HongKongEcho: Karen Contet Farzam explains the ‘why’ behind Hong Kong’s largest startup community, WHub

“So, coffee?” It’s more of an affirmation than a question from our host, but we wilfully oblige, venturing into the communal kitchen of a tranquil co-working space in Wong Chuk Hang.

“As a startup, your biggest asset for attracting talent is your ‘why’ – thus WHub,” explains co-founder Karen Contet Farzam on the origins of what is today Hong Kong’s largest startup community with over 3,000 listed on its website.

In a handful of years, it has gone from a portal for startups to gain visibility and post job offers to a full offering of hackathons, startup competitions, innovation challenges, soft-landing programmes, and more.

 

Trading places

 

“French culture doesn’t really encourage you to become an entrepreneur when you’re younger. I certainly never had that desire to become one myself,” she says.

Despite her French origins, Content Farzam spent most of her childhood in Japan – her English is flawless – before heading to France for higher education. She soon returned to Japan to begin her career as a trader at JP Morgan in Tokyo before landing in Hong Kong in 2010.

It was there she met close friend Belin.

The pair was chatting over coffee in Hong Kong one morning in 2014 when they had the idea for WHub. They mulled it over for a few days before meeting up again to lay out the blueprint – literally with blank pieces of paper – for the first incarnation of the platform.

“We were both fascinated by the enthusiasm entrepreneurs have for what they do, and we felt there needed to a platform for them to showcase not only their product, but their passion,” she says.

“Coming from a trading background, I thought I wouldn’t be very useful as an entrepreneur,” she admits, “I knew how to fit into a large multinational company, but what can I actually do on my own?”

 

 

It’s a frank assessment from Contet Farzam whose assured demeanour seems ideal for the rigours of the startup world. Her doubts led her to taking a three-month course in coding – “probably the best decision I’ve made,” she says – in order to build the WHub website from scratch. “It was a shift to a totally different world because you’re pushed by something other than money – which is still important of course – but you’re seeking something bigger.”

As the only female trader on the floor during her stint at JP Morgan and having attended an engineering school where only 5% of students were women, she’s no stranger to a male-dominated environment. “When I first started attending web development classes, I remember one meeting where we were only two women out for around 50 developers.”

“They say you should never start a business with your best friend. But I strongly disagree,”

Shortly after, she also co-founded the Hong Kong chapter of Women Who Code, a non-profit organisation to inspire women to pursue careers in tech. “I just thought there must be more women out there in Hong Kong who enjoy coding,” she explains.

 

In tandem

 

From two friends meeting over coffee, WHub has come a long way. She credits much of the success to the relationship with co-founder Belin. “Having different skillsets is very important – her expertise lies more in marketing and business development while I’m more focused on tech and finance.”

The bright-faced Belin interrupts our chat briefly to introduce herself in an exchange that is a mix of French and English – she’s actually German – before going on her way. “They say you should never start a business with your best friend. But I strongly disagree,” says Contet Farzam.

“Primarily we want people who are passionate about startups and tech companies."

They still get into their share of arguments though. “Actually they’re not really arguments,” she corrects us, “because it’s more about challenging each other in a safe environment”. Their bond also extends to the trails, with the duo recently running a 60km trail race together in Nepal.

“I’ve always had a lot of energy, so it’s my way to unleash,” she says adding nonchalantly that she completed last year’s HK 100 Ultra Trail race – a 100km course largely following the iconic MacLehose Trail.

“It’s quite similar to my drive as an entrepreneur. When someone tells you that something is impossible, you want to prove them wrong. That’s part of the fun.”

 

Going places

 

From its office in Hong Kong – and with staff spread across London, Israel, and India – it offers a global reach through a network of 500+ partners worldwide.

“Ultimately as a startup you all face the same challenges. How do you scale, how do you target new markets, how do you build a strong culture, and so on.”

Stable infrastructure and an ideal location in Asia are obvious plusses for their development but she stresses that the city is also a hotbed for talent with her team rarely hiring from overseas. “Primarily we want people who are passionate about startups and tech companies. After that you can always learn new skills,” she says.

That’s not so simple when you’re launching projects that have never been done before in Hong Kong, she admits. The duo’s new venture AngelHub is case in point.

It’s the first startup investment platform for professional investors to be licensed by the city’s Securities and Futures Commission, meaning there are few candidates to join the team with a track record in a similar initiative. “It’s been a challenge but we’re looking to find people with similar experience and who want to do things in a new way. In that sense it’s quite exciting.”

Today WHub and AngelHub are made up of 10 different nationalities across all ages in a team of over 20 staff, with the AngelHub team itself looking to make investments in Asian startups, largely at pre-Series A or Series A.

Contet Farzam and Belin closed their own funding round for WHub last September, raising US$3 million. The injection will help them expand Whub’s international footprint, she says.

Her take on what the investor relationship has brought them is typically frank. “If you can have the money, then at least take the money. But if you can have money and great advice, then even better. We’re lucky that’s been the case for us.”

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