Start me up: Hong Kong entrepreneurs breaking new ground with app ventures
As well as financial technology, web-based businesses are making strides in travel and education
While the city’s high number of financial professionals has fuelled the birth of new financial technology companies challenging traditional banking services, Hong Kong entrepreneurs have also adapted business models to the digital age in other areas from travel to education.
One of them is Klook, a travel activity booking app launched in September 2014, giving travellers access to discounted attraction tickets and experiences on-demand through smartphones.
With a focus on Asia, Klook now offers more than 2,000 activities across 28 countries and plans to launch in Australia and New Zealand.
“As a travel venture, Hong Kong has been a great place for us to test out our business model. Over the past year the local start-up scene has been thriving, which has been extremely helpful for us to get additional support,” said Klook co-founder Eric Gnock Fah.
The company has raised US$6.5 million in funding since launching and employs 60 people across offices in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Taipei and Singapore.
Hong Kong is being touted as a potential hub for financial technology – or “fintech” – start-ups, being already home to lots of people with banking experience and a desire to try something new.
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Now three years old, online lending platform WeLab raised US$160 million in series B funding in January to upgrade its technology and workforce as well as allowing it to look for potential acquisition targets.
Unlike banks, which require applicants to visit a branch to get a loan, WeLab conducts all of its identification and credit checks through an online system – an aspect popular with its young, tech-savvy audience.
After proving the concept worked among Hong Kong’s small population, WeLab expanded into the mainland to tap the region’s largest market. The company decided to make its lending applications fully mobile in China and has already loaned 9 billion yuan to 2.5 million users across the two markets.
Founder Simon Loong said China’s large population and the government’s openness to working with fintech start-ups makes it an excellent market for Hong Kong entrepreneurs to apply their expertise in finance.
“In China, regulatory-wise you have seen that they’re very supportive,” Loong said. “They see this as an opportunity in the development of the China financial market, in that they can leverage fintech to leapfrog other parts of the world.”
Hong Kong is also home to a handful of education start-ups helping users find tutors or to teach children skills coveted in the 21st century.
Banker-turned-coder Michelle Sun is teaching the entrepreneurs of the future how to code and develop their own smartphone apps.
Sun is one of the 7 per cent of Hong Kong returnee start-up founders as identified by InvestHK. She returned to the city after getting a degree in the United States, where she also worked in banking.
She launched First Code Academy in 2013, to teach Hong Kong’s youngsters. The coding school has now taught more than 2,500 pupils and expanded to Singapore.
Its classes teach pupils aged from six to 18 how to create their own Flappy Bird game clones or build apps based on their individual interests, such as an app to mix and match outfits in a wardrobe.
Coding classes for children are becoming increasingly popular around the world as parents attempt to set their offspring up for the careers of the future.
Sun said the classes focus on creativity rather than building the next billion-dollar app and that learning technical knowledge is empowering for youngsters.
First Code Academy will host the AppJamming Summit 2016 to find the best app makers aged between six and 18 in Asia Pacific.