Reflections from Hong Kong’s ‘Lean Startup’ bootcamp

This is a guest post, written by entrepreneur, Paul Orlando.

Paul Graham, a venture capitalist and essayist, once said that while most startups fail, two factors usually increase their chances of success: “being in a place where startups are the cool thing to do, and chance meetings with people who can help you.”

That’s why, in spite of startups being pretty uncool in Hong Kong, a city ruled by finance and real estate, I am optimistic for the city’s chances at growing into a tech hub.

It is the random, easy meetings in the densely populated Hong Kong, that make a difference. True, other pieces of the puzzle are important too: more investors focused on tech, an abundance of talent, high-profile examples of previous startups with sky-high IPOs. But this article focuses on an unseen, cultural advantage that Hong Kong has today. It’s the ease with which you can meet people that fills me with hope for the future.

Readers, ask yourself these questions: How often are you introduced or connected to someone new, and how easy is it to have 10 different meetings in a day? If you’ve never lived in a technology-focused region like Silicon Valley, I would imagine that your answers to the above are, “not very often.”

Consider how I ended up back in Hong Kong to run a three-month Lean Startup-focused startup bootcamp, inspired by retired serial entrepreneur Steve Blank’s work. I set up the program during a few short visits to Hong Kong earlier this year, during which I reached out to a few people in the tech community, never knowing what to expect.

With each of these meetings, I was introduced to more folks in the industry and enjoyed many chance encounters. There were tell-tale signs of a budding startup culture, and it wasn’t difficult to meet fellow entrepreneurs. I hung out at co-working spaces like Boot.hk and startup coffee shop hangouts like Barista Jam, and I delivered a talk at Startup Monday (a startup meet-up here) to a roomful of tech entrepreneurs.

Along the way, I interviewed local business leaders on Hong Kong’s evolution into a startup hub. With their advice in mind, I developed the program, known as “Startup Bootcamp”, for the specific needs of the region and found experienced local entrepreneurs and academics to join as mentors. To the program attendees, they offer advice on working through a business model, getting connected to a potential customer, or the best programs for entrepreneurship at local universities.

The program, just like running or working at a startup, is not for everyone. You can’t go through it passively. You have to actively experiment and try new things. It’s the kind of place where you can’t hide – you must show, demonstrate, and defend the actions that you took. For example, when the startups were going through Minimum Viable Product (“MVP”) iterations, we discussed their hypotheses, how they tested them, what results they found, and what they’re doing next. Exactly the kind of thing you want when developing a new product.

It’s also the kind of program where you have to make things happen by being scrappy and getting connected to the right people. Since there is no large tech-focused investment community here, we focus on proving a business model and bootstrapping our way to growth. As difficult as that is, I like startups to prove themselves in that environment. It means that things will only get easier for you once you demonstrate traction and that you’re solving an important problem.

When I developed my previous startup in New York, a city whose tech scene has really grown in the past few years, I never had as many random meetings with entrepreneurs as I do in Hong Kong. I think Hong Kong provides a similar level of support among entrepreneurs as New York in that constructive meetings are easier to set up here. And that’s great.

But New York and Hong Kong do have several similarities. They are both cities known for their finance industries, expensive real estate, lots of tourism, and nightlife. They are also both cities where a quiet undercurrent of tech entrepreneurship may help redefine them.

Interestingly, in both cities, much tech talent remains uncreated. In the case of Hong Kong, students study finance, law, and medicine instead of less prestigious computer science or design. What potential tech talent there is often gets snapped up by the financial services industry. By the time someone is tired of finance and ready for something more creative, they are accustomed to a corporate way of thinking that has to be unlearned to work at a startup. (I went through this transition myself and I see it in many others.)

Starting a company is easy, but running one and especially growing one into a sustainable business is hard. This might seem obvious, but sometimes the perception of startups is a bit heavy on images of coffee shops, happy hours, and launch parties when the real work is done struggling with a technical problem, experimenting with different business models, and looking at data from users. I went through that process myself in my first startup. I saw hundreds of others go through that process too. Finding someone going through the same experience as you to bounce ideas off is incredibly valuable.

Now, I would argue that Paul Graham’s focus on startups being cool can be detrimental. I’ve met plenty of people who work on a startup for all the wrong reasons. When you see someone in Hong Kong working on something as “uncool” as a startup, despite all the obstacles, you have to believe they must love it.

The community here and the help and mentorship that you can find within it will help Hong Kong’s startup scene grow. I’ll bet on that.

Paul Orlando is an entrepreneur with experience in the US and China. He co-founded and ran a startup in New York called Chatfe, providing communications services for online communities. Since then, he has taught 50 startup founders lean startup methodology and is now focused on a three-month intensive Startup Bootcamp program in Hong Kong. Paul has a BA from Cornell University and an MBA from Columbia University. He is fluent in Mandarin and conversant in Cantonese.

[Top image credit: inkelv1122/Flickr]

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