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Young & restless

It takes hard work, motivation, and a bit of luck to start and run a successful business. Four entrepreneurs, all Institute members, tell Jeremy Chan how they navigated uncertainties and setbacks, and how unexpected circumstances led them to become their own boss under 35.

We’ve all experienced light bulb moments – those out-of-the-blue moments of clarity or realization – but not many of us can turn them into successful business ideas.

In a place like Hong Kong, the opposite is perhaps true. Statistics from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Hong Kong and Shenzhen Report 2016-17 show that 19.7 percent of adults intend on starting their own business, up from 7.3 percent in 2009, illustrating the continued growth of the city’s entrepreneurial spirit. Many entrepreneurs are also starting out younger, with the global average age being 31 according to a 2017 HSBC study, and are doing so with the desire to not only make money, but to turn their passion into a business.

Kato Chu’s light bulb moment came after constant rejection from her female friends when she asked them to join her in the boxing ring. Chu got into Thai boxing during her university years, and liked how it kept her in shape. But her friends felt uneasy about attempting the male-dominated sport.

With equipment such as padding, mats and boxing gloves, she started coaching her four to eight friends in dance studios after work along with a partner, and saw how much they enjoyed it. “We realized many women in Hong Kong are interested in the sport but are reluctant to try, because they think only men do it,” says Chu, Secretary Accountant at software company Citrix Systems Hong Kong. Through word of mouth, her classes grew, driving her to consider starting her own boxing gym that would appeal to female customers. With a partner, she converted a studio room in a Kwun Tong building into a boxing centre, calling it The Corner.

Named after the corner of every boxing ring where competitors rest and recover, Chu’s gym aims to be the same – an oasis for boxing enthusiasts. “Our gym is a resting place in a busy city. If our students are going through ups or downs in life, they can release their stress through Muay Thai here,” she says.

At the beginning, Chu found it hard to find more customers. “Excluding friends, we had almost no clients during the first few weeks,” Chu says. “Thai boxing isn’t something new in Hong Kong – people are always looking for the best price for classes, and they can easily compare prices online. Because of this, it’s hard sustaining a business in Hong Kong.” She then had to resort to new methods. “There was a time we changed our class timetables and prices quite frequently to find the most desired price, in order to attract customers and maintain our operations.” She also tried asking her customers to leave feedback and responded to their suggestions. By slowly creating a close-knit community of female boxers, Chu started seeing new faces. “After some time, our members referred new customers to us, and those became long-term customers.”

Dedicating time to building her business on weekends was tough, and Chu says another challenge was her lack of experience and resources. “I have been boxing for many years, but I have always been a paying customer – I knew how to spend money, I didn’t know how to earn money.” She also had to teach herself new skills to market her own gym. “I spent a lot of time learning design software to create pamphlets and street banners. It was a long process,” she says. A process, that eventually paid off.

Her gym now has over 1,800 members. Though she faced difficulties, her passion for the sport pushed her to keep striving for success. “You don’t have a boss or other people to motivate you, so remember to set goals and organize your work on a daily basis,” she says. “Always be kind to your customers, working partners and staff. You will have a higher chance of being successful.”

Certain uncertainties

Like many people, it took time before Kane Wu realized what he wanted to do. He had always dreamed of being his own boss, so when an old friend reached out to him about starting a data science company, he knew it was fate. He left his job at a Big Four firm and went on to do a master’s degree in data science at Imperial College London, all while speaking and planning the big move with his friend over the Internet for six months. After getting his degree, he flew back to Hong Kong, and met him the very next day.

They founded ThinkCol, a data science consulting company, in March 2016. The company helps businesses interested in artificial intelligence (AI) to build AI software and technology using data science and machine learning. Now a team of 14, ThinkCol’s recent projects include helping a company track its social media analytics, and one multinational tech company to build a chatbot. It also helped a quasi-governmental body to create a software prototype to predict housing prices in certain areas of Hong Kong. All of these were done using AI software.

Wu started the company because he knew AI is at the forefront of technology today. “More companies recognize that AI and machine learning are some of the most efficient ways to efficiently gather insight and leverage resources, giving them an edge over other companies.”

While some businesses reach out to him to create AI software, others may not understand the possibilities or know what they want. “For clients who are not familiar with AI solutions, we consult them and understand their company pain points. We get to the bottom of their problem areas, understand their target users, and determine how the new AI solution can fit into their overall line of business,” he says.

Wu admits being an unprepared entrepreneur when he started off. “I honestly didn’t know whether I was good enough at data science to really get out there,” he says. Before studying data science, Wu earned degrees in both computer science and law in the United States, and returned to Hong Kong to earn his CPA qualification while working at EY. Wu didn’t let the fear of failure get in the way of him chasing his dreams. “People attach a stigma to failing, but I believe it’s the best lesson.”

Wu and his team enjoy seeing the impact of their hard work. “It feels great when you can actually see your client using your product, and see them complete tasks which used to take them a long time to do.” He adds how aspiring entrepreneurs don’t have to quit their jobs to get the ball rolling. “Try building your own website first, or a small part of your product to show people and get feedback,” he says. “The most important thing is to just do it – you really won’t know what will happen, until you step out there.”

Curing renovation headaches

After referring a home renovation contractor to his friends one day, and receiving a small commission, Woody Tong knew he had stumbled upon a great business idea. This led him and a friend to found their own company in 2013, when Tong was 30.

A combination of the words “collaborative” and “decoration,” his company Codeco connects contractors and interior designers to home renovation projects, and receives a fixed commission upon completing each renovation. “Home renovation is a headache for most families in Hong Kong because most of them do not know how to do it,” says Tong, who previously worked in audit and corporate finance for six years. “With this in mind, we knew there was a big market.” With his friend in charge of marketing, their idea eventually caught the attention of the media and potential investors.

But after securing their first investment earlier on, they hit a brick wall in early 2016. “Sales did not perform as well as expected, which meant problems with cash flow,” he says. “We were at our lowest point, and we almost decided to close the company,” Tong recalls. Not knowing how much longer they would last, that difficult time taught him to be frugal, and to not give up. “It was important to keep my expenses low, especially at the beginning,” he says. “I would spend a quarter of what I used to spend each month – I couldn’t even go out for dinner with my friends.”

A last-minute investment from someone who had read about Tong in a news article, turned things around. “My team looked at each other and said ‘wow, we survived.’ Even I couldn’t believe it.” From there, they formed various partnerships with home renovation material suppliers, launched an app for their services, and partnered with over 150 contractors and interiors designers who reached out to Tong through the company website. The once two-person start-up bloomed into a 20-person company over the next five years, and they have since completed more than 1,000 successful renovation projects.

Tong knew from the beginning it would be a risk to start young, but now says it was an advantage in disguise. “I have met many competent people who want to take the big leap and become entrepreneurs, but they have kids or families to support,” he says. “Those responsibilities and commitments make it hard for them to chase their dreams.”

While he wasn’t too fond of the long working hours at his previous jobs, Tong voluntarily works well into the night at Codeco. “You need to make work a habit,” he says. “During the day, I solve problems together with the team, and at night, I focus on my own tasks. If you’re doing something you love, you don’t think it’s a waste of time.”

Crafting an art

David Gallie’s parents were not too pleased when they first heard about his brewery idea. “My friends were definitely supportive, but my parents – not so much,” he says. “My mum actually said ‘no one likes beer, why are you making beer?’ so I said ‘Mum, you don’t like beer, and you’re not everyone,’” he laughs. Despite the lack of support and experience, Gallie’s love for craft beer drove him to start his own brewery.

Gallie grew up in Hong Kong and discovered craft beer as a university student in the United States. He returned to the city to work at PwC for three years, and then at UBS Wealth Management focusing on anti-money laundering – all while missing the fruity and flavoursome craft beers he had tried in America.

Craving a more hands-on and physical job, both Gallie, then age 30, and his brother, left their jobs to team up to bring craft beer to Hong Kong. “I really wanted to be able to work on something, and have a tangible product at the end,” says Gallie. “And beer, is tangible.”

Ordering most of his equipment online, he slowly transformed a large room in a Wong Chuk Hang industrial building into a beer-brewing operation. With no experience between him or his brother, they hired a master brewer from Germany to teach them the essentials during the first six months. Opening in 2014, they named their brewery Black Kite, after the Chinese bird species, and came up with the flavours for their six signature beers – Golden Ale, Wheat, Southside Ale, IPA, Porter and Oh, Bacon! RauchbierSmoked Ale.

But with local craft breweries such as Young Masters, HK Beer Co. and Moonzen already dominating the craft beer market, and Gweilo Beer launching soon after they did, Gallie’s brewery had a rocky start. He began by selling bottles to his friends and family, and struggled to turn a profit for months. “We had saved up a fair bit, this entire business was self-funded,” he says. “However, if I had done this at say, 40 years old with 20 years’ worth of savings in the bank, I’d have had a lot more capital to use, and we could have afforded slightly better equipment, or spent a lot more on marketing,” he says. “I also hadn’t really developed my own network yet. I think if I had been working for that long, I’d know a wider range of people and I’d probably have had more help, too.”

He spent the next few years meeting with bar and restaurant owners to do business, and slowly shifted from selling bottles to kegs. “We finally broke even in 2017. Our sales could finally cover rent, utilities, ingredients and packaging costs, so we don’t have to put anymore money in the business.”

The industry is competitive but quite helpful, according to Gallie, mentioning a second brewery in the building next door. “I could go down to them and ask ‘can I buy some hops or malt off you?’ or if one of our home brews tastes funny, I could bring him a sample and ask ‘what’s wrong with this?’ Because we like helping each other, I really like this industry.”

This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of A Plus. You can also read the digital edition.