September 16, 2011
Entrepreneur William Liang jokes that Hong Kong is like the dystopian city in the movie Metropolis: businessmen in finance and real estate live in the glitzy limelight, while most of the city is toiling underground to support them. And tech startups are down there, too, not part of the public face of Hong Kong.
“Tech startups are still below ground, turning the steam valves,” he says, laughing.
But Liang and fellow entrepreneur Andrew Chen are helping startups rise up with a course on entrepreneurship and social media at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. This one-year course is guiding 20+ students to analyze market trends, form and test business hypotheses, build prototypes, listen to customers, and develop long-term strategy – and investors are “hovering” around observing their progress, says Liang. One student pitched the idea of an online boutique for women to try on makeup virtually rather than crossing the border from China to Hong Kong, as many do, because of fears of cosmetics contamination.
The large public university is welcoming this new course – and new style of teaching. “They want to bring about a different curriculum that’s a bit more focused on experiential learning,” says Chen. This differs from the traditional Chinese education known for drilling and memorization.
Their course joins other entrepreneurship programs in Hong Kong, like the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for Entrepreneurship and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Entrepreneurship Competition.
To educate Hong Kong’s new student entrepreneurs, Liang and Chen are leveraging their own startup experience. A Hong Kong native, Liang worked in Silicon Valley at Tellme, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2007. He also spent time at Bloomberg when it was a startup – and, he says, back when Mike Bloomberg would hand out paychecks personally. In August, Liang cofounded a hackerspace in downtown Hong Kong called Hackjam.
Born in Canada, Chen has been part of the Hong Kong startup community for 5 years and is currently working on a task-outsourcing startup with Liang called Grabbit.
Both teachers understand the cultural difficulties they face. According to Liang, it’s 3 times harder to start up in Hong Kong than in the United States. Risk-averse families pressure young adults to take stable positions at large companies or tech jobs at banks, they say.
But the outlook isn’t all gloom. Besides Hong Kong’s business freedom and access to China, small business thrives there – from the usual food stalls and laundromats to “grandmas” transporting milk powder into China for consumers worried about food safety. Liang sees a strong trend of opportunism: the willingness to start something when an opening presents itself.
As for he and Chen, they saw an opportunity to introduce a new generation to the entrepreneurial life in Hong Kong, and they’re seizing it.
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