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.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Start-up Nation:以色列行與閱讀札記

1. 九月六日至十一日,我們一行廿多人,在以色列駐港領事館協辦下,到訪以色列特拉維夫(Tel Aviv)。行程包括與當地初創企業會面(Magisto, Cellrox, Crowdex)、參觀其年度資訊科技盛事DLD Conference、遊覽死海與耶路撒冷舊城區等。簡單來說,與十月行政長官梁振英率團的行程相若(當然我們規格低得多、但樂趣卻....嗯,你懂的)。

2. 在出發前一個月,我借閱了一本關於以色列近年以科技創新的書作準備:Start-up Nation。此書好看得很,結合微觀創新故事與宏觀政府政策,敘述技巧一流。多得此書,令我在幾日走馬看花的行程中有更深的體會--讀萬卷書與行萬里路不僅毫無抵觸,還相輔相成。此後我想自己更清楚該怎麼去旅行了。

3. 好,閒話休提。到底以色列的創新科技有多厲害?近年為什麼成了「創新之邦」?以色列作為被強敵環伺的小國,其生存及成功有沒有值得香港效法之處?這連串大哉問是一萬字學術論文的內容,此處容我結合觀察與閱讀報告,非常簡單地分享一下。

4. 很多人認為軍事科技強大、強制年青人服兵役是以色列科技高速發展的主因。但在發達國家中,新加坡和南韓都有強制兵役要求,但兩者的創新卻遠不如以國;有人說那是由於猶太人聰明,但別忘記印度和中國人都相當聰明,語文和數理考試成績在全球名列前茅,可中印在創新方面的爆發力卻比不上以色列;還有人說以色列的成功是靠金錢(如英美在其立國階段的投入)堆砌出來的,但本書作者提出杜拜和阿聯酋等亦曾嘗試以大量財富複制以色列模式,但效果不彰。那以色列憑什麼?

5. 好,先說軍事。所有以色列年青男女都要被徵召入伍,而且男性將成為後備軍直到45歲。軍事訓練令以色列人在大部份其他發達國家青少年仍「懵盛盛」時,面對生死抉擇和求生訓練,這令他們比較早熟、也更勇於接受挑戰。

在以色列的軍事編制中,上級將領很少,中下級卻很多,這種制度逼中下層軍人要有自行解決問題的能力,不能事事向上請示--這與新加坡人的高度服從指令、和南韓人注重的長幼尊卑很不同。而這種自行解決問題、"be resourceful"的思維,也與創業的要求不謀而合。

兵役和後備軍制度,令這些年青人終生都和自己的團隊保持聯絡;而由於所有人都要服兵役(僅少數有特殊宗教理由者例外,這方面書裏有詳述,此處不贅),所以在以色列這個八百萬人的城市裏,幾乎「所有人認識所有人」。人脈也成為以色列人創業時,很珍貴的資源。

6. 其次,以色列採精英制。既然所有人都要參加公開試和服兵役,那不如先把成績最優秀的學生挑選出來,再給予特殊訓練吧--這就是情報小隊8200和精英組織Talpiot的由來(想像一下:如香港把每年公開試數學成績「A」級的2%學生篩選出來、再授予體能訓練、並強制這些人入伍而非到港大修讀醫科或法律,那是怎麼一番光影)。

在美國,最出色的人才求學於哈佛耶魯;在以色列,最優秀的少年受訓於8200或Talpiot。這些以色列人服罷三年兵役,已擁有頂尖科技與管理的訓練,幾乎不必考取大學,直接便可出來創業。我們此次參觀的初創企業中,就見識過擁有8200舊生的創辦團隊,對投資者來說,這幾成信心的保證。

不過,精英主義下,以色列人的傲氣也令一些人吃不消。我們的團友中就有人受不了啦。

7. 以色列自1948年立國後,經歷了兩次高速成長期,才有如今的創新規模。它是目前投放最多資源於R&D的國家--達4.5%--遠超中/美;他們的大學畢業生比率高達45%,相當多人口從事高增值的知識經濟產業;美國科技巨企可能在中國設製造基地、印度做服務後援中心,但其「大腦」--創新與研發--除美國總部外,就只設於以色列。這些巨企包括Google,Microsoft,IBM等。

而不少科技巨擘,包括Google的兩位創辦人、Facebook 的創辦人等,都是猶太人。

8. 以色列第一次的高速成長為從立國的1948年至1970年代,是以政府巨額投入、基建拉動發展的經濟增長期。第二次成長期是1990年至今,主要得力於新移民,尤其是前蘇聯解體後,大量來自俄羅斯的工程師、科學家、醫生等(Google創辦人之一Sergey Brin,就是典型例子,其父母為來自蘇聯的猶太人,後移民美國)湧進以國,帶來鮮活的下而上創新動力,並持續至今。

9. 這不其然令我想到香港--四十年代開始,大量難民從北方南下,當中不少是略有家底的商人,或讀飽書的知識份子,這些人才的投入,奠下香港七八十年代經濟起飛的基礎。

而且,為逃難而來的新移民遠比「原居民」刻苦、和願意創業(因此為社會帶來更多就業),是經濟創新的動力。我記得看此書時剛好為歐洲接收敘利亞難民的高峰,有不少有識之士呼籲歐洲各政府效法德國,打開門戶、收容難民,理據之一,就是這些人能歷經千山萬水、橫渡怒海而來,當非好逸惡勞、貪生怕死之徒。如果給予他們安定和發展機會,將是社會之福。

10. 但有一點,我看香港很難做到,那就是以色列人對政府的高度自豪和信任(梁振英應該葡萄到一地都係)。我們接觸的每一家初創企業,都對政府對他們的支援和推廣萬分感激。他們對國家有強烈歸屬感,深明在強敵環伺下(圍繞以色列的每片領土,都是與之不善的回教或阿拉伯國家),唯自強團結才是出路(所以他們全力發展不需生產、硬件、或運輸等的電訊或資訊科技業,突破封鎖)。

香港卻不同。與中國為鄰下,有些人視之為經濟機遇(這是政府或建制的主旋律:北上發展大有前途),有些人卻視之為威脅(以年青人、親西方的民主派為主,強烈抗拒中國的滲透),這兩大陣營的價值取向如此不同,令香港社會嚴重撕裂。假如所有港人都視中國為友,那我們便有錢齊齊搵好了;又如所有港人都視中國為敵,那就團結一致捍衞香港核心價值吧。可惜我們卻處於兩股勢力的拉扯中,奈何。

11. 還有一點,香港也望塵莫及,就是「品牌」。當然以色列的創新科技很出色,但在一些範疇,香港團隊的技術未必「無得比」(至少在我們參觀的初創團隊中,就有這些例子),只是香港人太妄自菲薄,而以色列人卻自信爆棚。尤其近年以色列藉軟件技術冒起,「以色列製造」此品牌效應令投資者趨之若鶩,資金推動下,初創行業進入良性循環,不斷加速,完成自我期許。香港情況卻恰如其反,十分可惜。

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