How the search for a recession-proof business-led this Hong Kong Papa to hit upon the idea of gifting.
Justin Chung is an old hand at entrepreneurship. He started his first business when he was all of 23 years old and has seen his fair share of ups and downs over the years. After the financial crisis of 2008, he moved to Hong Kong to launch Gift Something, an online gifting service. The gamble paid off and in this year when many businesses are struggling with the unexpected impact from COVID-19, he is one of the few entrepreneurs who can proudly say that business is up. He talks to us about work, life and why he’s enjoying bringing up his boys in Hong Kong.
Which countries have you lived in before moving to Hong Kong?
I was born in Hong Kong, went to middle school in the UK and then moved to Australia when I was 15. I returned to Hong Kong in 2011 at 31.
Can you tell us about your previous ventures and what you learned from them?
I did my Bachelor of Business at the University of Technology, Sydney. I had one year of working experience for a marketing company in Australia prior to starting my own business at 23, a successful fashion/baby business. Over the years, the business in Australia evolved from being a distributor of many street fashion brands to designing and producing our own brands of clothes and accessories. I was the pioneer of transforming the traditional Australian sheepskin indoor slipper and turning it into a winter outdoor must-have in Europe. I created my own brand of sheepskin boots called Snowtribe (it no longer exists). I remember getting off the plane at Copenhagen and I would see my boots being sold at the airport.
The fashion side of the business was greatly affected by the financial crisis but the gift (baby) side of the business continued to power on. I had the opportunity to sell the business in 2011 and that’s what inspired me to look for an industry that is recession-proof and decided to launch an online gifting business in Asia.
What need gap did you see in the market when you started Gift Something?
Gifting is embedded in Asian culture. There are so many western and Asian festivals that are celebrated and become an opportunity to gift friends, family and loved ones something. Back in 2011 when I started the company, it was the same repetitive gifts available in the brick and mortar stores. I wanted to disrupt this by bringing on-trend gifts by establishing a strong gifting brand purely online with Gift Something. I wanted to make gifting exciting and looked for products and services with an amazing WOW factor.
How did you then manage to launch and establish the business, with little or no experience of technology and e-commerce?
I’m always learning, reading and educating myself. As a leader, it is important to discover the attributes of each of your employees and empower them. Employees do better and will work harder if they enjoy what they do. Our current General Manager was hired as our junior graphic designer and later discovered she was much better at managing people and projects than designing.
There are two things I ask for in every employee. The first is integrity. If you say you are going to do it, then you must do it. The second thing is that you be your own boss. You are the boss of your department which means you can make your own decisions. There is no wrong decision as long as you have a good reason to back up your decision. You must also be accountable for your decision. Don’t be afraid to take risks and learn from your mistakes. We all make mistakes and it is this learning journey that gives you the most valuable business experience.
How and where did you meet your wife? Does she play a role in your business?
We met through a common friend in Sydney. She doesn’t play an active role in the business, but as she is a lawyer, she does give me legal advice from time to time.
How has Gift Something grown over the years? How do you track the competition?
I certainly didn’t expect the business to have grown so fast so quickly. We entered the Hong Kong market at the right time. If our business were replicable, then we could only be average and that’s not what I am aiming for. I want ours to be an extraordinary business by constantly innovating.
What are the future plans for the business?
We want to further expand into Asia thru licensing. We licensed our brand to a regional rival, Noel Gifts, in Singapore last year. They are a much bigger company and are listed on the SGX. We strongly believe the synergy between our companies will enable us to conquer the gift industry across Asia and beyond. For now, unfortunately, COVID-19 has put a spanner in the works but we hope that once the pandemic is over, we can get back on track with our vision.
The upside of COVID is we get to make good use of the Government’s grants to establish new brands in new product groups that are not gift-focused. Products you will want to get delivered than picking up yourself from a store. We are going to get into plants, festive decorating service and events.
We are also looking at acquisition opportunities in both Hong Kong and overseas. We also have plans to expand to Australia and the USA, but that is a few years away.
COVID-19 has affected all businesses and impacted families in many ways. Has it affected yours?
For us, it’s been quite different as our business has actually grown. Sales have jumped this year with a structural shift to online shopping. We have hired more staff and moved to bigger premises as we are ever more confident in the business.
Do your children help you decide what items to offer? Are they interested in your business?
No, because if I leave it to them, all they’d want to do is buy everything they see in toy shops! They are only 6 and 3. They both say they want to be the boss at my work one day probably because of all the toys we stock. The older one told me recently that I should be fired at my work because I’m so forgetful! This was because I forgot to bring home the Christmas star to put on top of the tree.
I think the older one might grow up to be a coder and the younger one is definitely going to be a businessman.
What do you most enjoy about living in Hong Kong? And do you like bringing up your kids here?
This city is alive. You can go out at any time of the day or night and the city is always buzzing. My advice to anyone living here is to get a boat to explore the hidden beaches. You’ll be surprised! Some of these are better than the more famous ones around the world. I really enjoy the city, especially at night. Where else in the world would be as alive as Hong Kong is at 10pm on a Sunday night? Also, only here would you find people walking their dogs at midnight!
If you plan to have children, Hong Kong is the best place to start a family because you can hire helpers to keep you sane. As a parent bringing up kids here and managing a challenging and time-consuming business, I have to acknowledge that this really helps. It’s something my friends in Australia envy.
How similar or different are your children? Whom do they take after – you or your wife?
The older one, Asher, has Asian skin, and he is tall and thin, just as I was when I was young. His younger brother Ethan is a real “whitey” and takes after my wife! He is also very bold and not scared of anyone. In fact, he usually does the opposite of what everyone else does.
Between you and your wife, who is the good cop and who is the bad cop?
Oh, I’m definitely the bad cop and my wife is the “sticker” boss.
Who has most influenced your parenting style?
Definitely being sent to boarding school! It taught me discipline, self-reliance and high moral values.
What do you enjoy most about being a father and what do you find challenging?
Having “boy time” with my sons. I love taking them swimming and to play rugby.
Sometimes it is quite challenging when they expect attention day and night regardless of how long your day has been.
After a long day, what’s your favourite way to unwind?
I don’t do any of the usual unwinding things. For me, I like to plan. I find thinking and planning ahead is actually very therapeutic.
What tips do you have for those looking to set up their business here?
If you are setting up a business anywhere, you need patience. But sometimes, you need a bit more in Hong Kong! While they are advanced in many aspects, there are some quirks. For instance, cheques are very common here though they have already been phased out in many other countries.
You will find that if you’re an ideas person, you’ll find there are many business opportunities in Hong Kong and beyond. You are really in the centre of Asia and a stone’s throw away from South East Asia and North Asia, so it makes sense to base yourself here. You can enjoy super-fast internet and an efficient transport system pretty much anywhere. All in all, this is one of the best places to start a business.