Penang has produced several highly successful tech start-ups, but an underdeveloped ecosystem is holding things back. That’s about to change. I meet Curry Khoo for the first time at Starbucks in Auto-City in Juru. It is afternoon and I am actually running late – Google Maps is letting me down big time and Curry is kind enough to send me his location via Whatsapp. It is a fittingly tech-themed trip. I find him sitting in a corner, hunched in front of a sticker-laden laptop, sporting his trademark cap and glasses. He’s an animated, chatty and passionate figure.
Douglas Khoo needed to do something. This has always been true for him. When he was eight years old and living in Negeri Sembilan, he would borrow his uncle’s gas grass cutter and cut neighbours’ lawns for pocket money. Then he grew up and went into advertising. And then he met up with an American partner on a business trip to China. Neither spoke Chinese at the time – they had at least that much in common – and found themselves hanging out quite a bit. This was in the mid-1990s, when the Internet was still the exciting new thing instead of the everyday utility it is today, and they talked about how China was still behind the US when it came to the Web. So they decided to put some money together and start something and see what happens. Their one rule: do not go into something that involves acquiring a heap of licenses or payments, or anything that could “get us in jail”. So they launched sports website Shawei, which eventually became the leading Chinese sports website in the country, averaging a million page views a day. The company started out with five people, and employed about 90 by the time it was sold in 2000. It was good timing, too – the US market was just about to crash. “We managed to just scrape by.”