Sammy Hsieh is well on the way to being a leading name among Hong Kong's next generation of entrepreneurs. After earning an economics degree from the University of California in Los Angeles, he learned the basics of business with British American Tobacco and LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
Now director of iClick Interactive Asia, a company he founded last year, he helps clients track detailed information about actual sales generated from ads on different websites and analyse click-through rates from search engines and social networks. Making it easier to confirm online results and hit target markets, the technology may just help transform business thinking.
What did you gain from studying in the United States? I had never been there before starting my degree and, after growing up in Hong Kong, found it comparatively slower and quite boring. I’m a very active person who likes a fast-paced lifestyle, so with the 1997 handover approaching, I finished my course in three years, not four, and rushed back to look for opportunities. My personality developed in the States, though, because I learned to be very independent and saw I had to solve problems for myself and not expect people to help you. Those are important lessons for anyone running a start-up.
What was the turning point in your career? I spent the first few years in sales and marketing roles with multinationals. They have good systems for training in things like key account management and presentation skills, but I found it hard to work within a rigid corporate culture. If you had a good idea, it went through layers of approval and would then end up being rejected or losing speed to market. So joining Yahoo in 2001, when there were only 20 staff in Hong Kong, was crucial. It was a flexible and fun environment. The boss was reasonable, talked about high-level objectives, didn't micromanage, and let me find a way to reach targets.
Why did you leave after eight successful years? By that time, I was head of a big department but needed a different challenge. I was approached to set up the Asia operations for a Silicon Valley company doing digital performance marketing and thought that it was a good chance to break into something new. They pulled back because of the financial crisis, but agreed to let me distribute their technology, so I founded my own start-up.
How did the business take-off? We began with just two people and, after 16 months, now have three offices and 50 employees. The most important thing is to listen to customers and partners because the marketplace and industry landscape are changing fast. Many advertisers in Hong Kong think Facebook and Twitter are for teenagers, but you can use them as channels for effective marketing and get instant feedback.
Why do you enjoy what you do? The business is changing every minute. I'm not a “techie” guy, but I understand the customers and trust the people around me to come up with solutions. Money is a secondary consideration. In fact, there was none coming in for the first year. The attraction is doing something you are passionate about.
What challenges have you faced? Hiring someone for a start-up in Hong Kong can be difficult. Candidates prefer the security of short-term benefits and a regular salary. It is different [on the mainland] and in the US. People there want to work for start-ups. They accept a lot of their compensation may be in stock options.
Where do you see the company a couple of years from now? We want to be the number one digital agency in Asia and are working hard to make it happen. It means we have to move very fast to keep innovating and create a virtual barrier to entry. When you grow, other people notice and want to copy your business model, so you need to achieve the scale and customer base to make that difficult. Also, we know that, in Asia, advertisers want a combination of technology, service and face-to face contact, so will invest a lot in account managers and may start to think of an IPO.
Finds that interacting with customers and colleagues is the best way to learn
Keeps fit by playing as a striker for a corporate team in a local soccer league
Believes that in five years, the internet will be essential in every part of our lives