Interview with EditGrid's David Lee

Following up on last week's article on Web 2.0 online spreadsheets, I conducted an e-mail interview with David Lee, chairman of Team and Concepts, the company behind EditGrid, one of the leading online spreadsheets.

Following up on last week's article on Web 2.0 online spreadsheets, I conducted an e-mail interview with David Lee, chairman of Team and Concepts, the company behind EditGrid, one of the leading online spreadsheets. Team and Concepts is also one of the few Web 2.0 companies located right here in Hong Kong, started by a group of university students just a couple of years ago.

EditGrid has made quite a name for itself in the Web 2.0 community. What do you think are the key success factors?

David: "The Web is so transparent now. Online applications do not have any geographical barrier. When an application is out there, it is going to compete with the world of other similar applications on lots of different dimensions. We compete in the following key factors:

  • Keep innovating! We are not a big brand - like Google - no one will look at us if we are just copying and following. "Keep innovating" is the first and single most important factor I would name.
  • Listen to customers. When we have users, they will have something to say. Listening to them gives us hints to build our product into something that customers want."

What do you think is the potential for Web 2.0 in this region? How did Team and Concepts decide to get into the online spreadsheet market?

David: "I think the start of Web 2.0 is due to the fact that more people are online now. As more people are there, they begin to engage in different types of activities. That's why we see different online communities being formed. Social networking is also hot these days.

When more people depend on the Web as the platform (not their OS), the real potential of the Web is unleashed. They are now more mobile, demand more collaboration, want to access the same set of environment no matter where they are, etc. This new demand creates new opportunities.

We were developing event management software for event organisers before. Event organisers are intensive users of spreadsheets. So, in the first two years of operation, we made our application very spreadsheet-like so that our software would be easier to use and learn. Then when we saw the opportunity of turning the spreadsheet into a separate product."

Would you see more and more people in Hong Kong following your footsteps?

David: "We don't expect lots of companies in Hong Kong to work on a product similar to EditGrid. However, I do expect that more startups will appear in the region to catch the Web2.0 wave.

The Hong Kong market is just too small. If you target China market, you better start it in China. If you are to start it in Hong Kong, I would suggest you to target the international market from Day One."

What would you consider as the advantages or disadvantages of setting up a high-tech company in Hong Kong?

David: "Hong Kong doesn't really have a high tech cluster like the Bay Area does. Science Park and Cyberport paint beautiful visions for us. But those visions are still quite remote.

But, at the end of the day, it's not all that bad. At least in our case, with a few developers, working intensely day and night to deliver good stuff, we are still getting somewhere.

Oh yes! We need to thank HK Government's Innovation and Technology Fund for providing a dollar-to-dollar matching fund to EditGrid's development. In a place where angel investors and VCs are not IT sophisticated, the HK Government is doing something that is really helpful!"

Your company started when all of you were students. What were the most difficult challenges along the way? What would be your advice to other potential student entrepreneurs in Hong Kong?

David: "That is a very long story. Long enough that it has been put into a Harvard business case. I would say the following three things are the most important:

  1. Take risks
  2. Luck
  3. Persistence

Starting a business is risky. Prepare to risk your own money and at least two years of your time on something that might give you zero/negative financial return. But the experience and learning is definitely worth it.

Luck sometimes puts everything together in front for you. But it won't happen without the entrepreneur taking some risks in the first place.

Persistence is what takes us through the major downturns and challenges."

Moving forward, how would you see your company grow?

David: "We are the only standalone online spreadsheet in the market, thus we are in the best position to promote the technology to places where it is needed. We are actively partnering with companies who want this technology to be integrated into their product.

As our user base grows, our users are putting in some very interesting content that draws quite a lot of traffic to our site. It seems that some business model can be derived there. We'll make a few partnership announcements in Q1 2007!"

Thank you David for the interview and we look forward to your announcements!