American Expat Helps Hong Kong Startups Find Footing

Giants Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs dominate the metropolis. But is there now room for entrepreneurs?

Jonathan Buford


The Hong Kong social enterprise scene is just getting going–and so is the startup movement. A cofounder of StartupsHK and BootHK, Jonathan Buford, tells Fast Company that it all comes down to one word: community.

With the lure of the safety and comforts that come with a high-paying job with one of Hong Kong’s many financial industry leaders, recent graduates almost never consider joining an early-stage startup right after graduating. That combined with family pressure has made for a tough climate for entrepreneurs in Hong Kong. And those who do break out of the mold can’t find people to hire for their startups. But the climate is slowly changing, thanks to groups like StartupsHK and BootHK, which provide social support for budding entrepreneurs.

“The biggest opportunity in Hong Kong is actually in more traditional areas, like manufacturing, but helping to bridge manufacturing with technology,” says Buford. “There’s a market gap between rapid prototyping and manufacturing. Seed funding is another problem, because people get stuck doing consulting work.”

Buford himself is at work on a startup called Makible that crowdsources ideas and then does low-volume production. His aim is to address the gap between the need for a demo product and the usual constraints that says in order to do any manufacturing one must produce at least 1,000 prototypes, for example.

Buford is originally from Cartersville, Georgia, but his entrepreneurial peers are a mix of local Hong Kongese, Hong Kongese who’ve returned from abroad, and those from Europe and other countries in Asia.


Building a vibrant community of entrepreneurs has proved challenging, but he and his colleagues are making steady improvements. BootHK hosts several events throughout the year and soon the group will be going to universities to encourage students to work at startups after graduating. They’re spreading the gospel of entrepreneurship, if you will. “It’s hard to find people to hire. Everyone works for Merrill Lynch after college. It’s difficult for people to consider working for a small startup after graduation.”

Hong Kong wasn’t always like that. From the 1950s to the ’70s manufacturing entrepreneurs were just getting their start, sharing trade secrets and supporting each other in their growth. “They had to collaborate–they couldn’t succeed on their own. And you still see that in manufacturing. They even have monthly meetups.”

But as for tech or software, people are often extremely protective about their ideas, says Buford.

And so maybe it won’t be tech that forms the core of the startup community. As Buford says, Hong Kong has made it clear that it wants to focus on propelling its creative industries and Beijing has made it clear that Shanghai is to become the finance capital.

And it may also not be the case that going big is as driving a force as it is in Silicon Valley, for example, where bigger funding and bigger expansion is looked up to.


“Is that necessarily what to shoot for? If you focus on something that builds a comfortable lifestyle for you, isn’t that more successful? Do we have to always go for big VC-backing?” wonders Buford.
“We don’t need another Facebook, just something to start off with, and that is an alternative to the financial industry jobs that so many locals here have.”

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About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.