Global Observer

Before incubation, a coworking space for start-up conception

Before incubation, a coworking space for start-up conception

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HONG KONG -- A new space gives entrepreneurs the support to meet, collaborate, relax and conceive their start-ups.

HONG KONG -- Entrepreneurial heaven has opened in Hong Kong.

It is a large "coworking" office finely tuned to the requirements of people who need space to dream about their start-ups, to be creative, to find like-minded individuals just to hash out ideas, to find partners, to take constructive breaks in a comfortable environment.

Coming here costs US$125 a month, a considerably smaller fee than coworking spaces in other metropolises. Members who use the space, called CoCoon, do not need to have a start-up, but they have to have a good idea or a useful skill, and be interested in interacting with other members to build a kind of supportive community that is said to be sorely lacking in Hong Kong.

CoCoon occupies the third floor of a shiny office building. Its main founder, Max Ma, who is in the jewelry retail business, owns the space.

He said he hopes it will help entrepreneurs build small and medium-size businesses that will create employment in Hong Kong — a city where giant conglomerates run most of the show and the wealth gap is the highest among all developed economies in the world, according to UN stats.

“This is my small contribution to Hong Kong,” said Ma, whose children Theodore and Erica Ma, also entrepreneurs, help oversee CoCoon. If leased out, the space’s monthly rent would be US$25,000, he said.

When CoCoon meets its goal of having 400 paying members, it is expected to recoup all costs -- but Theodore Ma stresses that costs are beside the point; the most important factor for them is maintaining high-quality members, hosting useful events and helping start-ups that will be meaningful.

"Only when our entrepreneurs succeed in satisfying their customers and users will Cocoon truly
become profitable and meaningful in the long term," he said in an e-mail.

Having opened its doors for less than two months, CoCoon is still working on screening and accepting members, or “tenants." An application process helps identify who would have something to offer.

The group is looking for entrepreneurs, investors who would also act as seasoned mentors, and people who can offer skills like programming or graphic design. These varied members often come here looking for partners.

In space-tight Hong Kong, CoCoon is refreshingly bright, airy and open. The main working area, taking up half the floor, is sparsely populated with large desks — no cubicles in sight. A long row of metal lockers line one of the walls, high-school style. Small office-type rooms are in the back for making the occasional loud phone calls.

The other half of the space features a coffee bar, ping-pong table, foosball table, a meditation room with three bean-bag chairs (chairs are generally all over the place) and a library of start-up and tech-related books.

“We have foosball and ping pong, because watching fast-moving objects is supposed to provide good eye exercise,” especially for workers staring at computers all day, said Darren Yung, a manager at CoCoon.

Some of the wall space is covered in bright orange dry-erase boards, where ideas, inspiration and job openings get shared. The place’s other accent color motif is the techland favorite Android green.

But other than enviable toys and ample breathing room, CoCoon offers support for innovation, something that entrepreneurs says is rather deficient in Hong Kong.

Rayfil Wong comes here to work on his project, a children's self-help book for the iPad. He laments that the government provides only scant funding for technology and is not doing enough to encourage innovation.

"There is a lack of motivation and constant fear," he said, adding that individuals are reluctant to step out and do something innovative.

Tenants at CoCoon say Hong Kong's obsession with its banks is, as usual, part of the blame. “Because of the booming financial industry, a lot of talent gets sucked into those sectors,” said Vicky Wu, a former banker who co-founder of ZaoZao, a crowd-funding website for fashion designers that is set to launch at the end of this month.

For example, Wu said, local graduates in programming make a beeline for operations and tech support jobs at banks. This makes it hard for start-ups to find programmers on a project basis. But CoCoon aims to fill some of that gap by helping to connect freelancers with small business people.

Wu and her partner, Ling Cai, were CoCoon’s first tenants. But their days spent here are nearing an end, as ZaoZao has been accepted into Science Park, a bona fide incubator that provides space -- and much coveted government funding. Giving entrepreneurs the means to progress in their start-ups is one of CoCoon's goals -- and ZaoZao has become one of CoCoon's first success stories.

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure