Having dinner with the man behind Hong Kong’s most famous startup 9GAG, Ray Chan, or up-and-coming ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ actor Wesley Wong seems nearly impossible – that is, unless you do 10 hours of volunteer work.
Want to pick the brains of your dream mentor? Then look no further than Time Auction, a non-profit organisation founded by Fion Leung and Suetyi Wong that asks people to volunteer in return for hard-to-come-by meetings with their business heroes – be they Michelin-starred chefs or successful entrepreneurs. Launched in Hong Kong in 2014, Time Auction has now planted its seeds in Singapore, Melbourne, Sydney, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, raising over 47,000 volunteer hours for its affiliate charities and connecting countless budding entrepreneurs with the advice and inspiration they’re searching for.
It was through her early career at investment bank Barclays that Fion realised she had suffered from a lack of access to solid mentorship. “I think after you’re done with school, it’s really up to you to find someone who can teach you and sometimes it’s hard,” she says. She decided to create a platform where people could receive advice and encouragement, modified from the existing Time Auction model where people could volunteer in exchange for a product such as an iPhone. Joining forces with Suetyi, the girls grew Time Auction slowly over two years without spending a dime, working on it during lunch breaks, after work, on the weekends, on the MTR, and even at the gym. To get things off the ground, they made a pact: that there would be no zero days, i.e. days where they did nothing. They simply weren’t allowed. “That was in the beginning, but now we’re obviously a lot more mature in managing our responsibilities and discipline,” laughs Fion. “But in the beginning, it was really us trying to coach each other and work.”
At first, both founders kept up other interests, but soon found the work untenable. “If you’re working at a startup, you have to give it 120 per cent, and it’s just very hard to do that at the same time for two things,” Fion explains. “It came to a point where I had to decide on one. I thought the whole thing about being in your 20’s is about learning, and that I would learn more if I could dive into Time Auction.” Success came fast. In the first month of operating, they accrued 900 hours of people volunteering in Hong Kong. And, much to their surprise, about 60 to 80 per cent of potential guest mentors they contacted responded. Within the first two weeks, seven guest mentors had agreed to donate one to two hours of their time to share their experiences with the volunteers. “A lot of people kept coming back to our events and a lot of people kept going out there to volunteer more, so we knew we had found a product/market fit,” Fion recalls.
What helps Time Auction work is its very simple process : participants apply to the mentor meetup of their choice, such as a group lunch with someone like celebrity Bob Lam or Hong Kong’s longest-serving Finance Secretary The Hon John Tsang, or even a group dinner with Chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Group Dr. Allan Zeman, and in return, they volunteer the specified number of hours required to join said meetup. They can volunteer at any registered charity or non-profit organisation (NGO), including but not limited to non-profit HandsOn Hong Kong and charity for the homeless ImpactHK. Once the completed set of volunteer hours are logged on TimeAuction’s platform, they’re verified and participants can start preparing their long list of questions for the guest mentor.
Although a fairly easy process, a lot of time and effort is put into arranging these meetups. As a startup charity, Time Auction is mainly run by volunteers in Hong Kong and internationally, and without monetary incentives, those volunteers need to be self-motivated. “We’ve had people who joined us for the wrong reasons,” says Fion. “You always hear at school, ‘People are the most important asset,’ and you don’t know what that means. But now I do.” Now, their team in Hong Kong consists of seven people with two full-time staff, while their chapters in Sydney, Singapore, San Francisco and Los Angeles are run by volunteers. “People are doing this, not because Suetyi and I are nice people, but it’s really about them showing kindness and wanting to learn from the guest mentors,” Fion says. “I think that’s a huge validation when you put yourself out of the equation and it’s still growing.”
When asked how they choose mentors, Fion says they pick people who are very passionate about what they’re doing and have made a name for themselves. This allows them to choose people in all types of industries, from KOLs to comedians, entrepreneurs to chefs. “We try to diversify because we know that everyone has a different passion,” she explains. “In the beginning, the majority were business people, because they’re more used to sharing, whilst in the entertainment field, they’re more used to getting paid to show up. But, I guess now, more people know what we’re trying to do so we have some guests who are donating their time in that field as well.”
Fion is adamant that their mentor/volunteer meetings don’t just flow one way. Recently, a 13-year-old boy met Time Auction advisor James Thompson, the founder of Crown Worldwide Group, to ask him how to get his startup off the ground. “It was so cute seeing a 13-year-old and a 78-year-old talking business,” Fion says, chuckling. “Even though our mentors might be very advanced in their journey, sometimes it’s encouraging to know that people are trying to get to where you are. Some of them are also grateful to remind themselves that a lot of young people have their own dreams. I hope that’s what they take away from the meeting as well.”
Alongside focusing on Los Angeles and San Francisco, Time Auction will soon be launching in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. In addition, they are tapping Chow Yun Fat, Tim Farris, and the Dalai Lama as guest mentors next. “We want to continue getting more people to volunteer because it gives you an emotional, educational experience when you’re at the front line helping out, and we want to continue opening up opportunities for people to learn from different people,” expresses Fion.