EHK talks to HK serial entrepreneur and angel investor Felix Lam

EHK talks to HK serial entrepreneur and angel investor Felix Lam
Comments Off, 20/05/2014, by , in Funding Tips

EHK talks to HK native serial entrepreneur and angel investor Felix Lam about his personal journey and his take on the HK start-up scene.

This interview with Felix Lam was conducted and condensed by EntrepreneurHK (EHK).

“Investment is a two-way street – both parties need to do their homework.”

How did you initially get involved in the HK start-up world?

I was born and raised in HK and am a true local HK guy at heart. After studying and working in Australia, I came back to HK at the time of the Dotcom crash. It was then when I was first exposed to US tech companies operating within the HK startup scene. I was startled and immediately drawn to how technology can develop from and operate on such a grassroot level. Back in the early 2000s, the start-up scene in HK was virtually non-existent – there was no community, no ecosystem. What we had were ideas – and that was paramount in helping us move forward.

I have two passions in life: technology and start-ups. Leveraging on my previous knowledge and expertise, my first entrepreneurial experience was a telecomm consultancy firm. It was a small exit but it exposed me to the unlimited possibilities within the entrepreneurial world. Since then I worked on a series of start-ups, some successes and some failures. Three elements that I believe are fundamental in turning a start-up into a success: the right time, the right place, and the right people (天時, 地利, 人和).

Where do you think HK stands compared to the other big players e.g. U.S., Singapore in terms of our start-up ecosystem?

One advantage that HK has is mobility of talents. When local and foreign talents interact and collaborate, they generate amazing chemistry. HK also has the perfect infrastructure in support of this: lack of language barriers, ease of market entry, ease of business set-up etc.

There are often talks that the HK market is too small. There is not much potential to support growth – businesses peak too soon, markets saturate before you realise. However, a small market means that you reach your market potentials locally very rapidly, at which point you are then forced to move out of HK and start exploring elsewhere – be it greater China or the rest of the world. HK is the perfect starting point for any businesses. Test out your idea here, go through trials and errors, fail and adapt, and try again until you succeed. See limitations as potentials, spin disadvantages into advantages.

What advice would you give to start-up seeking fundings out there?

Investment is a two-way street: both parties need to do their homework. Investors need to focus on their due diligence and understand exactly what they are investing in; start-ups need to recognise how they can build values and actively give investors what they seek – it’s an interactive process.

A lot of start-ups are also very reluctant to share their idea, in fear of it being copied. This is particularly prominent in Asia. My advice is to do the exact opposite – be open, honest, and transparent. Talk to people about your ideas. A lot of investors would walk away the moment they hear the word NDA. If someone does end up copying your idea and execute it better than you do, learn from it and move on. Always focus on what you are good at.

Also bear in mind that money is a tool – it is a means to an end but not an end in itself. It will help you make progress but it is not the only thing that will make your business successful. Seek money to help you move towards your core beliefs, visions, and values.

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Fundamental Lesson learnt as an angel investor?

There is a common misperception that investors are the boss. We are not only here to put money in; we are here to provide support and mentorship. Angels need to really understand the businesses we are investing in, how we want to contribute, what works and what doesn’t. Co-investors need to work together, bounce ideas around, not be afraid to ask questions, and learn from each other. You never stop learning – there is not one day when I don’t learn something new, whether it’s from my start-up, from co-investors, or just from self-discovery. It is a tremendously rewarding process.

Prominent lesson you like to share from the various failures along your entrepreneurial and investing journey?

Stand firm and strong by your belief – don’t ever lose sight of that. It is important to keep believing. Somewhere along the way you are bound to come across a time when all the figures, trends, data, analytics etc in front of you show that you should simply give up, move on, and compromise – changing what you fundamentally believe in. Compromising at the wrong time for the wrong reason in sacrifice of your belief is what in my opinion has led to many failures. Don’t brush aside your gut feeling – you will be surprised by how going with your gut always leads you down the right path. Do not confuse this with stubbornness and inflexibility. Believe but don’t be stubborn, adapt but don’t compromise for the wrong reasons. Successful entrepreneurs are always resourceful, helpful, hardworking, have a can-do attitude, and are not afraid of changes.

HK is a victim to media hype and trend craze. How can start-ups make their business / idea / product sustainable in the fast-changing HK markets?

This is the general trend across the global market – with the pace of technology and availability of internet, unique ideas are copied and improved upon at the speed of light. To move ahead of competition, you need to anticipate market trends, gather information and be prepared to make changes. Adaptability and agility are vital.

To all the people out there who have a full time job and want to embark on the entrepreneurial journey, what advice would you give them? What steps can they take to actively kick-start their plan?

Fear is a major deterrent. You need to really understand your bottom line. Sit down and make a plan, structure it around 4 fundamental things: Your risk portfolio,  timeline, objectives, and expertise. These will be your common values going forward – they will be what your business plans, products, markets, and customers evolve around. Do not get stuck in the perpetual planning stage. Understand your validating points. There must be something, however little, within your capability that you can do to start making things happen. Remember – you have to start somewhere. Speak to people, test out your ideas, and listen to feedback.

Your family will play a fundamental part in this journey going forward. Start-ups prepare pitch decks for their investors, customers, business partners etc. Also prepare a pitch deck for your family, your parents, and your partners. They will be the ones who see you through this rewarding and challenging journey, and will be the support that you need. Make sure they understand and approve. They are your allies – they are here to fight with you, not against you.

What constructive advice would you give to the HK start-up world?

A fundamental difference I notice between start-ups in HK and the rest of the world is our start-up mentality. In HK, people tend to “think small and act big”. There is nothing wrong with having a small vision in itself. However, every move is contemplated with concerns, fears, and worries; every step forward is taken conservatively and carefully. There are too many factors to take into account, too many agendas to consider. Whilst in the U.S. for instance, it is more common for people to “think big and act small”. People have big visions but are constantly taking very small but sure steps towards it. The end result is that you know you are at least making progress and moving towards the right direction. Baby steps are great – if you’ve done something wrong, it is easy to back-track, correct the mistake, and take another small step forward.

Also embedded in our culture is the need to show others our achievement, the necessity to prove yourself to others. As a results, the focus is always on moving ahead in tangible terms: getting fundings, hitting targets, showcasing profits, winning awards. Self advocacy is crucial, and it is something that HK people need to work on. You have to believe in yourself, feel good about what you are doing, be confident, and prove yourself to yourself before others. The entrepreneurial route is a personal development and self-discovery journey. Stay true to your passion and do not forget the reason why you initially decided to start off down this journey.

What’s next?

I am starting to see a lot of entrepreneurial spirit and start-up mindset within younger generations in HK.  Some have great ideas and I want to help them to start believing and start creating. I am hoping to work with like-minded people – universities, youth groups, investors, start-ups etc. Anyone who wish to collaborate are more than welcome to get in touch.

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