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Jan Wong, Founder of OpenMinds

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Jan Wong, 26 is an online strategist, youth advocate and an entrepreneur. Starting at the age of 18, he has founded four businesses, a consultant in a local branding firm, a part time lecturer at the Asia Pacific University (APIIT / APU), a certified e-commerce consultant, a Masters degree holder in Technology Management and has published an academic article at the Global Communications Conference. Jan is passionate with integrating technology in businesses and youth entrepreneurship.

 Through his passion, Jan has worked with notable brands in the industry including Berjaya Corporation, Snowflake, MICPA, KL SOGO and FIMM, just to name a few, in assisting them to acquire a stronger foothold on today’s digital space with an integrated and tactical approach. 

 His involvement within the entrepreneurship movement in Malaysia also enabled him to be a part of the Academic Advisory Board of KDU University College, and the opportunity to speak at various entrepreneurship and social media events in universities, workshops and conferences. Jan is also the project director of the Malaysia’s Online Fashion Entrepreneur Weekend (MOFEW) in 2010 and 2011 to inspire new online fashion entrepreneurs within Malaysia and to encourage support from the corporate sector towards the unsung entrepreneurs. Through MOFEW, Jan became involved as a catalyst partner with Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) to inspire entrepreneurs nationwide.

 Jan speaks to the Asian Entrepreneur today about OpenMinds, a company he had founded, assisting corporates on social media marketing.

We understand you are a youth advocate, how exactly did you get into that?

There isn’t exactly a point of time where I made a conscious effort to “get into this line” as it has always been a close part of me. It may have been my active involvement with the youth ministry of my church at a young age that caused me to have this connection towards the youth and to continuously look out for them. This caused me to realize that there are many youths out there that are passionate in business or something but do not have the means or resources to do so – I simply want to change that around for them within my means.

 

Why did you decide to start OpenMinds?

OpenMinds started back in late 2009 with a single product in mind. As with every tech start-up, OpenMinds went through the same painful process of pitching for grants, investors, sponsors, and we got none. What we only had were brands that were interested but would only consider sponsoring when the product has received sufficient traction. It was tough as we needed the money to grow in the first place and this went on for about a year or so. However through the process, we found that the people we spoke too were very much more interested with our marketing strategy and how we were able to integrate technology into it. The very same thing kept happening and with much deliberation, this caused OpenMinds to pivot and never looked back since.

Some where late 2011, we decided that if nobody is going to give us the money we need, we’ll just make the money ourselves by forming a self-sustaining entity that provides professional services on the outside to support our idea and tech development on the inside – which is now the core value of OpenMinds today. Since then, OpenMinds have been setting aside funds from our profits not only to fund internal ideas, but also in hopes to fund entrepreneurs that are in the same predicament as us back then when we first started.

 

What are yourthoughts on the youth of Malaysia?

The youths of Malaysia today are digitally inclined and resourceful. This has opened a world of possibilities for them to explore, potentially causing them to be more knowledgeable and creative from the generations before. However, today’s youths are also the ones suffering from the lack of genuine resources for them to put their knowledge and creativity to use, to be refined and to be commercialized. They are generally tucked behind office desks for the sake of a “better” future.

 

So you founded OpenMinds, what exactly do you guys do?

OpenMinds Resources is a company that does online positioning, social media marketing and analytics on the outside, and a full-fledged start-up company on the inside. What this means is that in the midst of all the digital media strategizing, consultancy and analysis work, OpenMinds is constantly testing new ideas and features to be rolled out as products for our clients; and for all who are interested (happening soon!), just like how a tech start-up is.

 

What kind of challenges did you face starting OpenMinds?

There were definitely many challenges throughout the process even in the early days. OpenMinds started with zero capital. Zilch. It was pure passion and commitment when the founding team first came together to work on our very first product. That alone, was a challenge in itself. We relied entirely on our own savings to get by and were quickly running out of options as the rejections from grants, investors and sponsors came in. The pressure applied from our respective families were great too. By then we could have very well caved in, part ways, and work on our personal plans but we didn’t. We believed in what we had to offer and made the pivot in time for the ‘big change’ in Malaysia’s digital climate. The key to our survival was essentially pure passion, determination, sacrifice and focus, no fancy strategy or a sudden financial breakthrough.

 

How is this industry like in Malaysia at the moment?

Not only we are up against multi-national PR and media agencies, but also digital media firms that are sprouting all over Malaysia today. But then again, that’s just the front and we are all good with it. The team at OpenMinds have been dedicated to the values set out from day 1 and interestingly, through OpenMinds’ focus on idea and tech development, we have worked with many of these PR and media giants on various projects as we have a niche that other firms may not be able to provide.

 

How have you managed to stay relevant?

Relevancy is key in OpenMinds and is something that is strongly advocated amongst the team and has become part of the OpenMinds culture. The working environment of OpenMinds is such that individuals do not have a permanent spot (unless they make their mark) as the seating arrangement is designed to be fluid for small group discussions and work. Having that said, team members are also only required to check-in three days a week into the office, spending the remaining two days away, free to seek inspiration, explore ideas and self experiments.

Everyone then meets back on Fridays regularly for an open table session in which team members are required to share their knowledge and experience on discussion topics set out by the week’s facilitator. OpenMinds also believes in blue sky sessions that the team gathers just to explore ideas that can be implemented within a set duration.

 

How do you plan to develop OpenMinds in the long term?

I look forward to the day that OpenMinds will be able to continuously roll out self-sustainable digital products that will in turn boost our capacity in supporting up and coming entrepreneurs. Everyday we are moving one step closer into making this into a reality and we also would really want to do what we can to inspire entrepreneurship through the curriculum of today’s tertiary-level students in particular. It is also part of our plan to have an even more dynamic working environment that can take what we are doing a step further so that we are better equipped to take on bigger ideas and to share our resources, from opening our Friday sessions to the public, creating incubators for tech entrepreneurs and more.

Share with us some interesting experiences you’ve had as a youth advocate.

This may sound cliche but every bit of it is interesting. The only reason I say that is because every time I’m given an opportunity to share or to work with the youth I am constantly inspired by them. The energy, the creativity, the eagerness to learn and the drive to make things happen in them never fail to drive me forward – which is one of the main reasons why I took up lecturing part time. One of the most often questions I get from students, fellow lecturers and friends alike is “Why are you here when you already have businesses to run?”. The answer is simple, I just can’t get enough. I believe that puts me in a situation that I can constantly work with different groups of young people to share with them every bit of my experiences and what I know to prepare them for whats next to come.

One of the highlights for me though, was definitely through the launch of the Malaysia’s Online Fashion Entrepreneurs’ Weekend (MOFEW) in 2010 and 2011 which allowed me to work closely with hundreds of online fashion entrepreneurs throughout Malaysia and subsequently through various activities with Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW). Through the process I had to constantly defend the feasibility and reputation of these entrepreneurs to corporate brands for their support as online fashion entrepreneurs are typically seen as the minority back then in Malaysia. To cut the long story short (MOFEW is a long story by itself), MOFEW managed to attract a cumulative number of 80,000 visitors from all around ASEAN in the span of just two 3-day events with the support of over 100 corporate brands in Malaysia, supporting close to 200 online fashion entrepreneurs in the process.

What do you think about startups in Asia?

Asia is a force to be reckoned with. The same goes for the startups. Sure, we may not be a dominating force like the Silicon Valley but the sheer amount of startups throughout Asia is simply amazing. I believe that we have the talents and opportunities for startups to continuously grow but one problem remains – the startup ecosystem still has ways to go. Until unless there is a consistent and genuine ecosystem that appreciate, support and fund startups, it is tough for Asian based startups to not only grow, but to even set out to turn their ideas into a reality.

 

What do you think about startups in Asia?

Entrepreneurs are the closest beings to super heroes. No, I kid. But really, entrepreneurs tend to go the extra mile. They sacrifice their well beings to ensure their idea is sustainable and they put up with the most ridiculous things just to see their idea become a reality. And in most situations, these things really doesn’t make sense to the ordinary. Having said all of that, that’s not why I decided to become an entrepreneur. In fact, I didn’t know I was one until someone labeled me as one on an occasion I can’t even remember and it has stuck on me since then. To me, an entrepreneur is just a title. I was simply busy having fun experimenting on business ideas.

 

In your opinion, how can an entrepreneur achieve success?

The ability to focus while multitasking, and the understanding that not everyone can keep up with you. Entrepreneurs in general have a never ending, long to-do list. They are basically involved in every part of the business and the work just never ends as ideas and opportunities will keep popping up through time. It is in this very situation that an entrepreneur should master the art of focus, to manage their time and tasks in a way that things get done effectively and efficiently without compromising on the rest of the tasks. There are many out there that tend to take on multiple tasks concurrently which will lead to disaster over a period of time.

 Entrepreneurs can also be demanding. They expect the best out of their partners and team members. Nothing will stop them and you can never blame them. They are built with a vision in mind and in most cases, have a mental picture of what things should be like with an understanding of your abilities and therefore expect the maximum out of it. It’s tough work keeping up with entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs must recognize that. Without that understanding, you may be too far ahead that your team cannot catch up and may eventually lose their purpose. It isn’t easy and I fall into that trap at times too!

 It takes from passion to action, commitment to dedication, perseverance to sacrifice and above all, a team that believes in what you see and wants to be a part of the vision.In most situations, you are your biggest battle. So don’t let you prevent yourself from moving forward. Remember, your mindset determines the size of the life game you play.

Callum Connects

Benjamin Kwan, Co-Founder of TravelClef

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Making music to create a life for his family, Benjamin Kwan, started an online tuition portal and his music business grew from there.

What’s your story?
I am Benjamin and I’m the Co-Founder of TravelClef Group Pte Ltd, a travelling music school that conducts music classes in companies as well as team building with music programmes. We also run an online educational platform which matches private students to freelance music teachers. We also manufacture our own instruments. I started this company in 2011 when I was still a freshman at NUS, majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

I was born to a lower income family, my father drove a taxi and was the sole breadwinner to a family of 7. I have always dreamed of becoming rich so that I could lessen the burden placed on my father and give my family a good life.

After working really hard in my first semester at NUS, my results didn’t reflect the hard work and effort I put in. At the same time, I was left with just $42 in my bank account and it suddenly dawned on me that if I were to graduate with mediocre results, I would probably end up with a mediocre salary as well. I knew I had to do something to gain control of my future.

During that summer break, I read a book “Internet Riches” by Scott Fox and I knew that the only way I could ever start my own business with my last $42 would be to start an online business. That was how our online tuition portal started and after taking 4 days to learn Photoshop and website building on my own, I started the business.

What excites you most about your industry?
Music itself is a constant form of excitement to me as I have always been an avid lover of music. As one of the world’s first travelling music schools, we are always very eager and excited to find innovative ways to a very traditional business model of a music teaching.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore and I love the fact that despite our diversity in culture, there’s always a common language that we share, music.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hands down, SINGAPORE! Although we are currently in talks to expand to other regions within Asia, Singapore is the best place for business. I have had friends asking me if they should consider venturing into entrepreneurship in Singapore, my answer is always a big fat YES! There’s a low barrier of entry, and most importantly, the government is very supportive of entrepreneurship.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I have been blessed by many people and mentors who constantly give me great advice but right now, I would say the best piece of advice that I received would be from Dr Patrick Liew who said, “Work on the business, not in it.” This advice is constantly ringing in my head as I work towards scaling the business.

Who inspires you?
My dad. My dad has always been my inspiration in life, for the amount of sacrifices that he has made for the family and the love he has for us. He was the umbrella for all the storms that my family faced and we were always safe in his shelter. Although my dad passed away after a brief fight with colorectal cancer, the lessons that he imparted to me were very valuable as I build my own family and business.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
You can not buy time, but you can spend money to save time! With this realisation, I was willing to allow myself to spend some money, in order to save more time. Like taking Grab/Uber to shuttle around instead of spending time travelling on public transport. While I spend more money on travelling, I save a lot more time! This doesn’t mean that I spend lavishly and extravagantly, I am still generally prudent with my money.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken more time to spend with my family and especially my father. While it is important to focus our time to build our businesses, we should always try our best to allocate family time. Because as an entrepreneur, there is no such thing as “after I finish my work,” because our work is never finished. If our work finishes, the business is also finished. But our time with our family is always limited and no matter how much money and how many successes we achieve, we can never use it to trade back the time we have with our family.

How do you unwind?
I am a very simple man. I enjoy TV time with my wife and a simple dinner with my family and friends.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Batam, it’s close to Singapore and there’s really nothing much to do except for massages and a relaxing resort life. If I travel to other countries for shopping or sightseeing, I am constantly thinking of business and how I can possibly expand to the country I am visiting. But while relaxing at the beach or at a massage, I tend to allow myself to drift into emptiness and just clear my mind of any thoughts.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Work The System, by Sam Carpenter. This book teaches entrepreneurs the importance of creating systems and how to leverage on systems to improve productivity and create more time.

Shameless plug for your business:
If you are looking for a team building programme that your colleagues will enjoy and your bosses will be happy with, you have to consider our programmes at TravelClef! While our programmes are guaranteed fun and engaging, it is also equipped with many team building deliverables and organizational skills.

How can people connect with you?
My email is [email protected] and I am very active on Facebook as well!
https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.christian.kwan

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Entrepreneurship

Before you enter a Startup or before you choose your founding team or new hires read, “Entering Startupland” by Jeff Bussgang

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Before you enter a Startup or before you choose your founding team or new hires read “Entering Startupland” by Jeff Bussgang.

Jeff knows how to spot and groom good culture, as the book session was held in Zestfinance a company he invested in and now, “The Best Workplaces for Women” and for “The Best Workplaces for Tech”, by Fortune.

These are the questions during the Book Launch.

How to know if a hire including the founder is Startup material?
Jeff says to watch for these qualities.

First, do the hires think like an owner?
Second, do the hires test the limits, to see how things can it be done better?
Are they problem solvers and are biased toward action?
Do they like managing uncertainty and being comfortable with uncertainty? And comfortable with rapid decision-making?
Are they comfortable with flexible enough to take in a series of undefined roles and task?

How do we know if we are simply too corporate to be startup?

Corporate mindsets more interested in going deep into a particular functional area? These corporate beings are more comfortable with clear and distinct lines of responsibility, control, and communication? They are more hesitant or unable to put in the extra effort because “it’s not my job”.

If you do still want to enter a startup despite the very small gains at the onset, Jeff offers a few key considerations on how to pick a right one.

He suggests you pick a city as each city has a different ecosystems stakeholders and funding sources and market strengths. You have to invest in the ecosystem and this is your due diligence. Understand it so you can find the best match when it arises.
Next, to pick a domain, research and solidify your understanding with every informational interview and discussion you begin. Then, pick a stage you are willing to enter at. They are usually 1)in the Jungle, 2) the Dirt Road or 3) the Highway. The Jungle has 1-50 staff and no clear path with distractions everywhere and very tough conditions. The Dirt Road gets clearer but is definitely bumpy and windy. Well the Highway speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Finally Please – Pick a winner!

Ask people on the inside – the Venture Capitalists, the lawyers, the recruiters and evaluate the team quality like any venture capitalists would. Would you want to work for the team again and again? And is the startup working in a massive market? Is there a clear recurring business model?

After you have picked a winning team and product, how would you get in through the door?

You need to know that warm introductions have to be done. That’s the way to get their attention. Startups value relationships and people as they need social capital to grow. If you have little experience or seemingly irrelevant experience, go bearing a gift. Jeff shared a story of a young ambitious and bright candidate with no tech experience who went and did a thorough customer survey of the users of the startup she intended to work with. She came with point-of-view and presented her findings, and they found in her, what they needed at that stage. She became their Director of Growth. Go in with the philosophy of adding value-add you can get any job you want.

And as any true advisor would do, Jeff did not mince his words, when he reminded the audience that, “If you can’t get introduced you may not be resourceful enough to be in startup.”

Startupland is not a Traditional Career or Learning Cycles

Remember to see your career stage as a runs of 5 years, 8 or 10 – it is not a life long career. In Startup land consider each startup as a single career for you.

Douglas Merrill, founder of Zestfinance added from his hard-earned experience that retention is a challenge. Startup Leaders to keep your people, do help them with the quick learning cycles. Essentially from Jungle to Dirt road, the transition can be rapid and so each communication model that starts and exists, gets changed quickly. Every twelve months, the communication model will have no choice but to break down and you have to reinvent the communication model. Be ready as a founder and be ready as a member of the startup.

Another suggestion was to have no titles for first two years. So that everyone was hands-on and also able to move as one entity.

Effective Startupland Leaders paint a Vision of the Future yet unseen.

What I really enjoyed and resonated with as a coach and psychologist was how Douglas at the 10th hire thought very carefully what he was promising each of his new team member. He was reminded that startups die at their 10th and their 100th hires. He took some mindful down time and reflected. He then wrote a story for each person in his own team and literally wrote out what the company would look like and their individual part in it. In He writing each of the team members’ stories into his vision and giving each person this story, it was a powerful communication piece. He definitely increased the touch points and communication here is the effective startup’s leverage.

Douglas and Jeff both suggested transparency from the onset.

If you think like an owner and if you think of your founding team as problem solvers. Then getting transparent about financials with your team is probably a good idea. As a member of a startup, you should insist on knowing these things
Such skills and domain knowledge will be valuable. There is now historical evidence of people leaving startups and being a successful founder themselves because they were in the financial trenches in their initial startup. Think Paypal and Facebook Mafia.

What drives people to enter a startup?

The whole nature of work is changing. Many are ready to pay to learn. Daniel Pink’s book Drive showed how people are motivated by certain qualities like Mastery, Autonomy and Where your work fits into big picture. Startups do that naturally. There is a huge amount of passion and the quality of team today and as it grows then the quality of company changes.

The Progress principle is in place, why people love their startup jobs is not money rather are my contributions being valued? Do I see a path of progress and do I have autonomy over work and am I treated well?

Find out more about StartupLand on Amazon

And learn from Zestfinance

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