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Shannon & King, co-founders of SaltyCustoms

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Shannon Toh and Quah Nian King(King) are the founders of Salty Customs, a B2B t-shirt supply and design company.

Shannon holds a Bachelor Degree in Accounting & Finance. His entrepreneurship journey began when he was 8 years old, selling scented eraser dust packed in paper to his classmates. In university, he won his first business competition which scored him a job offer from DiGi Malaysia. Whilst studying, Shannon also worked for Nike, helping the company to coordinate their shoe launches and its related events. At 23, Shannon co-founder SaltyCustoms in the study room of his parents after leaving his corporate accounting job in one of the Big 4 accounting firms in Malaysia. He is now the creative director of SaltyCustoms and the C.E.O of T33.COM.

King has a Bachelor Degree in Business Management, Finance and Marketing. At a tender age of 13, King has had his hands in an array of industries learning and growing from house to house odd-jobs to part time positions in restaurants and manufacturing plants. As the years went by and opportunities presented itself, he is no stranger to on-ground roadshows and event organizing. The experience and exposure came in handy in 2007, landing him a job with a Corporate Training Firm that specializes in Soft Skills training for MNCs. King says that: “Working with mentors and life coaches has thought me a lot about the human mind and people’s behaviour. I’ve been a student of the mind ever since”. Coupled with the Management degree, this growing knowledge has been the pillars that build the foundation and core values that King believes in: “It gives me a better insight into matters pertaining to work and one’s personal life; like we practice at work, Career growth and Personal growth has to come hand in hand and I’d like to be the advocate for that”.

Today the Asian Entrepreneur is fortunate to be joined by both co-founders as they give us a very insightful and critical look of their entrepreneurial journey.

In your own words, what exactly is SaltyCustoms and what makes it special?

Shannon: SaltyCustoms is a revolutionary service that help clients create amazing custom t-shirts for every company and lifestyle. We focus on 3 contributing factors that give clients the SaltyCustoms experience: Quality, Consultancy, Experience. We make the entire experience of ordering 10 pieces to 10,000 pieces a breeze. A lot is put into our customer experience, from the first inquiry, to the design process and the consultancy that takes place, helping customers plan different apparel ranges, print methods and even colour choices till the delivery stage where every piece is packed into our signature box cartons. SaltyCustoms “gets it”. The team consists of Apparel Consultants who are t-shirt fans and know all aspects that make a t-shirt awesome.

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What led you guys to start SaltyCustoms?

Shannon: I have always been a huge fan of t-shirts since young. I wanted to start my own brand when I was in university but finding a great blank t-shirt to print on was impossible. Most of the t-shirts I found could not match up to the brands from the US. Feeling unsatisfied, I decided to tailor make my own cut and pick my own materials. It was when I wore my first t-shirt, I bravely set up a store at Youth’09 trade show where I sold 100 blank t-shirts in 3 days. That was when I realized that there was a market for supplying quality, great fitting blank t-shirts. I quit my job a few months later and the my journey began.

Would you say you planned it out initially?

Shannon: I didn’t really have a very structured plan. I took the plunge into entrepreneurship with a lot of guts and believing in the dream to make the best t-shirts, with enough savings to survive of course.

What sort of challenges did you guys face during startup?

Shannon:Money and discipline was a big challenge. When starting up, I had almost no capital and was reinvesting every buck made back into the business. I drew just enough salary to survive. Once we manage to hire staff, they had to be paid first. On bad months in the early days, my partner and I would give up our salaries to pay the staff first. They were more important than our money. No one realizes how hard it is to find the discipline to be your own boss, especially at a young age. We find ourselves procrastinating at a lot of tasks and it slows down operations. It really takes maturing and a kick in the ass from someone you respect to change yourself.

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How did you guys overcome these challenges?

Shannon: Maturity and a reality check. As I mentioned, a real kick makes you realize that if you don’t buck up in these coming months, you’re going to close down. Also, my partner and I started reading the same business books that help us align easily and stay on the same page with many big decisions.

So how has it been like working on SaltyCustoms since?

Shannon: I think the wave has finally come and we’re riding it cautiously. We have grown tremendously in the past 2 years, both internally and externally. We’ve implemented real work flows and systems and are running the business like a big corporation. The work is serious but we also focus a lot on our company culture. There’s rarely any office politics and we’re all like a big family. We go out for movies, play sports, and support each other at work. I couldn’t have imagined a better working environment. The coolest part is our clients take notice of our culture & identity, we’re always staying true to our culture and that’s why clients love working with us.

From your experience, what can you tell us about the fashion industry in Malaysia?

Shannon: Malaysia is a tough market for fashion. I feel that there’s too much segregation in terms of culture and style. The majority of Malaysia is still at the state where price surpasses the importance of quality. It’s not very easy when you’re expected to delivery cheap and good products.

I take it that you think these challenges and difficulties don’t arise in Western markets, right?

Shannon: I wouldn’t say that but it’s a different set of challenges, I think. Local brands struggle with the division of the cultures, the mentality that Western brands are superior to local brands and also the size of our market is very small. However, in the West, they face more of “first world problem”. There are too many opportunities, the market is huge enough for tons of players. That creates a great deal of competition for fashion brands. On the flipside, it pushes brands to stay on top of their game.

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So how is competition like in what you do?

King: I think being in the business of apparel supply, competition is stiff as there are many other reputable and distinguished tshirt and uniform manufacturers in the industry. We choose to believe that we differ by being able to serve as an apparel partner to our clients, offering solutions via apparel consultancy and high level apparel manufacturing to bring their products to a retail level for greater Returns of investment.

How have you ensured that the company remains innovative?

King: Well, the company started out as a 2 men team. Today there are 11 of us wackos working together seeking to amaze each and other every single day. The very reason that has moulded us, kept us motivated and positive throughout and it gives us the ability to bring out the best in each other; these characteristics shines through the work that we do enabling us to consult, deal and serve better while staying current and trendy. Furthermore, with the technical capacity of over 12 special print technologies and growing, custom cloth dyeing facilities and a capacity to produce over 30,000pcs of custom made apparels a month at a competitive price, we believe in our product.

In your opinion, what are some common problems that businesses face with regards to starting a shirt-brand in Malaysia?

King: From my experience, there are many sets of challenges that would be inevitable and to each their own when it comes to problems. The most common of them all would lie in the assessment of risks. Many a times, entrepreneurs find themselves faced with a heavy decision between having to invest whole heartedly into the business or to play it safe by testing the receptiveness of the market first. Due to very realistic barriers such as limitation of funds and lack of distribution platforms, should entrepreneurs decide with the latter, then they would end up paying more for a basic product with limited stocks in hand. Should one decide to go with the former, then initial start-up capital would be hefty and risks are a whole lot greater.

What are some important insights that you’ve learnt from working on SaltyCustoms?

King: Running a business is not always easy, in fact it could be frustrating beyond words at times but above it all, the satisfaction that I gain from working with talented people to produce high level products for our always appreciative clients and the learning that the we, the team go through collectively, makes it all worth it.

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What makes an entrepreneur successful, in your opinion?

King: For an entrepreneur to be successful in his/her venture, one has to be highly motivated, highly energized, disciplined and ethical.

So do you guys have any advice for the fighting entrepreneurs out there?

Shannon: Surround yourself with likeminded people, ditch your negative friends if you have to.
King: Do what you love and what you love would follow.

What personal values drives you guys?

Shannon: Honesty, Staying humble, Keep learning, Dream big, Reward yourself.
King: I’ll hold true to this: “Treat others with respect and integrity; and the way you would like to be treated.” Also, growth and personal development, people becoming more than what they were before, the business undergoes an organic growing phase, the brand gains international recognition; these are the key factors that would keep me going.

What can we expect from SaltyCustoms in the future?

Shannon: We definitely want to make SaltyCustoms a household brand for custom t-shirts worldwide.
King:It took us 3 years to lay the foundation for SaltyCustoms. The journey has only just begun. We’ll see to it that SaltyCustoms is to be in every company and every lifestyle worlwide in the next 5 years. There definitely is room for the brand to grow and mature over this period of time. More development plans to be unveiled along the way. Sky is the limit!
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Connect with Shannon & King and SaltyCustoms today:
Email: [email protected]
Website: http://www.saltycustoms.com/
Statigram: http://www.statigr.am/saltycustoms
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/saltycustoms
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/saltycustoms

Callum Connects

Joelle Ung, Founder of Treasure Unity

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Joelle’s entrepreneurial journey has been an interesting one, leading her to the world of network marketing, enabling her to help other entrepreneurs succeed.

What’s your story?
The sense of wanting to make an impact, of needing to add value to ‘something,’ be it focused on business or peoples’ lives, has led me, through many failures, to where I am now, the food and beverage manufacturing industry. My entrepreneurial journey began as a wedding planner. Then, having tasted initial success, my desire to find meaningful business mentors brought me to the world of network marketing.
Having benefited from the teachings of my mentor, plus the time I spent growing up as the daughter of a great father, I realised that the urge to ‘pay it forward,’ by mentoring future entrepreneurs and helping my colleagues, other entrepreneurs to succeed, had become a personal mission.
The Honest Living Program, owned by my current company, Treasure Unity, is a realisation of that dream. The program opens up learning opportunities for women under duress, underprivileged women and single mothers. It provides a platform from which I am able to teach, imparting people skills and the art of presentation through the day-to-day program. It is absolutely free.

What excites you most about your industry?
To be able to keep adding values to others. On stage or off, it doesn’t matter. I enjoy every call I receive, every appointment that is set up, every individual I have met, and have yet to meet. There is only one agenda, and that is to add value to the person I am speaking to.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Having lived in Singapore and Malaysia for the past 39 years, my heart is impacting the people in Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Because of the people who live there, and because there are no barriers to communication for me.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Don’t make any decision out of confusion, disappointment or anger. Decisions should always be made with a restful heart.

Who inspires you?
Walt Disney: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
My husband is an ‘overcomer’ who had a near fatal stroke 18 years ago. He lost the ability to practice his dream career as a medical doctor, yet he chose to be a prisoner of hope rather than be a prisoner within his body, and he has never indulged in self-pity.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Lately, I have learned to be still when an opponent strikes at me. It works! You do not need to immediately rebut an opponent. He, or she, will most probably be waiting for a reaction. When they don’t get one, when you remain still and unmoved, you become unpredictable. They do not know your next move.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have sought advice from more wise counsellors before making major decisions, especially if finance or investments were involved.

How do you unwind?
Sometimes I like to take a short getaway or, on a daily basis, I read bible verses that I find uplifting.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Penang. It is close to home and you can get a premium service at an affordable cost. Also, I can pack light, and it is easy to find anything and everything there.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Like a Virgin, by Richard Branson

Shameless plug for your business:
Become an irresistible woman with substance! We will bring out your natural leadership skills through the Honest Living Program.

How can people connect with you?
They can connect with me by email [email protected], through WhatsApp 92300071, or they can call me on my mobile.

Twitter handle?
My twitter account is inactive. @ungjoelle @treasureunity

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

Women on Top in Tech – Dr. Vivienne Ming, Co-Founder and Executive Chair at Socos Labs

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Dr. Vivienne Ming is a theoretical neuroscientist, entrepreneur, technologist, and an author. She co-founded Socos, her fourth company, where she combines machine learning, cognitive neuroscience, and economics to maximize life outcomes in education and the workplace. Vivienne is also a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, where she pursues her research in neuroprosthetics. In her free time, Vivienne has developed a predictive model of diabetes to better manage the glucose levels of her diabetic son and systems to predict manic episodes in bipolar suffers. In 2013, she was named one of 10 Women to Watch in Tech by Inc. Magazine.

What makes you do what you do?
I grew up reading far too much science fiction. It always seemed not like an escape, but like a guide to a better world that we could build. When I ran into challenges later in my life and learned how easy it is for a high potential life to slip through the cracks, it was that love of science fiction that kept me thinking that something better was possible. I found a purpose in that failure that drove me to earn my PhD in neuroscience and machine learning so that I could build the worlds that I used to read about.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I have worked in several different industries. As an academic, I had a rather shocking amount of success as a graduate student with papers published in top journals and I went on to appointments at Stanford and Berkeley. Then, I started all over again when I founded an education company. When the company rose to prominence and I was giving keynotes at major education conferences, I left that behind to develop technologies for talent acquisition, healthcare, and anything and everything that made better people. My path to success was always forged by me solving problems, with a lot help from simple dumb luck.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
After founding a number of technology companies, I decided I wanted to take what I learned and share it with as many people as possible. I wanted to have an impact on global policy. Based on advice from colleagues and friends, I founded Socos Labs, a think tank that uses machine learning, economics, and behavior research to explore human potential. Socos Labs experiments with whole new visions of work, education, innovation and inclusive economies to inform more human-centered policy.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
I’ve been influenced and supported by a great many people in my life, but I cannot say that I’ve ever had a mentor or even a hero that acted as a guide for my career. I’m not belittling the value of great mentorships (my own research argues for its impact), but rather it’s equally important to recognize that a career isn’t a formulaic movie plot with predefined roles.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
My work is about making better people and helping people grow. It has always been very important to me to give people a chance who might not otherwise have the same opportunity elsewhere. I have built companies where people who don’t have traditional credentials can come and work on projects that make a difference in people’s lives. The only component I’m really looking for is potential.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
Supporting diversity is both a mission of Socos Labs and a key part of nearly every company with which I am involved. I sit on the board of companies that foster diversity and I’ve founded companies to find strategies to reduce bias in the hiring process. Creative diversity is crucial to run any high performance organization. My research show that companies should build teams in which everyone brings different, complementary strengths to the table, and diverse life experience is one of the greatest sources of those strengths.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I suspect there are many ways to be a great leader. My personal approach is perhaps naively simple: do good work and share it with the world. I am sure there are more sophisticated and effective ways to gain attention and build high-performance organizations, but my approach (which I heartily advocate for anyone else) is to focus fanatically on what you’re trying to achieve, your purpose, and find or simply create the means for your work to reach other people.

Advice for others?
Seek out problems that are so messy other people have given up on them.

That is exactly where I want to be and what my new think tank, Socos Labs, aims to explore. We partner with companies and NGOs that share in our mission and help advance a new understanding about education, workforce, health, innovation, inclusion, and so much more. Along the way I’ve learned enough to write a couple of books, How to Robot-Proof Your Kids and The Tax on Being Different, which will be out later this year. In both I discuss how we can begin to untangle many of these big messy global problems.


If you’d like to get in touch with Dr. Vivienne Ming, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vivienneming/

To learn more about Socos Labs, please click here.

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