7 Things I Learned about Being an Entrepreneur in Hong Kong

Exactly two years ago, I landed with only two suitcases at the Hong Kong airport to start my new life in this exciting part of the world. This was not my first exposure to the Asian region. I had lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for more than three years in the late ‘90s. After this first incursion, I went back to France and spent the following 15 years working for multinational corporations all across Europe. Yet deep down, I always knew I would come back to Asia.

This was the day — Jul 6, 2013.

Straightaway after arriving in Hong Kong, I jumped at the challenge to launch my own business — in a city in which I was neither familiar with the language nor culture, and in which I did not even have one connection! Looking back on the whole thrilling ride up until now, I have been through my fair share of ups and downs, joys and frustrations, not to mention success and failure.

2 years later, I now own 2 businesses.

The path to get here and what I learned as a business development consultant helping my customers establish international distribution channels transcended my near 20-year sales & marketing career in large consumer tech corporations. Some of my experiences will be common to entrepreneurs everywhere, some will be shared in emerging markets, while others are unique to Asia.

Here are some of the key takeaways I learned from my experience as an entrepreneur in Hong Kong.

1. It takes longer than anticipated to get projects moving — While I thought I would be able to kick-start operations within a matter of weeks, it actually took me no less than 6 months to secure my first customer, and another 3 months to fine-tune and agree on the final terms & conditions of our collaboration. Building trust takes time. It is even truer in Asia where patience is a virtue.

2. Becoming an entrepreneur is to accept a drastic lifestyle change — Firstly, I could hardly make both ends meet, let alone enjoy any luxuries. For someone used to generous paychecks and lavish travel budgets, the change came a shock to the system. Add to that the stress of starting your own business, the combination was damn tough to endure. Entrepreneurs definitely need to discuss the impact with their loved ones before taking the plunge into this kind of life.

3. Be flexible in adapting your business model — Initially I thought I would focus on helping Asian technology companies get a foothold in Europe. After a few months, I realized my prospects were more interested in making quick wins rather than building long-lasting relationships through my intermediary. Today I find it more rewarding helping US and European companies expand in Asia.

4. Business consulting in Asia is still in its infancy — I spend a lot of time describing and explaining the services I offer. In particular, how customers can benefit from my extensive network to get their technology products distributed in other parts of the world is a concept that is still relatively alien to the common Chinese or South-East Asian business practice. Most small- and medium-sized Asian consumer technology companies are still engaged in the direct short-term buy-sell model. Thus paying for consulting services is often seen as an admission of weakness.

5. Maintaining face is vital — The concept of “face” is a core cultural value, and can really work to your advantage when doing business in Asia. Criticism needs to be given positively in the context of making something good rather than just focusing on what is bad. The consequence of failing to respect a person’s face is that you yourself will lose the respect in the eyes of others.

6. Forget about early assumptions — Devising new market-entry strategies, collecting mountains of data, compiling market insights, mapping out distribution channels and identifying competition are all needed preparation work. However the reality on the ground can be very different, as business practices vary from one country to another. What is true for China is not for Indonesia. What works in France does not in Germany. It is crucial to know enough about the culture and market from an inside, on-the-ground perspective to know the essential questions to ask in adapting a foreign concept.

7. A written contract is no guarantee — The typical Western view is that once you negotiate an agreement or sign a contract, the relationship will proceed forward on mutually acceptable, solid ground. That is not the case in China or Korea for instance. Some Asians do not regard the provisions of contract as written in stone, or as the fundamental basis of a business relationship. On more than one occasion, I had to abruptly end long-standing business collaborations when some fundamental contractual obligations were unilaterally denied.

I have to admit that leaving the comfort of corporate life to start my own business in Hong Kong required a huge leap of faith. Even though I had been exposed to various situations of stress during my career to date, as an entrepreneur I have to learn how to handle an unbelievable number of risks and challenges, while constantly facing uncertainty and adversity.

What I particularly enjoy is the freedom to run the show and be my own boss. I see entrepreneurship as a way to live a few years of your life like most people will not in order that you can spend the rest of your life like most people cannot — even if it means making a few sacrifices during the building stage.

What are your experiences with entrepreneurship in Asia?

Let me know your thoughts!