At the Global Startup Fest 2022 organized by Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s Global Innovation Alliance Office, experienced industry player Cheung Ho Yeung, founding member and Head of Projects at adXpert, shared his entrepreneurial expertise with the audience. How can a young entrepreneur expand his/her business overseas? What are the challenges one should expect? What are some immediate steps a student can take to work toward success in the startup sector?
Taking a leap of faith
Unlike most locals, Cheung started his business overseas instead of Singapore. This step was a leap of faith as both him and his partner had stable careers here prior to this venture.
However, he had always wanted to start his own business. During his time at Facebook, he realized that many e-commerce businesses were not capitalizing on this social media platform to expand overseas. So he stepped in, seeing its value for the community.
Choosing the right country
Cheung cited his overseas experiences in his formative years as one of the reasons why he started adXpert in China. When he was studying in the National University of Singapore, he visited Shanghai and Silicon Valley under a couple of programmes. Out of all the countries in the world, Cheung decided on China and the U.S. as he wanted to experience working in a larger economy where there would be a larger potential for growth in the coming years.
Seizing these opportunities led him to found adXpert in China. His reason for this location? While Cheung was on exchange in Shanghai, the country was in a phase of inflection. DiDi had just come out, and he witnessed with his own eyes the wonder of e-commerce. “I had never seen delivery service providers drop off anything and everything to your doorstep… It was so convenient.” In addition, he saw his ethnicity as Chinese as an advantage.
Overcoming challenges in a foreign land
Undoubtedly, Cheung and his team faced some challenges along the way. For one, they had to adapt to the cultural differences. Cheung warns of the prevalence of cut-throat businessmen in the Chinese market, which is a stereotype that is unfortunately true.
He also remembers when adXpert was first based in China; he and his colleagues were always the last ones to arrive and the first ones to leave the office.
Cheung recounts a time when he witnessed the severity of 996 work culture in China. “A few of my (younger employees) and I passed by Decathlon one day and decided to buy a chapteh… During lunch time, we quickly finished our meal and started playing in the co-working area. Suddenly, we noticed some people giving us death glares. I wasn’t sure if we should stop playing, but someone finally went up to us and said that this time was meant for wu shuy, or afternoon nap. He told us to stop playing as it was disturbing them. That was when I realized, it was only the few of us who were not napping.”
Another incident he mentioned was the time he tried to set up a bank in Hong Kong. He was shocked to learn that it would take five months to complete the administrative processes, and commented that we take for granted the efficient systems and processes available in Singapore. As a comparison, it only took him a day to set up a local bank account. Starting a business overseas, then, requires you to be well prepared for such unforeseen circumstances.
There were other practical concerns as well. Cheung cautions, “Starting a business on your own is not easy.” In the early days of adXpert, he and his co-founder rented an apartment in China. The kitchen cabinets were painted with a whiteboard material, so they would scribble numbers all over as they worked together. Friends who visited quipped about how they were cryptic, part of a cult even. But they were merely calculating how much they would need to break even and grow their business while paying rent. Fortunately, they managed to find a product-market fit in the first three months.
Standing out from the crowd
While it may seem more comfortable to start a business in Singapore instead of overseas, Cheung notes the importance of asking oneself, “What is the market size?” Dominating the Singaporean market is commendable, but it is more valuable to consider how easily this model may be copied outside the country in major economies. “The overseas market is something you should actively consider; if not, at least have a plan to build into those markets at the early stages of your startup.” Otherwise, you set a cap on your success.
How does one tap into overseas markets, then? Cheung’s tip is to look for international founders to join your company. If he is planning to expand his business into Indonesia, for example, he would look for a local businessman there with a skill set complementary to his. This allows him to access the right networks in the Indonesian market. In fact, there have recently been a few successful startups in the region with founders of different nationalities and talents.
As more entrepreneurs look to expand their businesses in China, Cheung advises the younger ones to first ask, “Where do I have a competitive advantage in the Chinese market? What can I offer which the local Chinese do not have?” For adXpert, they had knowledge about the international market which was helpful in bringing Chinese products overseas. This sets them apart.
Speaking the local language is highly advantageous as well. Cheung used an example from a recent internationalization project with one of the largest e-commerce players in China. During a meeting with some of their staff, some of whom were Dutch and German, he was shocked to hear that their Mandarin was more fluent than his.
Setting a direction
How did adXpert become a unicorn company? Cheung shares an interesting story. During a meeting with a venture capitalist (VC) in China, the investor did not say a word. It was only at the end when he told Cheung that he would not write him a cheque. He then asked Cheung, “How much money do you want?” Confused, Cheung later learned that what he had proposed was not scalable; no VC would fund it. But, it would be a good cash flow business. So, the investor was only willing to write a cheque in a personal capacity as an angel investor.
This meeting led Cheung to define success on his own terms and set a clear direction for his company. While he had initially wanted to raise money through implementing machine learning, artificial intelligence, and so on, he later decided on a business aimed at cash flow instead of scalability after speaking with the VC. “It depends on what you’re doing, and which stage of life you’re at. You can then decide how to de-risk your startup appropriately.”
Tips for success
At adXpert, Cheung and his team look at a prospective employee’s eagerness to learn and grow. In fact, that was the key trait that led to his career success. Trying out different roles and responsibilities not just in the company but beyond, will allow one to thrive as well.
The ability to ask why and say no is also important, Cheung says. Challenging assumptions show your boss that you are able to add value to the company.
To young entrepreneurs, Cheung recommends studying the market you are interested in first. Look for internship opportunities overseas and build good connections. Networking may be daunting, however, but Cheung offers a fresh perspective. “I see it as a value exchange. Why would someone want to talk to me, and why would I want to talk to them?” A junior can connect with someone more senior on common, shared experiences which may turn out to be engaging. For example, you can talk about how a canteen vendor in your school may no longer be around.
During an internship, it is also worthwhile to work closely with your supervisor and see him/her as a peer so that they are more likely to bring you to networking opportunities. Go beyond simply completing tasks at work; forming relationships are key in the early stage of one’s career.