23 October 2016
Cyberport chief operating officer Mark Clift wants to send youngsters the message that creating a startup can be a good career option. Photo: Cyberport
Cyberport chief operating officer Mark Clift wants to send youngsters the message that creating a startup can be a good career option. Photo: Cyberport

Why Hong Kong is an ideal home for startups targeting Asia

Back in 2009, when Hong Kong was still reeling from the global financial crisis and few had heard of the term startup or co-working space, Cyberport completed its first Smart-Space.

The city now has over 40 such set-ups housing an ever increasing number of young entrepreneurs, but none of them is comparable to the size of Cyberport’s Smart-Space.

The local tech hub now boasts a total floor area of 75,000 square feet of co-working space, with another two phases coming on stream next year.

Chief operating officer Mark Clift is the key man behind the initiative.

Since the beginning, Clift has kept an unwavering faith in Hong Kong as the best location for startups targeting Asia or the China market, a view that has been reinforced by feedback from hundreds of chief executives of overseas tech firms he met over the years.

“Hong Kong is in a strong position,” Clift said, pointing to the city’s legal system, rule of law, low-tax regime and a very business-friendly environment.

“It’s possible to move people in and out without restriction, and money too, which is very important for scaling businesses across the region.”

Hong Kong’s central location in Asia is another compelling reason to base a startup here.

Most major Asian cities are within a three-hour flight from Hong Kong. It’s therefore possible to make a round trip within the same day.

Clift said that is very crucial, because for executives who travel regularly, that means considerable savings in hotel costs and more time to spend with the family.

Otherwise the whole work-life balance thing could be totally “messed up”, he said.

People often like to compare Hong Kong with Singapore, as both vie for the status of regional tech center.

Clift said he thinks Hong Kong is a better choice.

First, Singapore is not part of China. For companies attracted to the huge mainland market, it makes much more sense to put their headquarters in Hong Kong.

Initially, he said, Singapore might look more appealing from the cost side, but “in the medium term, you cannot maximize the business potential”.

In fact, if one includes all those taxes that Hong Kong does not have, like the value-added tax and the capital transfer tax, Singapore won’t be such a great deal, Clift said.

To assist startups who want to crack the mainland market, Cyberport has offices in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Companies that have enrolled in a collaboration program get free access to the facility for meetings.

Clift said Beijing could be the next place in China where Cyberport may extend its presence.

He said he values the entrepreneurial spirit in Hong Kong.

Businesspeople here are quick to respond to potentially lucrative ideas.

It’s not just talk, he said. People actively look for ways to make things happen.

It isn’t unusual that over a couple of meals, a business action plan can be hammered out or a deal closed.

“When people are interested in X, they actually do something about it. There is a lot more energy,” Clift said.

There is also a very diverse talent pool in Hong Kong that startups can draw on.

“There are so many nationalities and lots of people with an international mindset,” he said.

Clift wants Cyberport to help Hong Kong harness all these advantages and is committed to enriching the startup ecosystem in Hong Kong to feed more high-quality companies into the tech universe, especially in FinTech, wearables and big data.

Cyberport supports startups in several ways.

It has a Cyberport Creative Micro Fund that provides seed money to help turn creative ideas into a prototype. Then there is an incubation program.

Running in parallel to these two is Smart-Space, which is designed to accommodate startups and small to medium-size businesses in different stages that may need anything from a HK$800 per month hot desk to an office of their own.

One thing great about the public entity is Cyberport does not take equity interest or a stake in the intellectual property of the startups it helps to grow.

So far, it has groomed hundreds of successful startups under its incubation program, including van-hailing app GoGoVan, event management app EventXtra and fashion e-vendor MyDress.

While some may say the lack of IT talent in Hong Kong is a hurdle, considering the surge in tech startups in recent years and therefore the demand for IT staff, Hong Kong is in fact doing quite OK, Clift said.

“We can always do more, but talent takes time to train up,” he said.

Comparing the city with India or Silicon Valley is not always fair, as Hong Kong is just a “small village”.

Clift is British and has lived and worked in Hong Kong since 1996.

Asked what he likes and dislikes about Hong Kong as an expatriate, Clift said he does not consider himself an expat at all.

“Hong Kong is my home,” he said. “My son grew up here.”

A shortage of spaces in international schools is a problem, though the cost of education here is not so bad compared with in some other countries.

Regarding complaints about the air pollution here, Clift said the air has actually cleared up a bit over the past few years.

“No place is perfect. Hong Kong is a great place.”

Raymond Tsoi is the writer of this article.

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Cyberport is digital cluster with over 600 community members. It is managed by Hong Kong Cyberport Management Co. Ltd., which is wholly owned by the Hong Kong government.

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