Small Business

Asia's Young Entrepreneurs


They come from lands ranging from dirt poor to First World. But nothing could cool the raging work ethic and ambition of these startup stars

Led by China and India, Asia's superfast economies have dazzled observers for the last decade. But until recently the defining feature of most of them was corporate bigness.

In Japan and South Korea respectively, the traditional dominance of the keiretsu, or business alliances, and chaebol, or industrial conglomerates, made it difficult for entrepreneurs to find a place. China's state-owned enterprises siphoned off most of the available credit from, well, state-owned banks. In India there was more opportunity, but precious few had the financial wherewithal to attract bank financing and startup capital.

Now, however, Asia is the scene of a broad flowering of startup activity—as evidenced by our special report on Asia's young class of entrepreneurs. This new generation is globally aware, extremely Internet savvy, and willing to pounce on a smart idea even if it means grueling hours and considerable financial risk early on in life. Their stories may surprise you.

TEENAGE TITANS?

For the past month or so, BusinessWeek.com has set out to find Asia's most interesting examples of this new breed. We asked readers to nominate standout young entrepreneurs 25 or under, and we narrowed down the impressive list to a group of finalists. You can flip through a slide show showcasing their companies and entrepreneurial vision, then cast your vote on the last page of the show. We'll report the results in September.

Anyone doubting the disruptive, game-changing power of the Internet, mobile software applications, and other digital technologies—which allow a go-getter with a smart idea to hit the marketplace quickly—should take a serious look at our candidates. Young folks barely out of college are running serious enterprises they started with a modicum of capital. Some of our nominees were trying out business models before graduating from high school.

Divyank Turakhia, co-founder and director of Bombay-based Directi Group, was doing Internet consulting at age 14 before launching his domain-name registration and site-building company two years later with $600 he borrowed from his parents. At 24, he runs a profitable company with more than 250 employees and clients around the world.

OFF-LINE DREAMS.

In Pakistan, Arif Ayub, 23, is the founder and CEO of Softflux, which started out as a one-man shop back in 2000. Today the Karachi IT solutions firm offers everything from Web development services to management consulting for Pakistani banks and drug companies—to help them boost their profitability and the productivity of their mobile networks. The company has roughly 70 employees and development associates in Beijing, Dublin, Romania, London, and Silicon Valley.

Even in less tech-driven economies, the Net is opening up doors to some bright young talent. Nguyen Minh Hieu, 25, wants nothing less than to create the best Internet company in Vietnam with DreamViet. The company's flagship product is an e-commerce research and technology guide Web site (aha.com.vn) for consumer electronics. DreamViet also provides Web site development advice and services for Vietnamese merchants.

Not all the startup activity is happening in cyberspace. Victor Lang, 22, a senior partner and co-founder of Global Future Educational Consulting, basically wants to change the world. His company provides educational materials for those interested in learning about international conflict resolution and diplomacy. It creates simulated U.N. confabs where students role-play as ambassadors.

MEAN STREETS.

Ario Pratomo in Jakarta runs his own logistics company that sells cargo space for a unit of Etihad Airways, the Abu Dhabi airline. Fellow Indonesian Hendy Setiono runs a fast-growing chain of kebab sandwich shops with 65-odd outlets.

Our special report also features some remarkable tales of gritty determination in the face of adversity. Take Kentaro Iemoto, founder and CEO of Clara Online, which leases out Linux-based servers and other IT services to corporate clients in Japan. At age 14 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, underwent surgery, spent several years in a wheelchair—and went on to become one of the hottest young talents in Japanese technology.

When David Lee was a 7-year-old growing up in the tougher streets of Hong Kong, he sold oranges to help out with the family's then-stretched finances. As chairman and co-founder of Team & Concepts, he now runs an IT service company that provides online applications for event planners. His latest product: a Beta service where users can upload and host a spreadsheet on the Web and share it with colleagues and friends.

All these young folks share an unbridled enthusiasm and a fierce desire to succeed. Will all of them make it? Maybe not. Yet this much is clear: Asia's already dynamic future has turned a little bit brighter with the arrival of this bunch.

Click here for the slide show

Bremner is Asia Regional Editor for BusinessWeek in Hong Kong.

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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