Over the course of some two decades, Hong Kong-based entrepreneur Danny Yeung has blazed a unique and innovative path for himself: one that began with the world of mango desserts and continued through investments in furniture, e-commerce and science. He is now the founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based DNA and diagnostics company Prenetics
*. Prenetics recently launched Project Screen
, a non-profit initiative through its subsidiary CircleDNA helping supply Hong Kong with safe, efficient and accessible COVID-19 home testing kits.
Danny is interviewed here
by Edith Yeung, the founder of FoundersHK and General Partner at Race Capital. Edith frequently speaks on China and Silicon Valley technology and she has invested in more than 50 startups.
This excerpt of Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
: It’s fascinating that your first venture is dessert—and one that I actually love myself. How did that come about?
: I was 25 when I invested in Hui Lau Shan, the dessert chain, and brought it to the US. This was 16 years ago. I was traveling from the US to Hong Kong during holidays and vacations in my early twenties and I always enjoyed going to Hui Lau Shan. It was very popular in Hong Kong at the time—and interestingly enough, not many people had contacted them to expand overseas. Certainly, for them, there was limited risk—I’d have to pay the franchise fees and they’d get the royalties and expand their brand. So that’s how it happened, and it was hard work.
I woke up early around 6am to buy fruit, looking at what watermelons and mangoes were freshest and the best. At nighttime, I was partly working in the restaurant, either serving desserts or being at the cash register. During the first three months I was in the kitchen learning how to make the desserts from someone that Hong Kong had sent out to teach us. I was making mango sago
and mango mochi
for a long time—it was a great first business experience. Throughout the years, though, the company always stuck with mango. It never innovated further from that, but people’s appetites and consumer behavior changes. I think that as a business, you have to change with the times, or otherwise you’ll very easily get lost.
: Then, Hui Lau Shan isn’t what eventually brought you to Hong Kong?
: No, actually. For a few years after I left Hui Lau Shaun, I started a hotel furniture business. We were importing and exporting furniture from China into the US and working with hotels, such as The Venetian and MGM, supplying them with custom-made furniture. I sold Hui Lau Shaun to my cousin, and then I left for Hong Kong in 2010 to get into e-commerce with uBuyiBuy.
: Tell me more about uBuyiBuy and how you went about making this transition into e-commerce.
: I was making mangoes and selling furniture before this. We weren’t even the first e-commerce to get off the ground in Hong Kong—more like the fifth or sixth. Everyone thought they could run a Groupon-model business at the time. I really had to immerse myself in priorities. And in four months, we launched uBuyiBuy in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. At the time it was an e-commerce website with daily deals. There were 57 other companies in Hong Kong doing the same thing. It was a crowded space, but from day one we were the market leader.
For me as an entrepreneur, I don’t think it’s one key thing that worked for us. Building a business is like building a puzzle and every piece of it has to fit in place. I think we were successful early on with great marketing. We had celebrity ambassadors come on board before we launched the site. And product-wise, we took chances. We got Starbucks on the platform, thinking that they’d never work with a four-person company.
: You’re growing uBuyiBuy, the market leader in Hong Kong and Taiwan. And then Groupon makes you an offer. How did that happen?
: One late night in the office, probably around 1am in Hong Kong, I remember being kind of bored. I casually called up Groupon’s customer service hotline because I was curious. At the time, the CEO was Andrew Mason and I asked the hotline if I could speak to him. I had no agenda, no objective. The person I spoke with responded that he didn’t take messages, so I hung up. But then I called again, and asked to leave a message again, and they agreed. I said something like, “This is Danny from Hong Kong. I think we’d like to see if there’s any interest in a partnership.” And they took the message.
In about a week one of the members from their M&A team emailed me back and asked to know more about our business. They invited me out to Chicago, about three months after uBuyiBuy launched. And in just under six months from the launch, we came to an agreement giving Groupon 51% of the company. Groupon took a majority stake in the company and there were a lot of back and forth negotiations with Oliver Samwer, who’s now the CEO of Rocket Internet. The first thing we had to do was hire a whole bunch of people. From there, we grew very fast. In two to three years, Groupon bought the rest of the shares.
: Prenetics, the company you run now, is a big change from uBuyiBuy. How does the challenge of running a diagnostic company compare to e-commerce and the businesses before that?
: All businesses have their own challenges, but all businesses at the end of the day are the same. Regardless of whether I’m doing dessert, furniture, e-commerce or genetic testing, the key to success is understanding supply and demand. At the core, whatever the business is, you need to get that right.
In terms of what’s actually different day-to-day, for us here at Prenetics we have to be very mindful of the fact that we’re making health outcomes. Everything that we’re doing is related to health, so we have to make sure that things are scientifically validated. We have a great team of over 30 scientists with PhDs. Certainly I think that in other industries you’re able to move faster because you can be less mindful of these things. The outcomes of these industries don’t really hurt anyone. But with health at the center of your business, you are extra cautious.
*NOTE: Prenetics is the portfolio company of Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund.