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Julian Lee, Founder and CEO of Ambi Labs

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Julian Lee

Julian Lee is using AI to unlock intelligent home automation systems.

What’s your story?
I’m Julian, the founder and CEO of Ambi Labs. Born in Singapore, grew up in Hong Kong, studied in the UK, before working in Singapore, Hong Kong, and (briefly) in KL, Beijing and Taipei. I studied Mechanical Engineering in school (Mechatronics – kind of related to IoT in some ways), and after a brief stint in DSTA as a human factors engineer (during NS), I spent most of my career in strategy consulting and finance. Before setting up Ambi Labs, I was in private equity for 5 years, investing in companies ranging from startups to mining companies.

What excites you most about your industry?
The convergence of IoT and A.I. has the potential to unlock truly intelligent home automation. Many IoT devices today offer only sensors, or simple remote functionality, but we believe that users want a seamless, effortless and most importantly automatic experience. Sensors can allow the user greater insight into non-visible factors, but still requires the user to manually adjust their lifestyle – whether it’s opening a window or switching on an air purifier. Often, multiple factors affect a user making it difficult for the user to balance these factors and make the required adjustments manually. A.I. abstracts away this complexity for the user, delivering a better experience overall.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’ve spent most of my life in Hong Kong, lived in Singapore for 5 years (I’m actually Singaporean), and have worked extensively throughout Asia (Japan, Taiwan, China, Malaysia). In setting up Ambi Labs, we wanted to develop IoT products that suit the Asian lifestyle – too many products today only focus on US or European lifestyle habits, but I believe that Asia has a great potential for the future.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
It’s really hard to pick just one. Hong Kong’s work culture is very fast-paced and flexible, and there is a great melting pot of cultures, making it a very international city. I find Singapore is another really great place – perhaps it’s due to the fact that most ideas in the world are still shared in English, but I find people in Singapore to be curious, innovative and many seek to truly innovate.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Just stay in the moment. As an entrepreneur, you face challenges everyday – and sometimes, it’s easy to get overly excited about certain opportunities. I believe all you can do is to overcome the immediate challenges, and many seemingly amazing opportunities can evaporate in a flash. So you need to have an internal compass as to where you’re going, and just proceed along that path one step at a time. Of course, you have to seize opportunities that show up too! But only as long as they fit into your longer term goals.

Who inspires you?
All the entrepreneurs around me. I love meeting and chatting with other entrepreneurs, it’s inspiring to hear their stories – and quite often hearing their thoughts and experiences helps me to process my own challenges!

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
It’s hard to pin down just one thing – I feel like I’m learning every day, and always adapting my plans to new information that comes through!

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Looking back, I truly believe that I made the best possible decision based on the information and resources I had at the time. But then again, who doesn’t wish they had moved faster, or more efficiently?

How do you unwind?
Enjoying the moment – whether it’s meditating, lying on a beach, or watching the sun set, I find nothing more relaxing than just switching off my mind and focusing on the sensations of the world around me.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Japan – for onsens. I love just sitting in the hot water, watching the view from an outdoor bath. Bonus if it’s snowing!

Everyone in business should read this book:
The five dysfunctions of a team

Shameless plug for your business:
Ambi Climate is the world’s first A.I. enabled accessory for air conditioners. Why do you need A.I. for ACs? ACs today only consider temperature alone, but many other factors affect your comfort – humidity, changing outdoor weather, time of day, seasonality and more. Through A.I. Ambi Climate simplifies the AC control paradigm to just 1 factor: Comfort. The user just has to indicate if they are hot, cold or comfortable, and our A.I. will learn how each of these factors affect your comfort; it will then auto-adjust your AC to keep you more comfortable and save energy.

How can people connect with you?
Just drop me a note at [email protected] – happy to share entrepreneurial stories over a cup of coffee, explore partnerships, or whatever!

Twitter handle?
https://twitter.com/julianshlee

This interview was part of the Callum Connect’s column found on The Asian Entrepreneur:

CallumConnectsCallum Laing invests and buys small businesses in a range of industries around Asia. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is the founder & owner of Fitness-Buffet a company delivering employee wellness solutions in 12 countries. He is a Director of, amongst others, Key Person of Influence. A 40 week training program for business owners and executives.

Take the ‘Key Person of Influence’ scorecard <http://www.keypersonofinfluence.com/scorecard/>

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Get his free ‘Asia Snapshot’ report from www.callumlaing.com

Callum Connects

Andrew Schorr, Founder of Grata

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Taking a different route throughout his life, Andrew Schorr ended up in China and started several businesses.

What’s your story?
I moved to China after I graduated from college in 2004. English teaching was the easiest way to get there, so I looked on a map and picked a small town in Hubei, because it looked to be more or less in the middle of China. I was the only foreigner there.

Back then, everything was about the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, so I moved to the capital after my year of teaching. Pretty soon after arriving, I met the co-founder for all three of my companies. We decided to start a company together the first day we met. He has now moved back to the US and builds flight software at SpaceX.

Our first company, an online city guide, was re-purposed into our second company, GuestOps, a web concierge platform. We sold GuestOps to most of the major international hotel brands in China and still operate it. The genesis of our latest company, Grata came from looking at the intersection of hotels and WeChat in 2012, when WeChat was just starting to blow up. Grata expanded from hotels into a live-agent customer service console.

What excites you most about your industry?
Our thesis with Grata has always been that what is happening with WeChat in China is the future of messaging platforms globally, and as an international team building on WeChat, we would be well-placed to capitalize on that trend. It’s taken longer than we expected for the industry (and us, for that matter) to get there, but finally, we’re starting to see messaging as a platform to get better traction in other markets.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian. I grew up in Texas, where all my friends studied Spanish in school. I studied German for no reason in particular. I took a similar path in college: Chinese and Japanese seemed like languages that not a lot of people who look like me studied. I was one of only two students in my third-year Chinese class.

Concur conference in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (Photo by Paul Sakuma, Paul Sakuma Photography) www.paulsakuma.com

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Shanghai. I should live there, but Beijing has been home for so long. I take the night train down to Shanghai every two-three weeks to meet with clients. Domestic flights are way too unreliable here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Don’t plan too far ahead; otherwise, you plan yourself out of good opportunities.

Who inspires you?
Has anyone said “Elon Musk” yet? Barack Obama would be another.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The gravitational waves recently detected from neutron stars colliding, were so subtle as to only affect the distance from earth to our closest star, Alpha Centauri (4.24 light years away) by the width of a human hair. Perhaps in another life or in the future, I’ll be an astronomer, but a telescope doesn’t do me much good in Beijing.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
When I give advice to students looking to get into entrepreneurship, I advise them to work for a post-Series A startup first and learn from a company that’s already doing things well. I learnt everything on my own, which is slower and you pay for your own education. If you work for a startup that’s small in the beginning, you risk learning bad habits.

How do you unwind?
I Hash! The Hash is a drinking club with a running problem. The Hash attracts good people from all walks of life and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a great way to meet fun-loving people all over the world. It’s also how I met my co-founder, our first lawyer, and my girlfriend.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Pulau Perhentian, Malaysia. A fantastic beach and where I first learned to scuba dive.

Everyone in business should read this book:
For business in China, Tim Clissold’s, Mr. China.

Shameless plug for your business:
Grata does WeChat contact centers for many top-tier brands in luxury retail, travel, financial services and hospitality. We started developing on WeChat before they even had an open platform. Grata provides the most value for large enterprises with complex routing and content demands for their contact centers.

How can people connect with you?
Check out www.grata.co or email me: [email protected]

Twitter handle?
My personal handle is @andrew_schorr and we tweet about messaging from the company handle @grata_co.

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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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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