Asia Catches .com Fever

  • Remember the '80s? Japan was ascendant, America was in disarray, emerging markets were wallowing in the Decade of Debt. Asia's Century was said to have begun. Then came the collapse of Japan's bubble, followed by the currency crunch along the entire Pacific Rim. While Asia, stunned, watched from a distance, the Internet-driven New Economy mushroomed in the West. For a while, it seemed as if the long-predicted Pacific Century might be stillborn--or stolen altogether.

    No longer. Asia is producing its own Net nerds, who are bringing new businesses and technologies to the region and, along the way, getting rich beyond their wildest dreams. If all works out, geeky pioneers in Japan, China, South Korea, India, Singapore and Taiwan may reinvent Asia's future--just in time. Regional Internet analysts estimate that there will be 300 to 400 Net-related IPOs in Asia this year, half in Japan and India.

    Fortunes are being made and will be lost in the market gyrations that are starting to dizzy the region. But risk is what Asia has always excelled at. "The Pacific Century has not been lost," says Singaporean Netpreneur Wong Toon King, "only delayed a bit." Some of those who are making it happen:

    Helloasia.Com Aims to Be Both "Sticky" and Profitable
    Never mind computers, there weren't many telephones in Sandor Hau's hometown when he was a boy. Hau grew up in Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, home to the austere Amish farming community. "Mine isn't a classic Silicon Valley pedigree," jokes Hau, 28, who speaks Korean, English, Japanese and the archaic Amish-German dialect. "I think my family were the only Koreans in the county."

    Hau long ago left his horse-and-buggy home for Seoul, where he holds the reins of one of Asia's hottest Internet start-ups. Last October, he and partners Hans Tung of Taiwan and Chih Cheung of New York launched , an e-commerce and community portal with $20 million of venture capital. is a kind of frequent-flyer program for Asia's Net surfers. The more you spend at its e-commerce site on items like CDs, travel tickets and computers, the more points you receive toward free gifts. The idea is to promote "stickiness," the ability to keep users hanging around your site. Stickiness builds online communities, which attract advertisers. The trilingual (Korean, Chinese, English) site maintains offices in Seoul, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore and Silicon Valley. Hau hopes will be profitable by October. After that, the partners will think about an IPO, probably in the U.S.

    Americans have been impressed. Among those who have backed the three former investment bankers are blue-chip names like Intel and the Times-Mirror group. Yahoo is also looking at a points system to reward online loyalty to its Asian sites, and Singapore's big Net service provider, Pacific Internet, has a similar program.

    The current emphasis at is on fulfilling its promise. More than half its venture-capital funding is aimed at promotion and brand-building. "We expect massive competition," says Tung. But has the jump on its rivals, and being first matters.

    Investor Jim Mellon Is Looking for a Few Good Asian Ventures
    Jim Mellon was in the skies above Florida when enlightenment struck. The Hong Kong fund manager was taking lessons at a Vero Beach flying academy, on a break after two trying years in Hong Kong. Regent Pacific, an old-economy investment group that Mellon co-founded, had lost $50 million in the Asian financial crisis and Russia's collapse. Soaring above the coast at the controls of a borrowed Piper Cherokee, the 41-year-old Briton came to a jarring realization: "The sleekest planes parked in the aerodrome were owned by people at least 10 years younger than me. And these people had the best cars and the best-looking girlfriends."

    "These people" were Internet and technology entrepreneurs. Intrigued, Mellon started chatting with them in the flying- school cafe. Over triple-shot lattes, they told him about the "angels"--wealthy investors who finance technology businesses (more often just ideas) that conventional banks or venture-capital firms wouldn't consider backing--who funded their start-up companies. "I vowed to myself that I would get a piece of this," Mellon recalls.

    A year later, he is on the brink of big success. He and his fund have invested $10 million in 10 start-up companies in Hong Kong, Seoul and London. Four of them--including Britain's , an e-commerce emporium--are preparing flotations on the London Stock Exchange or NASDAQ.

    Mellon tends to locate his projects the old-fashioned way, through his 20-year-old list of corporate contacts. But if all goes well, he expects to make more money in just one year than in the previous 20 he spent in Asia.

    Asiatech Takes High-Stakes Flyers on Regional Internet Firms
    In 1985, Hanson Cheah was a sophomore at M.I.T., studying robotics and dabbling in Project Athena, a pioneering electronic network. The Malaysian native met a freshman from Singapore, Wong Toon King, and invited him to join Phi Beta Epsilon fraternity. Wong declined. He was studying on a government scholarship and was worried that the frat-house party scene might affect his grades. "I thought he was a pretty cool guy until he turned us down," jokes Cheah, now CEO of the Hong Kong venture-capital group AsiaTech Ventures.

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