Related read: Seven Tips for Succeeding in Asia
The chance to become rich and famous by starting a new business is no longer just an American dream. It’s happening in Asia, and in record numbers. Multiple Silicon Valleys have sprung up in Beijing, Shanghai and Bangalore. Even Ho Chi Minh City could get on the entrepreneur map. Since 2005, more than 6,000 startups in Asia snared venture capital to ramp up their businesses. More than half of those were in China or India.
What’s propelling this startup trend, in part, is the region’s rapid economic growth, switched-on digital communications market and vibrant venture capital market. For entrepreneurs, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create something new, scale it past micro-size and eventually take their startup public on NASDAQ or the New York Stock Exchange.
China has leaped ahead as the world’s largest Internet and mobile communications market—400 million-plus Internet surfers and 840 million mobile service subscribers. India is not far behind with 673 million mobile callers. Even in Vietnam, more than one-quarter of the population is online and just about everyone has a cell phone.
Moreover, China has emerged as the world’s second-largest venture capital market, at $7.6 billion—followed by India at $5.8 billion. While that’s still small compared to the U.S.’s $28 billion, it’s growing every year, while the U.S. VC market stagnates.
The entrepreneurs profiled on the pages to follow are all in their 30s and 40s—typically when startup careers are made. All are smart, although some boast classier university degrees than others. Many are risk-taking serial entrepreneurs. A few even have managerial experience at multinational companies. But what they all have in common is an ability to “think different,” that phrase made popular by TV commercials for Apple computers. Each and every one is creative, imaginative and independentminded. These are personality traits that cannot be taught in a classroom or gained through years of professional experience.
Together, these pioneers show how to navigate Asia’s unique and diversified sectors in the fast growth areas of mobile communications, social networking, gaming, e-commerce, cleantech and consumer markets. Moreover, today’s Asian entrepreneurs are no longer just copying American business models. Instead, they are beginning to micro-innovate and tweak products to local tastes.
While not all will make it to the vaulted goal of an initial public offering, count on these startups to become higher profile and for a few of their founders to become entrepreneurial heroes in their home countries as Jack Ma of e-commerce company Alibaba and Robin Li of search engine Baidu did in the first generation of Chinese entrepreneurs.
Building a Buzz
HQ: Shanghai, China
Industry: Social networking
Business Profile: Ushi, which means “outstanding professional,” is a clone of the popular LinkedIn and has emerged as China’s leading social networking site for professionals. The twoyear- old startup has an impressive network of 40,000 CEOs and 10,000 CTOs, representing more than half of China’s largest companies.
Smart Startup Move: Starting Ushi with 100 influential, successful business people as charter members, who helped to create an elite image for the brand and encouraged other leaders to join. Also launched the service in a newly opened Waldorf Astoria hotel in a landmark heritage building on the Bund.
Growth Status: Financed with $4.5 million from a group of entrepreneurial investors. In 2011, partnered with Hong Kongbased Gerson Lehrman Group to launch a network of subject matter experts to answer questions about business topics.
Personal Profile: Chinese-Canadian serial entrepreneur and former private equity investor with great connections. Penaloza’s first startup for teaching English to Japanese and Chinese failed during the dotcom crash and was revived as a social-events service in Japan.
HQ: Bangalore, India
Industry: Mobile advertising
Business Profile: Positioned in the fast-growing mobile advertising space, this developed-in-India company cracked the code on how to go international and emerged as a global market-leading brand.
Smart Startup Move: Hiring well-trained engineers from Google, Yahoo! and MSN for its Bangalore base, penetrating the Asian markets first and then taking the bold move of rolling out worldwide just three years after its start. Growth Status: With $15 million in funding from top-tier venture firm Kleiner Perkins, the company is now being groomed to go public in the U.S. or India.
Personal Profile: Harvard grad and former McKinsey consultant not afraid to take a risk and bootstrap his startup. After losing everything to a first failed business, Tewari and his six-member team maxed out 12 credit cards and worked for several months with no pay to develop their next product—a winner.
eHi Auto Services
Revenues: $52 million (estimated)
Industry: Auto rental service
Business Profile: Built China’s leading all-in-one Hertz car rental, Carey limousine service and Zipcar- like car sharing business in a burgeoning market where autos are replacing bicycles.
Smart Startup Move: Returned to Shanghai in 2002 after a 17-year run in California, where he headed up a software startup for dispatching corporate service vehicles and leveraged that technology to jump into China’s entrepreneurial pool in a market dominated by state-owned enterprises.
Growth Status: Managed to lure a $70 million investment led by Goldman Sachs in 2010 as a step toward a probable IPO.
Personal Profile: Grew up on the Stanford University campus as the son of a Hoover Institute scholar. Independent streak, firmly kept the upper hand in dealing with venture capitalists and investment bankers knocking on his door.
Revenues: $30 million (estimated)
HQ: Beijing, China
Industry: Social networking and gaming
Business Profile: An extremely popular Chinese version of Facebook’s Farmville, where players grow virtual fruits and vegetables and then exchange funny comments about their exploits. Played as a stress buster by office workers.
Smart Startup Move: Going head to head with publicly traded Renren in same space, sued the larger rival for grabbing its URL and cloning its site, and won the resulting legal battle.
Growth Status: Lost its market leadership but is still fighting against better-funded, larger competitor as the scrappy local entrepreneur. Funded by leading VCs.
Personal Profile: Quiet, unassuming and geeky web site developer born in China and guided by a Confucian social philosophy. Quit a job as a workaholic search-engine developer for China web portal SINA when he was so fatigued he could no longer see the characters on the screen. Came up with the idea for this Web social game as a way to bring happiness into everyday lives. Kaixin means “Be Happy.”
Stepping Into the Light
Revenues: $30 million (estimated)
HQ: Hong Kong
Industry: Energy-saving lighting
Business Profile: Safe-to-use and efficient solar-powered LED lanterns are replacing kerosene lanterns in emerging market villages.
Smart Startup Move: Stepped aside as CEO and turned the reins over to his mentor so that he could free up his time to go back to fieldwork research into consumer needs.
Growth Status: d.light’s funding by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his social fund underscores its prominence in the building social entrepreneurship movement.
Personal Profile: Social entrepreneur, world traveler, Peace Corps volunteer in a West Africa village. Inspired by witnessing his neighbor’s son being badly burned by a knocked over kerosene lantern.
Making It in Mobility
HQ: Beijing, China
Industry: Social games for mobile market
Business Profile: An open, mobile, social network focused on casual gaming and virtual currency software for smart phones.
Smart Startup Move: Switched the platform from Java to the open-software Android system, leading the one-year-old startup to reach profitability.
Growth Status: Won an $18 million investment by leading venture investors in China.
Personal Profile: Began studying computer science at age 16 at the MIT of China—Tsinghua University—and then earned two Master’s Degrees in three years at Stanford University. Strongwilled, assertive and confident. Quit power job at Google in Beijing to do her own startup.
All the Right Numbers
HQ: Mumbai, India
Revenues: $50 million (estimated)
Industry: Mobile search
Business Profile: Focusing on the red-hot mobile communications business, Just- Dial combines the old yellow pages, free directory assistance and a concierge service to find local business services.
Smart Startup Move: Captured the memorable telephone number 888-8888 in India, a move that virtually ensured success. Just- Dial launched in the U.S. with a full-page color ad in The New York Times and a national campaign on CNN, aiming to become the world’s No. 1 search service.
Growth Status: JustDial filed for an IPO in India in August 2011, since delayed due to market conditions. Look for an IPO in 2012. Personal Profile: Dreamer and an optimist. Took an 18-month spiritual sabbatical after selling his first startup for $2 million after the dotcom bubble burst in 2000.
Revenues: $250 million (estimated)
HQ: Beijing, China
Business Profile: Redbaby is China’s largest online retailer for baby merchandise, but it also peddles a broad array of consumer goods, which are becoming must-haves by newly middle-class Chinese.
Smart Startup Move: After a start in printed catalogs, shifted to online presence and leveraged its logistics, distribution and customer service to win a strong base.
Growth Status: A growing consumer class coupled with acceptance of online sales by China’s urban dwellers and the one-child policy (spoiled by parents and grandparents) spells opportunity.
Personal Profile: Hardscrabble, home-grown, chain-smoking entrepreneur with chutzpah.