It’s the day after the Scaleup Impact Summit (SIS) and Karen Contet and Karena Belin, the co-founders of WHub, the organisation behind the conference, are on a high. In the cosy surrounds of a co-working space in Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town where WHub’s team of twenty is based, the atmosphere is triumphant.
Both Contet and Belin are natural leaders and evidently successful entrepreneurs—WHub is Hong Kong’s largest startup community and their other business, AngelHub, is the only SFC-licensed platform for professional investors. Yet neither founder ever saw themselves running their own business.
“I grew up thinking that I would work for a big corporate and had a well-defined career path in my head,” says Contet. “I never thought that one day I would become an entrepreneur.”
Both co-founders boast strong corporate backgrounds: Contet in finance at J.P. Morgan, and Belin in “a different type of finance” at Procter & Gamble, but each was far removed from the tech startup world they now inhabit.
Contet and Belin met in 2005 in Tokyo, years before the idea for WHub was seeded, and relocated to Hong Kong at a similar time, though it wasn’t until 2013 that, in the same way so many businesses begin, they identified a need in the market and a means to meet it. An idea began to germinate.
“We were meeting a lot of entrepreneurs and we were really fuelled by their passion,” says Contet. “They were struggling to get visibility and to recruit. We were sure that if they had the chance to communicate their vision and mission it would help them to recruit, so we had the idea to build a platform for entrepreneurs to showcase themselves.”
So, the duo did something that they had always been told never to do, which was to start a company with friends or family. “Typically, with family it’s because you won’t have the hard conversations, and with friends it’s because you’re too similar,” says Belin.
“But we really complete each other,” says Contet. “We have complementary skills and I think that’s why it worked from the start. I handled all the tech side at first, and Karena was more on the business side. And as best friends, we can have a lot of hard discussions. We know each other well enough to know how to talk to each other and to talk about everything.”
In 2013, the tech ecosystem in Hong Kong was still nascent. Startups weren’t the desirable place to work that they later became; co-working spaces were few and far between; the word ‘unicorn’, which is used to describe a private company valued at over a billion dollars, was rare in contrast to the way it is bandied around today. As Contet puts it, “someone who could raise US$1 million was like a rock star.” Fast forward a decade and you have Hong Kong companies raising hundreds of millions of dollars with valuations in the billions.
The friends saw an opportunity. The next stage was building a platform. However, this required funds that they didn’t have. So, what do you do when you can’t pay someone else to do something? You do it yourself.
“I’m an engineer and I studied [programming languages] C and C++ and all these things in school, so I thought, why don’t I go back and take some courses to learn how to build a website? I had actually always loved coding and I was happy to reinvent myself,” says Contet.