There’s surely not many places that Gianluca Vialli can go without being accosted by fans. He won almost every trophy there is to win as a football star with Sampdoria, Juventus and Chelsea.
But at the Rise tech conference in Hong Kong, he’s just one of thousands of entrepreneurs and investors hoping to become or discover the next Facebook or Google.
From around Asia and beyond, the pitches are on display all over the cavernous space: “A self-service dining solution”; “AI accountancy with speech recognition”; “A crowd-sourced prediction engine”; “Efficientizer”; “Qnect”; “VetNX”.
Those are a mere fraction of the hopefuls solving problems you hadn’t realised existed. My favourite was either the “solar-powered smart device to retrofit window blinds” or “the Nespresso machine of DNA synthesis”.
Make sure to mention blockchain, fintech, leveraging, disruption, AI, VR, IoT – or all of them just to be safe.
The tech world is surreal if you’re not immersed in it.
At a discussion about how artificial intelligence chatbots could replace actual customer service people, a guy says his software “watches employees do their work to learn how to take over their job”.
The comment is so dystopic that I’m ready to grab a pitchfork and join the Neo-Luddites, but it does not merit a raised eyebrow here.
Later, two actual androids from Hong Kong via the “uncanny valley” debate the future of humanity – and whether or not the machines will let us have one.
It’s easy to scoff, but some of these ideas might make it big, and Vialli is hoping his app Tifosy (the Italian for ‘fans’ but misspelled, like all proper startup names) is one.
He wasn’t the only representative from sport – not just esports, but also actual sport.
Chatri Sityodtong, of Asian MMA promoter One Championship, advised attendees on how to “Crack Local to Build Global”.
Meeta Singh, a sleep scientist who has worked with many US sports teams to improve their sleep performance, debated with Sonny Vu, founder of a successful wearables (think Fitbit) firm, on the topic “Will Wearables Make Us Healthier?” (Maybe).
And Vialli has teamed up with a former Goldman Sachs banker to push Tifosy, a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter to help sports teams get money from fans.
After successful campaigns with the likes of Portsmouth FC and Parma, the site is now licensed by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority to sell the equivalent of stocks and bonds in clubs directly to fans, allowing teams to raise capital without the pesky oversight of banks.
“There’s a lot that football clubs can learn from startups but also a lot that startups can learn from football,” says Vialli on stage.
Recruitment is key, he says, with “70 per cent of the manager’s job done in the summer when signing players”; staff need to share the same values, have skills that complement each other, and a sense of shared responsibility.
“The second is culture. Clubs work very hard to create the right culture ... if the culture’s right then people want to work for you, and make it a massive successful company.”
Vialli is the son of a wealthy industrialist, and grew up in a 60-room 15th-century castle – not quite the typical footballer’s tale – so business, investment, and generally being mega-rich are not new concepts.
He had some advice for the spate of Chinese investors who have taken over European clubs – including both AC Milan and Inter in Italy.
“The most important point is that you can be a very successful Italian manager and come to China to coach the national team like my friend Marcello Lippi, or a very wealthy and powerful Chinese guy that wants to buy a football club – but when you do you need an open mind and be able to adapt: what works in Italy might not work in China and vice versa.”
Vialli won Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League trophies under Lippi and said his former boss would surely improve China’s hopeless national team.
“I guess the next World Cup they can’t qualify but in 2022 in Qatar I’m sure they will be there – especially if Mr Lippi is still coach, because Italians do it better, as you know.
“China wants the World Cup, whether it’s 2026 or 2030 it’s going to happen – and I really hope China will be able to compete with best in world.”
Tifosy itself is seeking to expand in China but first aims to raise £1 million of outside investment by offering shares in the company directly to the public through its own funding platform.
Good luck to them, although, having read the offer document, I’ll be putting my spare cash somewhere else.
Now, where did the “Nespresso of DNA synthesis” guy go?