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City Weekend

Now is a golden time to be involved in China, says Hong Kong entrepreneur behind Didi Chuxing

In the second of a three-part series on InnoStars Award, organised by Our Hong Kong Foundation to recognise leaders and promote innovation, City Weekend talks to Joe Lee, one of the co-founders of China’s largest ride-hailing platform

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 May, 2018, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 May, 2018, 2:00pm

As Uber continues its uphill battle to gain a legal foothold in Hong Kong, the American company’s Chinese rival, which drove it out of the mainland a few years ago, has announced plans to expand by launching services in Mexico.

That expansion marks another important milestone in a journey that began in 2015, when two companies who provided online taxi-hailing services through the Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache apps merged to form Didi Chuxing.

What is less known about the creation of China’s largest ride-hailing firm is that Kuaidi Dache was the brainchild of Hongkonger Joe Lee, and his success is a perfect example of what can be achieved if the city’s entrepreneurs take their skills to mainland China.

Lee, 43, is the co-founder of Kuaidi, which merged with Didi to become Didi-Kuaidi, and later Didi Chuxing. It bought Uber’s China business when the US firm abandoned the mainland.

A mathematics and accounting graduate from Waterloo University in Canada, Lee swapped a career in accounting to pursue a dream and designed the app that was inspired by a desire to create a socially aware product that could improve the customer experience for those needing a taxi on the mainland.

He oversaw the entire Kuaidi operation, from designing the app to starting the taxi and limo hailing business model from scratch. He is not a programmer by training, although a 100-strong engineering team reported to him.

What are the challenges aspiring Hong Kong entrepreneurs face on the mainland?

I think when I got in there was still a little bit of “Hong Kong people premium”, which has been fading in the past few years.

Hongkongers have a lot of different exposure that they can bring into China – whether it is international exposure, professionalism, and also the languages.

The Hong Kong premium is coming back because the growth in China has been very fast in the past few years, and is now close to a plateau point. All the businesses require more innovation, breakthroughs and professional management. So, I believe this is a golden time for Hongkongers to capture the opportunities in China, but you need a different kind of skill set.

For example, if you break down fintech, it means finance and technology. The technological innovation in Hong Kong is not as extensive as on the mainland, but business model innovation is good. To be good in fintech, not only would you need cutting-edge technology, you also need innovation in the business model.

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If you look at the InnoStar awardees, many of their businesses were born in Hong Kong. For example, GoGoVan and Didi are in a very similar industry. However, we transport human beings and passengers and they transport goods. I think they got a brilliant idea. Steven [Lam, co-founder and chief executive officer of GoGoVan] did it very well.

I exchanged ideas with him at some point. I told him that when I promoted the taxi app in China, I did copy some of the tactics that he used.

There are a lot of creativity and innovation ideas in Hong Kong. It’s just a matter of how you execute it, how you plan it out, how you have a very clear goal that you would like to achieve.

Do Hong Kong regulations discourage share rides and car hailing?

We have to have a very clear objective of what we would like to achieve as a business. For example, in our taxi and car-hailing business, we have a very clear objective that we want passengers to get a car. We want the drivers to make more money.

This is a very simple yet very strong view among us whenever a business has any deviation from the original heart of what we would like to do. I can’t quite comment about the Uber business in Hong Kong, because I am not very familiar with that.

However, to have social good as the original reason for doing your business, you should cultivate your business in a way that addresses the interest of all the stakeholders, including passengers and drivers, the government, vested interest parties, all of them.

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When we did taxi hailing in China, we started off as a taxi-hailing app instead of the Uber car-ordering app. The reason we did that was so simple. We knew that we were going to have some sort of influence on this market.

At first, we had to convince people we were going to add value to this particular market. So, when the taxi drivers are happy, the taxi owners, and taxi companies are happy, and the government sees this as a plus to society and are more embracing of our business model.

We launched in Hong Kong in 2014. First we started in Shanghai, and then once we got 100 cities, we moved to greater China, including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. In Southeast Asia, it’s called Grab.

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What are you working on right now?

I founded Klover Insurtech, an online platform for motor insurance on the mainland. One of the biggest issues with the insurance industry is the legacy left behind from previous business models.

However, for an insurtech company, we don’t have a lot of legacy issues, and we have a very clear objective: we would like to create value for policyholders. Our business has underwritten 700 million yuan (US$110 million) in China in motor insurance alone.

What makes your business stand out from the traditional competitors?

To most of the public, they feel that insurance companies make money out of every single dime – they delay claim payouts, they save from skimping on services they provide to the customers. This is a zero-sum mentality. I think it’s time to have a win-win mentality instead.

This is a zero-sum mentality. I think it’s time to have a win-win mentality instead
Joe Lee, entrepreneur

My view on insurance is simple. If you have a major accident, the insurance company should compensate you financially. However, what insurance companies do not do well, or can do better, is when you have minor incidents, or even nothing to claim. I think insurance companies should reward these drivers, either through service or charity.

We have to break the zero-sum mentality. One of the ways is to simplify procedures. Sometimes, when we buy motor insurance, we are asked to fill out a form which asks questions we do not even know the answers to, such as the engine number of the car we’re trying to insure. My view is that technology can help out in these scenarios.

It is true that insurance companies are making a lot of money right now, but when I spoke to them they also acknowledged the need to change. For example, in terms of moving to the digital era, they realise the need to have a service network to serve their customers better. They know big data can enhance their pricing efficiency, or underwriting efficiency.

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Are there plans to expand your business into Hong Kong, and what do you think of the business environment here?

We would love to come to Hong Kong. I believe in the past few years we have learned and built a very solid foundation in terms of technology, business model, and talent. The only challenge for our insurtech platform in Hong Kong is that we have to spend more time to understand the city’s regulations.

The Hong Kong government is very open in this area. The Insurance Authority has a fast-track application for insurers to obtain a digital licence. The Innovation and Technology Bureau is very open to fintech. When I spoke to the chairpersons of the Cyberport and the Science Park, they especially welcomed overseas Hongkongers coming back to start insurtech and fintech companies.

I’m pleasantly surprised by their enthusiasm. It was not just a handshake type of meeting – they told me to let them know the problems we were having, and they pledged to help out.

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What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs and start-ups in Hong Kong?

They should not be limited by their identity as a Hongkonger. I think there’s no difference between a Hong Kong guy, a Shenzhen guy or Shanghai guy. It’s all about your business idea: it needs a very clear motive, and a plan on how to execute it.

A common problem which I see from people founding a start-up is they think because they have a brilliant idea, they will be able to raise money.

But, when I asked them to tell me some of the potential problems they could be facing, a lot of them could not even answer. My methodology is, do not tell me what is good about yourself, tell me your problems instead.

When I spend time with university students or entrepreneurs, I tell them: “You have your dreams, but you still live in the real world.”


THE QUIRKY SIDE OF JOE LEE

What hobbies do you have?

I spend quite a bit of time playing piano and guitar during the weekends. It’s how I relieve my pressure at work. I also made money from playing in a band at pubs and restaurants when I was in university in Canada.

Who is your idol ?

I don’t have a single hero in my mind. I tend to think that I am a very good learner, and I learn every day. For some people, you have a hero, and you want to learn from them. But to me, I can see the good in everybody. In my pocket I don’t carry a wallet, but I have my Kindle instead. I spend a lot of time reading books because if you have a hero you want to learn from them. When I was small, I looked up to my father and my mother. There is a Chinese proverb which says, ‘When three people walk together, there must be one who can teach me’.

How much time do you spend on the mainland each week ?

I spend two days a week in China now, a lot less time than before. I have been in Hong Kong more for the past few years as I try to focus on fintech investments in the city, which I believe has a unique advantage.

Do you plan to retire any time soon?

I have never thought about retiring, as I believe I am far from successful in terms of the social values my businesses are creating. I am still reading books heavily, and keep learning. Also I spend quite a bit of time with the business and social projects in which I can add value.