For startup founders in Hong Kong who want to take their businesses to the next level, they need two things: great mentorship, and an awesome space to work in. With all the pressures of starting a company from scratch, founders need all the help they can get from those in the know.
The newsDesk explores how co-working spaces and organisations like the Founder Institute can be resourceful in helping these founders realise their entrepreneur dreams.
by Andrea Lo
Founder Institute is an international business incubator, entrepreneur training programme and startup accelerator. It was originally established in Silicon Valley in 2009 and runs chapters across the globe. The Hong Kong chapter was launched in 2014.
They target first-time, early-stage founders in the technology startup sector through a series of intensive programmes, aided by seasoned mentors from the local tech startup industry.
This summer, the Founder Institute’s Hong Kong chapter will kick off a 14-week programme held at theDesk Leighton Centre for aspiring entrepreneurs. Its directors recently hosted a recruitment information session at an event on 3rd May celebrating the launch of Jumpstart Magazine’s May/June FinTech issue at theDesk.
“The programme is, as I’ve always called it: ‘don’t quit your day job yet, but elevate your business idea,’” says Jeffrey Broer, director of the Founder Institute’s Hong Kong chapter.
“[It’s for] professionals who have an idea and already are walking around with it for quite some time, and thinking: ‘Now it’s time for me to really start focusing on doing this.’”
Catering to first-time founders who are in the initial stages of starting up their businesses, the curriculum focuses on giving them the tools and experiences to validate their ideas. It’s focused on the founder, though, rather than the idea.
Aspiring entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to work with experienced founders in the game on furthering their vision, custom development, building a team, preparing for funding and everything in between.
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There’s a proven track record: just four years after the launch, Founders Institute hit a major milestone, boasting more than 1,000 graduates from its programmes. Two of its graduates – Gagan Biyani of online learning platform Udemy and meal delivery service Sprig, and Eric Duffy of social media-inspired learning platform Pathgather grabbed coveted spots on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2016. Though those who are looking to enrol should be prepared for an intensive course: on average, 30% of founders graduate from the programme.
“Quite often, aspiring entrepreneurs come to us, go through our programme, learn a lot – and at that point they know whether or not their idea is developed,” Broer says. “Sometimes, a founder will realise during, or even at the end of the programme, that they are not founder material.”
A founder who works on an idea for “between seven to 10 weeks” and then deciding to drop out would be a better alternative to finding out it’s failing after working on it for a year, he adds.
Founders are expected to spend around 25 to 35 hours per week on the programme, which puts on sessions in evenings so participants can do it alongside full-time employment. They also must complete assignments – otherwise, they can risk being booted off.
The right spot
One of the biggest benefits of a programme of this kind is the networking aspect of it, according to Broer.
The programme affords founders the opportunities to connect with mentors, many of whom are veterans in the local startup ecosystem. “Most of our mentors in the programme are either local founders or are people who have been here for at least a couple of years,” he says.
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This is where a working environment that exposes founders to, and involves interactions with other businesses becomes key.
“As with businesses of any size, the most important aspect is people,” says Raymond Yip, CEO and founder of Clickful, an AI-powered online advertising solution for businesses, who’s also a mentor for the Hong Kong chapter.
“Being in a co-working space opens you to a community of other like-minded folks that can help your business. This can come in the form of new customers, investors or partnership opportunities,” he explains. “The open format of a co-working space certainly gives you these possibilities that a traditional business centre or home office would not.”
“There is definitely more energy in a co-working space,” agrees fellow mentor Derek Kwik, managing partner at Brave Soldier Venture Capital and veteran startup community leader. “The open design provides an environment that encourages collaboration, sharing and a general openness – ‘Hey everyone, look at what I am doing!’”
Co-working spaces can accommodate more than just fledgling entrepreneurs. “‘Intrapreneurship’ is a new term that’s being thrown around quite a bit,” observes Derek Ehrig, partner at virtual reality production services company Shadow Factory, and also a mentor. The concept refers to employees at companies with an innovative idea that they look to develop within the organisation.
The Founder Institute is also open to these folks: people trying to “get the green light within the company to start something different” – a project, or a startup within the company itself, for example, says Broer.
Those on senior management level at established corporates may not necessarily feel comfortable mingling with younger tech whizzes because of too much of a cultural difference, explains Ehrig.
Co-working spaces can allow these mature companies to start a separate arm to work on innovative projects.
“[They can] … send some of their young people out and have them work in the co-working space and mingle and run projects at that level, which they can then integrate into their big company as certain research develops.”
Ultimately, it’s up to the founders to be proactive in their endeavours, as well as to find the right working environment for their business. “Even if you were working in a co-working space, if you came in every morning and didn’t say hi, and sit behind your desk and then leave,” says Broer, “then there is not a lot of value.”
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