This Professional Poker Player Used His Winnings To Seed What Could Be Hong Kong's Next Unicorn
Many of us have dreamed of turning a hobby into a profession, but few have successfully made that transition and become financially independent with the income earned. But there’s one person who actually used the income from his hobby-turned-profession to found a startup that has the chance to become Hong Kong’s first unicorn: Shing Chow, founder of Lalamove, the “Uber for logistics.”
Chow quit his job as a strategy consultant at Bain in 2002 and began playing poker professionally. The reason? He was bored. After barely breaking even for four years, Chow became financially independent and continued his poker profession for another three years before getting the itch to do something different. Unlike last time, Chow was motivated by something other than boredom—a greater sense of purpose.
“In the end, poker is a zero-sum game,” he explained. “If you win, someone else loses. Really, it’s a negative-sum because the house takes a cut. I didn’t want to spend my life on something that was zero-sum. I wanted to do something that creates value.”
Founders must act quickly and be ready to adapt
Chow quit poker in 2009 to begin searching for a project worthy of his devotion and financial resources. He founded Lalamove in 2013 (originally EasyVan) after being inspired by the growth of Uber. Chow’s company has earned a reputation as the fastest delivery company in the world, with an average delivery time of 46 minutes. Lalamove operates in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and 50 cities in mainland China.
“The first step was to hire the right people,” Chow recalled. “I knew I needed an app in the app store, but I don’t code. I interviewed tons of people using headhunters and asked them two questions. First, I showed them a competitor’s app and asked, ‘Can you write an app like this?” If they said yes, the next question was, ‘Can you finish the app in four weeks?’ If they said yes to that question, I hired them. Within one week, we put together the tech team using this hiring strategy and got to work.”
As Lalamove grew, Chow saw he’d underestimated the money needed to start and run his company. He originally thought he could throw $2 million Hong Kong at Lalamove and that would suffice. His actual need was closer to $100 million U.S., so he began fundraising. Earlier this year, the company closed a $30 million series-B round from high profile VCs including ShunWei Capital and early LaLaMove backer Mindworks Ventures. Chow said his experience was a lesson for entrepreneurs on being adaptable.
“One of the key traits of being an entrepreneur is continually updating your sense of the world,” he said. “Sometimes what I think is the case is not actually the case. When that happens, you must realize it quickly and adjust. For example, I was naïve when it came to funding. I had to quickly make those unknowns into knowns.”
Entrepreneurship will test your resolve
Chow has also learned the importance of action. So many entrepreneurs have a great idea, but it never comes to fruition because they wait for the perfect moment before they act. Chow favors a high bias for action. He doesn’t overthink things and learns through trial and error. The tech team he put together wasn’t top quality candidates, and that was intentional. He preferred to get the app into the world as quickly as possible rather than waiting to find highly qualified candidates. It was only by action that he achieved actual results.
“You also must think through if you really want to take on this journey,” Chow advised. “Because it’s quite hard, and most of the time, you’re guaranteed to fail. You look across the landscape and success is actually the exception. A lot of times, your success depends on luck. Our first funding was quite easy. But our second and third funding, if we didn’t get it, we would’ve been in debt. So twice, we were two months away from bankruptcy and we got saved by people who believed in us. A lot of it was luck.”
But entrepreneurship doesn’t always work out that way. Chow says you need to imagine a scenario where you put in the work and end up with nothing at the end of the day. Is that something you’re willing to accept? With internet companies, that’s a real possibility.
“Building a traditional business, for example a clinic or a restaurant, is a solid business model,” Chow said. “If it’s the best restaurant in the city, you will survive. But the internet is more like a tournament structure. I call it the Olympics of business. People only care about the companies that come in first. Those are the companies that get the pay off. Everybody knows the winner, but nobody remembers who finishes second.”