There are a lot of politically correct and polished CEOs of successful startups.
You encounter the ones who eloquently state their mission and founder story with a smile, laced with just the right touch of self-deprecating wit – a production of well-rehearsed PR coaching and practice.
After presenting two weeks ago at the Young Entrepreneur Forum in Hong Kong’s Cyberport, an event that explored the growing startup scene in Hong Kong, e27 caught up with him to see what he really thought about the city’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Here are the edited excerpts:
Your company recently raised US$10 million. What’s your plan to expand? How do you look for talent?
I probably would not hire someone who never downloaded the app prior to the interview. One thing that we think is important is that the candidate has to believe in what we’re trying to do.
The ceiling of the company is determined by the potential of the founding team. You need to believe in the people running the company, not necessarily like them.
Things change quickly for a startup. You don’t plan for years, you plan ahead for a few months.
For now, we want to continue expansion in China. Expansion sometimes depends on how much capital you can raise. It is hard to raise money during the winter. Even though we don’t need the money to survive right now, the best time to raise money is when you don’t need the money.
Let’s go back to the beginning. What was it like growing up in Hong Kong? Were you always entrepreneurial?
I went to school in the New Territories. Back then, in Grade 11 we had to take the HKCEEs (Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority). It was a public examination that around 120,000 students take that gets factored into university admission. The maximum number of subjects you can take is 10. I received distinction (the highest grade) in all 10 subjects that I took.
The area I went to school is not famous for having prestigious schools. But I learned early on that one incident can change perception and what happens afterward. After I received my scores, a lot of students started getting that score.
This is similar to the startup industry in Hong Kong. Once you have someone build a successful tech company in Hong Kong, many people will think it’s possible to build something from Hong Kong.
We have debates [about the startup scene] in Hong Kong because some of the economic prospects are still blocked. In Silicon Valley, people are filled with hope, because the model works.
You were quite precocious in high school — what happened after graduation?
I went to UCLA and then transferred to Stanford after a year. Initially, I was thinking I might go into medical school, very Asian thinking!
I changed my mind freshman year — I wanted to choose a discipline that doesn’t have so many model answers, economics was something I enjoyed. So I did that and came back to Hong Kong to work at a management consulting firm Bain & Company.
Three years into the job I became bored. I started playing Texas Hold’em online and realized I had a knack for it. I really wanted to turn it into a full-time profession. So I quit my job and started playing poker full-time, from 2002-2007.
What did your friends and family think about your new career?
I kept it a secret for years from my family (laughs). But I had enough saved from work to be able to support myself during this time.
Have you read Outliers? (by Malcolm Gladwell) He has this theory that to be an expert at anything, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice. So my plan was to put in 10-12 hours in poker a day.
For the first four years, I wasn’t making that much. Then for one year, my income suddenly jumped to US$129,000 (HK$1 million) a month. That lasted nine months. Then it suddenly stopped. The reason for this? In 2006, George Bush passed a law where they banned poker players in the US from playing online (laughs).
[Note: Chow is referring to the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA), a United States legislation regulating online gambling. The UIGEA “prohibits gambling businesses from knowingly accepting payments in connection with the participation of another person in a bet or wager that involves the use of the Internet and that is unlawful under any federal or state law.”]
I transitioned to playing in the casinos. It’s an entirely different field and variation. You are physically sitting [next to your opponent] instead of battling online.
I was playing poker because I wanted to get better at the game and turn it into a living. But after seven years, I felt like I could only make marginal improvements. I saved money and invested it in property. In 2009, I quit playing poker completely.
How did your poker stint carry over to your current endeavours?
Anytime you want to get good at something, you need discipline. All of that is behind the scenes, where you practice and work. Playing poker is the same as building a company. It takes a lot of discipline, there is a lot of work. People might not see that.
What’s your daily routine? What are the differences in your lifestyle after Lalamove has taken off?
I usually wake up around 7 to 8 AM. I try to exercise. I have a morning call with my team at 9:20 AM. Then throughout the day I have meetings with candidates, customers, internal team, or potential investors. It is very socially taxing, so at the end of the day, I just want to do nothing! I don’t have hobbies anymore.
These days I also spend the majority of my week in China. I’m only in Hong Kong maybe one day a week. China is our biggest market, and you need to spend time where you spend the money.
What has kept you going all this time as an entrepreneur?
I think by nature, all entrepreneurs are optimistic people. Or you could say we have a sense of distorted reality. You have to think that things are rosier than they are. You’ll never see a pessimistic, successful entrepreneur.
I would say as an entrepreneur, you’re deluded, but in a good way. If I had known that starting a company would be this difficult, I wouldn’t have started.
Being an entrepreneur means knowing you want to build something. This is regardless of what you have. I didn’t have IT resources or connections to the online industry. But people who think too much about what they don’t have end up not doing anything. Sometimes prior experience doesn’t matter, it’s about learning on the job.
Have you had any past failures, or has it always been a glass half-full scenario for you?
I invested in something that totally failed — this MRI centre. There were too many shareholders, it wasn’t united. But it did teach me this lesson: I wanted to be the sole decision-maker in whatever company I was running.
Any advice for founders of startups?
If you’re OK with mediocrity you can never build a great company. If you have the ability and are willing to sacrifice a lot, you can build a good company.
Be prepared mentally. It’s tiring. It’s very hard to shut down. It’s like giving birth to a baby, you have no time off. As an employee, you can take off and relax on the weekends, but you can’t if you’re a founder.
Simply put? Motivate your staff and sell to your investors.