Theodore Ma uses family business know-how to help start-ups succeed, writes Andrea Zavadszky.
Theodore Ma has fond memories of Sunday family time from his teenage years. His father, Maximilian Ma, chairman of the Lee Heng Diamond Group, would take the family out for lunch every weekend and then visit his father’s MaBelle stores to see how staff were doing.
“He had to work, because that was the time when he built up the chain of stores, but he also made it into a family event. He took my suggestions seriously, such as shops should be brighter,” he says. “I guess that’s how I got into the business. Being a guy, why [else] would I want to sell diamonds and jewellery?”
He was 14 when he left to study in the US in 1996, but came back every summer and worked with his father five days a week. At 16, he visited the company’s 39 stores as a mystery shopper, learning about the business in great detail.
This helped Ma become familiar with selling jewellery. During his university years he discovered the power of eBay, where he sold MaBelle jewellery with some success. “It was a very interesting experience. I was selling something I’d never touched, to someone I’d never seen, for money I’d never handled … and I didn’t even know the colleague who did the shipping from Hong Kong. I was selling in a way that was not known to my family. Everything was so surreal,” he says.
After graduating from California’s Stanford University, where he studied IT and communications, he joined the family business.
His responsibility was to build an online fulfilment infrastructure which now covers 70 countries and 400 cities. The group sells on 20 different platforms, including Amazon, Alibaba and Tmall.
“Online sales is more than ordering and paying online and having the goods delivered by mail – it’s being close to customers,” Ma says. Being close to the customer means offering a service that corresponds to their needs. “IT is a tool. What’s important is what we do with it.”
He wants to offer all combinations: from the traditional online shopping experience, to viewing online and paying in person, or viewing in person and paying online.
Ma, however, is perhaps better known in Hong Kong for CoCoon, one of the earliest “co-working spaces” – shared work environments that can help create a lively entrepreneur community. He set it up with his father and sister Erica to assist start-ups and reignite Hong Kong’s entrepreneurial spirit.
The idea came from Ma’s father, who was left with a deep impression after a “Start-up Saturday” at Cyberport. To Ma’s surprise, his father called him soon after to ask whether they could make a difference by opening a co-working space in a recently acquired 14,000 sq ft office space in the Causeway Bay.
Opened in April 2013, CoCoon has a real buzz as entrepreneurs, alone and in groups, work on their projects late into the night. CoCoon helps them in three ways. First, its six community developers get to know the clientele and introduce people who might have similar interests. Second, a monthly “Market Meet-up” event and the “CoCoon Market” section on the organisation’s website help entrepreneurs find ways to earn money while development their start-ups. Third, pitch nights see people explain their start-up ideas to business leaders acting as judges, with the top three receiving financial awards.
CoCoon has already hosted 250 events and members have so far raised HK$15 million in funding from investors. “We hope members will stay here for six to nine months and after that they can leave [with enough funding for their project],” Ma says. “The private sector needs to have skin in the game.”
Ma believes Hong Kong’s start-up market is really advancing and the right people with the right experience are starting to get more opportunities. With a bit more time and patience, he says, Hong Kong can become a major hub for start-ups.