Gen.T Power Lunch: The Hidden Realities Of Entrepreneurship
“I know this is a Tatler and Lexus event, but it feels like we are at a family dinner,” said Ee Soon Wei, at the third and final instalment of Malaysia Tatler and Lexus Malaysia’s Power Series at Mosto Wine Bar & Restaurant, One KL. Moderated by Dato’ Simon Foong and Datin Mina Cheah-Foong, 14 other guests were also present at the dinner that night—chaffeured exclusively by Lexus.
What ensued after was an honest and open discussion about the struggles of entrepreneurship, covering areas such as fundraising, stakeholder management and even mental health.
Here are 9 takeaways that made an impact on us during that engaging evening.
1/9 Entrepreneurs always start with the 'why'
As another Simon says (motivational speaker Simon Sinek, that is), a successful business always starts with a why.
Dato’ Simon, who manages a diversified portfolio of business that includes cosmetics, entertainment, tech, asset management and property development, identifies himself as a dreamer.
“In my youth, I was dreaming up crazy ideas, like building skateboard parks and selling electric-powered bikes. That’s why I keep building businesses in different segments even after experiencing some failures. I never stopped dreaming about what I can do and achieve,” he says.
On the other hand, Sasha Tan describes herself as a builder. Her track record includes building online grocery delivery HappyFresh and now, beauty platform Favful. “What keeps me going today is the satisfaction of building Favful from scratch,” she elaborates.
Adding on to the conversation, founder and managing director Havene Liew of Havson Group defines himself as a teacher. The former game design lecturer started his own business when he realised his students would give up on their passion or go abroad for greener pastures because of limited opportunities in the local industry.
“I wanted to contribute to our local gaming ecosystem,” says the man whose company now develops top quality games for a variety of consoles, including virtual reality entertainment centres like The Rift in Mid Valley Megamall.
2/9 Profitability is as important as valuation
Dato’ Simon then steers the conversation into the topic of fundraising—a topic he is eager to learn from the technopreneurs present.
Timothy Tiah, whose one-year-old company Colony sold a stake to Cornerstone Partners at a valuation of RM64 million to RM80 million early this year, was asked to share first, given his extraordinary achievement.
“Honestly speaking, fundraising is competitive. Building a unicorn company is the goal of every entrepreneur. Yet, we have all heard of companies who raised good money but went bust after. There are some entrepreneurs get caught up in chasing valuation and they lose sight of what’s important—your profits,” he says.
Here Sasha agrees with Timothy, revealing that she experienced dark days doubting herself when Favful was not growing as quickly as she would like, based on the metrics of valuation.
“No one told me valuation is a stressful journey—it took a lot of self-reflection for me to realise that profitability should be the focus. Once I refocused my energies on making Favful profitable, things improved from there,” she says.
3/9 Entrepreneurship is no longer about the survival of the fittest—but the fastest
One of Malaysia’s fastest growing companies in Malaysia to note is Fave, whose co-founder Yeoh Chen Chow was present during the night. In three years, Fave has hit plenty of milestones, such as pivoting its focus from fitness (KFit) into e-commerce (Fave) and expanding its verticals to include cashless payment.
From his experiences, Chen Chow has this to say, “We might not be the biggest fish in the pond, but we are the fastest. We are not afraid to work hard because we have nothing to lose. We don’t treat anyone as competitors. For example, we recently signed up with Boost and Alipay so they can also operate on our platforms. They are bigger than us, but they wanted to work with us because of our connections to offline businesses.”
With this focus on creating value across the board, Fave has managed to carve its own niche in a competitive environment.
Don't miss: Chen Chow's co-founder Joel Neoh on his journey as an entrepreneur
4/9 Experience—yours and other entrepreneurs’—is the best teacher
Jessica Li, co-founder of end-to-end food delivery service dahmakan, shares that she had her fair share of struggles during different stages of fundraising for the company. “You learn so much from your first round raising money and you hope never to repeat them again,” she confides.
When pressed for tips, she says, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When we first started fundraising in 2015, my co-founders and I had seasoned entrepreneurs like Chen Chow to look at our deck and give feedback. We spoke to hundreds of people—those who succeeded at fundraising and those who failed—and we compared notes on what worked and what didn’t. We picked up things along the way, like how to gauge a potential investor’s level of interest or how to pitch better,” she says.
5/9 A professional and democratic work culture will take you far
The talk then turned to company culture. Everyone around the table requests Datin Mina to share how she retains long-term staff, after discovering that The Body Shop still employs people who have worked with her for over two decades.
“You have to respect your employees. I run my business like a democracy by empowering my staff to contribute to decision making. We encourage them to vote on decisions. I appreciate every feedback because I know that while I might be the CEO, I can be full of bad ideas too,” she says.
Their sons Daryl and Dexter were then put on the spotlight. What is it like for them—working for their parents? “Our parents practice what they preach. Even when we were young, they would talk about business at the dinner table. They respected our input and they do the same to everyone in our company,” says Daryl.
Dexter adds here that contrary to popular belief—there’s no favouritism in a family business when a solid work culture is set into place.
“Our parents inculcated a high level of professionalism in their companies from the beginning. Today, there’s layers of management for us that we have to engage with. Just because we are the owners’ sons does not mean that our managers let us off if we did a bad job!”
6/9 Successful stakeholder management depends on accountability and honesty
While Ee Soon Wei isn’t the founder of the company he runs, he remains accountable for its success as its CEO. Under his leadership, APW in Bangsar is now a product of his vision—a creative campus where people can come together and share ideas.
Everyone can learn a thing or two from Soon Wei on stakeholder management, especially in a family business.
“Running a family business, your stakeholders are of course your bloodline. I was naïve when I first joined, thinking that if I listened enough and persuaded enough, people would see where I am coming from. Then one day, I realised, it is easier to ask for forgiveness from my stakeholders than to ask for permission. I have since adopted that philosophy in what I do,” he says.
What Soon Wei means by this is that he stopped depending on his stakeholders for validation and started taking ownership of his role as CEO. The process allowed him to accept the repercussions that come from his decision making, whether it is good or bad, and made him a more effective business owner.
ICYMI:From Print To Purposeful Spaces: APW’s Ee Soon Wei On Reforming A Family Business
7/9 To be a better entrepreneur, you need competition and innovation
In a free market, competition is essential because it benefits both the consumers and business owners. Leow Wee Jonn, the passionate CEO of Photobook Worldwide, shares his insight.
“A question I always ask myself is, ‘How can you beat the wardrums when there is no war?’ For example, Grab is successful because of Uber. Innovation happens when your team is united to beat the common enemy. That sense of hunger and desperation to win a war is what keeps a driven team going,” he observes.
During Wee Jonn’s early days setting up Zalora in Malaysia, he recalls feeling like every day was a warzone. “When I moved to Photobook, the pace is different because Photobook is a market leader in what we do. As a CEO, it is my job to motivate my team to prepare for war, when it comes. And the only way I can do that is to encourage them to innovate so when a strong competitor comes, we remain ahead of the game,” he says.
8/9 Your employees' growth is your biggest asset as a business owner
Sasha then directs her next question at Chen Chow, “Fave has such top-notch talents onboard. I am impressed by how some of your employees have their own businesses but when things get tough, they never fail to put Fave first as a priority. How do you do it?”
The COO of Fave thinks for a moment before answering: “As you know, we have a young team of millennials. They are all eager to learn and they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. We were touched at the beginning; a handful of our first employees worked hard and were unafraid of making sacrifices for the company. It is their hard work that helped us get where Fave be where it is today and we never forget that,” he says.
Above all, he believes in transparency in engaging the people who work for you. “Once in a while, we take questions from our staff and we won’t shy from showing them our numbers if they ask for it. For better or worse, they need to know their part in your company and where you are planning to take them,” he says.
Here, Dato’ Simon suggests looking into a profit sharing model to your staff over time. “As the company grows, they should grow with you too in every way. Never forget those who helped you get you where you want to be,” he says.
Don't miss: Ng Sang Beng: Lessons On A Happy Work Culture
9/9 Ultimately, entrepreneurship is about pursuing happiness and fulfilment
As we tucked into dessert, Datin Mina was impressed by the topics of the night. "I don’t think I have heard any one of you talking about profits being the only thing that motivates you.”
At this, Timothy opens up to share his story, on how he left his previous digital company behind and found a greater sense of fulfilment in Colony. “There, I made a lot of money and realised my dream of owning a listed company. As satisfying as it was, I never felt fulfilled, even though I could buy anything I wanted with what I have made,” he says.
It took a lot of self-reflection for Timothy to realise that material wealth did not make him happy over a long-term but relationships did. “Colony gives me a more lasting period of happiness as I was focused on building new and genuine relationships, with clients, my employees and of course my wife Audrey, who now runs Colony with me,” he says, smiling at his wife who sat across the table from him. “And to all the new friendships I have made—like tonight!”
With that, we lifted our glasses for a toast, wrapping up an insightful dinner—and the final instalment in our uplifting Power Series.
Click here and here to read about the other two events from our Malaysia Tatler and Lexus Malaysia Power Series.