It was impossible to avoid 2016’s biggest craze, Pokémon Go, but you may not know that it’s predecessor Quest for Seven Swords/3G Fairy Quest – the world’s first 3G network location tracking treasure hunt game – was invented by Hong Kong’s own Keith Li way back in 2005, before the birth of the iPhone itself.
But Li was ahead of the curve in other respects; in 2004 he developed the mobile application m-Friends with his first startup company M-gen, which made social networking platforms like Facebook available on mobile devices.
Then, in 2010, he collaborated with two other partners to create one of the first e-books in Hong Kong, as well as embarking on another venture, Innopage Limited, which helps Hong Kong publishing companies digitise their books – saving them from extinction in the age of the Kindle and iPad.
Now, the co-founder and CEO has shaped the company into a multi-award winning app developer and design consultant, working with multinational corporations like Samsung, the World Wildlife Fund, and the South China Morning Post.
Young Post stopped by Li’s office at the Science Park to learn more about the man who lit his own path to success.
While in an “ideal world”, hard work would guarantee success, Li knows that in the real world, things aren’t so simple.
“There are many external factors which determine success” he told Young Post.
Finding the right opportunity is often a case of luck, or “meeting the right person at the right time”. For this reason, says Li, fixating too much on success or on getting your big break will only knock you back and get in the way of doing what you actually enjoy.
Li’s own experiences are proof of this. The young pioneer of location-based augmented reality mobile gaming was sure Quest was destined for greatness after it was named “Best S60 Mobile Entertainment Gam”’ at the Forum Nokia PRO Awards 2005. It was a highly prestigious award at a time when Nokia dominated the tech market – “like getting an award from Apple in today’s world”.
“It felt like I was receiving huge recognition because it was a worldwide competition which only gave out a total of seven awards annually” said Li.
Looking back now, however, Li realises he was “naive” to think the award was enough; sadly, critical success was swiftly followed by commercial failure.
One of the reasons for this was that Quest was simply too advanced for its time.
“Back then, the world was not prepared [for the game]. The mobile operating systems were slow, their battery life span short, and mobile broadband was slow and expensive” explained Li.
He added that “most mobile phones only supported 2G” while “the game required 3G for location tracking, which also lacked sharp accuracy”.
While we now know that it has taken 10 years to develop mobile technology able to support a location-based game, Li thought two or three years would be enough.
During that time, he worked hard to transform Quest into a commercial product. Lacking the necessary technology meant Li had to put in a lot of leg work. For one thing, there was no Google Maps, so Li had to create his own virtual version of Hong Kong from scratch. He planned to copy from a road atlas, but its proportions weren’t correct. In the end, Li had to travel around Hong Kong himself to make the amendments to the map. It took him nine months to finally complete it. Unfortunately, mobile technology still hadn’t caught up.
“My greatest frustration was I knew early on that [my applications] would be a success in the market, and I made it happen despite the difficulties” said Li. “The idea was right, and the direction was correct. But it wasn’t the right time.”
With the introduction of iPhones to Hong Kong in 2008 came the epoch of touchscreen smartphones, and M-gen started to lose employers, user subscriptions and revenue. But undeterred, Li moved with the current, observing and reacting to market needs.
“In 2010, book publishers and printing companies were facing the decline of people reading actual books. Everyone was spending time on their phones” recalled Li. “So we thought about writing a system for publishers to turn books into digital books.”
This idea gave Li his second opportunity in entrepreneurship. And this time, technology was on his side.
“As we were about to execute our plan, Apple announced the release of the iPad, and its large screen size would make e-reading even more appealing,”said Li. A month later, his new startup, Innopage, launched one of the first e-books in Hong Kong .
With its early bird advantage, Innopage scooped up its fair share of worms in Hong Kong, having since worked with around 70 per cent of the city’s publishers and multiple university presses. The company has continued to evolve, moving from publication to app design and development.
Li’s experiences are proof that the journey to success is just as important as the arrival.
“We’re all so concerned about the thousandth light bulb Thomas Edison invented that we have forgotten about the 999 failures which preceded it. Everyone must go through trial and error before success,” Li added.
His advice to Young Post readers: don’t be afraid of taking risks.
“Fear not of trying. Trying might lead to failures, but without trying, you have nothing.”