Will Phil Wong Put Asia Online?

Too much of the Internet is 'America-centric,' says this Hong Kong entrepreneur. 'We're building Asia-centric content.'

It's easy to mistake Philip Wong for one of the hundreds of Internet entrepreneurs launching startups in Palo Alto or Austin. He's a young executive with a small company, huge ambitions, and enough self-confidence to make Tony Robbins blush.

But Wong is not just any Internet entrepreneur. He's building his company against unusually long odds. For one thing, he's based in Asia — a region notable for its modest Internet-participation rates, despite blazing economic growth and a young population. What's more, he's based in Hong Kong — a city just beginning to wrestle with the free-speech implications of its return to Chinese sovereignty.

Wong, 41, is cofounder and CEO of Asia Online (http://www.aisaonline.net) , part of Asia Communications Global Ltd. and Hong Kong's largest independent Internet service provider (ISP). The company, founded in early 1995, remains tiny by U.S. standards, with about 30,000 paying customers. But it's on a steep growth curve, powered by $20 million of capital from blue-chip investors in Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States. Its board of directors is a Who's Who of Asian and Asian-American computer pioneers. It includes Thomas C.K. Yuen, cofounder of PC manufacturer AST Research; Michael Ng Lai Yick, founder of China's largest computer distributor; and John Tu, cofounder and president of memory-board manufacturer Kingston Technology. Little wonder, then, that Wong has such big goals — 500,000 customers and, by 1999, annual revenues of $200 million.

How does Wong expect to achieve these results? By selling Asia-specific content to two communities: businesspeople in Asia and businesspeople in North America with interests in Asia. By the end of 1998, he plans to offer English or native-language content in a wide range of countries, including China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Korea, and Thailand. The material will be part data, part dish. For example, Asia Online recently signed a deal to post stock prices from the Shanghai exchange. And it's given a platform to Lily Wong, a popular comic-strip character in Hong Kong.

"If you look at the bulk of information online today — especially business information — it's America-centric, English-language content," Wong says. "We're building Asia-centric, Asian-language content. People ask me, What if AT&T comes in with $500 million to spend? Can't they kill you? The answer is no. This is a people-and-information business. We know the Asian people. And we're consolidating information, we're not creating technology."

Which is what makes Wong's long-term position so challenging. Plenty of companies have lost plenty of money trying to convince Internet users to pay for information they've come to expect for free. But Wong is undeterred. He has a track record in ultra-competitive businesses. As vice president of AST's Asia-Pacific operations, he turned the company into a market-share leader in Hong Kong and China, and created a formidable presence for AST in the rest of the region. And the English-centric nature of the Net plays to his advantage. "We know there is demand for our product but no supply," he says. "It's Economics 101."

More worrisome, Asia Online is an information company in a place where freedom of information is no longer guaranteed. In March 1995, for example, soon after Wong and his partners set up shop, Hong Kong police raided a group of ISPs to enforce a new licensing law that imposed surcharges on Internet users. To protest the raids, Wong staged a press conference, where he brandished a copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Internet. Service was restored in a week.

Now that Hong Kong is a part of China, it's unlikely that Wong will engage in many more public attacks on the government. Yet he's unconcerned about potential interference. He may be in the information business, but he's not a crusader for political rights. Indeed, back in 1992, when foreign investors were exiting China in droves after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Wong decided to increase AST's investments in the country. At about the same time, he had to make a presentation to 100 international marketing executives. He opened his talk with newsclips of Tiananmen, along with footage of the 1991 Bangkok coup and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. After his video montage, Wong stepped to the microphones. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, you see the differences," he said with a touch of sarcasm. "If you want to do business in China," he says today, "you don't let politics stop you."

Louise Nameth (bluestar12@aol.com) writes on finance and technology from New York. Her work has appeared in "Business Week," the "New York Times", and the "Wall Street Journal Europe."

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