16 June 2020
Volatile environment favours start-ups
The COVID-19 outbreak is driving drastic overhauls of economies and business operating models worldwide. These overhauls post fresh challenges and bring new opportunities for start-ups as well as other enterprises. Nimble start-ups had a chance to showcase their achievements and learn from their peers as the Hong Kong Trade Development Council launches the third edition of Start-up Express entrepreneurship development project.
The scheme helps start-ups expand their markets, build contacts, increase exposure and find partners amid the pandemic. The start-ups were selected through a competition that culminated in a Pitching Final on 10 June. . Calvin Choi, a judging panel member and Chairman and CEO of Hong Kong-based financial conglomerate AMTD Group, recently shared with Hong Kong Means Business his insights on start-ups from an investor’s perspective. He analysed opportunities the pandemic and its fallout can bring, and how young entrepreneurs can attract capital to fund their start-up businesses. Entrepreneurs need to seize opportunities that arise as the economic cycle continues, demonstrate their innovation strengths, and keep their feet on the ground.
Innovative technology breaks barriers
"The COVID-19 outbreak seems to have disrupted the globalisation trend, distancing people further apart," Mr Choi said, adding nevertheless that the application of innovative technology could bring everyone closer together.
"In the past, I used to go to different places for meetings every day, but now the meetings are held online and the process is basically seamless. For example, if you finish a meeting at 9am, you can already have another one at 9.01am. This is the power and enhancement brought by the digital age, making everything more efficient."
He acknowledged the pandemic’s impact on the global economy, which will inevitably affect investment sentiment. "Start-ups will inevitably encounter greater challenges in seeking funds, and investors and customers will also have tighter requirements. Meanwhile, customer acceptance of new brands and new services may decline". Mr Choi suggested companies to expand their networking and increase their connectivity. "Different verticals must increase mutual referrals, cooperate with each other, combine each other’s customer base to create a bigger pool, and play a collaborative role."
Mr Choi said the outbreak had, on the other hand, created opportunities. "From another perspective, it is actually a precious opportunity for start-ups. The global economy will always be cyclical, and there will be no highs if there are no lows. It is just like pulling a rubber band – when it reaches the end, it rebounds. The rebound effect may be very strong.
“In the face of adversity, all entrepreneurs must be resilient," Mr Choi went on. “After determining the direction of your progress, don’t give up easily. Adopt a versatile approach and optimise your development path according to the changing environment, including market conditions.”
The key to adjusting course is to retain core values but adjust strategies at the same time to enable products or services to better integrate with different markets, he said. "As long as you maintain your original vision and intent, but be flexible and, more importantly, persevere and do not give up, you will have plenty of opportunities,” he said. “This epitomises our Lion Rock spirit." The term “Lion Rock spirit” comes from a 1970s television series about low-income families working hard to improve their lives during the economic boom years of Hong Kong.
Start-up nurturing ground
Mr Choi said Hong Kong has unlimited opportunities to connect to the outside world. He emphasised the city’s connections with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, along with ample links to the rest of Asia and the world. "Hong Kong, as an international financial centre, is backed by Mainland China and located in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. This gives the city an optimal advantage in developing a start-up ecosystem."
He said Hong Kong offers many possibilities for start-ups. “As an international city, Hong Kong attracts talented people from all over the world to live and work here. As such, Hongkongers’ acceptance of new products and concepts is quite high."
He believes the city, as a cradle of science and technology enterprises, has huge potential for development: "The key is how to use the environment in Hong Kong to create a dream start-up,” said Mr Choi, who has established Airstar Bank, a joint venture between his company and Xiaomi, and among the first pioneering virtual banks to start business in the city. "We are also starting from scratch to create its operation. Hong Kong makes unlimited creativity possible."
Four investor draws
AMTD Group, which has diverse business interests including finance, property investment, education, innovative technology and digital economy, has invested in many start-ups. Mr Choi revealed that when selecting investment targets, he attaches great importance to four aspects.
"The first point is to achieve a comprehensive solution, because the digital world emphasises full connectivity and seamlessness.” Digital services need to embrace all customers, and integrate with many other vendors, he noted. "The second point is that services need to have cross-regional and cross-platform characteristics. Customers will not follow you. You have to follow your customers."
Mr Choi said the third point is the continuity and extensibility of the business: "Is the business still viable in different scenarios?" The fourth and most important point is the team's vision and resilience: "While entrepreneurs embrace the vision, their corporate development strategies also need to be continuously and consistently implemented and realised."
Broad network, extensive collaboration
This is AMTD Group’s second year as sole strategic partner for Start-up Express. Mr Choi said the competition process, especially the Pitching Final, gave participating start-ups opportunities to showcase their business: "In a high-pressure pitching environment, presenting the brightest side of the company is very important.
Potential investors usually assign just 5 to 10 minutes to each prospect. If the start-up fails to arouse the interest of the other party within this short time period, it will lose the opportunity for seeking financing from potential investors. So, Start-up Express is really good training for participants."
He also said Start-up Express gives participants opportunities for business cooperation and broadening their business and personal networks.
"Entrepreneurship is a lonely journey. I always hope that on the road of [developing a] start-up, entrepreneurs will share their experiences as they rise and fall.” He encouraged participants to fully utilise the programme’s activities to establish their own start-up ecosystem.
"Start-up Express is not a single connection point but a continuous nurturing plan that can help start-ups grow and expand their reach,” Mr Choi said. “Connectivity gives them a better understanding of how to navigate through this corporate journey; while there is an opportunity for mentors to share their experience, this first-hand information and personal experience are more valuable than anything."
The Start-up Express Pitching Final was held on 10 June and broadcast live. See the recording here. The 21 shortlisted start-ups each made three-minute pitches and took questions for three minutes. The final judging panel selected 11 winning start-ups, and panel members attended a series of exchange and promotion activities. Apart from Mr Choi, panel members included Cindy Chow, Executive Director of Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund; Duncan Chiu, Managing Director of Radiant Venture Capital; Herbert Chia, Sequoia China Capital Fund Expert Partner and Jason Chiu, Chairman of the Hong Kong Start-up Association.