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ASIA
JUNE 28, 1999 VOL. 153 NO. 25


Entrepreneurs.com
E-commerce startups aim to cash in on Asian investors' acquired taste for Internet stocks
By ERIC ELLIS Singapore

Need a maid in a hurry? or want to be one? Check out Hong Kong's AmahNet (amahnet.com), where an online profile and $32 registration fee--easier, the website claims, than putting up a notice at the local supermarket--provides access to "an extensive data base of domestic helpers for you to choose from." It's true what the nerds say: the Internet changes everything, even how you get your shirts pressed.

The Net has certainly changed everything for Marc Baptista, a 46-year-old filmmaker in Singapore. Before the World Wide Web came along, his Media Arts group produced CD-ROM training manuals for local companies from a converted shophouse in Singapore's Chinatown. He's still in the shophouse, but the vivid interactive manuals are now posted on the Web; he simply sends his clients access passwords. The world is suddenly his oyster. His client base has expanded beyond Singapore to North America and Europe, and he is adding staff in Madras to write and e-mail basic code to the head office. Profits are soaring, Baptista says, and he's contemplating a public share offering. "I can't sleep at night," he says, "because I'm so excited by this stuff."

Baptista's company is one of scores of e-commerce startups that are beginning to flower in Singapore shophouses, Shanghai lofts, Kowloon industrial tenements and elsewhere around the region. They are blooming just as Asian investors are beginning to fuel a ".com" mania like the one that has swept America in recent years. "It's getting ready to break here," says Hong Kong-based fund manager Marc Faber. Big U.S. investment banks like Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Credit Suisse First Boston are already setting up tech teams in Asia. They are encouraged by the NASDAQ debut of Singapore Internet service provider Pacific Internet, whose recent second public offering at $51 a share was trading at three times its February debut price. And they are encouraged by Tricom, the likely Hong Kong-listed vehicle for the territory's Cyberport technology-development project, whose shares soared 1,245% on the day last month that entrepreneur Richard Li bought a controlling stake.

From his small shophouse in Singapore's historic Arab quarter, Lai Kok Fung has two dreams. The first, to star in a TV series called L.A. Computer Engineers, is highly unlikely. The other, to get rich, seems probable. Since February, when he rolled out his Internet search engine BuzzCity (buzzcity.com), the 35-year-old Lai has been pursued by many would-be investors, including Cyberport's Li.

Backing Asia's e-commerce startups are people like Bo Feng, 29, a venture capitalist who learned the business at San Francisco's blue-blood investment bank Robertson Stephens, which bankrolled many fledgling Silicon Valley companies. Now back in his native Shanghai, Feng--in partnership with his mentor, the legendary technology-firm financier Sanford Robertson--runs a fund devoted to startups in Greater China. Robertson Feng Technology Associates has already seeded companies like Shanghai's Stockstar.com and Hong Kong's Tradepac.com. Stockstar is modeled after online U.S. stockbroker EjTrade. Tradepac is a virtual commodity exchange run from Hong Kong by Jeremy Tromp, a 31-year-old Australian who was formerly CEO of communist-chic clothing boutique Shanghai Tang. Tromp aims to sew Net gold from the sow's ear of the struggling regional economy. "We had a Thai customer who couldn't fill an order, so we put his excess product up on our site," says Tromp. "We sold it within a few days to a big U.S. department store buyer." The Thai side, he says, had never so much as used a computer before. Observes Tromp: "The average product is probably handled five or six times between producer and consumer. The Net halves and maybe halves again that process. It changes the whole trading dynamic."

The regional crisis has also been good to David Webb, 33, a former investment banker who runs Webb-site.com from his Hong Kong living room. The site's well-argued analysis of publicly listed Asian companies is attracting the attention of a growing number of analysts, bankers and regulators. Webb's online criticism of Hong Kong's Cyberport project generated particular interest. He is now contemplating hiring a few assistants and "getting serious." He hopes the site will evolve into an Asian equivalent of TheStreet.com, an investment website in the U.S. that often slaughters corporate America's sacred cows. "If I can save an investor some money by pointing out that all is not as it seems on a particular deal," says Webb, "then I've added value."

The technology-hype wave is about to break over Asia just as it seems to have crested across the Pacific. Many of America's leading Net companies have seen share prices drop by as much as 50% since April, in part because Internet traffic in the U.S. shows signs of flattening. But Asian tech-preneurs like BuzzCity's Lai aren't fazed. He predicts that he'll be a millionaire by the end of the year. "If I'd done this in Silicon Valley, I'd already be worth $400 million," says Lai. "But I have this feeling I could not be in a better place at a better time." There's a long line of investors who hope he's right.

THIS WEEK'S TABLE OF CONTENTS



This edition's table of contents | TIME Asia home

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