'Netrepreneurs' see fresh career paths

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 November, 2011, 12:00am


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If Jonathan Mak and Carlos Vidal had been born two decades earlier - before the internet came along - they probably wouldn't know what they'd be doing for a living.

Mak, a 19-year-old Hongkonger, has a flair for design. Vidal, a twenty-something Canadian, is a natural comedian with an unusual passion for the Cantonese language and culture. If these two university students had grown up in, say, the 1970s, both would face a daunting decision after graduating: to continue chasing the dream, which may require vast resources and relocation, or stay home and get a nine-to-five job.

Fortunately, because of the internet, they've become semi-famous.

Mak made the news around the world last month after a Steven Jobs tribute he designed went viral. He's since been offered commissions from design firms, artists and corporations in Hong Kong and on the mainland. Vidal, under the username Carlosdouh, is a popular YouTube personality whose humorous Cantonese instructional videos have netted a free trip to Hong Kong via Cathay Pacific airways and separate collaborations with his pop-star idols, Gloria 'GEM' Tang and MC Jin.

'I couldn't have done this before the days of the internet,' says Vidal. 'I would have needed my own national television show.'

There was a time when anyone with the performance bug had a set path: if you were serious about your craft, you had to go to New York City or London. Now, with a webcam and internet connection, performers such as Vidal are reaching a wide audience without leaving their bedrooms.

The internet has given those with creative minds opportunities to showcase their talents and pursue their dreams in a risk-free environment, and the post-1980s and 90s generations are taking full advantage of it.

Mak admits that his design blog is less a self-expression outlet than a promotional website.

'I'm not going to claim it's for self-expression, like artists do with their art. Design is different from art. I feel you should design for an audience,' he says.

He wouldn't be doing this, he adds, if there were no internet.

More young men and women are forgoing traditional means of employment or traditional paths to success in favour of building a career or generating income over the net.

In Hong Kong, the young online entrepreneur boom is so prominent that The New York Times recently featured BootHK, an incubator for online start-ups, in its Sunday magazine.

Gregory Lok, a 29-year-old with two start-ups and an occasional BootHK member, says it's easier than ever to be an internet entrepreneur.

'The prevalence of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter have given all of us a free platform to market our product,' says Lok, a former IBM consultant who now runs a furniture group-buy site, Deal Decor. 'It's like free advertising.'

In the United States, for whatever reason, a significant percentage of internet stars are Asian-American. This includes Michelle Phan, a 24-year-old Vietnamese-American in Los Angeles, whose make-up tutorials on YouTube have 1.5 million subscribers, making her the most subscribed female video blogger on the internet. Her fame landed her a job as spokeswoman for US cosmetic brand Lancome, the same company that had rejected her as a make-up saleswoman a couple of years earlier.

For the older generation of Asians, some of whom migrated to the US in search of better opportunities, seeing their children or grandchildren stray from the traditional path to success could be unsettling.

'Most traditional Asian parents believe success is being a lawyer or doctor or a job that requires a suit,' says Robert Phan, a 29-year-old online entrepreneur who recently relocated to Hong Kong. 'They have a hard time grasping that in today's age, we could make a good living all through our laptops, working to our own schedule.'

Philbert Lui, a 23-year-old Hong Kong native who is now an aspiring filmmaker in Toronto, echoes the sentiment.

'Culturally and stereotypically, Chinese parents want us in more practical fields,' he says. 'You almost had to rebel and leave home to pursue a creative field in the past. Now we can do that with the internet.'

Lui developed a passion for video at a young age and advances in technology made it possible to pursue his dream. He's won several awards, including the Visual Thesis Prize at the Toronto Youth Shorts Film Festival.

Vidal and Mak both say they intend to push their careers once they finish school. Vidal recently joined the YouTube partnership programme, a revenue system based on video views and ad clicks. Michelle Phan reportedly makes more than US$100,000 a year from it.

And as for Mak, his life goal sounds like one of Jobs' inspirational quotes. 'I want a free life, unrestricted by working hours,' he says. 'I want to do only projects I love, on a freelance basis.'

Thanks to the internet and his timely Jobs tribute, at age 19, he's already well ahead on that plan.