Entrepreneur face to face with Web opportunities
Lee Hok-bun talked to Ivan Zhai
Lee Hok-bun, a local computer programmer who was born in Guangzhou, has just organised a gathering of like-minded IT enthusiasts from across the Pearl River Delta. He's returned to his hometown on the mainland after more than two decades away to learn more about the opportunities it offers to a new generation of grass-roots entrepreneurs from Hong Kong.
When did you decide you wanted to learn more about the mainland?
I was born in Guangzhou and moved to Hong Kong when I was five. Although I went back to visit relatives and friends in Guangzhou a couple of times most years, I had only very vague ideas about the city and the mainland. Without seeing and trying for yourself, you can't understand the reality of mainland society or know what is involved in basing your business there. So I decided to explore the mainland while still a university student in Hong Kong.
Why was it important to discover what the mainland had to offer?
When I was a student in 2002, I travelled alone for about two months through several inland provinces including Guangxi, Yunnan, Sichuan , Gansu , Qinghai and Xinjiang . It was a surprise one day for me to see an internet bar in a small village called Chaka in Qinghai. The most amazing thing was that back in the early 2000s, the street lights in the village were always turned off not long after dark to save energy, but even in such circumstances, the villagers were already connected to the outside world by the internet. I realised that the mainland had invested a large amount of money in basic IT infrastructure and that the industry would surely bloom some time in the future, which would mean opportunities for Hong Kong's IT professionals. But first we need to test our ideas and the services we want to provide to see whether mainland customers will want them. The beginning will be difficult but if we can find the demand, we can introduce successful overseas business models into the mainland.
So do you think the mainland presents similar opportunities for other Hong Kong youths?
Yes. This generation of Hong Kong youngsters eyeing opportunities on the mainland are the fourth wave to do so since China launched its reform and opening-up policies 30 years ago. The first wave were manufacturers opening their factories in the Pearl River Delta in the late 1970s. Their suppliers came in the early 1980s as the second wave, and the financial companies and property developers moving in in the early 2000s were the third wave. But who did it first doesn't matter. No matter how late it is, Hongkongers born in the 1980s should learn about the world outside their city, especially the mainland. Though Hong Kong has lost many of its advantages, we still enjoy freedom of information, communication and, more importantly, the convenience of getting in and out of the mainland, so we should take advantage of these opportunities to learn more.
As a Hong Kong programmer, why did you want to launch an event for Guangdong's IT circle?
I have been organising similar events - informal gatherings for IT enthusiasts - in Hong Kong for more than 10 years, during which time I have seen many IT engineers and programmers inspired by their peers' ideas or encouraged by their success stories. In the internet era, IT workers need to meet and discuss things face-to-face to develop the many great ideas first appearing online. We might find work partners during such gatherings. I realised that such social events were rare among mainland IT circles, and compared with Beijing and Shanghai, Guangzhou has even fewer. I wholeheartedly believe such events are good for making connections so I wanted to bring them to Guangzhou, my hometown. The major industries in Hong Kong are those related to services and sales, not internet technology. It has been hard to find new participants for our Hong Kong events over the past several years. So I think it is time to expand the social circle to neighbouring regions. It is a good way to learn about the market and the people you are targeting. It is a chance for me to find out what people are concerned about and what they want. I must do that by myself, I can't just echo the views of others. For grass-roots people looking for opportunities in a new market but without sufficient capital to do basic research, that's the way we learn and start the business.