Hong Kong Does Not Need More Startups
It Needs Everything Else
I came to Hong Kong thinking that startup culture could be taught. Similar to looking for apartments, I knew what I wanted. I knew what I wanted in terms of opportunity and where and/or what I was willing or not willing to settle. If I was going to move to Hong Kong, a city where I had no family where I had only briefly visited once before and given up everything that I had built in North America, I was going to at least do it under my terms.
At first, I thought my startup experience was going to go to waste and that I would go with a traditional route of corporate life. I was willing to go that direction with the hopes that I might finally understand the many years of Chinese culture and in turn, understand my mother. I had met with over 60 or so different corporate and agency folks before finally connecting with one founding team member at Uber. Uber was at a stage of growth and struggling with their own battles. I was not about to go near something within foreign markets: policy and community buy-in.
They did however, open the doors to many of the startups in HK. That was the first step. My original trip of one month became two months. I met with as many startups that would meet with me and as many doors that were opened, they opened more. The number of introductions over email and chats were countless. I am forever thankful. I ended up meeting with 110+ people with a mix of almost a hundred companies (corporate, agency, technical startups and “startups”).
I knew that I wanted a technology driven startup who was still figuring out product market fit and looking to build a foundation of growth or as Sean Ellis (Founder, GrowthHacker.com) calls it, a “product worthy of growth”. I knew that it would help me achieve my personal goal if the founders were local, and even better if the team was local. I knew that there was a startup in Hong Kong that would fulfill this. I just had to keep looking.
What I didn’t know or truly know, was that this ecosystem not only needed more success stories, they needed a robust ecosystem that would support them in every way. Cyberport and Science Park are top of mind when it comes to government support. What was only 2 co-working spaces like BootHK, CoCoon back in 2012 is now 55 and counting, including Garage Society, Blueprint, Paperclip and more.
To go against the norm, in the West, is inspirational.
In the East, to go against the norm, is considered career suicide.
It is especially “losing face” within your family. Your family or your blood, means everything in Hong Kong. So the many initiatives, co-working spaces, programs, various events, etc that make up the ecosystem here are not ONLY supporting startups, but also redefining education. A friend, Richard Tsao once said:
The education system here produces cooks, not chefs.
“Cooks follow recipes and when an ingredient is missing or something goes wrong, they panic. Chefs create recipes and is comfortable to adjusting the recipe if something is missing. They adjust accordingly.”
Westcoast defined “startups” are most commonly known as technology driven, innovative and scalable. You can ask a few people or many and no one in Hong Kong will give you the same answer each time. Many will say that it is a new business, an app company, or perhaps even any business related to IT. Maybe it’s the language. Maybe it is generation gap. Who knows? Maybe it is because in this ecosystem, “startups” are not able to survive, grow or even exist.
We can agree that the East has a cultural disadvantage. We cannot be disappointed in Hong Kong’s startup scene as people and companies are working with the ingredients that they have. But we can be disappointed in the system, others in the community or if we ourselves are discouraging, ridiculing and making it difficult for those who are looking to break out of the norm and do their own thing.
The “startup” scene in Hong Kong is growing and by quotation marks, I mean “new businesses” are becoming a trend. By no means do most parents understand what startups are or what you’re up to, but amongst those who want to know, who want to learn and who want to understand what it would take to redefine the norm, are coming out of hiding. Many young individuals who grew up reading the success stories of Airbnb, Uber, TaoBao, DiDi and such are graduating with a slightly differently mindset. The mindset of an entrepreneur. The mindset of creativity, the hope of solving world problems and doing the unimaginable is starting to seep through education. I believe that if Hong Kong truly wants to grow their startup ecosystem and have the likes of success stories as the West, the education system needs to change.
The education system needs to support this kind of mindset. The community, family and friends needs to support this kind of mindset. As Vincent Chan (Head of Product, OneSky) calls it, the “pay it forward culture”. I firmly believe in leading by example and one of many things Hong Kong needs is for it’s successful startups to lead by example and give back to the community. To pay it forward. To encourage new entrepreneurs to make mistakes. For startups and new entrepreneurs to make many mistakes and to reflect on them. Failures are critical to an entrepreneur and of startups.
People must feel like it is okay for them to fail.
People have to socially feel secure enough to fail many times and talk about it.
What is mindset? “Mindset is a set of assumptions, methods, or notations held by one or more people or groups of people that is so established that it creates a powerful incentive within these people or groups to continue to adept or accept prior behaviours, choices or tools.” What is needed, is the mindset of growth. Of innovation. To embrace the unknown.
If Hong Kong wants to produce chefs, and not cooks, the culture needs to change.
Hong Kong society not only needs encourage, inspire and guide but also needs courage. The courage to do abnormal. The abnormal of going against society norm to be a banker or work in the financial sector. The courage to redefine the norm and take computer science instead of business because your parents think studying finance means making lots of money. The courage to explore your creativity which to your family, might seem like a dead career path. It is the norm for family to highly discourage what seems like a path that leads to a dead-end. Socially frowned upon to not work in what is perceived to be the top desired and well known companies.
So yes, I will conclude that it can be taught, up to a certain point. Then it is all about the foundation that the people have, the culture. The core values, vision, mission and their interpretation of these values. And that is why the ecosystem is so important. They let people know that it is okay to make mistakes, to fail and pick one self up and that it is okay to ask for help. That everyone is in this together.
We are in this together.