3 Malaysian entrepreneurs share why knowledge exchange between generations is so important to succeed
By MATT NAYLOR
If there’s one thing I have learnt from meeting and interviewing countless leaders and business owners, it is that they come in all shapes and sizes.
Young, old, male, female, tall, short, introvert, extrovert, high-strung, laidback – you meet them all in the world of business.
Diving deeper into the young versus old conundrum, there are countless examples of incredibly successful people starting young; similarly there are plenty who didn’t get their big break until much later in life.
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, famously started the world’s largest social media platform from his college dorm room. He’s currently the fifth richest person in the world and is still only in his early 30s.
On the other side of the coin, the world’s most famous investor, Warren Buffett, has topped rich lists for years, despite only officially becoming a billionaire for the first time in his early 60s. It has been estimated that 99% of his enormous wealth was acquired after his 50th birthday.
While I don’t want to stray too far down the rabbit hole of “money equals success”, it is worth noting a few examples of “successful” people whose lives contrast so much.
Locally speaking, I wanted to know the secrets to success in Malaysia. Is it better to start a company in your 20s, as seems to be every young person’s wish these days, or wait until later in life when you have more experience under your belt?
Having spoken to three highly successful business owners in Kuala Lumpur, it was surprising to find the number of differences they shared, but also the similarities.
In particular, I wanted to focus on what their advice to their younger selves would be and how they are impacting the next generation, both within their companies and in the wider community.
Here’s what they told me:
Johary Mustapha was just 28 years old when he started tech company, Forest Interactive.
After working as a network engineer, software developer, and other tech positions for a range of companies, Johary admits that starting his own company came almost by accident.
“At that time I was just content working for someone, I didn’t have high hopes to be the next Bill Gates or any other tech entrepreneur,” he says.
“I began taking on a few side projects aside from my work but I never intended it to turn into its own thing. One project becomes another project and another and then suddenly I find myself with two employees and saying “OK, I guess I’m an entrepreneur now.”
These projects included mobile phone system integration, picture messaging and SMS programming, and other mobile technologies. While the work kept coming in, Johary decided to leave his full-time job to establish Forest Interactive.
In the early 2000s, though, not everybody was so enthusiastic about his decision to set up his own company rather than work for more established organisations.
“Back then, the start-up scene was not like it is today. People would say to me: “Are you crazy?” Starting your own company was just unthinkable 10 years ago,” he admits.
“Today, the word start-up is so common and there is a real ecosystem that people are used to.
“Now, quitting your job to start your own business is seen as brave and something that everyone wants to hear about. Your ideas are what matter, not who you work for.”
It was a rocky beginning though and the company tentatively bounced from one project to the next, grateful that the work was still coming in.
As Johary tells it: “I lived in constant fear of waking up one day and realising that I had no more projects coming in.
“I had to remain positive and to persevere through the tough times. Those first five or six years were horrible but we eventually became self-sustaining with 20 to 30 people.
“I became so used to failure that I started preparing myself for it mentally. During those early days, 8 out of 10 of our products would fail.
“And so when we came up with something new, I was almost expecting it to fail. Instead of taking a defeatist attitude though and stop innovating, we recognised what we needed to learn from those failures and streamlined what we had.”
Today, business is booming for Forest Interactive as their core focus remains on mobile phone systems, keeping up with the latest smartphone trends to help app developers in the region flourish.
Having been through some turbulent days, Johary has shifted his focus to mentoring the next generation and now coaches eight start-up entrepreneurs through their development journey.
When the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) set up their GAIN programme (Global Acceleration and Innovation), Johary was delighted to be able to help pass on lessons learnt from his own experiences and nurture the next generation.
“If I could pass on one word of advice to my 28-year-old self, I would say that you need to look for a mentor and fully embrace what they have to say,” he says.
“In today’s world, a lot of entrepreneurs look for mentorship, they sit down with somebody, but they don’t make the most of the opportunity. They do it just for the sake of saying that they have done it.
“Today, when I mentor people, it is about more than just putting these young people in the right frame of mind or telling them anecdotal experiences from my past.
“It is about working through their business plan, scalability, and processes, everything that you can do to help them become successful.”
An entrepreneur by necessity
When Exis Tech founder, HL Lee, left his job with a large multinational during the recession of 2002, he noticed that ex-colleagues and friends around him were all facing a similar problem – finding something new.
In a marketplace crowded by multinational corporations, with very little start-up scene to speak of, Lee’s creativity spurned into action and he developed a semi-conductor organisation that would bring about a change.
At this point, he was nearing his mid-30s, with 10 years of working experience under his belt, and felt that the time was right to embark on a brave new venture.
He doesn’t totally discourage fresh graduates and 20-somethings from starting their own business, but recognises that there are many skills that can only be learnt from life in the corporate world.
“One of the most overlooked things that young entrepreneurs miss out on is the sales side,” Lee explains.
“Until you work for a big company and see how they interact with their customers, it’s very difficult to know how to grow your business that way.
“Working for a multinational, I had learnt leadership skills and how to treat those around me. Those team building skills were highly transferable towards starting my own business.
“It’s definitely an advantage to have some of the skills learnt in big corporations under your belt before you start.”
With Exis Tech now pushing new boundaries and continuing to grow, how does he look back on those early days?
He says: “I wouldn’t change anything about the way that I started this business, because of the lessons I have learnt along the way.
“My biggest advice to my younger self, though, would be to take things one step at a time.
“Over-ambition can be a very dangerous thing, wherein if you try to grow too quickly and continuously look forward, you miss opportunities and make mistakes.”
Core to Exis Tech’s development is their internal mentoring systems.
Hiring a diverse range of skill sets and mindsets help keep the company ticking and on the lookout for new ideas.
“We hire as many retirees as we do interns from universities.
“We bring in expats from overseas as well, who can bring something different to the table,” Lee says.
“We want everybody in the organisation to either be transferring knowledge for the betterment of the company as a whole.”
An experienced mind
DayThree chief executive officer, Raymond Devadass, had a different introduction into the world of entrepreneurship.
With nearly 20 years of working experience, Devadass brought a wealth of knowledge when it came to establishing his own brand.
“If I had the time back, I would still take exactly the same route as I have done; I
would do it all over again,” he says with a smile.
For Devadass, the decision to only start up a company later in life was primarily down to three factors – soft skills, networking and confidence.
On soft skills: “Learning to work as part of a team was something that really moulded who I am today and has ultimately helped me achieve the success that I have.
“It was a painful journey, with a lot of very long days, but the skills I learnt during that time was worth it.”
On networking: “It is so important, when you start up your own business, that you have contacts, people who can help you through the early days. That is something that I could only have gotten from my previous working experiences. Similarly, from working hard for those 20 years before I started the company, I had that safety net.
“I knew that I had some savings stashed away that I could still look after the family for a year or so and give this a try. If it didn’t work out, then I had the CV to go back into the world of employment.”
On confidence: “As you grow through life, you build a confidence. For some people, it is innate from day one; for others, it really takes time and life experience. I am definitely in the latter category.
“When I was in my 20s, it was all about job security, we all wanted to work in a large multinational and earn a steady pay packet.
“When I did my MBA in 2005, that was when I had built the courage to look at things differently in terms of taking a more holistic view of business, instead of just looking at numbers. I think that was the turning point for me in thinking that this was something I wanted to pursue.”
Learning those three skills gave Devadass the launching pad from which to grow DayThree.
Despite his network of contacts and business acumen, Devadass still found those early days difficult entering a crowded market.
In just a couple of years, the company built a reputation that now precedes its name, but getting that early access as a start-up was not easy.
Thankfully, their partnership with MDEC was able to get their name out into the world and accelerate their growth, both locally and internationally.
“The GAIN setup has been very good for us; it has done a lot in sincerely wanting to promote local organisations,” he says.
“Being associated with MDEC opens a lot of doors and tells people that your start-up is serious about growth.”
Similarly to Johary and Lee, Devadass is passionate about the impact of mentoring and developing future leaders. He is always willing and eager to pass on his life experiences and admits that he learns just as much from the millennial generation as they do from him.
“For me, everyone should take advantage of mentors and the chance to learn from those more experienced than themselves,” he says.
“Until today, I still go out of my way to learn from other business leaders. It’s the cheapest way of learning.
“Why make a costly mistake for your business when you could have taken the advice of somebody that has made that same mistake before you?
“You will always find that people are very happy to pass on their knowledge and experiences if you show the willingness to learn.”
Bringing it all together
It was fascinating for me to hear from these three business leaders about their early struggles of setting up their companies and how they have grown to the level they are today.
Whether a young entrepreneur or an experienced business mind making the move into running their own company, they each shared their own set of setbacks.
The common theme for each of them is how they are now passing on their experiences to the next generation through the GAIN programme.
There is no “right time” or “right way” to set up your own business, but if Johary, Lee, and Raymond have taught us anything, it’s that learning from those that have come before us is putting your best foot forward for the future.
Matt is a media strategist leader with Leaderonomics. He believes that, in this digital age, it is more important than ever for companies to develop an effective employer branding platform. He is an expat who has lived in Malaysia for many years now, and loves spicy food.