Entrepreneurial lessons from a former Groupon CEO

Jay Kim
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Danny Yeung has sold Hong Kong-style desserts in San Francisco, closed multi-billion dollar furniture deals in Vegas, and sold his six-month old group buying website to Groupon

To entrepreneurs in Hong Kong, Danny Yeung needs no introduction. But for those who may not be familiar with Hong Kong’s favourite serial innovator, Danny’s long list of accomplishments is irrefutably impressive.

His entrepreneurial journey began at the age of 12 when he started selling baseball cards, learning the importance of buying low and selling high, and negotiating for the best deal in the process. Since then, Danny’s varied ventures have seen him selling Hong Kong-style desserts in San Francisco, closing multi-billion dollar furniture deals in Vegas, and, most famously, selling his group buying website UBuyIBuy.com to Groupon only six months after founding it, with zero e-commerce experience beforehand.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Danny recently to ask him about his incredible journey. Here are a few of the valuable lessons he’s learned.

You don’t need prior industry experience to be a successful entrepreneur

Danny is already working on his fourth company now and the one recurring theme across his resume is that with each new venture he pursued, he never had prior experience in the field it operated in.

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His first real venture was franchising Hong Kong-style mango desserts in San Francisco. Living in California, Danny observed the large Chinese population growing overseas in the city and he realised that if he picked the right product with a high brand awareness, it could essentially sell itself. He saw an opportunity with Hui Lau Shan, the Hong Kong-style mango dessert chain.

Without hesitation, he cold-called the owners and offered to pay them for the franchise in America. The dessert chain was a family oriented business, so they had nothing to lose and offered him the deal.

Danny’s second venture was in the completely unrelated hotel furniture business. Once again, after studying the market and realising the great demand for affordable customised furniture solutions, he cold-called furniture manufacturers in China. His persistence paid off when he landed a US$5 billion project to furnish 2,000 hotel rooms for MGM in Las Vegas.

“Entrepreneurship is a mindset and to be successful, you need grit, perseverance, and thick skin.”

Danny’s third entrepreneurial pursuit is the one he is most famous for: his group buying company UBuyIBuy.com which he sold to Groupon only six months after he launched it in Hong Kong. Again, he had no prior experience in e-commerce or retail for that matter, but he found an idea that he could replicate quickly in a developing market.

After his exit, Danny once again got the entrepreneurial itch and, true to form, started looking into industries he hadn’t had experience in before, where he could make a significant impact. The two that came up were education and healthcare. He picked healthcare, the more specialised of the two, because not many entrepreneurs would dare to enter that space without prior experience. Within 24 months of taking over Prenetics, his company is now the largest genetic testing digital health company in Southeast Asia employing over 55 people.

The moral of the story: Entrepreneurship is a mindset and to be successful, you need grit, perseverance, and thick skin. What you don’t need is prior work experience in that particular field.

Ideas matter, but it is all about execution

In December of 2010, after a close friend sent him the headline that Groupon had just raised a monster US$950 million round (valued at US$4.75 billion), Danny immediately saw the value in their business model.

“The first thing I did was I called up my cousin (who was running the dessert shop) saying, ‘Can we do a Groupon deal in your store?’ I just wanted to test it out. I wanted to see the user experience and see if this really brings in new customers. Within 1 week, we were able to set up a deal and the results were 500 new customers in basically 24 hours.”

After beta testing and validating the group buying concept in San Francisco in February, Danny was on a plane to Hong Kong the very next month.

“I really knew that I needed to be in Hong Kong because I loved the idea, but there was no way for me to compete in the US against Groupon. I had to choose […] where would this business model make sense?”

When Danny arrived in Hong Kong, he knew he had to act quickly, as there were already four competitors in the group buying space. Within a few months, Danny secured his first live deal in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Three months after UBuyIBuy launched, there were already 57 competitors doing the exact same thing.

Danny’s key to winning the race to replicate a seemingly simple business model in a smaller market like Hong Kong was speed to execution. Danny wasn’t the first player in the market, but he was the best. UBuyIBuy quickly became the number one market leader with the fastest growing top line revenue.

Always be selling, but do your homework first

Many people wondered how Danny secured an exit to Groupon only six months after launching UBuyIBuy. Why did Groupon pick him instead of one of the 57 other competitors that were on the market at the time?

“I was the only one who cold-called Andrew Mason, the CEO of Groupon,” he said. “Sales is a science, you have to provide information so they can make that decision. Do your research ahead of time.”

Within a week he got a return call from Groupon’s M&A team asking for more information and numbers to back up his claims. Danny had done the work ahead of time and was able to provide them with everything they needed. Within a few days, he was on a plane to Chicago en route to sell his company to Groupon.

The customer is always right

In each and every business venture, Danny never lost focus of his customer. Regardless of the industry, the one thing that allowed him to be successful was stepping into his customer’s shoes to understand their mindset. After determining his unique selling proposition in each business, Danny was able to solve the supply and demand problem and provide value to his customer.

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