Expanding into Asia can be a very attractive but complicated process for first-time entrepreneurs, and some subtle but important factors often go unnoticed. Asia is a very heterogeneous continent with a wide variety of languages spoken, numerous cultures, religions, and many more nuances that are important to consider.
The most common question is: “Where to start?” In this post we summarise tips we brought back from our recent Hong Kong trip from local players to help entrepreneurs jump-start their businesses into this attractive new marketplace.
Earlier this year we announced an exciting partnership with Hong Kong’s Blueprint accelerator, powered by Swire Properties. This relationship is in-line with our ethos to support the growth of Asia’s exciting startup ecosystem, as our very own former Investment Manager, Hilary Szymujko, runs the accelerator program at blueprint.
After a successful series of intensive workshops run in January, last week Carlos Espinal, Partner at Seedcamp, returned to Hong Kong, to continue this constructive partnership in our attempt to meet and support ambitious startup founders.
The agenda kicked off with the new cohort of Blueprint startups pitching to Carlos for early feedback and the week worked its way up with a series of workshops Carlos delivered on brand identity and positioning, the fundraising process, and common failures points during company building.
While being there we thought of organising a Seedcamp Meet & Greet event to explain to the Hong Kong startup scene who’s behind Seedcamp, what types of teams we look for, and all the support we provide to entrepreneurs with a global mindset.
Carlos and Blueprint New Cohort
We couldn’t have left without meeting local key players in the investment ecosystem, such as Tytus Michalski, Managing Director at Fresco Capital and Bay McLaughlin, Co-Founder at Brinc.io. And while we were on it, we’ve put together a Seedcamp Podcast Series focused on Asia, reporting their suggestions and tips for founders ready to expand into Asia.
Here’s a summary before you hit the play button.
In the first of a two-part Asian Podcast series, Carlos Espinal talks with Tytus Michalski, Managing Director at Fresco Capital. After discussing his background, how he became involved in investing, Tytus offered his insights on what founders should consider when expanding into Asia and the risks and challenges of not taking into account the cultural differences.
From an ecosystem perspective, Tytus explains the Chinese market is very different from Europe and Silicon Valley and offers founders recommendations on what mistakes to avoid when approaching the Asian market by having the right mindset:
Hire the right people: local and entrepreneurial “If you’re expanding into Asia then don’t lead it from your own country. Hire a local person who is able to drive the expansion, who knows the rules of the game and how the local ecosystem works.” Adapt your business model
“Some business models such as SaaS (software-as-a-service), that find success elsewhere, don’t always work in Asia. Locals are not used to paying for software through a monthly subscription unless they own the license. Consumers have the habit of buying products. So one approach to adapt to the local mindset could be to bundle hardware with software and get higher value in terms of revenue.”
Prioritize the top markets (i.e. countries or cities) across Asia that you would like to target
“Think about how you can adapt your business model to that market or pick the market that best suits your business model, and set up the right plan for engaging with your customers.”
Part-two of our Asian Podcast series continues the discussion about the Asian investment ecosystem with Bay McLaughlin, Co-Founder at Brinc.io. With nearly a decade of experience in startups and at Apple, Bay decided to move to Asia, learn about the local startup ecosystem through his partner’s network and experience, and start supporting the new generation of hardware entrepreneurship.
We asked Bay what are the challenges for hardware entrepreneurs in penetrating this geography and what are the best ways to do so successfully. So Bay… Where to start?
“We tend to tell the entrepreneurs we work with that they can accelerate the time needed to take their product to market by focusing on partnerships with local businesses. Partner first, get mentors, and then bring on board the talents you need.”
“Hardware is not hard as it seems! But the experience that you actually need to do a fiscal product development is undeniable more complicated. You need to look at your team and the competences that you need in your team.”
“The founders that are most successful are those who are open-minded and really learn from the locals. Coming to Asia with the mentality that you are going to run your business in the same way you did in the West is not the right approach. You have to learn how the local ecosystem works, you can’t deny or not to pay attention to the Asian way of doing business.”
We’re wrapping up our Asian series by interviewing Xania Wong, CEO at JOBDOH, a Hong Kong-based, Seedcamp-backed company that links short-term workers with employers. JOBDOH’s vision is to transform the way we work and live. They target the hospitality, exhibitions and promotions markets, of which all are growing strongly in Asia with a large demand of fluctuating daily workers. Xania shares her experience launching her first business in Hong Kong.
To founders who want to expand to Asia, what would you recommend? What’s the key thing to keep in mind?
Team background and local ties “The team background is critical to the business success. All founders have both local and international experience and networks. Combining a foreign know-how, domestic roots, and networks in Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand helps fasten the market entry.” Business model fit “The adoption to technology in Asia tends to lag behind Europe and US a few years, so innovation we witnessed in the West is now being rapidly applied and accepted. For example, Uber just launched in HK last year, and many uber for X models or marketplaces are now starting to spread across India, Indonesia and HK.” Recognize the local culture and customs “It’s important to recognize that culture and customs in specific Asian countries can be vastly different, even those across China are not homogeneous. While China is attractive due to its potential market size, the challenges in penetrating this market can be paramount. It’s very important to have local partners in these places. Also being able to speak a few words in the local language (and to drink!) will help build relationships sooner.”
We are seeing a rapid growth in the Asian ecosystem. Co-working spaces, funding programs, accelerators and incubators are popping up rapidly, making this geography more and more attractive for Western founders. But it’s clear that tapping into the Asian market is still a challenging process. Above all, it requires entrepreneurs to be open-minded, learn local rules, and adapt to the local culture.
Hopefully you’ll find the advice and the podcast series insightful! Remember that after all… opportunities reside where things are not necessarily obvious!
If you run a disruptive startup with global ambitions, we want to hear from you! View our events page to apply to the next Seedcamp Week or meet with the Seedcamp team in advance. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter for the latest news. Best of luck!
2 weeks ago I wrote a Guide to the Hong Kong Startup Community. I’m glad to say that the piece was well received by many and has since appeared in various other publications across the web. The article is structured in a 5x5 format — listing 5 each of accelerators/incubators, coworking spaces, startups, startup events and entrepreneurs.
As I sat down to review it last week, I realised that I listed only 1 woman among the 5 entrepreneurs. And I feel that that is a misrepresentation, on my part. Because there are just so many more here in HK — women who’re actively and significantly contributing to the startup community!
According to BNP Paribas’ “Global Entrepreneurialism Report” (survey of 2,523 entrepreneurs in 17 markets), 37 per cent of entrepreneurs across the globe are women. In Hong Kong, that figure rises to 45% — awesome! It is second only to India where 49 per cent of entrepreneurs are female (I’m proud of that statistic too!).
Hong Kong ranks second in the world when it comes to women setting up their own businesses — 45% of entrepreneurs are women!
I am a feminist, and sincerely believe women can make the greatest difference to most of this world’s greatest problems. Inspired by the 3 women in my life (mother, wife, sister) who attempt to do so every single day, in their own way.
So, I thought I should create a list of women who are entrepreneurs, investors or essaying other varied roles in Hong Kong’s startup world. These individuals are building awesome products/teams in sectors as varied as education, events, travel, coworking spaces, accelerators, startup platforms, social analytics and so much more!
My disclaimers from the previous post remain: 1. This is not an exhaustive list! 2. It is in no particular order.
Catherine Tan (Notey)
(the 1 name I had in the earlier piece) An ex-investment banker at Morgan Stanley and Barclays, Catherine is the cofounder of Notey, a platform for discovering blogs. She splits her time between Hong Kong, Vancouver and travelling the world. Business Insider listed Notey as ‘one of the 15 fastest growing startups in the world, that you don’t know of’.
Michelle Sun (FirstCode)
When a Growth professional (ex-Buffer, Bump) quits to found a startup that teaches children how to code, you have to sit up and take notice. That is exactly what Michelle did, in 2013. Though Hong Kong-born, she gained vital experience working with tech startups in the Valley and has brought all that to bear here.
Michelle Lam (Spoilt)
Michelle pitched Spoilt at Startup Saturday back in 2011 (the event itself is considered a seminal milestone in HK startups). Spoilt deals in experiences, gifts for you and me, and a whole range of bespoke articles/activities for corporates. In 2014, Spoilt acquired their largest competitior RedPacket and now operates both brands.
Maura Thompson (Sassy Media Group)
Maura Thompson moved to Hong Kong, wanted to make friends (and find awesome deals), so she started Sassy in 2009! A specialist in data and analytics, she growth-hacked her startup, before the word was THE buzz it is today. Maura juggles work with being a doting mama to her daughter Eve (See: Instagram).
Abbie Jung (Synergy Social Ventures)
Abbie is a public health and development professional who’s worked with organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières, Save the Children, WHO and more. As a staunch advocate of philanthropy, philanthropic investment and social entrepreneurship as tools to achieve sustainable development goals, Synergy supports early stage social ventures in Asia with non-financial and financial resources.
Fiona Lau (Shopline)
The CMO of Shopline met her co-founders at Startup Weekend HK, and has been instrumental to the startup’s tremendous adoption in Asia. Shopline is a graduate of 500 Startups and is also funded by other prominent investors.
Allison Baum (Fresco Capital)
Allison is the strongest backer of innovative EdTech startups I have met in recent times. She ensures Fresco invests in a couple such outfits. If nothing, follow her for the best content and roundups in the education tech field. *Technically, she’s not in HK anymore, as she’s recently moved to Tokyo to source deals from further East!
Kalina King (Lightstage)
Art and Education are her passions, and LightstageHK her latest creation. A vivacious lady, Kalina served as the Regional Director for GA Asia in the past. Lightstage is fast becoming HK’s corner for innovative and cool methods of promoting art and startups — they recently did an Airbnb sleepover at their gallery space!
Joanna Cheung (TusparkHK)
Joanna is one of the nicest women I’ve met in Hong Kong, and also one of the most driven. A serial entrepreneur, she first co-founded Peekabox, a subscription service for baby products and then RubyUp. Just as the coworking boom hit Hong Kong, she co-founded The Workground, a rough rustic looking space in the heart of Causeway Bay. And is now part of Tuspark’s core team, as they expand internationally.
Melissa Guzy (Arbor Ventures)
A CEO-turned-investor, Melissa moved to Hong Kong in 2007 to build VantagePoint’s investment practice. In 2012, she left that and founded her own VC firm Arbor Ventures, focussing on investing in Asian tech companies (FinTech, Big Data and Digital Commerce). She currently sits on the boards of 2 Hong Kong startups — InvestLab and Demyst Data.
Ivy was probably among the first 5 startup people I met when I moved to Hong Kong a couple of years ago. Most startup people (founders and employees) attend 2 events a week — Ivy, used to organise 2 events a week. She is the force behind TEDx Hong Kong, TEDx Hong Kong Ed and is actually a trained designer/animator.
Karen Farzam (WHub)
Karen is the co-founder of Women Who Code HK and WHub, a profile driven startup platform for showcasing your creations, finding talent to hire and meeting up with fellow entrepreneurs. An ex-banker and alumni of GA’s WDI course, she now teaches others embarking down that journey at GA. Her face and those black-rimmed glasses are ubiquitous at startup events in Hong Kong.
Karena Belin (WHub)
She spent 14 years working for P&G, and then simply quit one fine day. To co-found WHub! A German lady, with experience in Finance, Sales and Business Planning, she’s now moved on to the softer pursuits in life. Karena is a strong believer in ensuring one’s talent is fully utilised.
Yana Robbins (JumpstartHK)
A marketing veteran of over 10 years, Yana founded 9amconsulting to help brands navigate the marketing minefield. In 2014 she founded Jumpstart Hong Kong, HK’s first print magazine covering the startup scene.
Abby Zhang (Yeechoo)
I met Abby while she was working at General Assembly setting up courses and workshops for their students. She is the co-founder of Yeechoo, Hong Kong’s first dress-rental destination. Originally envisioned as an online provider, they recently opened a brick and mortar store in the upmarket SOHO district, HK.
Cynthia Cheung (Trafluence)
I’ll be honest, I have no clue how old she is. And since, it’s rude to ask a woman her age, I’m not going to. But I’m amazed at the various projects Cynthia’s been involved in. She is the founder of FulfillOurPurpose, and Trafluence. The latter is an online marketplace where travellers get perks for working at service establishments, and was one of 6 startups selected for the Google EYE (Empowering Young Entrepreneurs) program.
Joyce Kan (Carshare)
Joyce might be the the quietest person in the room, but I promise you she’s also one of the hardest-working ones. She heads up marketing and business development for Carshare, Hong Kong’s first peer-to-peer carsharing platform. She is also part of the organising team of Startup Weekend.
Jessica Cheung (Nest)
A very soft spoken person, Jessica is an Associate at the incubator/VC firm Nest Hong Kong. She is also the Associate at Investable.vc, an equity crowdfunding platform that connects investors to curated high growth startups.
Jennifer Carver (Nest)
Jennifer has been in Hong Kong since before the handover (1997) and has spent most of that time investing in companies and helping them grow. A multi-lingual professional with over 26 years of broad based experience in Asia and the US, she has chalked up various achievements in investment advisory, asset management and strategic investment.
Carman Chan (Click Ventures)
I’ll let her LinkedIn profile do the talking: “In the past 20 years, after giving up the PHD offer from Imperial College London, I have created three ventures. Sold two ventures and merged one with a Taiwan company and started angel investment and really love it. Did more than 25 angel investments from seed to late stage, focusing on mobile related startups.” phew
Nicole (Nikki) Chan (Bindo)
I was introduced to Nicole on our tenth or eleventh meeting; until then I’d been speaking to Nikki! That’s true, more people know her by that name. Nicole is the Director of PR & Brand Marketing at Bindo, an intuitive iPad cloud-based POS solution that bridges brick and mortar stores with online commerce.
Mary Cheung (Jobdoh)
Jobdoh is a location-based mobile platform for temporary job matching, and Mary is a co-Founder.
BTW, she’s recently developed a liking for audio podcasts, so send her suggestions on Twitter!
Xania Wong (Jobdoh)
Xania is Mary’s co-Founder at Jobdoh, an INSEAD alum and if you’ll believe it, a certified CFA Level III! Jobdoh is, in the true sense of the word, an award-winning startup. They are recipients of the CCMF grant, part of the blueprint accelerator batch, winner of the Google x CUHK EYE (Empowering Young Entrepreneurs) program, and many more.
Wendy Chan (Passkit)
PassKit is a B2B technology company that enables businesses to create, distribute, and manage mobile wallet content & run mobile wallet campaigns. Wendy is the head of Product Management and also leads their content marketing efforts. Before joining the company full-time, she actually interned with them. From what I’ve heard, she’s a great presenter and excels at distilling information for customers.
Elaine Tsung(Garage Society)
Elaine is one feisty entrepreneur. The cute faces she makes hides the acute business acumen she possesses. Elaine was a BD professional at SCMP, then joined The Hive (a coworking space in Hong Kong) as Director. In 2014, she struck out by herself and founded Garage Society, a coworking space of her own. And, they just opened a second location!
Suhani Jain (Grana)
An HKU alum, and a self-proclaimed social media addict, Suhani has been through short stints at McCann and GA. She is now the social media manager for Grana. Grana is a new disruptive fashion ecommerce startup that sources the best fabrics sourced from all over the world and cuts out all the middlemen.
YOU’VE READ THROUGH 26 OF THE 52 NAMES… Wow! Well this is the halfway mark. I want to say thank you for reading so far. Wonder what you’d like to tell me about this list so far…
Sabrina Sakhrani (MySnappyCart)
Sabrina has an affinity for the on demand economy. In 2014, she launched TippleMe, an on-demand wine and liquor delivery service. Now she’s building the Instacart of Hong Kong — MySnappyCart, delivering groceries to lazy/busy Hong Kongers.
Claire Fenner (Heels and Deels)
Claire is the Founder and CEO of Heels and Deels, a global community for women entrepreneurs. It was started in 2009 and has local chapters led by a global HQ. H&D works very muhc like BNI, in that they help women start and grow their businesses and their careers by connecting them to inspiration, knowledge, contacts, support and resources.
Charlotte Chen (Spottly)
Charlotte is filled (to the brim) with so much talent, it blows you away. From her website: “Entrepreneur. Co-Founder & CMO of Spottly. Editor-in-Chief of Spottly Insider Magazine. Founder of EMPYR&CO. Hunter of Rad Places. Friend of Fashion. Trend Spotter. Print Maniac. Ex-Banking Slave. Hearts The Digital World. Hong Kong / Singapore.” (edited)
Josie Tam (Techpacker)
Do not be fooled by her diminutive size, Josie is a dynamite! Much like the Josie of ‘Josie and the Pussycats’. With a heightened sense of and significant experience in Fashion, she co-founded Techpacker. Techpacker is a project management tool for fashion designers to manage their designs and work with factories to turn it into a product.
Patti Hunt (On-Off Design)
Always up for a cup of coffee and a chat, Patti is a strategic consultant with over 15 years of experience across different disciplines of human-centred design, including user experience design, service design and strategic design. She is a strong believer in design thinking and its power to transform the way business is done.
Sue Kim (Libbler)
Sue left UBS in 2012 to start a company in her life-long passion of career development. LIBBLER is an innovative recruitment solutions company for the finance industry, not a niche many people aim at right from the start. It uses smart matching technology to accurately connect employers to the right talent.
Jean Yoo (Libbler)
Sue’s partner-is-crime, Jean’s also a UBS alumn. She leads the R&D at Libbler and works on their state-of-the-art finance skills library and matching algorithm. LIBBLER is a recruitment solutions company for the financial industry, and it uses smart matching technology to accurately connect employers to the right talent.
Iris Leung (e27)
Iris is an editor at Singapore-based e27, covering entrepreneurship and ecosystem news in Asia-Pacific. An HKU alum (Masters in Journalism), she had the drop on the HK startup ecosystem during her stint as editor of StartupsHK. I’ve found her to be very approachable and always available for advice and feedback on any moonshots you may have.
Ada Wong (The Good Lab)
“You are not in this world just to make a living. You are here to make a difference, to bring hope and positive changes to society.” A strong believer in social good, she founded The Good Lab in 2012 to bring together changemakers from various fields, enabling cross-sector creativity and imagination to flourish and change the world.
Aideen Hannon (FoodieQuest)
A GA Hong Kong alumni, Aideen founded GoShareHK, an online peer-to-peer sharing platform for goods, services and spaces. She is now working on FoodieQuest, a foodporn iOS app that allows you to compete with friends and even discover new restaurants. BTW, I’m very jealous of all the travel she does, and the amazing food she eats.
Fiona Foxon (Tink Labs HK)
Admittedly, I have not had the pleasure to meet Fiona yet. However, I have met ‘handy’, the product her company Tink Labs HK has built. ‘handy’ is a fully customized smartphone your hotel provides you with — giving you access to all sorts of handy information (transport, food, etc.) as a traveler. Fiona serves as the VP of Marketing & Biz Dev at Think Labs, and is passionate about health, fitness, and travel technology.
Ada Yip (past — SOW Asia)
Ada designed and managed the Incubation to Investment (i2i) Program for SOW Asia. i2i is a rare accelerator program that focuses on early stage social businesses that want to scale and attract investment capital. I find her story very intriguing as she went from a 14-year career at Goldman Sachs (securities, derivatives, wealth management) to social startups.
Athena Lam (past — SOW Asia)
Also a part of the team behind the i2i program of SOW Asia, Athena also served as a product manager for LaunchPilots. She is now a freelance writer dispensing travel advice and hacks.
Ovey Yeung (EventXtra)
A recent addition to the Hong Kong startup community, Ovey brings with her growth and marketing experience earned at a number of startups in the West. An entrepreneur at heart, she founded her own communications consultancy at age 16! EventXtra is an event management platform that helps with smoother check-ins, maximise attendee engagement and analysis.
Maggie Lau (Sam the Local)
A Californian, Maggie moved to Hong Kong at the end of 2011 to work with Haymarket Asia. In 2014, she co-founded Sam the Local, a P2P marketplace that connects people to locals for customized, interest-based outings. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook for extreme food pics — how she eats out so much is beyond me.
Anita Chan (Sam the Local)
Maggie’s cofounder at Sam the Local, Anita is also a Californian. She moved to Hong Kong to work for Logitech and later Crocs. A karaoke junkie, she loves exploring the city, discovering local places, playing sports, and of course, showing people how great of a city Hong Kong is.
Anuja Agarwal (Pinnacle Learning)
Anuja is an ‘equity derivatives’ kind of girl. So it was obvious her startup would be something similar. Pinnacle Learning offers fun and interactive workshops on financial literacy and entrepreneurship for kids (4–14 yo). Her critically acclaimed product called Pinworld is a virtual universe with an online bank, a toy store, games, videos and more!
Jah Ying Chung (LaunchPilots)
Jah Ying is the Founder and Air Marshal of Launchpilots, an online marketplace that connects university students with brand sponsorships. Brands work with us to launch campaigns that mobilize student communities across China. Prior to Launchpilots, Jah Ying worked with venture philanthropy firm Social Ventures Hong Kong, global climate change NGO 350.org, and the United Nations Development Program.
Mawgan Batt (The HK Hub)
Mawgan founded the HK Hub at in 2012, as the one-stop-shop for those moving to, settling into and living in HK. Featuring content such as where to live, how to hire a helper, where to eat, drink & take the kids, it is indeed the Hub. Mawgan herself has a background in publishing and used to produce financial conferences at an events company in London.
Shana Buchanan (iDecorate Ltd.)
Shana is a former Fund Manager turned tech entrepreneur. iDecorateshop is a decorating platform for design enthusiasts that makes buying for the home or special occasion easy with their innovative mood-board-meets-shopping cart tool called the “Styleboard”.
Mayuko Yamaura (BrandPit)
Brand Pit has got to be one of the most interesting startups I’ve seen in a while, also because they work with social media signals. Basically, Brand Pit is an image recognition software that allows brands to measure their exposure on social. Mayuko is a cofounder of this Japanese startup which is currently part of the blueprint accelerator program.
Florence Coirier Giraudon (BuyMeDesign)
An ESSEC alum with experience working at Moet, Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Pierre Hardy, Florence founded BuyMeDesign in 2009. Buymedesign is the Asian online curator for designers and shops. It positions itself as the best place to find undiscovered gems of design from the indie world.
Sonalie Galardi-Este Figueiras (Ekowarehouse)
A serial entrepreneur with a deep passion for the green consumer products sector. Sonalie founded Green Queen, HK’s #1 green living media platform with listings of green, organic and local artisanal restaurants, shops, services and brands. She is also the founded of Ekowarehouse: a global B2B platform for certified green products.
Hilary Szymujko (blueprint — accelerator)
Hilary heads up all things startups, mentors and investors at blueprint’s B2B accelerator. Earlier she worked as an Investment Manager at Seedcamp in London, where she managed deal processes for the fund’s portfolio companies. I’ve almost always seen a smile on her face and have felt the enthusiasm she has for the ecosystem.
Erica Young (Insight Robotics)
Erica is an industrial designer by education, and currently the Chief Product Officer at Insight Robotics. She organises a very eclectic pop-up dinner for startup people, and it is exactly what it sounds like: a cardboard table and amazing food by the bay. sadly, I haven’t been invited to one yet. Oh, and she’s preparing for the Mongolisa Action Asia 3-day Ultra Marathon!
Siu Shan Lau (delivery.com)
Currently the APAC region UX Lead at delivery.com, Siu Shan has over a decade of industry experience building websites, mobile applications and startup projects. She is also the cofounder of Surround App, a hybrid mobile app that shows, translates and posts status updates to Chinese social media platforms (Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo, QQ).
Founder profiles have been sourced from Startbase, WHub, Twitter, LinkedIn and from my personal interactions with the beautiful ladies!