But having a strong team is key to the success of any business. Many entrepreneurs will tell you: there’s no one as important to them as their co-founders.
Noel Shih, Ryan Mann, and Simon Kung met during the flagship Business Lab elective on the MBA program at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), a three-month course which takes students through every step of the startup process, from idea conception to launch.
There, the three student co-founders developed the idea for 3beebox, a startup which they say is flying the flag for the next generation of consumer sampling, and provides market research data for companies looking to succeed in Hong Kong.
Rather than randomly handing out product samples on the street, companies which pay to be listed on 3beebox get their samples in the hands of targeted consumers, who are incentivized to take part in consumer trials with cash rewards.
Building a business from scratch
It was Noel, living in Canada and working as a sales analyst for PepsiCo, who originally had the idea to start his own business.
The marketing team at PepsiCo used a similar service to 3beebox. But when Noel returned home to Hong Kong for his MBA, he saw a gap in the market.
At the Business Lab, he met Ryan, an American with a background in shipping, and Simon, the team’s “finance guy”, who worked for HSBC before starting business school. Together, and with the support of seasoned Business Lab adjunct associate professor Pedro Eloy, they started developing the idea.
“You start the Lab with a skeleton of an idea. Then, every week you go through a different stage of development,” Ryan explains.
“You go through the legal aspects; how to deal with competition; advertising; funding. Then, at the end, you present your idea to a panel of successful entrepreneurs, investors, and people with sector-specific experience.
“It’s a step-by-step, how-to guide to launching a company.”
Through the Business Lab, Ryan says the team were connected with fellow entrepreneurs, mentors, and office space. The 3beebox website was built by one of their MBA classmates.
The team was selected as one of 18 finalists to compete in HKU’s Dreamcatchers competition for student entrepreneurs.
And, with support from the school, they managed to secure HK$600,000 ($77,000) from Cyberport, a government initiative to support new startups. The success rate for applying for Cyberport funding is around 15%.
The Business Lab experience was not without challenges. 3beebox allows consumers to upload their receipts and turn them into cash—developing the technology behind the upload and verification process was tricky.
“But the most challenging thing is you need people to buy into your product,” Ryan explains. “It’s not easy being new and high risk. You need mentorship and to be able to meet people with different expertise. Then, if you’re offering something that provides value, that’s always going to help.”
Now, 3beebox has over 1,000 members. The team is focused on Hong Kong, but looking to expand across Asia—Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, potentially India.
Noel, Ryan, and Simon all have full-time jobs. They work on 3beebox early in the morning, late at night, on the weekends, and during their holidays. Noel takes charge of strategy, marketing, and general management. Ryan does sales and legal; Simon does finance and operations.
“We don’t get much sleep! But we have the same vision: to help brands break into new markets,” Ryan smiles.
The relationships the three MBA students formed at HKU has been key to their growth, Simon explains. “Without HKU MBA’s Business Lab, I could not meet my brilliant team-mates. And without people, you can’t succeed.”
Noel agrees. Before joining HKU, he says, 3beebox was just an idea; he didn’t know where to start. “Through the MBA program, I learned about marketing, finance, and accounting; I met talented individuals who helped me through the journey of starting a business.
“The idea I came in with was nothing close to what we’re doing right now.”