Saturday, October 24, 2015

What I Learnt From Start-up Founders

香港大學信興學院宿監陳婉瑩教授邀請我出席其本學年度第二次「高桌晚宴」,談創業。我其實從未創業,只是經常觀察創業的朋友,潛移默化,得到一點點領悟,故準備了此稿與同學們分享,題為What I Learnt From Startup Founders,我從創業家身上學會什麼。

感謝Ying Chan給我這個機會,也謝謝陪我出席此次演講的創業朋友Sunny Kok (Green Tomato)和Elliot Leung (Gaifong App)。在四百多位同學陪同下,我們在非常莊嚴宏偉的禮堂享受晚宴、又在月夜下暢談,渡過十分難忘的一晚。



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Hello, students of Shun Hing College, I’m very honoured to be here today. Prof. Ying Chan, thank you so much for the invitation.  This is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever had the honour of being asked to do.  

Today I feel very much like when I first went to University as a freshman some years ago.  I did Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  I thought of going to HKU, but because at that time HKU’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre had not been opened yet, I went to CUHK instead.  Had I been born just a few years later, I would probably be a student of HKU, just like you.  

When I was at your age - when I was still at university - I was a confused girl.  I didn’t know what I want to do after graduation.  I had little idea about myself, my dreams or my goals.  Prof. Chan introduced me as a “writer”, and a person who engages herself closely with startups in Hong Kong.  But let me tell you, when I was 20, I’d never had the slightest idea that I was going to write a book or to connect some of the smartest entrepreneurs in the city.

I understand that not all of you are going to found a startup when you graduate.  Indeed, you may not even know what you want to be in the future.  But I’m sure that most of you are eager to explore your dreams and potential.  You want to be a better person.  You want to make a difference.  And you want to find your own purpose of life.  

What I’m going to share with you today, therefore, is not a recipe of how to run a successful startup.  And It is not about how to make great products and change the world.  What I am going to talk to you about tonight are three things that I’ve personally learned from the startup founders that I’ve met throughout my career - and how they’ve influenced me and helped me define who I am.

The first thing I’ve learned is that you should look for a career, not a job.

Most of the startup founders I know haven’t worked for anyone.  Even if they have, they quit as soon as they think they’ve learned enough and are ready to start their own businesses.



Let me share the story of Ray Chan, founder of 9GAG with you.  Ray was a Law student of HKU.  He started his career as a compliance officer of a bank.  He didn’t work long though.  He quit soon after he discovered that his senior had been doing the same thing over and over again for years.  And that scared him.  So he became a news anchor for a television station.  He thought that job was gonna give him more satisfaction.  But as it turned out - it didn’t.  So he quit again.  It was 2006 and a few web startups had just begun their ventures in the city.  Ray joined a startup named “anobii”, a platform for book lovers to share what they read.  His boss, the founder of anobii Greg Sung, was only 5 years older than him.  So Ray thought: if Greg could be a boss, why can’t I?

He then started some pet projects with his brother Chris, another HKU alumnus, and three other friends when they were off duty.  The first two projects weren’t successful.  So he decided to do something simpler - and that “simple” project later led to one of the most popular websites in the world: 9GAG.   As of today, it has a monthly page view of over 800M.

Ray’s story is one of my favorites in my book.  I’m using him as an example not because I suggest that you should quit and start your own business the moment you find your job boring.  No.  I’m using this example to show you that you should keep searching for something you are really passionate about instead of doing something just for money, or for social status.  

So what’s the difference between a “job” and a “career”? I would say a “job” provides you with a title, a predictable salary, a path that leads you to a higher position maybe, and that’s it.  A “career”, on the other hand, is so much more than a “job”.  It is a “meaningful work”.  It does not only provide you with the basic needs of life, but it also gives you a purpose.  It makes you feel important.  It brings you satisfaction.  The work itself is already a source of happiness.  That sounds almost too good to be true.

So how do you find it?

First, find out what you are best at doing.  You should have some strengths that you are better at doing than most of people you know.  Then, discover what you love doing most.  Think about what brings you the most satisfaction.  And most important of all, list what you can do that can earn you a living.  Yes I’m serious.  We’ve gotta be honest with ourselves.  If your dream job can’t bring you a living, it is not sustainable.  If you find something that you are good at doing, enjoy doing it and it can bring you a sustainable income, then you are close to the career that you are meant for.  Try this exercise.

The second thing I’ve learned from the founders is their attitude towards failures.  Without exception, none of them are afraid of failures.  And they don’t see success the way the other people do.



When I first met Sunny, the friend who’s with me here today, he was already a very successful entrepreneur.  His startup Green Tomato produced many of the most popular mobile apps for Hong Kong.  But Sunny too had failed many many times before becoming who he is now.  He’d been earning a million dollars a year soon after graduation.  But he was broke in his early 30s.  His team invented the first voice messaging app on earth, Talkbox, but it was beaten by Tencent with a very similar app WeChat just months after Talkbox was launched.  When describing Sunny in my book, I used a verse in the lyrics of a song by Kelly Clarkson - “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.  Yes, that verse pretty much sums up Sunny’s life.  Sunny becomes Sunny because of, not in spite of, the ups and downs he has faced throughout his startup journey.

Most people are afraid of failures because we don’t want to “look bad”.  We don’t like being a loser.  We don’t like being seen as a loser.  As a result we are terrified of failures and we soon learn to try and avoid them as much as we can.  But what I’ve learned is - don’t do that.  Everyone is bound to fail many times throughout their lives.  The sooner we fail the sooner we’ll recover.  If we can learn from our failures, we will be smarter next time.  And we become more resilient.  So embrace failure.  Don’t avoid it.

The third thing that I’ve learned from my startup friends, and also the last one that I’m going to share with you tonight, is to invest in your hobbies.  Do something fundamentally different from your routines.  Maintain one or two hobbies that you really enjoy doing so.  That can help you escape from your daily life.  It’s because your hobbies may lead you to something unexpected that might change your life somehow in the future.




Here I would like to cite my friend Keith Rumjahn’s story as an example.  Keith is a Canadian-born Chinese.  He became a software engineer of a large IT company after graduating from Queen’s University of Canada.  He was newly-wed, earned a very good salary and had a comfortable life before turning 30.

Keith is an athletic person.  Of all the sports he plays, he likes basketball the most.  When he was in Canada, he coached school boys basketball after work.  But Keith had a problem: it was very difficult to command the boys’ attention.  The traditional way of drawing lines and positions of a basketball match on a board was too boring for school kids.  Keith was frustrated many times.  But at about the same time, iPhone was launched.  So Keith, a software engineer, thought that maybe he could build an app to help himself coach the boys basketball.   Even if the app didn’t make a hit, at least I could benefit from it, Keith thought.

The app worked.  Actually it worked very well.  Even NBA coaches used this app, Coach’s Clipboard, to help them with practices and drills.  The growth of the app showed traction.  And it gave Keith the confidence to quit his stable job and start his own business anew in Hong Kong in 2012.   So far Keith’s app has made millions of downloads.  He has also successfully raised two rounds of funds for his startup.  And it all starts from a hobby.

I told you earlier that you should search for a meaningful work.  And you should pursue a career that matches your strengths and passions.  But not everyone can find his meaningful work at a relatively early stage.  Keeping some good hobbies can help you achieve that.  By constantly doing something that you really like, you could end up being an expert sometimes.  Even if you don’t become an expert, you are better at it than many other people.  And such understanding usually brings insights that may improve the way it works traditionally and might create a new market.

Keith, as a basketball lover and a software engineer, creates an app for basketball coaches that fundamentally changes their routines.  Another startup friend of mine, Leo, who’s very obsessed with his car, creates a social enterprise that enables a car owner to call a helper to wash his car whenever he parks.  Elliot, another friend who’s coming with me tonight, was an academic researcher before starting his own business a year ago.  He created an app “GaiFong”, which facilitates neighbors sharing possessions to reduce what they need to buy, out of a research topic “co-sharing economy” that he was really keen on.

As for myself, I never thought about publishing a book when I was young.  I just like writing so I blogged.  I started blogging in 2006.  I blogged and blogged and I discovered that I enjoy writing about people who were extremely passionate about what they do a lot - not surprisingly, most of them are startup founders.  And these articles received good response from my blog readers.  That’s the beginning of my writing career.  I published my first book about startups in 2008.

I tell you these stories trying to illustrate what I learned from startup founders: look for a career, not just a job; don’t be afraid of failures; keep good hobbies.  These are the three most important qualities many of my startup friends share.  You may not want to be an entrepreneur like them.  It’s ok.  But I hope these could help you land on a fulfilling life no matter what you do.

Finally I’d like to congratulate you for being a HKU student, especially a resident of Shun Hing College.  Treasure the time you will spend here.  Make many friends.  Be open-minded.  Read a lot.  There are tremendous opportunities ahead and you have the freedom to choose whatever you like.  Remember what you like most and do your best to achieve your goals.  I’m sure one day you will find your own purpose of life, just like my startup friends do.  Thank you!

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Now may I pass the stage to my two very good friends Sunny and Elliot who are with me here.  As I mentioned earlier, Sunny is the founder and CEO of Green Tomato Group. Green Tomato now employs about 200 people and is known as the biggest mobile app development company in Hong Kong.  Elliot, founder of GaiFong app, is relatively younger.  He has been a tutor of your Social Work and Social Administration Department before becoming a researcher in the Fung Global Institute.  His app emerges from researches he did there.  Students, please join me to welcome Sunny and Elliot.

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