Hong Kong entrepreneur Ray Chan profits from online laughs
By Astina Ng
The cramped Home Ownership Scheme flat would not strike anyone as being the base of a successful internet company that has attracted backing from venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. Almost every surface in this home-office is covered with books, papers, cardboard boxes, family photos and framed words of encouragement. Electric cables, extension cords and plugs complete the “look”.
The brains behind the business, Ray Chan Chin-ching looks similarly unremarkable. Dressed casually in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, he greets Varsity with sleepy eyes and an easy-going manner. He could be any boyish 28-year-old Hong Konger – except he is the founder of, 9GAG, which describes itself as the world’s largest and fastest growing online comedy community.
The name 9GAG takes its inspiration from the Cantonese pronunciation of “making jokes” and the site features jokes, memes and comics submitted by users. Since its launch in 2008, Chan says 9GAG has grown to more than 70 million unique visitors and more than a billion page views per month.
However, Ray Chan has not allowed success to turn his head. “9GAG is not very successful. It is just a good start,” says Chan who constantly makes such remarks during the interview.
Chan manages the feat of coming over as both confident and assured and modest and down-to-earth. This may be in large part due to his family background. One of three siblings in a family from the grassroots, he was taught to be self-sufficient and never be a parasite on society. He and his brother even made an agreement with their parents that they would start to earn their keep once they turned 15.
Chan landed his first job as a kitchen hand in a branch of the Fairwood chain of fast-food restaurants when he was in form three of secondary school. He has also worked as a summer librarian and done tutoring jobs to help the family make ends meet. He believes these early work experiences helped him understand how hard it is to make a living.
“Dad and mum want my brother and I to be men with their feet on the ground,” he says.
Although he has always been a driven young man, his ideas about what he wanted to do with his life have changed over time. When he was a secondary student, he was determined to become a barrister.
He scored good enough grades to qualify for university entrance a year earlier through the Early Admissions Scheme. But he forfeited the chance because his HKCEE results did not meet the admissions requirement of the Faculty of Law of The University of Hong Kong. Instead he went on to take A-levels and managed to get into his faculty of choice.
Getting onto his dream course at his dream faculty was one thing, but managing to excel once he got there was another. Chan threw himself into extra-curricular activities, becoming leader of the Chinese debate team and an active participant in hall life. He found it difficult to juggle academic study and extra-curricular activities and ended up skipping classes, believing he was smart enough to cope with the exams. He now regrets this.
“Being smart does not mean that you do not have to study. Even an open-book examination killed me, as I was not prepared at all,” he says.
Chan ended up with a lower second which meant he could not enroll in the examination for the Postgraduate Certificate in Laws (PCLL). His hopes of becoming a barrister were dashed.
Instead, he worked in a legal and compliance department after graduation. But he was soon bored by his job and realised that law was not a lifelong career for him. He quit just four months later.
Chan’s next job was as a financial news anchor for Now TV News. After less than a year in the job, he decided his career should not be confined to being a talking head on the TV. He quit again and found himself working for aNobii, a social networking startup for readers to share book reviews, ratings and recommendations.
This was a turning point of sorts. Chan realized his boss was around the same age as he was but already owned a successful company. This made him understand that it was better to seize the opportunity to try more things while he was still young. “Youth is the biggest asset of young people. If the cost [of trying out new things] is not too high, why don’t you go for it?”
So in 2007, Chan and his brother Chris began experimenting. They tried out 10 different projects, including online platforms for selling furniture and cosmetics. None of these took off due to technical problems. So they decided to narrow their focus and concentrated on developing a meme-sharing website. In July 2008, Ray and Chris Chan started the 9GAG project, pulling in three other partners, Derek Chan, Marco Fung and Brian Yu.
“Life was too boring, we wanted to do something really big,” Chan says.
Chan values the team dynamics at 9GAG and thinks having a strong team is vital to run a successful company. 9GAG now has a team of nine, seven in Hong Kong and two in the United States.
Chan is especially grateful to have his brother Chris working alongside him. For his part, Chris has no reservations about talking about Ray even though he is sitting right next to him.“Ray is someone who stands out from the crowd easily. He is a bright star and always thinks out of the box,” says Chris. “But he lacks the fundamental element of success, perseverance.”
Chan agrees the brothers complement each other, which facilitates the operation of 9GAG. “I am the type of person who can easily come up with many new ideas and think they can be turned into something big. But Chris is more sceptical in a way that helps me filter many impractical ideas.”
9GAG may be a huge success now, but it may never have existed if any of the Chan brothers’ other projects had panned out. Looking back, a combination of circumstances may have created the perfect storm for the invention of 9GAG.
What strikes Ray Chan about his journey to entrepreneurial success is how demanding it was to start up a webpage without possessing the necessary technical skills.
“It is actually not that difficult to think of a good idea for a webpage, but there is a long way to go from a good idea to the successful execution of it,” he says.
Fortunately, they stuck with it and the project took off. This summer 9GAG scored US$ 2.8 million in seed money from Y Combinator, a prestigious Silicon Valley-based programme that provides seed money, advice, and connections to innovative startups. It made 9GAG the first Hong Kong-based company to ever achieve this.
Ironically, it was not until 9GAG gained international success that Hong Kongers finally realised it was a local operation. This inevitably led people to question the effectiveness of the years of effort made by the Hong Kong government to develop the high-tech industry.
Chan has never pinned his hopes on the government to shape the fate of his company because he believes it is too inefficient. Although 9GAG is currently looking for a new office space in order to expand, he has never thought of applying for one in the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park because of the lengthy and complicated application procedure.
Neither does he think the lack of government assistance should be an impediment to success. Chan believes Hong Kong people have a tendency to blame the government for their own misfortune, and this is a mindset that must be got rid of.
“Whether you can succeed mostly depends on your own effort rather than the external environment,” says Chan. “If there is no way to change the environment, why bother grumbling about it?”
This stoic pragmatism has served him well, particularly when it comes to dealing with the downside of success. There is a Chinese saying that “Man should fear fame as pigs fear fattening”, and 9GAG’s popularity has attracted critics as well as fans. The best example of this is the fierce feud between users of 9GAG and 4chan, another online sharing platform.
In late 2011, 9GAGgers came into conflict with users of 4chan, after some 9GAG users claimed to be the creators of memes that had originated from 4chan. The conflict turned into a major cyber battle in which supporters of 9GAG and 4chan went to extreme lengths to attack each other, such as constant spam posting.
Chan could not care less about the online battle. “We don’t think 4Chan is our competitor, let alone the strongest,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
He regards the accusations of plagiarism against 9GAG as trivial, saying that if a copyright owner has a problem with materials being posted on 9GAG, all they have to do is to send him an email and the content will instantly be taken down.
Perhaps the secret to Chan’s success is that he is not easily discouraged or distracted. When asked about 9GAG’s formula for success, he sums it up in three words: perseverance, attempt and determination. “Persevere with everything you do; never withhold yourself from making attempts; and after you find what you truly aspire to, you do it with determination.”