Tuesday, December 19, 2000

A Call For Tech Leadership in Hong Kong

‘Hong Kong Internet community needs more leaders’ – says Jimmy Liew, Director of Finance, mConverge.com.

When cornered at I and I Asia on Thursday, December 14th about what message he wanted to send out to the Hong Kong Internet community, I half expected speaker Jimmy Liew, Director of Finance, mConverge.com, to say something like, “The future’s so bright you better wear wireless.” After all, his optimistic talk at Tech Pacific Labs would have left skeptics frowning and Internet technology idealists swooning. But instead Liew’s answer surprised me: “My message? We need more Hong Kong Internet leadership.” Not that I at all disagree with Liew – quite the contrary I agree with him wholeheartedly. It’s just that Liew never mentioned it in his talk. When queried to comment more about Hong Kong Internet leadership, Liew responded with: “Hong Kong entrepreneurs can’t sit around and follow I-mode all the time – we have to be our own I-mode.”

Liew’s talk at I and I never touched on leadership until questioned afterwards. Instead he painted a glowing report not just of the future of wireless in Asia but of Asian economies in 2001, which Liew claims, based on data from The Economist, will enjoy over 6% growth. Global demand for wireless technologies is expected to surpass one billion users in the next several years. Where will this demand be appropriated? 40 – 50% of the demand will come from Asia. Therefore, Liew says, “the demand for wireless applications is going to be in Asia” riding the coattails of wireless demand in general.

What could be problematic, however, is Asia’s cellular divide. According to the Economist and WirelessAsia, highly developed Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Taiwan and South Korea are the “Cellular Rich.” These countries have an average GDP/capita of $23,000 USD and 40 to 80% cellular penetration. At the other end of the scale sit the “Potentially Cellular Rich,” a term Liew used to be socially sensitive and correct. These countries boast 1/60th of their rich brother’s GDP/capita and average cellular penetration of 5 to 7%. Between the two extremes sit Malaysia and Thailand, both of which are likely to join the Asian Cellular Elite in the not too distant future.

Liew sees wireless markets split into three distinct groups. First, their will be Content Aggregators that Liew claims will require too much hard work for too little money. Indeed, making money from content has yet to be truly mastered. Second, is Outsourcing Work. Again, since outsourcing is not scalable, the margins and value created in this sector will be thin. Finally, there will be the Applications and Enterprise Products that Liew claims is where the real value and money is to be made in wireless.

What advice does Liew offer to start-up entrepreneurs?

First, avoid being too idealistic. Instead drill down deep and often into the minutiae. All too often entrepreneurs get caught up in their vision and lose sight of day-to-day reality. (See Edelman comments on Internet vision.) “If you want to be a successful start-up company, you have to pay attention to the details,” says Liew. This includes both soft and hard details ranging from technology to money to culture.

Second, watch out for being a “jack of all trades” or in this case a jack of many industries. Start-up entrepreneurs tend to want to conquer the world in a single blow and end up failing in the one area they could have excelled. Liew offers good advise when he says, “in order to be competitive, when you’re small you need to concentrate like hell on one industry.”

Third, Liew reminds start-up entrepreneurs of some basic MBA advice: “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Therefore, don’t count on one customer to provide this week’s order. Don’t count on one VC to “be the one” that finances unless the money is in the bank. And finally, don’t count on one product to make you successful – eventually the entrepreneur needs to innovate and diversify.

As for Liew’s own ambitions, mConverge.com’s “mPort” product (which stands for mobile POrtfolio Reporting and Trading) aims to “put the fund manager’s tools at your finger tips” via PDA. Marketing through brokerage companies with a desire to have wireless trading, mConverge.com plans to master Hong Kong, expand to Singapore, Korea and eventually take on Japan.

In follow-up discussions, Liew expanded on what he meant by Hong Kong needing more Internet leadership. Liew said, "Hong Kong entrepreneurs can't sit around anymore looking to Silicon Valley or to Japan's I-mode for new ideas. We have to start thinking for ourselves. There is absolutely no reason why Hong Kong shouldn't be taking the lead role in launching innovative wireless products. We have one of the most competitive telecom markets – couple that with a stock market holding the second highest market capitalization in Asia. I'm betting there will be (and should be) some great wireless financial applications launched here. We must shed our current mentality of trying to be ‘fast followers’ and instead become global leaders."

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