a competitive advantage. We also plan to work with local schools to promote recycling to the next generation.
The biggest problem impediment to recycling in Hong Kong is the government’s opinion that recycling has to be an all or nothing proposition. We believe that sustainable changes come about in stages, and we must nurture it at the grassroots level. Like the story of the young child throwing back starfishes, we believe our client’s small changes will over time make a big difference. We plan to launch our app within the next month, and will hopefully be employing the elderly who already pick up waste. We plan to provide them a more stable income and less working hours because not only does Hong Kong throw away stuff, it also throws away people.
HK’s Startup Economy
In one word, it sucks. Hong Kong’s community still has a long way to go. Some of the people you may meet: “Failed at X Tried a Startup”, can no longer make money in property so are now “angel investors”, and people like me who have a lot to learn about the world, but also have nothing to lose. One of the biggest problems is the Startup Events. They at times seem equivalent to an AA/Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where everyone bemoans their startup problems, and people offer tactile advice. We then have so called “experts” who reiterate the same concepts but are invited to speak at event after event. It would be nice to see more events that explored topics broadly. For example, I attended the CSR Asia Conference last fall and found it more rewarding than many startup events. I got the opportunity to interact with a completely new set of people and gain exposure to actual problems. I think it would be great to provide entrepreneurs cheaper access to the events, but also present an opportunity to discuss what problems they discovered. In my opinion, this would be a much more rewarding “sharing session” than the events we are currently forced to endure.
Starting a Business
Starting a business in Hong Kong, at least the registration, is a relatively painless. You find a company secretary and they will handle your incorporation. Legal and Accounting issues are important, but I have found they do not need to be address immediately. Figure out what exactly you are trying to do, and then you should be able to find reliable professional services. One solution, I can recommend, is fellow SWHK alum Dragon Law, it may seem pricey up front; however, you will reap the savings in the long term.
Visas applications are never fun in any country; however, the system is particularly straightforward in Hong Kong. It is best to have One Million HKD in your bank account before applying. This amount shows the government you are serious and also show plans to hire local talent. Stephen Barnes, http://www.hongkongvisageeza.com/ , is one of the best resources; so, if you have questions, ask him.
Talent in Hong Kong is an organic problem that increases and decreases in difficulty on a daily basis. If you are hiring recent graduates, know that most of them are good at doing one thing fairly well. Due to the paramount importance of the DSE, many graduates still lack the ability to think outside of the box. One overlooked opportunity is Hong Kong citizens who have graduated from schools outside of Hong Kong. They may be more difficult to find due to the lack of a system like JISIS; however, the success of people like Stephen Lam at GoGoVan proves it is worth investigating.
Figure out quickly how badly do you want your idea to succeed. Many people are going to tell you it will fail, or you are wasting time trying to make an idea succeed. If you are coming from a stellar academic or professional background, this may be hard to endure. If like myself, you are used to things not working out, you may find this rejection easier to endure.
Look into what programming language is best suited for your environment.
Big Data, Algorithms: Python
Social Networks, “Artsy”: Ruby
Asia, MENA, Africa focused mobile app: Java
US or Western Europe: Swift and Objective-C
Video Games: Unity or Java
Knowledge is power. If you are not constantly learning, you are missing out. I keep a Goggle Doc of some of my favorite stories; so, I can reference them later. It is also a useful exercise in extracting key details. Some of the sites I use for news.
News – General: Economist, Quartz, Flipboard
News – Tech: StartupsHK, Tech in Asia, Venture Beat, Product Hunt
Entrepreneurship: Entrepreneur Magazine, Mattermark, First Round Capital, LKR Social Media
Podcasts: Rocketship, James Altecher, Startup, Reply All, This American Life
Lesson Three: “Follow your passion”
If you are only building something to make money, you will probably not succeed. It is never easy to create something new, and you only need to read the paper to realize fabulous wealth != (does not equal) happiness. Although 90% of business fail, if you are following your dreams, you are more likely to possess the perseverance to be one that succeeds. Best of luck in your Entrepreneurial Journey and feel free to connect via Twitter jaysig91 or email Jason@ecoport.hk .
Article written by Jason Sigmon
Images from Jason or http://startupstockphotos.com/