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Hong Kong technology entrepreneurs set the pace

The 2008 global financial crisis saw many IT jobseekers – who previously would have flocked to the banking and finance industry – begin thinking about setting up their own businesses. The subsequent tightened lending and lay-offs, and the rise of crowdfunding, has led to the founding of numerous start-ups in the city. 

One IT professional who took advantage of the changing work environment is Ambi Labs CEO Julian Lee, who founded his start-up with two partners in 2012. Ambi Labs develops artificial intelligence hardware products, including Ambi Climate, an energy-saving device designed to adjust air conditioning according to humidity, temperature, and even human metabolic rates.The company raised nearly US$115,000 on Kickstarter from 749 backers to develop the product.

Having a stable, well-paid job in private equity failed to tame Lee’s aspirations. “I really wanted to get back to the value-creation side. Around 2007-08, there was a new trend of cheaper manufacturing and access to it, but there were also cheaper prototyping tools. It’s all related.” 

Lee says user experience (UX) designers and mobile apps developers are in high demand. Ambi Labs is expanding aggressively and has nearly doubled in size to 15 people since last year.“We’re looking for more developers on the front-end side, like mobile and web, and also want to build up our UX team.”
Many start-ups lack the resources to train their staff. However, Simon Loong, founder and CEO of online lending platform WeLab, has incorporated former Harvard Business School professor Michael Watkins’ bestseller The First 90 Days into his training. 

“[It] is basically the theory that [the first 90 days] are extremely important for someone who either enters a company or takes up a new position in the company,” he says. “Now that we have 60 people, as a CEO, I do ‘first 90 days’ with almost every single employee.” 

But what if staff leave the company shortly after? “We have this belief that we would rather invest a lot in training and that person goes, than we don’t and that person stays and drags the whole company down,” Loong says.

Rachel Lam, who quit her job at a major bank to join WeLab two months after it was founded in January 2013, testifies to the effectiveness of this approach.

“We all know how an impression of us is formed in the first 90 days in a new company,” she says. “[Loong] told us his expectations directly and the open culture makes me very comfortable. As an extrovert, I could be vocal when I found any problems, and I could talk to him whenever I wanted … I felt I helped to form part of the company culture.”

She is still asked why she left a big company for a start-up. “I felt I really couldn’t make a big difference to such a huge organisation. Simon invited me to join his venture to improve the efficiency of the finance landscape in Hong Kong. I started thinking to myself, ‘Maybe I could be part of this dream.’” 

Lam says the best thing about working at a start-up is the sense of ownership. “I treat it as my own business. This kind of strong ownership is not granted in a big company. My previous boss would not allow me to take up such a big project.”

Loong himself came from a senior position at a bank. “I figured it out much earlier. We call this positional power. It is not your real power. You feel good about someone else’s brand, because your company flies you business class and puts you up at five-star hotels. But [at WeLab] we source our satisfaction from building a great company. After we retire, we’ll tell our kids we built a great company.” 

Lee says running a start-up requires constant juggling. “It’s relentless. There’s always something else, like the proverbial crying baby. If you’re always doing the really urgent things, you’ll never have time to do the really important things.”

Being an entrepreneur is like being on a roller coaster, he adds. “There will be times when you are absolutely euphoric and you think you are going to conquer the world. At other times, it is like the end of the world.”

The key is self-control and self-understanding. “Look at yourself – when you’re feeling happier, don’t get carried away. If you’re feeling really down, manage yourself and say, ‘This too shall pass.’"