Saving the day: Schubert Chong, CEO of Ahsay Backup Software Development, explains his unlikely path into data storage
A restless energy is characteristic of entrepreneurs – it gives them the courage and drive to keep searching for new opportunities and ideas. Quite clearly, Schubert Chong has that quality in abundance. It has allowed him to follow a unique career path, switching between roles and industries, and yet finding success at each stop along the way.
As chief executive of Ahsay Backup Software Development, his current post offers an exciting mix of tests and challenges. Importantly for him, it presents the chance to build an international business based on pioneering uses of technology. All being well, it should also provide almost unlimited potential to enhance the range of products, expand the organisation, and find new fields to conquer.
Initially set up by Chong’s brother in 2000, Ahsay specialises in the design and development of software to backup and safely store essential corporate data at the end of each working day.
With headquarters in Hong Kong and a 60-strong team, the company already has close to 4,000 clients around the world. After a successful listing on Hong Kong’s Growth Enterprise Market (GEM) board in October last year, its current priority is to boost headcount to around 80 in the next few months and to keep investing in sales efforts and new projects.
“The original idea came from seeing that no one wanted to stay late in an office to do systems backup – it should be automated,” says Chong, who was an early investor and joined full time in 2009. “In the first three years, it was hard to make money, but we were very stubborn and trusted our instincts, and that has paid off.”
A clear division of responsibilities sees his brother, who he describes as a genius, spearheading work on the technical side, leaving Chong to oversee finance, marketing, business development and HR matters. That keeps him more than busy and gives him ample scope to deploy a unique set of skills and hard-won experience.
Raised in Lai Chi Kok, where his father worked as a commodity trader exporting dyestuffs from China for garments and jeans, Chong opted to read accountancy at Polytechnic University before emigrating to Australia with the rest of the family. Once there, he took an international MBA at the University of Sydney, which also offered the opportunity to spend a final term in Japan after the completion of an intensive language course at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Upon graduating, though resistant to the idea of working for others, Chong accepted an offer from Dow Chemical Company in Hong Kong, but soon found it a struggle.
“I hated my boss, who gave all the most difficult jobs to me,” he says. “In particular, the company wanted to push through a new cost control system, but different countries didn’t want it. So, in 1993, when my father mentioned a business opportunity in Chongqing, I was ready to try.”
The new venture involved exporting matsutake mushrooms under licence from Tibet to buyers at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji food market. Thanks to a HK$2 million loan from his father, Chong dived in and took a certain pride in making all the decisions – until the buyers began to squeeze margins and the losses started to mount.
“The point came where I had to sit down with my father and confess that all the money was gone. He was happy, not that I’d failed, but because I had found out how tough business can be and that I had come to him for advice.”
The outcome was a new plan and the resolve to try again. Chong hit the road, taking samples to every Japanese restaurant in Hong Kong and tapping his contacts in Chongqing. In due course, he broke into the airline sector by supplying mushrooms and other vegetables to Cathay Pacific for in-flight services on their Japan routes.
“I learned a lesson, rectified my mistakes, and was able to pay my father back in full,” he says. “The company is still operating, but I wanted to look at internet and hi-tech businesses, which led to putting money into Ahsay.”
Chong initially maintained a largely passive interest in Ahsay, instead focusing on running two Japanese restaurants – in Causeway Bay and Olympian City – which provided a completely different kind of experience.
“I made a lot of friends, but it is very difficult to run a business where rentals are high and you can’t always get the people you need,” he says. “Sometimes, I was stuck in the kitchen washing dishes, so, after a total of nine years, rather than accepting a 30 per cent increase in rent, I decided to sell up.”
The challenges of the tech sector have proved an invigorating contrast.
“IT is changing all the time. Big data is coming. It will let people analyse information and predict consumer behaviour, for example, by collecting data on mobile devices. For an entrepreneur like me, there are always chances to learn and do new things, and keep updated on what customers will want and need.”
CODES OF CONDUCT
Schubert Chong gives his tips for building tech teams
Go soft “Recruiters should pay close attention to job matching. There are lot of openings for ‘IT people’ in the market, but the challenge is to find someone suitable for the role. It may really require customer service skills more than programming or development know-how.”
Speak up “Good communication between the developer and the client is very important, so that code is written and data is received in a way that works for both sides. Software runs as it has been designed, and the developer should never expect to do this alone.”
Sharpen up “We set a two-hour aptitude test to check if applicants have a logical and structured way of thinking and can correlate information correctly. Those who do well in the test usually do well in the company.”
Think big “Building a creative environment helps ideas to flow. We encourage innovation by expecting all staff to regularly come up with two new ideas, however ‘crazy’ they may seem.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Saving the day.