Hong Kong’s telecommunications, transport and talent are among the very best in the world. Low taxes, efficiency and world-class infrastructure make the territory highly attractive to business start-ups. In a Forbes article this year, Hong Kong was named first in “The World’s Top 4 Tech Capitals To Watch (After Silicon Valley and New York)”. With a cosmopolitan population and a growing base of angel investors, our city has the potential to develop into a major regional start-up centre.
I have worked in Hong Kong’s technology sector for two decades, and it seems to me there is some room for improvement.
Despite the positive atmosphere and increased activity among the start-up community in recent times, tech entrepreneurs are much more abundant in other Asian countries than in Hong Kong. So what can we do to encourage a more vibrant start-up culture?
When I started Outblaze more than 15 years ago, the local technology scene was dire. I was often obliged to educate business acquaintances – including potential partners – by outlining the true potential of the internet. At the time, it was incredibly difficult to explain why our new business was a worthwhile venture. Prospective employees were sceptical of working for a cash-strapped start-up.
Thankfully, today those attitudes have changed radically: technology has become pervasive in everyday life and new tech opportunities are much more readily grasped by the business community. We all use Google, Wikipedia and Facebook on our digital devices, yet we tend to forget that the oldest of these brands – Google – is just a teenager. The success of young technology entrepreneurs is celebrated everywhere. Technology start-up fever is sweeping the world.
These are undoubtedly positive developments, but the global surge of technology entrepreneurship means that Hong Kong is merely moving in lockstep with other markets; we are not producing any more start-ups than our neighbours and, in fact, the overall number employed in the local technology scene remains relatively low. Hong Kong needs to supercharge the entrepreneurship trend.
I believe parents hold the key to strengthening our start-up ecosystem. More specifically, the parents of “millennials” – children born in the 1980s and 1990s, who are going to be our entrepreneurs of tomorrow. A similar point was passionately debated at a panel I led at the recent StartmeupHK Venture Forum.
Hong Kong puts great emphasis on traditional Chinese values such as “face” and “respect for family”. The Chinese virtue of filial piety is deeply ingrained in Hong Kong society, extolled in literature and culture. Because it is common for young adults here to live with their parents well into their 30s, local parents often remain closely involved in their children’s lives.
In Hong Kong, parents have great influence over the adult decision-making of their offspring. I remember vividly how some of our earliest university graduate recruits had to ask 8parental permission to join Outblaze when we were a start-up in the 1990s.
Today’s parents are beginning to accept that a job at a company such as Google might just be superior to one at Citicorp or Morgan Stanley, but that’s still not enough. We need those same parents to encourage their children to work for a start-up or even convince them to set up a company of their own.
Society encourages us to revere successful people and to strive to match their achievements. As a result we often concentrate on a positive outcome instead of the effort required to achieve any outcome at all, be it success or failure. Our intense focus on attaining a desirable end point is a form of myopia, because we routinely neglect to appreciate the sweat, toil and occasional failures required to achieve success.
From our earliest school years, standardised education teaches us to avoid failure at all cost. This is a short-sighted miscalculation because success without failure is merely a lucky coincidence: it is by failing that we learn how to succeed.
Fear of failure and the need to save face are so deeply ingrained in the Hong Kong community that it has become difficult to accept any significant level of risk-taking. This attitude is often passed on to our children, for whom we want good, safe jobs.
We are doing our children a disservice. Parents of the millennial generation ought to consider the following:
Only five companies have exceeded US$500 billion in market capitalisation and three of them are tech companies – Apple, Microsoft and Cisco. The five largest US companies by market cap at this time include no fewer than three tech companies – Apple, Google and Microsoft.
Many of the biggest companies by market capitalisation today, such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, are still quite young and most did not even exist when we were children. There is a decent chance that your son or daughter will be a pioneer in the kind of company that does not yet exist today.
The richest phase of learning often begins after the completion of formal education, when one enters the workforce full time. Working for a cash-strapped, lean, management-by-crisis company (like a start-up) teaches efficiency, independence, a strong tactical approach and makes you more grateful for opportunities and resilient in character. This kind of experience is much more valuable than an MBA. Parents wield incredible influence over their children, even if they may not always appreciate this. Encourage your children to join a start-up or to set up their own company, and lend your love and emotional support to their cause.
Being willing to take risks can be seen as a deeply Chinese trait. After all, Confucius noted that “our greatest glory is not in never having fallen, but in rising every time we fall”.
Yat Siu is the founder and chief executive of Outblaze, a digital entertainment and technology company