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Starting up, twice: Ex-IT guy fathoms the pain points in business

Entrepreneurship is lately in vogue. As Li Keqiang, Premier of the State Council of China, called for “widespread entrepreneurship and innovation” in 2014, the term came to be a phenomenon (Beijing’s Innoway is an exemplar). Long before the mainland government rolled out relevant policies, Perkins Ho has launched his own travel-tech businesses two times. The practical experience proved invaluable to his current role at CUHK – facilitating scholars to engage in entrepreneurial and social innovative endeavours.

Perkins had two shots at starting up his business before joining CUHK in 2016. (Photo: ORKTS)

First taste of entrepreneurship

Perkins, a self-proclaimed double for former Financial Secretary Antony Leung, joined CUHK in 2016 as Head of Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation under Office of Research and Knowledge Transfer Services. And like many western tech start-up founders, he was an engineer. Subsequent to his secondary studies in Hong Kong, Perkins went for a degree in electrical engineering at Cornell University. “Simply cos I got higher grades for maths and science,” he shrugged.

He then worked in the country for a few years (including under telecom giant AT&T) while pursuing his master’s studies at Columbia University. As for the reason for not sticking around – why, yes, he got bored. Looking for more exciting development back in Asia, he quitted his job and flew home. Years of working day and night in financial advisory ensued before he decided to start a business with friends in 2008. Naturally, he learned a huge lesson from this initial project – a trip-planning platform.

“I found the idea sexy. Apps had yet to blow up then; people loved travelling, minus the planning part.” The team set up a platform offering trip-planning services, received investment, and made it into Science Park. “Didn’t work in the end. The platform offered limited value-add, we had no users,” Perkins brought his first downfall out in the open.

Three fatal flaws

Some say few start-ups survive, most go up in smoke. To sum up the reasons he was sent packing, “The tech was not ready; we didn’t understand the industry well enough; what the platform set out to solve might not have been the users’ pain point.” He deemed the last point the heart of the matter, “Be it free of charge, a product that doesn’t answer the real issue finds no customers.”

Had Perkins met his Waterloo? Apparently, he refused to admit defeat. Soon enough, his second project got underway – a room-booking system for inns in mainland China. “I ventured across old towns near Shanghai and Yunnan for small inns, and persuaded them to adopt our system. So they could sell their rooms directly without an agency fee.” Ain’t that interesting. How did it wind up in vain?

Again, an “unsatisfactory” job done on understanding customers’ needs. He saw it problematic that his team had a loose grasp of mainland internet culture. “There’s no concept of official sites. Even top brands rely heavily on platforms such as and Tmall.” He observed that relative to westerners, mainland netizens seldom use search engines. They don’t even install browsers on their phone, only an array of apps to serve their every daily need. Second time starting up, Perkins became acquainted with China’s “platform economy”.

Learning to let go at the right time

Perkins called it an unfortunate decision to set aside his dream. “Too arduous, too strenuous. Half a year after the MVP (minimum viable product) was out and we still couldn’t nail the product-market fit. Had no choice but to let it go.” Happened that his son was born, prompting him to make up his mind and return to the job market. “Lost a great deal of money for sure, perhaps that’s why I don’t stress about spending as much now.” Despite the half cup of water spilt, he concerns himself more with the remaining half – how to make the most out of what he still has.

By Kary Wong@ORKTS
English translation by Cathy Wong@ORKTS