Welcome to Preface, the Hong Kong concept store teaching customers to code

Exterior of the Preface cafe in Hong Kong.
Source: Supplied

If Silicon Valley were a coffee shop, Preface would be it. The Hong Kong-based education tech company has not only reinvented the F&B retail experience, but also has reformed the concept of education, bringing tech enthusiasts together to build retailing’s digital future.

The sight of a cafe jam-packed with digital nomads and students camping over tables and plugs is typically a nightmare for cafe owners – especially in Hong Kong, where prime retail rents require fast table turns and strong margins. But Preface welcomes workers. 

Walking through its glassy facade, one is greeted by an abundance of futuristic perspex tables winding around the store, with a wooden amphitheatre welcoming guests to curl up cosily in conversation. But rather than the typical WFH escapers, Preface’s guests include influential CEOs who inconspicuously drop in for a cuppa, with a thirst for learning. Preface may look like your ordinary cafe, but it is a technology company in disguise – one with US$6 million of Series A funding behind it that is seeking to revolutionise education.

Tommie Lo, CEO and founder of Preface, grew up in a traditional Hong Kong fishing community – an environment that enabled him to learn from people from all walks of life. Fast-forward to his PhD years in London, when Lo spent his free time educating others through private tutoring. 

“My journey taught me to appreciate the value of hands-on experience and the power of mentorship,” he recalls. “This experience shaped my perspective on education, and I was determined to make education available to everyone, in a personalised form that breaks away from standardised textbooks and traditional classrooms.”

Preface founder Tommie Lo standing in front of a wall with his arms crossed.
Preface founder and CEO Tommie Lo. Source: Supplied

Abiding by its motto, “There isn’t a thing that cannot be learnt”, Preface was founded with a mission to teach 21st-century tech skills to people of all ages and backgrounds. The company offers boot-camp courses for adults and kids in a variety of coding languages, and most recently Web3 lessons in AI, NFTs, the metaverse and more. Given only 4 per cent of learners complete an online course, Preface aims to make education worthwhile. 

Using AI, the courses are customised to each learner and educators use data insights to meet the unique needs of each student, aligning with their learning styles and experience levels. 

The Silicon Valley coffee shop

The unique lifestyle concept store first opened its cosy coffee shop in the nook of Tai Hang – prior to its gentrification. Today, it stands four storeys next to Times Square. The multi-functional space blends coffee, wine and coding – a lifestyle hub for knowledge sharing and learning. 

Preface also practises what it teaches. Offering a vast variety of coffee beans, the company uses big data to predict coffee trends, review its carbon footprint, and ensure customers are provided with seasonal flavours. Ingredients for its food menu are sourced locally and prepared using sustainable cooking methods. 

“Customers can spend the time it takes to get a cup of coffee to enrich themselves with new technological knowledge. This way, coffee consumers will become creators of digital technology, which allows them to shine bright and move forward with the times,” Lo told Inside Retail

Amid the digital era, the brand has launched the Preface Paper, a gazette of bite-sized information on the latest tech trends, which simplifies complex information into easily digestible chunks of knowledge to go with their coffee. 

As evening sets in, the cafe transforms into a bar, serving a selection of fine wines made by biodynamic farming. Preface also occasionally hosts dinner nights, with an eclectic mix of industry experts coming together to exchange provocative ideas about technology and the future.

Consumer education in retail

Retailers today place a strong emphasis on technology and digital transformation in catering to the digitally native younger generations. Aside from educating workers and children, Preface works hand-in-hand with organisations and brands that have also invested in Web3 and blockchain to build immersive and engaging campaigns, tapping into the interest of Gen Z in NFTs and crypto. 

A collaboration with Preface helps reinforce a retailer’s tech-savvy image, connecting brands and consumers through workshops and other unique customer engagement experiences. 

Swiss luxury watch maison IWC Schaffhausen appointed Preface to be its tech trainer, delivering Web3 courses for its Singapore and Southeast Asia regional offices, in addition to appearing at a series of events for IWC watch enthusiasts and their children. The multi-sensory campaign, themed as IWC’s ‘The Colors of Top Gun’, features a visit into IWC’s metaverse world, alongside other augmented-reality experiences. This collaboration highlights IWC’s commitment to innovation, identifying it as one of the few luxury brands that has been investing heavily in the Web3 space. 

The campaign educated visitors and customers in Web3 and NFTs, while also showcasing IWC’s entrepreneurial and engineering values. Such retail collaborations have helped demystify complex technologies, turning them into more accessible and engaging concepts for a wider audience, with hopes of someday turning consumers into coders for the tech-enabled future.

Upskilling leaders

Digital transformation is at the forefront of nearly every strategy, but doing so has never been easy, especially with tech talent scarce in a highly competitive field. Nevertheless, market pressures have prompted organisations to drive digital transformation. As a recent KPMG study highlighted, 72 per cent of CEOs are preparing for an aggressive digital investment strategy. 

Employing experts with relevant skill sets and capabilities often comes with a substantial price tag. Consultancy services in digital transformation are charging a minimum of HKD1 million (US$128,000) for a program, Preface stated. With the growing adoption and reliance on automation and AI – evident by Big Tech layoffs and the rise of ChatGPT – the World Economic Forum has emphasised the need to upskill the workforce by 2025 to future-proof businesses and reduce societal polarisation, thus heading off an economic slowdown.

In the past, C-suite executives’ leadership was considered undisputed, but in today’s fast-changing digital landscape, even leaders need to upskill. Lo ponders this change. 

“The idea that successful startup CEOs should know how to code is a common stereotype, but it is not necessarily true,” he says. “Yet, having a technical background can be beneficial for navigating the future of the web and knowing how to leverage Big Data to improve decision-making. For this, companies have turned to Preface, with the aim of upskilling and reskilling their workforce through corporate training, in order to stay ahead of the curve and maintain a competitive edge in their field.

“With digital transformation taking place at an unprecedented rate, especially after the pandemic, the CEO’s involvement is essential.” Preface is soon to open its first overseas Preface Coffee & Wine store – in Singapore – and plans to continue to deliver customised tech training programs for retailers and corporates in London, Singapore and Tokyo.

This story first appeared in the February 2023 issue of Inside Retail Asia Magazine.

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