Adulting

Why the founder of billion-dollar start-up GoGoVan isn't in a hurry to buy his first home

GoGoVan's founder and CEO Steven Lam up looks toward the Hong Kong city skyline
GoGoVan
GoGoVan's founder and CEO Steven Lam up looks toward the Hong Kong city skyline

GoGoVan's 32-year-old founder is not a home owner and proud of it.

In the five years since launching his on-demand logistics platform, Steven Lam has seen his initial team of eight balloon from their shoe box-sized office in Kowloon, Hong Kong into a billion-dollar business with over 2,000 staff and 8 million drivers. Yet, even today, he rents an apartment in the same low-income district in which he grew up.

That's no accident. In fact, it wasn't until he got married last year that he moved out of the 400 square feet high-rise apartment he shared with his parents. And he's in no hurry to get on the property ladder soon.

"To me, it's about having a place to stay, it's not an investment," Lam told CNBC Make It.

It's an unusual mentality for a newly-minted millennial. New research suggests that buying a home ranks as the most important life milestone among young people today. And according to self-made millionaire David Bach, not prioritizing property is "the single biggest mistake" you can make. But for Lam, owning a property simply isn't a priority.

"I'd put it into some investment opportunity, other start-up, other great entrepreneurs, instead of buying a box in a building." -Steven Lam, co-founder and CEO of GoGoVan

To be sure, GoGoVan's impressive valuation is not directly reflective of Lam's personal wealth. As a young start-up, it is still heavily funded by the likes of Chinese billionaire Jack Ma's Alibaba. Even with the extra cash, Lam insists he would look for other places to put his money to work.

"If I have money, I think I'd put it into some investment opportunity, other start-up, other great entrepreneurs, instead of buying a box in a building," said Lam.

That's got something to do with the property prices in Lam's hometown of Hong Kong. The sprawling territory on the southern tip of mainland China is perennially ranked as one of the world's most expensive real estate markets. Last year, the average cost per square foot of an apartment in Hong Kong was around 12,100 Hong Kong dollars ($1,547.31).

View of the Hong Kong skyline from Hong Kong Island
Nikada | E+ | Getty Images
View of the Hong Kong skyline from Hong Kong Island

But it's also down to what Lam describes as its limited return on investment.

"I'm from a low income family. Even though I graduated from Berkeley, if I got a good job and started saving money it would take about 10 years of saving before I could buy somewhere," he said.

"After 10 years, yeah you get a house, but what else? That question might not get answered."

Investing in Hong Kong

For Lam, the pendulum swings in favor of investing in business opportunities — both his own and others'.

He said he understands that's not a mainstream path because of the perceived risks involved. That's especially true in Hong Kong where, unlike the property market, the start-up scene tends to lack the backing required to flourish.

It's something Lam learned the hard way in GoGoVan's early days. After pooling his savings with his fellow co-founders, they struggled to get support from friends and family who saw the investment as hazardous.

"At the time ... if they had a bullet, they'd rather have put that bullet in me than $20,000," Lam said jokingly.

GoGoVan's founder and CEO Steven Lam up looks toward the Hong Kong city skyline
GoGoVan
GoGoVan's founder and CEO Steven Lam up looks toward the Hong Kong city skyline

But it's something he wants to change by demonstrating the potential Hong Kong has to create the next big business.

"It's like everyone is going to university and we're in kindergarten here in Hong Kong," said Lam, comparing Hong Kong to the thriving start-up scenes of Silicon Valley and Singapore.

Moving the board

Lam said he doesn't want to force his ideals on others.

"Different people have different dreams," said Lam. "If your dream is to own a property, or to get rich by investing in property, that is completely okay. I just took the option that most people are not willing to take, which is to own a company."

But he hopes to move the conversation in terms of the perceived relationship between success and money.

"It's unfortunate that in Hong Kong we talk about property like it's a right or wrong decision." -Steven Lam, co-founder and CEO of GoGoVan

That shift of mindset may prove especially difficult in Hong Kong, where traditional values mean that home ownership is held in high esteem.

"It's unfortunate that in Hong Kong we talk about property like it's a right or wrong decision: 'If you are going after property, it's right; if you are not going after property, it's wrong,'" Lam said.

Instead, individuals should focus on what's important to them and where they can add value, both in terms of their finances and their expertise, he said.

"I think they're questions we need to answer ourselves," he said. "(To decide) what kind of society we want to build."

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