Matt Meets Asia: Hong Kong Edition

On the surface, if you fly in when it’s clear outside, Hong Kong is a beautiful oasis and looks cartoon-like with all its greens, blues, and gleaming skyline that one could personify as a welcoming smile. As we began our descent, and prepared for landing, I was getting myself ready for this new city. I was eager to gain insight on this fresh startup scene and how it stood next to other East Asia ecosystems…

Once you take the leap of faith and enter Hong Kong by bus into the heart of the city, perhaps near Sham Shui Po without a SIM card or the native tongue like I did, nerves tense, and it consumes you whole. This scene was much different than the Hong Kong I imagined from 10,000 feet above. The scents from nearby merchants, the sounds immense foot traffic, and daily life of everyday locals became mine within seconds.

Preparing for the event, I was able to speak with local entrepreneurs, developers, and hackathon aficionados.  The conversation became centered around how the scene is still growing, but receiving a lot of interest from the startup community. This local startup culture is garnering support from local government and the community, which forecasts a promising future. This is surprising due to the fact that various cities in nearby mainland China have built thriving startup ecosystems, and Hong Kong as itself has typically been a trend-setter in adopting various forms of western culture (I was reminded of my homeland by the oh, so, cultural McDonalds on every street corner).

Hackathon time.

Any chance to compete in an AngelHack hackathon tempted devs, designers, and entrepreneurs curiosities about new ways of doing things. Rarely would you hear anything about monetization streams, seed and series A, or even scalability; something we hear about so much in the states. This ecosystem wasn’t as interested in local solutions like Bangkok, nor were they looking to take over a global market like we hear from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles. I was curious to see what would spark their interest.

As the hackathon kicked off, and continued throughout the day, there were sprints of coding, and breaks where hackers could grab a bite to eat. Many of them took quick naps, and others took a few minutes to walk the room as they fiddled with syntax errors in their heads.

During this time, I got to speak with a few teams.

The first group I spoke to were a couple of university students who represented the industry’s youth. They were awfully curious about what I did for AngelHack, and why I was in Hong Kong. Discussing the global scale of startups, it became pretty clear these guys knew very little about this world of innovation. Just entering the startup sphere in Hong Kong, they wanted to know where to meet people in the community, where to join more hackathons, and simply put, how to get more involved. The younger generation wanted in, but didn’t even know where to start.

Now, that’s the youth talking.

I also spoke to a few judges, and organizers who knew a little more about what was going on here. The hacker mentality was present in Hong Kong; the desire to go against the grain and build something that works. The only difference with the local tech ecosystem was the passion to take that further and affect a larger audience. Building good, working products was a focus here, but talent was challenging to keep in the region due to high rent and cost of living in comparison to the average salary for developers.

“They (Hong Kong startups) make a lot of noise, but don’t really change anything,” says a member of the Hong Kong developer community.

From my experience, I wasn’t able to meet startups that spoke of true passion and change, but it’s a new culture that may take some getting used to. The day this scene becomes something more, and completely adopted by the people, is the day we see a new, and stronger startup economy in Hong Kong where venture capitalists will bend their necks one hundred and eighty degrees as if they caught a “whiff” of some freshly cooked Baos.

The hackathon was almost through.

Team after team, project after project, announcement after announcement, we were getting close to seeing who would get the opportunity to represent Hong Kong on a global scale.

Third place was given to Share Time, a team who believed in sharing skills much like commodities. Second place went to Carrot, a health app built for the everyone who sits at a desk all day and needs a short moment of exercise to increase blood circulation. The grand prize winner, and new member of our HACKcelerator program, went to Plain Exchange, an app that sought to allow cash trading in locations where wifi isn’t available.

Speaking with various judges, sponsors, professors, it was obvious they all wanted startups to thrive in this ecosystem. They were all brutally honest and acknowledging the fact that the scene had a long way to go, but the curiosity was here. Hopeful they remained as they witnessed passionate developers, designers, and entrepreneurs pursue the hackathon with everything they had. Hong Kong is a bustling city full of excitement, great culture, and a global, tech-savvy working community. I was slowly absorbing more and more about startups in Hong Kong and was getting the idea that the locals were right; the scene needed time. With the amount of action going on in this part of the world, the ecosystem could be huge here in due time.

Signing out.

Matt Wright