Geek God

An attempt to decode a tech start-up genius

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Looking dapper in crisp blue shirt and expertly cut khaki trousers, Alvin Hung Yiu-kei looks too well groomed to be your average neighborhood geek. But as the proverb goes: you cannot teach a crab to walk straight so don’t be fooled.

“I became addicted to video games in primary school – so much so that I would take apart the computer codes to modify the characters I was playing to make them become invulnerable, and have unlimited attack points and money,” said the Hong Kong native.

Cashing in on his inner geek, Hung founded GoAnimate, a California- headquartered animated video creation company in 2007. The firm has produced 22 million animations via a cloud-based platform over the last decade.

Hung’s company also has offices in Hong Kong and Taiwan. And in his Sheung Wan office, a team of 40 local employees are serving 8.5 million registered users around the world, including the US government and universities in the Golden State.

Born into a family of industrialists, Hung chose a different path from his uncle Peter Hung Hak-hip and elder brother Marvin Hung Ming-kei, who still manage the family’s cooking oil and restaurant empire.

Hung’s late grandfather was founder of the Hong Kong-listed Hop Hing Group Holdings, which currently operates the Japanese “beef and rice bowl” fast-food chain Yoshinoya, and American ice-cream and restaurant chain Dairy Queen in northern China.

His family also owns the privately- held Harvest Trinity Development, which produces Lion & Globe and Camel cooking oils.

“I am not interested in my family business, and I don’t want to say too much about it,” he said. “It’s not fair to my company and my team if I am always mentioning what my family does. My company is successful today because my team built it from the ground up piece by piece.”

Although Hung is now boss of a thriving tech company, he has not given up his game addiction. When he hires new employees, he expects them to boast about their prowess in World of Warcraft. He also finds time during lunch to play online card games with his staff.

“You can learn a lot from playing video games,” he said. “For example, StarCraft taught me resource allocation, and through Overwatch, I understood the importance of sympathy.”

Hung got the idea of starting his own tech company, thanks to his father’s complaints about his addiction. Hung’s father left an issue of Fortune magazine in his room one Sunday when he was in primary four. In it was a story about Bill Gates.

Since then, the Microsoft founder has become an idol for Hung. Hung majored in computer science at Columbia University in New York. After graduation, he founded two tech companies, Net Strategy and Ascent Technology, which he later sold.

“At university, my classmates were struggling with their programming homework,” he recalled. “Not me. I was having so much fun that even if I lost sleep to finish a project, I enjoyed it. It was as enjoyable as playing video games overnight.”

GoAnimate is Hung’s third start-up. It started as a personal project after he quarreled with his wife. Hung had wanted to make a short animated film to cheer her up, but did not succeed after trying for hours.

“I was very irritated,” he recalled. “All those drawing and animation software were so hard to use. Even someone like me who have read computer science couldn’t manage them.”

That experience prompted him to start a do-it-yourself platform on which users can make their own animated films using pre-produced clip arts. Users can publish their videos after dubbing them with their own audio recordings.

Initially, Hung raised funds in Silicon Valley to finance his third company. In 2011, YouTube invited GoAnimate to join a suite of chosen apps available to individual content creators. GoAnimate broke even a year later.

“Short films have become a sought- after marketing tool. Traditionally, it takes tens of thousands of dollars and at least three months to produce a short film. What we offer can save time and money,” he said.

“Our growth in North America and Europe has been strong over the last 10 years. We kept hiring but still couldn’t catch up with the demand there. That’s why we are less visible in Hong Kong. We didn’t have enough manpower and time to take care of Asia.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on February 24, 2017.

 

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