You are here
After Darius Cheung was offered a raw deal while looking for a home to rent, he got mad - then he got even. Along with his tech-savvy partners, the internet entrepreneur founded property search portal 99.co in 2014 - to provide the information and tools for making important home-buying decisions that he found sorely lacking in the market. That's just the way Cheung, 35, is. He's got the ability to detect - and then fill - perceived gaps in an industry. That's what he did not long after university, when he and two friends started tenCube, a mobile security firm that helped users locate lost or stolen mobile phones and protect the data within. A few years later, they sold the company to tech security giant McAfee, leaving Cheung with time to look for more gaps to plug. Then he got married and started searching for somewhere to live…
Was there a definitive moment when you knew you wanted to take the start-up route? It was a combination of things. I first learned about the Internet in junior college. I was fascinated by how it completely transformed how we talk to friends or look for things. The second time was in university here. NUS had a programme where students could work overseas, so I spent a year at a start-up in Silicon Valley. And I thought, if they can do it so can we. Then I got a job at a local tech design company. After a while, I asked myself if I would be happy doing this for the next five years. The answer was 'no'. Plus, none of my high-flier friends seemed happy. It was so different from my time in Silicon Valley, where everyone turned up for work smiling, feeling positive - it was something I dreamed about, to build a company where people actually enjoyed coming to work. So I and two partners started tenCube.
It didn't take you long to come up with 99.co. How did you do it? After tenCube, I did some angel investing. It was a way of vicariously living the start-up dream, which was almost an addiction. After two years at McAfee I decided to get back in. I had trouble finding a house - and property is THE biggest financial decision anyone makes - yet there was so much bad information around. I felt there had to be a way to provide more transparent information - something was broken and definitely needed to be fixed. We were small when we started. We are now a substantial size but still in start-up mode - it takes three to four years to build a real company. The biggest difference is that we care about delivering a good experience to the home-owner, using the right data.
You were born and raised in Hong Kong. At 13, you were sent to study in Singapore. Tell us more about your family background. My father, who passed away about 10 years ago, had an interesting life - he was originally from Surabaya, got scared out of Indonesia (during a period of political conflict in the 1960s) and went to China, where he joined the army. When the Cultural Revolution happened, he escaped to Hong Kong. By 1970 he was working as a security guard in a factory and later he opened a small grocery store. He also did some ad hoc trading, helping people to import goods from China. Finally he started a printing business - he picked it because he thought everything in life needs printing: books, boxes, bags. I grew up in Kennedy Town and spent a lot of time at the printing factory after school. I remember playing in a storage area that had stacks and stacks of boxes filled with ball-bearings. My father had ordered them for a customer who didn't pay up, and that cost us one year in profits.
Did your father help instill the entrepreneurial spirit in you? Once I asked him, in the 10 years that he ran the factory and when the Hong Kong economy was on the rise: 'What would you have done differently?' He replied that one of his customers was a manufacturer of VHS tapes whose business grew 50 times faster than his. He realised that something that's needed is not necessarily the best choice - finding a growth market is more important. On hindsight, his answer probably influenced me subconsciously. New technology, market impact and growth are all key factors. But by the time we talked, VHS was already dead. Growing up, my parents intentionally didn't give me too much spending money. I was always in need, so in Secondary Two I began importing VCDs from Hong Kong and selling them to my schoolmates - I used the profit to buy a CD-ROM burner. After two years, market conditions changed, as they say: VCDs became available in places like Sim Lim.
You've achieved plenty at 35, where do you go from here? I don't see an end to the journey, this kind of thing doesn't have a lifespan. There's the existential question of 'what am I doing here?'. You have to live a life examined. I'm very well aware of the level of opportunities we have. To me, it's about being able to focus on 'the passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals' (advice given by composer-comedian Tim Minchin to the graduating class at the University of Western Australia in 2013). My short-term goal over the next five to seven years is to build the company and make it a great place to work. I'm a great believer that with tech start-ups you have to deliver value - you also need to build good karma in order to win. My long-term goal? My six-month-old daughter Shan - that's a 20-year project.