Space to dream
Boyhood ambition inspires entrepreneur to plan passenger voyages over earth
There usually seems little room for romantic notions in the hard-nosed, calculating world of commerce. But according to Alex Tang, CEO of Space Expedition Corporation (SXC) Asia, a childhood passion was the key motivation behind his decision to put a successful and lucrative career on hold so that he could boldly go into an enterprise that had no pre-existing business models.
From the second half of 2014, SXC plans to offer flights to view the earth from sub-space – a height of 60km above sea level. Flights into space – 100km above sea level – are planned to follow one year later. Each participant in the SXC space flights will operate as a sole co-pilot alongside a pilot on an XCOR Lynx spacecraft, which is powered by four reusable rocket engines.
“We will have four flights a day and each flight will last for one hour,” Tang says. “We will need one hour between flights for checking, rechecking and refuelling with biofuel.”
Tang is eager to be among the first of this new generation of citizen astronauts. “When I was young, I was very interested in space. One night [recently], when I was asleep, I dreamed about my flight and completing my mission,” he says.
Prior to his dramatic career move, Tang was a man who, professionally, kept his feet firmly on the ground. Returning to Hong Kong after studying in Australia, he took up a leading role with his family’s footwear trading company, ATG Sourcing. He headed up the China division and was responsible for production and liaising with customers and agents.
Despite its size, ATG is a real family business. “My mother runs the shoe factories, my father does the trading part,” Tang explains. “Running a factory didn’t appeal to me, so I followed my father because I like to travel and meet people.”
Tang still has an opportunity to do both in his position with SXC. “My main role, apart from finding customers, is to seek agents around Greater China and Asia who already have, say, 100 prospects on their hands,” he says.
“Most likely I will now spend 90 per cent of my time on SXC Asia. After 10 years running my division [of the footwear company], it can now function automatically. I will still get reports on a daily basis, and, of course, for major decisions or meetings with important clients, I will still be involved.”
He identifies SXC’s potential clientele as wealthy people with a sense of adventure and an eagerness to try something different. The company’s agents will be recruited on a commission basis, but finding the right calibre of person to deal effectively with high-net-worth clients is not easy, he says.
One of Tang’s agents previously sold a shipload of tickets for a North Pole expedition. “A trip to the North Pole costs around 180,000 yuan [HK$230,000] and in one boat you have around 200 people. After they’ve been to the North Pole, they are looking forward to new trips. This is the kind of target customer we would like,” he says.
For at least the next eight years, Tang foresees a manageable level of competition for SXC. “This industry is not easy to access, as you need a huge investment for a spaceship and we are sure that demand will outstrip supply. Worldwide we have sold around 250 tickets, and within the last three months we already have two confirmed bookings in Asia. I foresee that in next two years we can sell around 100 tickets in Greater China,” he says.
Tang’s introduction to SXC came via his footwear partner in Europe, a Dutchman who had sponsored the Formula One team of Michiel Mol, the CEO of SXC. “Mol asked him to check out if he could find anyone [in Asia] who would like to take on an agency role for space travel,” he says. “So my partner asked me if I knew anyone who might be interested – someone like, say, Swire. I said it’s not necessary to check with Swire, I know someone who is very interested: me.”
Of course, Tang still needed to validate the operation. “After five days of negotiation with my shoe partner I flew over to Amsterdam and found the whole operation was real and serious.” He subsequently took on the role of partner rather than agent.
In his new position, Tang won’t be leaving behind all he learned in the family business. “What will be most useful are the negotiation skills that I learned dealing with suppliers and factories and my knowledge of Chinese culture and thinking,” he says.
HUNGER AND PASSION TO TACKLE CHALLENGE
Alex Tang’s checklist of the key qualities required by businessmen and women who are anxious to try out something radically different
Stay hungry “I could have had a wealthy and relaxed life if I hadn’t got into the space business, but I chose to because I’m hungry for something interesting.”
Stay foolish “We need to remember that we always need to learn. To enter the space business, I needed to do so much research.”
Be creative “To be successful in business, you can’t just think in an ordinary way. You have to be able to attack a problem from a different angle.”
Be inquisitive “I have to know what my customers like and what they want if I am to get them into our adventure in space.”
Be passionate “I dropped what I was doing to get into the space business because I had a passion for it.”