Go big or go home

  • People
  • Monday, 03 Aug 2015

Lee handling the automated grill machine at YakiSan, which dips chicken skewers into yakitori sauce before grilling it.

Rather than be stuck in a job he didn’t like, entrepreneur Jonathan Lee opted out of the rat race to start first a hotel and then a food business. You might as well do something you like, he tells RUBY LIM.

HIS move to leave the cubicle behind after three years as a management consultant led Jonathan Lee to become a full-time entrepreneur in the hotel and food-and-beverage (F&B) industry.

After successfully setting up Grid9, a flashpacker hotel, with a partner in March 2013, the 27-year-old ventured into the F&B business in May 2015 by starting YakiSan, a food kiosk offering yakitori or chicken on skewers at Asian Avenue, Sunway Pyramid.

What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?

After a year and half complaining to myself about going to work, I started asking myself “Is this it? It isn’t really exciting working late in the office every day.” At that point in time, I met another colleague of mine having similar thoughts. He mentioned about going into the hotel business, and everything started from there.

What made you decide to go into the hotel business?

It was an opportunity by luck. It so happened my current business partner, also my then colleague, had family members planning to rent out a building at Jalan Maharajalela. I was thinking, “Why not we take over it?” I discussed with him and we went up to them and proposed the hotel’s concept.

We succeeded in convincing the owners with the idea of investing in a hotel business for better returns instead of renting it. And so we got to start our own hotel business and they could have their share of the business.

How about YakiSan?

Once you’ve started a hotel and it runs by itself, it doesn’t really need you. I can say we got lucky and started off quite successfully with Grid9. We had plans to expand the hotel but the hotel industry is capital-intensive and the procedures need time. We were thinking, “What are we going to do the whole year while waiting for the next hotel to be established?”

YakiSan came up in the process of waiting in between for the next hotel. I got a few other friends together and brought up this idea. At the same time, one of them suggested introducing automated machines from Japan. Yakitori is not a new idea but it’s mostly only sold in individual restaurants.

Why not serve it through a different channel as snacks or on a fast-food scale? If we use an automated grill machine and sell yakitori in a mall, the concept is relatively affordable. We did our research three to four months beforehand and then started YakiSan.

What determines the type of businesses you venture into?

If someone gives you a pot of gold and asks you to create something new, obviously creating an app is the way to go. You could build something overnight and a few months down the road it might be worth millions. But at the same time, it is super competitive. and the main point is, none of us is a programmer or tech guy, so we lose out as we need to depend on somebody.

When we say easy to run, at least we are not fully dependent on somebody running the business. Worse comes to worst, we could just sit at the reception area if the person doesn’t show up. Same goes for starting a restaurant whereby if the chef doesn’t show up, things would be in chaos.

In general, we look into businesses with standard operating procedures, businesses that don’t require a skilled party to run.

What do you enjoy most about being an entrepreneur?

Flexibility. That is one of the perks. And also the different experiences that I gain dealing with people from all walks of life, from foreign workers and contractors to shareholders, as well as customers. It is valuable experience whether in the entrepreneur or corporate world.

I can also say it is a confidence-builder for me to start my own business. It’s like risking your own confidence and ego, and it would be a big blow if it didn’t work out. Anyway, the downside is sometimes you will feel a little lonely working and having lunch alone.

What are the challenges that you face?

Defining problems. Only when you know the problem can you find the ideal solution.

What is your current goal?

My goal now is to get a few more YakiSan kiosks up and running, hopefully to sell it as a franchise. It relates back to why we choose a business that can run easily on its own so that we can even see it as a franchise. It would be easy to operate.

How do you maintain a work-life balance?

I put aside at least one day every week to lie back and chill.

Any advice for those who want to become an entrepreneur?

You must like the idea of being an entrepreneur to the point that it makes it a lot easier to wake up in the morning and get to work. Make sure you do enough research beforehand and, of course, that you have enough cash flow if ever things go wrong. To me, the worst scenario is ending up in a job which you don’t like and not making much of it.

Might as well do something you like because at least you’d have the experience and a story to tell.

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