Whether you’ve already built a successful business, are currently setting one up, or are just thinking about trying one day – when it comes down to it, we all want to be inspired. At Tech in Asia, we talk to founders and entrepreneurs day in and day out, so we’re never short on tales of startup heroism and tragedy. 2015 has been especially ripe with tech drama; so much the case that we had trouble curating just 30 of the best founder stories from across Asia.
Tech entrepreneurs are everywhere: from the streets of Bangalore to the high rise buildings of Jakarta; from Tokyo’s robotics labs to ecommerce offices in Pakistan. In no particular order, we’ve taken the liberty of aggregating a list of true and inspiring must-read founder tales from all across the continent. We hope you enjoy them as you look toward the new year.
If Yuko Nakazawa, founder and CEO of UPQ (pronounced “up-Q”) knows anything, it’s how to move fast. The Tokyo-based startup, founded in early June, unveiled 24 consumer electronics products earlier this year. Ranging from a SIM-free smartphone and GoPro-like action camera to a 50-inch 4K display and a variety of earphones, each item went from idea to production in just two months.
Go-Jek is one of the fastest-growing and most visible tech startups in Indonesia. The courier, transport, and shopping service legitimizes previously informal motorcycle taxis by outfitting drivers with green uniforms and helmets, but also by organizing them through a mobile app which lets users book drivers. Founder and CEO Nadiem Makarim shares how the company came about.
A largely unknown startup has developed a way to turn subjects captured on two-dimensional video into virtual three-dimensional models. DoubleMe, based dually in the US and South Korea, was founded by Albert Kim, a machine vision expert with 23 years of experience helping computers and robots “see” through cameras. The startup hopes to revolutionize the burgeoning virtual reality and augmented reality industries by letting anyone create 3D content viewable via a head-mounted display. The startup has already been approached by big players in the porn industry, but aims to draw the line for mainstream audiences.
Fove – wants to revolutionize virtual reality by integrating advanced eye-tracking tech into a headset. It’s named after fovea, the part of the human eye that gives us the sharp central vision necessary for tasks like reading, driving, and, of course, playing video games. Co-founder and CRO Lochlainn Wilson shares the story.
Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of iSpace Technologies, reflects on where his fascination with outer space began. His company is leading the team behind Hakuto, the only Japanese team competing in Google’s Lunar X Prize.
Jay Winder’s fintech company MakeLeaps serves invoice and management software to Japanese clients like Rakuten and Voyage Group, and is on track to becoming profitable. He entered the year with some nice momentum following a US$750,000 funding round that included AngelList founder Naval Ravikant and 500 Startups founder Dave McClure. But the journey did not happen overnight. It’s been a story 13 years in the making.
Some entrepreneurs are motivated by money, others by the pure challenge of building a business. Hiroaki Ishimatsu says he just wants to make society a better place for those less fortunate than him. In the past he built a hospital in Cambodia. But his latest project, Dr. Joy, is the culmination of his altruism, medical background, and entrepreneurial spirit.
Dr. Gajamohan Mohanarajah and Arudchelvan Krishnamoorthy, two long-time friends from Sri Lanka who studied abroad together at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, co-founded Rapyuta Robotics. The firm aims to create a cloud infrastructure that will allow all robots connected to it to share each other’s experiences.
9. Despite dropping out of college, this inventor was recognized as one of the world’s brilliant minds
Farhan Masood, founder and CTO of biometrics security startup SoloInsight, has a truly inspirational story. The Pakistan-born inventor is mostly self-taught, having dropped out of college at the age of nineteen. On his journey leading SoloInsight he received several distinctions and awards, including one in 2013 when the MIT Enterprise Forum named him as one of the most brilliant minds in the world.
Not all executives are born equal. For Muneeb Maayr, co-founder of ecommerce marketplace Daraz.pk, the journey of being chosen to lead a Rocket Internet venture was markedly different from those of his peers. Maayr doesn’t have an MBA, nor prior experience in management consulting. But he does have a track record of scaling companies and a willingness to get his hands dirty.
Kazumasa Tomita was a rockstar at Nomura Securities, Japan’s largest brokerage firm. He entered private banking fresh out of university, dealing solely with high-net-worth individuals. He set the sales record in his first year. By his third year, he was the top salesperson in the entire company. Then, instead of sailing away on a yacht, he left Nomura to build a tech startup.
For the past 20 years, Gabriel Fong was living the dream of any aspiring business executive. He landed a job at Wall Street investment banking giant Goldman Sachs. There, he worked on several high-profile capital market deals in Asia. His pedigree goes on. But then, in 2013, Fong invested in Gogovan, and quickly went on to establish the famous Hong Kong-based tech incubator Jaarvis Labs. This is his story.
A quiet revolution is underway in an obscure warehouse in Singapore, and you’d be hard pressed to pick its leader out of the pack. When drivers arrive at the nondescript building to report for duty at logistics startup Ninja Van, the CEO blends in among the other mostly 20-something men in polo shirts and flip-flops.
Virendra Gupta, the founder and CEO of Verse Innovation, doesn’t get much sleep. But when he does get some shut-eye, he’s probably smiling. Dailyhunt, a Flipboard-like news aggregation app targeted at Indians, is firing on all cylinders. Its growth, ever since it was acquired by Gupta’s company, has been astounding.
Xiaomi isn’t the only company making good use of Android paired with cheap smartphones and tablets in Asia. Also located in Beijing is a startup run by three ex-Googlers, which has now grown to over 100 staffers on the basis of two hugely popular Kickstarter campaigns. David Ko, one of the co-founders of Jide, sees Android as the platform to rule them all.
China is still a country where people prefer to pay up-front – often with wads of cash. Taking out a loan to buy a car is uncommon and some people avoid a mortgage and pay for a house in cases full of cash. Founder and CEO of Paymax Hu Dan says his firm loans money to China’s rural folks with lower income levels who are looking to purchase mobile phones, tablets, and other gadgets. Here’s how he makes it work.
SHBJ is a new and strong rival to China’s on-demand food delivery startups like Ele.me. Xu Weihao co-founded SHBJ in 2010. He says the delivery service now has 2,000 employees – mostly riders who deliver the food – and over 30,000 daily orders across 10 Chinese cities.
Ever since Magic launched in the US and grabbed headlines, startups around the world have been iterating the idea of a butler service that you communicate with via SMS. In Malaysia, one such on-demand concierge service, Helpr piggy-backs on either SMS, WhatsApp, or Facebook Messenger, allowing users to send in queries (like asking for restaurant recommendations) or request a particular thing (such as food delivery or booking a travel itinerary).
19. Meet the robotics scientist who’s trying something very different for his first crowdfunded gadget
This quirky startup is a water fountain for cats. Called Pura, it connects with a companion app to ensure your cats are drinking plenty. With about 15 years of experience in developing robots Dr. Wu Li-Wei says his product is smart, but it’s definitely not a robot.
Mark Major broke his back in Beijing after falling down a nine-meter hole. This year, his startup Broken Back Games premiered Plummet. Here’s his tale of going from the position of IT manager to building what he hopes will be the world’s next mobile app empire.
Along with food, shelter, and love, these days, wifi is a fundamental need for many. Timothy Tsui’s startup Fanswifi is social media login for wifi, which he sells to businesses as an easy way for them to offer wifi to customers while also growing their online social fanbase.
It’s possible to create your own cloud using a server and some IP-address wrangling, but it requires a level of technical ability that’s beyond most people. Jeryuan Yan built NextDrive, which takes a new approach to wireless storage. NextDrive aims to bring all your devices into the age of the cloud.
Subhendu Panigrahi’s company Venturesity recently pivoted from hiring talent for startups to training people for jobs in demand. Now, Subhendu has turned again to finding the right talent for tech companies big and small. But instead of going back to the tech job board he started with, Venturesity has moved forward to a smarter, hackathon-based hiring model.
24. Eco-friendly and Obama-approved: a boutique store turned into China’s hippest new online marketplace
Two years ago, Bunny Yan opened up a boutique store in Shanghai selling accessories and home items. It focused on sustainably-produced goods. The brick-and-mortar shop transformed into an estore called The Squirrelz. Chinese attitudes towards recycled and sustainably-sourced goods have become more accepting in the last few years, and Bunny believes she spotted a gap in the market.
Nidhi Agarwal is the founder of Kaaryah – a niche estore for women’s formal western wear. Her journey of entrepreneurship is India is a colorful tale of overcoming the odds. Nidhi has made it past “goons” of all types, proof that women with entrepreneurial grit can always turn the tables.
Jim Yang is a special person in Indonesia. He’s the founder of the new dating app Gather, but he’s also a keystone in the history of the nation’s digital economy. Side by side with Indonesia’s Salim Group, Jim nearly created the first ecommerce site that would have become a bona fide contender with Lazada Indonesia, MatahariMall, or Bhinneka. But in 1998, the Asian financial crisis hit along with the downfall of the dictator president Suharto. Jakarta nearly tore itself to pieces in brutal riots across the city. Jim went on to make millions in other ventures, however, and today has a roller coaster of a story to tell
There’s little doubt left that women hold the key to ecommerce in Southeast Asia. Women are responsible for the majority of purchasing decisions in the region, they shop for themselves as well as for family and friends. Shannon Kalayanamitr is an entrepreneur who sold her company to WhatsNew, a Thai ecommerce conglomerate backed by Ardent Capital that soon became what we know in the region today as Moxy. Kalayanamitr serves as CMO of the fast-growing, female-focused ecommerce site, and today finds herself in the midst of an online retail boom.
Ki Chong and his brother Ki How started up Cambodia’s first 3D printing service – ARC Hub. They produce ready-to-use objects in their Phnom Penh workshop and they teach others how to use 3D printing technology. Occasionally they bring in experts from outside of Cambodia. Their goal is to make Cambodia “a leader in 3D printing.”
29. This guy’s story of failing in Indonesia is refreshingly honest. Now he’s getting up and trying again
Danny Taniwan is the quintessential example of a tenacious founder. He started an ecommerce site in Indonesia which he thought could rival Lazada. His startup was easily outmuscled, but Taniwan took it as a learning experience. Today he’s back with a new firm called Afforia, and he hopes to change online retail forever in the archipelago.
500 Startups managing partner in Southeast Asia Khailee Ng tells his story of building Says.com and Groupsmore. Highlights include a swift buyout from Groupon and Rocket Internet, losing all his traffic in one fell swoop, and understanding the value of one’s personal network in Asia and Silicon Valley.
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