500 Startups in the U.S. vs Zeroth.AI in Hong Kong
Sharing from Raymond Yip
With the growing number of accelerator programs springing up in Hong Kong and all over the region, startups now have a slew of choices. While the likes of YC, 500 Startups and Techstars that continue to set the gold standard for seed stage accelerators globally, local programs also have much to offer. A few years ago, I had the privilege of going through 500 Startups. Soon after that, I acted as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Swire Properties’ Blueprint Accelerator and most recently, I went through Zeroth.AI, Asia’s first accelerator focused on Artificial Intelligence. The latter of which was with my second startup, Designjar, an end-to-end online advertising platform for Asia.
500 Startups gave me some of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had in my career. My previous startup was the second startup from Hong Kong that was ever accepted, which made it even more special. 500 invites a bevy of heavy-hitting mentors to advise its batch companies. Most of them were founders of successful startups and had major battle scars to show for it. As early stage entrepreneurs, learning from the lessons of others really helps, especially from world-class founders in the Silicon Valley. The two things that 500 Startups can really help with are growth and fundraising. They can get very granular with their advice on growth strategies. In fact, they’ve gotten so good at it that they now have a Series A program dedicated to helping seed-funded companies grow their products. When it comes to fundraising, their internal team of mentors are as savvy as any in Silicon Valley. As part of Batch 10, I got much of my perspective on fundraising from folks like Marvin Liao, Parker Thompson, Rui Ma, Tim Chae and of course, Dave McClure.
Since the entire batch worked out of the same space, the camaraderie among the founders was immediately there and it helped me build long- lasting relationships with founders from around the world. Fellow founders would end up becoming customers of each other’s companies and partnership deals were struck. As a matter of fact, a few of my batchmates back at 500 became early customers of Designjar. The friendships and support stays with you long after the program. Some batchmates would even invest in each other’s startups, which actually happens more than one would think.
I started Designjar in mid-2016 with my co-founder, Jonah Lau. We soon had the opportunity to join the newly launched Zeroth.AI program right here in Hong Kong. Since we knew machine learning would play a crucial part in our startup, we felt this accelerator can help us on our products and provide us mentorship in the AI space. The founder of Zeroth.AI is Tak Lo, previously the director at Techstars in London and later a venture partner at Mind Fund (where I’m currently an EIR). Tak has a proven track record of helping startups grow and he was also able to bring his entire network with him, which made Zeroth.AI all the more appealing. In some ways, it was already on par with what I experienced at 500 Startups when it came to pulling people together that can really help. The program has a diverse set of mentors from North America, Europe and Asia. It all began with two tightly packed weeks dubbed “mentor madness” where the companies cycled through all of the mentors in a structured way. Other speakers were brought in weekly to share ideas and experiences. Tak and his team also whipped everyone into shape on product and milestones regularly. Throughout the experience, Designjar went through a pivot, filled two key roles and acquired dozens of early customers. I feel our team would have made these developments regardless, but Zeroth.AI certainly delivered on its promise in accelerating our progress.
In summary, both accelerators have all of the bases covered. Strictly drawing from my own experience, 500 Startups is a top-notch program for distribution and fundraising, while Zeroth.AI was more technical with product and had a more international mentor pool. Founders would typically jump for the top tier program like 500 Startups when given a chance. However, I would not overlook a homegrown one like Zeroth.AI. Those born right here in Hong Kong may actually be in better position to help you, with expertise in your particular technology space or deeper knowledge of your target markets. For Designjar right now, those two areas are machine learning and the B2B markets of Asia. All in all, both were rewarding experiences for me because they really fit what my companies needed at the time. I am equally proud to wear both #500Strong and #ZerothAI on my sleeve, as they both played a tremendous part in shaping the way I think and execute as a startup entrepreneur.
About the Author
Raymond Yip is currently the co-founder and CEO of Designjar, an AI-powered online advertising solution for Asia, accelerated by Zeroth.AI. He is also the Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) of Mind Fund, an early-stage VC based in Hong Kong. Previously, he was the co-founder and CEO of Shopline, an e-commerce platform in Asia and a 500 Startups alumnus.