Discover the entrepreneur in you (Part 2): Starting with a blank slate


My definition of an entrepreneur is one who is able to start from scratch and take responsibility and risks to build a venture into something sustainable. In the process, value is created.

Indeed, a true bred entrepreneur thrives on such challenges. It is what differentiates an entrepreneur from a professional manager.

Ironically, I became an entrepreneur after I was sent to attend a 1-day SIM course in 1999 by my boss, an entrepreneur himself. I cannot recall the course title, but I recall the trainer challenging us to think about how we can create value in our business. He cited how the Internet has allowed new start-ups to make quantum leaps in value creation and surpass traditional players by redefining the playing field. He urged us to stay alert on how we can find opportunity to make quantum leap in value creation in our businesses to break out of the competition.

Shortly after the course, I had chicken pox. Whilst on medical leave, I was reflecting on how I could find a new paradigm in the education business when I remembered my 1996 online test business plan. With the dotcom revolution happening in America and starting to take place in Singapore, I felt it was time to relook at my original plan seriously.

I called some friends together and used blank papers to draw out my plans. Those were the dotcom days where if you can speak passionately and convincing about an interesting new idea, you could attract investors, even if it’s a business plan drawn on the back of an envelop. My friends were interested to invest but none would quit their jobs to join me. So I was left to run with the idea, together with my wife, a former head of department in a primary school.

After 3 unsuccessful attempts, we persuaded Ngee Ann Polytechnic to license to us exclusively an existing suite of online assessment software that one of its departments had built, in exchange for shares in our to-be-incorporated company. I met the founders of PAVE Language Centre, an enrichment service provider to schools who casually mentioned their interest in selling their business. We took majority investment in the company and on 2 January 2000, less than 6 months after my chicken pox, started ASKnLearn in the office of PAVE with myself, my wife, another co-founder and a hired marketing staff.

It was a humble office inside West Coast Recreation Centre, right next to the bowling centre. You can hear the pins being hit by the bowling ball or the ball bouncing on the gutter. In the weekends, we used our office space for the language enrichment operations. In the weekdays, it was our office. We progressively hired more staff. The second staff was a system engineer who chose to pay us to break his job contract after 3 weeks with us because he said our company had no future. The third staff was our office administrator cum accountant, then a programmer and a replacement system engineer. I was not sure how to identify the right staff as the business was new to me. It was a lot was trial and error and gut feel. Fortunately, most of the initial staff turned out well.

We peddled the software to schools. We had three schools already using the software from the polytechnic and they were transferred to us to service at a subscription cost we negotiated directly with the schools on. Selling to schools in a dotcom era with an abundance of free software was a big challenge. IDA’s Fast Track@School was a break for us, as the pilot schools with IDA support had to develop new content and systems and we were the hungriest player in town, grabbing projects even  before we knew how to deliver them. I just had faith that if you try hard enough, problems could be solved.

I persuaded my brother-in-law, Dr Ngoi to quit DSO where he was head of a research unit to join us as Chief Technology Officer. We were taking on a number of fairly technical projects for Fast Track and I was running out of ideas how to get the rather complex Mathematics and Science simulation projects delivered.

Over the next two years, we experimented with different content, systems and business models and eventually evolved the business into something with a definite value proposition to our clients, the schools. We had initially wanted a B2C (Business to Consumer) model but felt our resources were too little to take on the consumer market. It was fortunate we took on the B2B (Business to Business) model, offering paid subscription services to schools. It proved to be a sustainable model while our competitors that went for B2C went bust rather early.

I feel the hardest part in being an entrepreneur is the start. For us, there were no operating system, no office, no staff, little resources, no established reputation in the market and a relatively simple product suite acquired from the polytechnic.  I had a business plan, revised many times over as I spoke to prospective investors and customers. Execution was tough. Each day presented interesting new challenges to be solved. Decisions had to be made fast. There was no time to look back and regret any decision. You make a decision and you move on to solve the next challenge.

When I finally exited ASKnLearn in 2009, a system was in place. There were products, clients and an organisation structure to see to the continued running of the business. I did not expect to start another business so soon, but my wife and I did again, within months of leaving ASKnLearn.

I met a MOE official who was roped in to look after a new curriculum in primary schools called Programme for Active Learning, or PAL for short. He wanted a creative visual arts component able to develop students’ imagination in a fun way, as well as to build their social emotional skills.

I introduced TV artist Oistein Kristiansen to MOE and helped secured the implementation of Oistein’s programme in a piloting school. Oistein’s company asked me instead to fulfill the project by forming a new joint venture company with them. Interestingly, on the exact date 10 years after the incorporation of ASKnLearn, we incorporated 360 Education to deliver creative visual arts programmes for students and adults.

It was a whole new experience for me. I am trained in computer science and business, not in visual arts. Everything was new, and had to be started from a blank new sheet. We learnt how to doodle and draw cartoons, manage artists, develop visual art content for new curricula, handle wall mural painting, publish books and handle art workshops and assembly shows. We were going to the schools once more, but with a brand new product in a brand new field. We needed an office space and to hire staff. The adrenaline rush had started all over again.

Every entrepreneur, successful or not, tells an interesting story.

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft recounted how in January 1975 he made a call from his Harvard University dormitory to offer to sell software to the first company that made the PC. He was told to come back in a month’s time as they were not ready for him. Bill Gate himself was not ready yet but he and Paul Allen wrote the software day and night to get it ready (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AP5VIhbJwFs&feature=related) .

The once-richest man in the world started Microsoft with a phone call and the challenge to write a software. He had simply read the January 1975 issue of the Popular Electronics magazine featuring a microcomputer and decided to make the phone call to the computer company. He started with a blank slate, not even the software they claimed to have. Richard Branson of Virgin fame also shared how he started as a student making calls from payphones in college selling his magazine. Branson started from a blank slate too. From magazines, he ventured into selling music records and then creating record labels and now a whole range of products and services, including airlines and telecommunication. The “can-do” spirit is evident in true entrepreneurs. They are never afraid of starting from nothing more than an idea.

I like the Singapore story as well. I see it as a form of entrepreneurial success. We were plunged into independence without a proper army, a small domestic economy, low education level of the population and high unemployment rate. We did not exactly start from blank as we inherited a good legal and administrative system from the British and a working education system. Nevertheless, the challenge to build up the national defence, currency system, entire new industries and administrative systems as well as reform the education system required an entrepreneurial ‘can-do’ spirit which our first generation of leaders and civil servants had. There weren’t always models which they could copy from. It took a lot of active thinking on how to problem solve that had helped Singapore build up its infrastructure and resources. Now that the low hanging fruits have been plucked, maturity has set in. Getting to the next stage for Singapore will take a lot of guts to push for a new paradigm for growth.

The entrepreneurial mindset can also be something you can practice in your workplace or in organising a social outreach. Entrepreneurship is not necessary only for entrepreneurs. While running ASKnLearn, I had constantly challenged managerial staff to find their own blank spaces to build something now. Those who did found faster career progression for themselves as they had to first create value and from the value they had created, we could share the fruits with them. We chose to run the company in an entrepreneurial fashion, as we were operating in a small and challenging market. We needed staff to find new markets and ways to expand the business creatively. Richard Branson of the Virgin group fame, is an entrepreneur who has built his business through making entrepreneurs out of his staff. With global competition, Singapore’s businesses need managers who are more entrepreneurial in their mindset to grow in the 21st century.

I hope that Singapore will be able to cultivate a new generation of leaders, entrepreneurs and managers who are willing to take on uncertainties ahead of them and rise above the challenges to build exciting new ventures from blank slates.

Watch this blog for more upcoming articles on entrepreneurship!

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4 comments on “Discover the entrepreneur in you (Part 2): Starting with a blank slate

  1. How I wish I can have friends like you? I don’t have friends who have this ‘entrepreneur DNA’ , most of them are too contented with just a well-paid job. Even though when I talk to my mother about wanting to start a business of my own, she said I was asking too much out of life. I need very much to have someone who can ‘think out of the box’ , be a bit less rational, a bit creative or crazy, throw some ideas or to bounce of ideas at each other. I’m still very keen in doing some business of my own, at the moment, I’m trying some Internet marketing because I don’t have the capital and stamina to do something more if I want to. The big killer for starting anything in Singapore now is the high rental cost. I believe in order to encourage entrepreneurship, the 1st thing to do is to have places with affordable rents for business start-ups. In Singapore context, to escape the high rents, you can operate at home, but there will be some constraints if your activities bring some noises to your neighbors, they will complain until you go out of business. Few days ago, I read something about being a consultant to business in using social media to manage their brands and doing PR work for socially responsible business. Sounds attractive, but the one million dollar question is how to move to there?

    • Home-based businesses are ok for a start until you start hiring people (you don’t want staff to come in and out of your house and they also may not join your company). Important is to start with an interesting idea and explore it by incubating or testing it out in a small way first with the market (i.e. try to get real customers and see their reaction). If you find people are willing to pay for what you do, then there’s possibility of going big into it. If clients are not enthusiastic, better re-think what else you can sell to them, etc. Be flexible. Starting small first is ok.

      Yesterday, I gave a talk at SmartSpaces at 261 Waterloo street . Interesting concept by a young law grad-turned-entrepreneur to provide low cost plug and play space for incubating start-ups. Didn’t know them before yesterday. Got invited to speak there. Interesting concept for new entrepreneurs.

      Start mixing with the entrepreneur community and see if some ideas get sparked onto you. Stay flexible and open to change at all times and look out for opportunities constantly.

      All the best in your exploration!

      • Thanks for sharing your experience. It seems very hard to find partners in starting small business in Singapore. Everyone wants to be their own boss and protect their own business ideas. 😦

      • There are different types of partners. Mine was a private limited company and I had friend successful in their careers who wish to invest but not be involved in running the business. If you are able to run on your own with money invested by others but not their time and expertise, that is a possible route. However, making pitch for investment into private unlisted companies is usually challenging. You need to show a clear exit path as no one wish to be invest forever in an unlisted company.

        If you are looking for an operational partner, it is like getting into a marriage. Make sure you can work with each other first.

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