As start-ups and small businesses proliferate and seek finance while investors look for better returns on capital, a space has opened up for equity management solutions that help unlisted firms issue and manage shares.
Stellar advances in information technology and data capacity have also streamlined the task of creating such small-scale equity solutions. As a home of innovative finance, Hong Kong is a natural venue for the launch of small-scale equity solution providers such as Eqvista, says its Czech-born founder Tomas Milar. The entrepreneur came to Hong Kong 10 years ago, lured by the advantages and opportunities it offered. A decade of experience launching companies here convinces him that it is the ideal place to set up a business.
You originally came from the Czech Republic and studied in Belgium. What brought you to Asia in general and Hong Kong in particular?
That’s quite an interesting story. The first time I heard about Hong Kong I was in Mexico when we were developing one of our financial products for trading companies and our lawyer mentioned Hong Kong as the place to be. That’s back in 2007, and then I was encouraged again one year later in Belgium when one of my roommates, also a lawyer, mentioned that Hong Kong is a fascinating place to start your company. When I finished my Masters,’ I moved to Beijing for a few months and ended up taking a train to Hong Kong. One of my early associates encouraged me to start a company-formation business in Hong Kong, similar to his venture in the United States, so I did it and ended up acquiring his business in Hong Kong a few years later. That’s how Startupr, my first Hong Kong company, was born a decade ago.
Did you evaluate Hong Kong as a centre for Asian business versus other centres, or choose Hong Kong-based on what you knew already?
The best experience is your own experience. I heard all the good things about this city but you need to try it and figure out what it can bring to you. The best way to learn about certain things is by doing them and learning along the way. You need to do your own research prior to making major decisions, however, if you devote time and hard work, sooner or later it pays off. I knew that Hong Kong has English as an official language and I knew about the Company Ordinance so it was quite an easy decision to choose Hong Kong. If you look at the other Asian regions and countries, all of them run on some special protectionism and have different barriers when it comes to starting a business as compared to Hong Kong. Most of them require a local board of directors controlling more than 60%, and also the local ownership is mostly more than 51%. This is the major obstacle for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as you don’t basically have ownership control and decision making in your business. This may work for large companies where you hire expats and local employees and engage local stakeholders. Large companies don’t need to make changes often. They have a plan that they can follow. However, Hong Kong is all about SMEs and fintechs. They are pivoting all the time. They need to be fast, efficient and smart about certain business decisions. It’s constant learning and implementation with such businesses. So the company structure in these types of companies is by default not flexible enough to keep changing and pivoting your business model…SMEs, fintechs and star-ups find Hong Kong more favourable as compared to other regions in Asia.
What unique traits does the city have which make it attractive to business?
The whole infrastructure is just right, Hong Kong business runs on the Company Ordinance which is very effective in terms of approvals, and smart people service the government departments. You may think of any license we are familiar with back in Europe, and Hong Kong has it. Hong Kong is a platform that everybody should use if you want to start their product in Asia. Whatever you know in Western society works well in Hong Kong, you just apply the same formula here. Another thing is the talent we have here. Companies without talent are like luxurious cars without fuel, which just don’t go anywhere. Money is also here so if you need to fundraise, you start here. Once you establish yourself here, you can grow to any other place you like. I would highly recommend to anybody who is thinking about Asia to start here. Super-fast and easy set-up. Hong Kong is always known for convenience and ease of business.
Hong Kong has long been known as a hassle-free centre for doing business, with company registrations straightforward and light regulation. Was this a key factor when you decided to base yourself here?
It’s very important that when you’re building a company as a European that you think global and Hong Kong is the hub for Asia. You start in Europe, you expand to the United States and for Asia, it’s Hong Kong. ..I was fascinated by how the Hong Kong system works. We have a saying – the New York minute is a Hong Kong second and it’s true in every sense. I moved here back in 2011 and was fortunate to build and sell several businesses. The other thing is to understand that Hong Kong doesn’t have competition in Asia. We have 130,000 new-businesses incorporating in this special administrative region a year which is more than double the 60,000 in Singapore.
Another key and the reason is the fee; you can legally set up yourself within a matter of hours. If you use any of the company secretary providers such as startupregistry.hk you can start online and get your feed on the ground and serve the local market. We serve thousands of successful start-ups who have done that.
What led you to set up a start-up serving start-ups?
I’ve always been in the fintech industry, so we started our own compliance software and helped companies to maintain their legal status in good standing. We have learned about other industries and expanded our services. We also made a few acquisitions and started one of the fastest-growing equity management platforms eqvista.com, and recently, cheqly.com - a remittance and foreign exchange service provider. These are our most recently established companies. We just love building.
Are you concentrating on serving fintech start-ups or taking a broader approach?
Yes, we have applied for various [banking services] licences here in Hong Kong. We think that the current banking platforms are a little bit outdated and do not serve the current demands of SMEs and fintechs. Also, traditional banks serve different markets so it’s hard to innovate for clients. These traditional banks were set to serve people and companies at the same time which makes them difficult to focus on a particular product. We want to start building financial products purely for companies. Companies should use an online banking platform for something more than just checking the balance and wiring money. Our technology can serve more than that. We would like to come up with different products and money services. You will be able to start your own business online and set up a virtual account with us, which might take months with traditional banks.
Which sectors do most of your clients come from at the moment?
It’s mostly fintech, lawtech, trading and manufacturing businesses. We would like to develop several products just for these companies. It would be such a massive transition!
Where do most of your clients come from?
We want more companies to start out of Hong Kong. This is our target market. Come to Hong Kong and start your own business or expand your company in Asia. We have everything, infrastructure, talent and an amazingly vibrant city.
Do you anticipate a rise in interest from Europe?
Yes, we do. Companies are expanding massively and they want to have a presence in Asia. Me personally, I have met hundreds of founders here in Hong Kong, and they are all very adventurous and fearless. We provide consultation to many companies before they start in Hong Kong, we are always happy to help and also have plenty of resources from which you can learn and implement to expand your base into Hong Kong and beyond.