Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Founder and CEO of NDN Group Andy Ann knows the virtues of getting in early on things

Most entrepreneurs start off with a great idea and big plans for making it happen. But back in 2001, when Andy Ann realised the advertising industry just wasn’t for him, he took a markedly different approach.

His first step to becoming founder and chief executive of NDN Group, which today oversees nine companies with 100-plus staff and clients in 11 countries, was to get a desk in a suite of serviced offices for HK$4,000 a month. He then registered a business name, sat back and wondered what to do next.

There was no clear plan, limited seed capital, and little of the support network now available to budding entrepreneurs in the shape of mentors, incubators and angel investors.

But there was a strong determination to prove his worth, and an underlying certainty that being his own boss was definitely the way to go.

“Initially, I’d been proud of myself, getting a job with a big company and working on campaigns for luxury brands,” says Ann, who returned to Hong Kong with a degree in economics and psychology from the University of British Columbia. “But after two months as a junior executive, starting at 9am and doing 16 to 18 hours a day, I was told it would take at least six to eight years to become a business director. So, rather than being part of a huge hierarchy, I decided to build my own company and use my time in other ways.”

But for someone with basic skills in designing and building websites, it didn’t take long to spot a niche. In the early Web 2.0 era, businesses were in need of help in establishing an effective online presence, so Ann started to perfect his pitch.

“In the beginning, I was a bit afraid to pick up the phone and talk to potential clients,” he says. “But I pushed myself and, after about 100 calls, I overcame the fear.”

The brief from his first confirmed client was to build a website and conceive a digital marketing campaign to bring “traffic” into clubs and bars in Lan Kwai Fong. It worked, and one owner, looking to boost business on a traditionally quiet Wednesday night, then agreed to split the takings as an extra incentive.

“I knew from my college days how to organise events, so I designed some ‘there’s a party’ flyers and, that night, about 1,200 people came through the door,” Ann says. “I earned HK$400,000 from bar sales and ticketing, which was a lot more than my annual salary back in advertising. That was a real turning point.”

Soon, the success of the websites attracted advertising and sponsorship from beer and phone companies, creating another revenue stream. It also sparked the idea to strategically install digital display screens inside clubs and bars where ads could target affluent young consumers with significant disposable income.

“We got MTV to embed music videos as content and spread to around 50 locations in Wanchai and Tsim Sha Tsui,” Ann says. “It was exciting and great fun. But I also realised the social lifestyle that came with it wasn’t good for my health, and changing technology meant I had to think about long-term business sustainability.”

The latter consideration led to a first joint venture, Hot Media, with a partner able to provide Wi-Fi in bars and upload digital content remotely. It also paved the way for further expansion over the next few years with new companies set up to specialise in mobile app development, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, social media services, and e-commerce.

“In the early days, I was on my own and it was a matter of survival from one month to the next,” says Ann, who attended Diocesan Boys’ School up to Form 2 before moving to Vancouver. “But this was something I really wanted to do and I was very inspired by the opportunities in technology.”

He traces that back to a six-month telecom module at Stanford during his third year at university. Listening to guest speakers from big names in Silicon Valley made clear the expanding possibilities and what hard work could achieve.”

“Also, there’s a real entrepreneurial spirit in my family,” says Ann, whose father started an electronics business and whose grandfather is regarded as a tycoon in the field of electrical products. “Looking back, 9/11 was also a trigger. It make me realise life is short, there is nothing to lose, and young people should start early and take their chances.”

To illustrate how opportunities are all around, he recalls seeing an automated towel dispenser in a Vancouver tea house during a visit in 2003. A quick call to the manufacturer established there was no distributor in Hong Kong, so Ann struck a deal and was soon supplying schools, hospitals, restaurants, and shopping malls and earned a tidy commission.

“Being a first mover – and moving quickly – took the group to where it is now,” he says. “We saw the trend towards mobile, rode the wave, and are now scaling our services in big data analytics.”

To stay sharp, Ann likes to play tennis twice a week and has taken up boxing. He also sets aside three to four weeks a year to study something new, which might be anything from quantum physics to meditation, neurolinguistic programming (NLP), or public speaking.

“I have a wheel of life with eight different areas,” he says. “I look at it every quarter to see what is missing, perhaps in relationships with my wife and family or needing to learn more about finance and wealth management. I might also go on a religious retreat because I believe life has to be all-round, well balanced, and not just about work, family and ego.”




Andy Ann’s recommendations for making it work

Be aware  “At first, for me, it was all about what I had to achieve and accomplish for the business to survive. But I’ve learned the most important thing is to think about the impact of what you’re doing for clients and colleagues.”

Persuade  “Having ideas is one thing, but an entrepreneur also needs energy and passion to convince others to lend their time, money or support to a project.”

Prepare to fail  “You have to expect some failures as part of the journey, but not be discouraged when they inevitably occur. Along the way, I’ve had all sorts of problems including cash flow issues, being unable to pay salaries, and banks calling in loans.”

Give credit  “When things are going well, it is important to give yourself a pat on the back and show staff their efforts are appreciated.”

Step back  “As an entrepreneur, you need to maintain perspective, monitor your thoughts and emotions, and not let them control you.”


This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Thinking mobile.