Asian entrepreneurs no longer just 'copycats'

Region's startup community finally comes of age and able to compete on international stage, observe U.S. organizations, which have brought their global initiatives to Asia.
Written by Mahesh Sharma, Correspondent

Asia's entrepreneur community and startup industry has finally come of age, according to several U.S. companies which are leading a wave of activities from overseas to this region.

The opportunity in Asia, for instance, has become too great to ignore for two online entities, Techcrunch and Wall St Journal's AllThingsD, which have both selected Asian cities as the venues to host their inaugural international expansions. Techcrunch Disrupt in Beijing, and AllThingsD's AsiaD in Hong Kong, aim to attract Silicon Valley's best-and-brightest to discuss and create the latest trends and innovations. They also bring American investment dollars and business networks to the region.

While this occurs at the top level, local entrepreneurs are driving the grassroots movement including StartupsHK, which has over 200 active founders, and its upcoming Startup Saturday event which will be attended by Dave McClure's Geeks on a Plane.

This is validation that entrepreneurs in the region are no longer "copycats" but actually have the resources and vision to compete on the international stage.

Techcrunch editor Sarah Lacy visited China over six times in the past two years as part of a wider study of entrepreneurship in emerging markets and her findings were documented in her book "Brilliant. Crazy. Cocky: How the top 1% of entrepreneurs profit from global chaos".

She convinced Techcrunch co-founder Michael Arrington to select Beijing as the first international venue for its popular Disrupt conference, to be held Oct. 31 to Nov. 1, pointing to China's multiple, billion-dollar companies and huge domestic market.

Most importantly, the startups are not just a bunch of "copycats", Lacy told ZDNet Asia. "There are certainly hundreds--if not thousands--of Chinese companies that are simple copycats looking to make a quick dollar. But this stereotype is way too overstated," Lacy said. "Even some of the so-called 'copycat' companies are incredibly innovative in monetization and delivery because the logistical challenges are so great in China."

She highlighted Tencent, Sina and YouKu, as Chinese companies which originally cloned ICQ, Yahoo and YouTube, respectively, but have since developed their own unique technology and products.

These examples of innovation have not gone unnoticed by AllThingsD, which selected Hong Kong as the host city for AsiaD, and the first stop of its world tour of the "D: All Things Digital" conference.

Tapping the human asset
Asian entrepreneurship has come of age and countries in the region have one distinct advantage over Silicon Valley: human capital.

AllThingsD's producer, Kara Swisher, said in an interview: "There's a lot more entrepreneurs. More math and science graduates.

"The U.S. has really fallen down on that. We benefited from immigrants coming to this country--Asian, Indians and all kinds of people coming to Silicon Valley and making the atmosphere vibrant. Now that we have our visa laws discouraging that, these entrepreneurs stay in their home countries to develop there. India's very good at that so you're going to see a lot of innovation [from there] because we don't have enough Americans graduating in math and science degrees.

"The ability to provide a lot of people in engineering, science and computer science is clearly important, and China's doing very well in that regard," Swisher said.

Startup Saturday in Hong Kong is expected to attract over 400 entrepreneurs, investors and developers to engage on all things related to startups, according to co-organiser Jon Buford, who also founded the BootHK co-working space, and is working on his own invention production system, Makible. He has watched the scene develop over the past decade and believes the local market has reached a tipping point.

"We are starting to see some real traction for companies that were started in the last year or two, and some smaller successes within that generation," Buford told ZDNet Asia. "To sum it up, it is small but it has heart. The people that are here are in it because they love what they do.

"Since we don't have as much of an established ecosystem, this core foundation of a self-supporting community is important here. We want to give people something to build the other resources around, and I'm already seeing that happening."

He described Makible as a mash between handmade-goods marketplace Etsy and crowsourced funding site, Kickstarter, adding that he was able to introduce the system because of Hong Kong's unique position in the global manufacturing and distribution supply chain.

More entrepreneurs and businesses will recognize the city's geographic and commercial potential in the coming years, he said.

"You just don't have the same opportunity anywhere in the world than Hong Kong for doing this type of business as efficiently," Buford said. "It is both a unique and fragmented market, but it also has resources that are still untapped. I think it will take domain experts in traditional fields to create these businesses."

Swisher believes it is only time before Asia produces its own Apple or Google.

"As you see the convergence of all these entrepreneurs in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Korea, it's inevitable you're going to get world-changing companies," she said. "It happens when you put money and entrepreneurs together, and have a strong ecosystem like there is in Silicon Valley. You're going to get there eventually."

Mahesh Sharma is a freelance IT writer based in Australia.

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