A Disneyland for entrepreneurs

Winner of SOBA Malaysian Business of The Year PKT Logistics Group Sdn Bhd group chief executive and managing director Datuk Michael Tio cradling his pride and joy.

A good dose of drive and tenacity is what keeps the best business brains going in the long run.


THERE have been many success stories and Malaysia has even been called the “Disneyland for entrepreneurs” but amidst the triumphant startup company stories, there are also the failures that no one hears about.

Even successful entrepreneurs say that starting up one’s own company may not be the best course of action, if one does not have the drive and tenacity required.

Soft Space director of strategy Chris Leong says that a person needs to know what his or her path is before venturing into an entrepreneurship.

“Don’t just go for the ‘cool’ factor. You must be willing to sacrifice,” he adds.

Thirty two-year-old Leong does not even introduce himself as an entrepreneur even though he is one of the founding members of his company — Soft Space — which has produced a product that allows any smartphone or tablet to be converted into a mobile point-of-sale device.

With a product like that, even the nasi lemak seller at the street corner would be able to accept credit or debit card payments as he would no longer have to pay the hefty sum required for the normal card machine. All he needs is a smartphone or tablet, a mobile application and the card reader.

Soft Space has signed agreements with banks not only in Malaysia but in Thailand and Vietnam and for its cutting-edge effort, it has won multiple awards. The idea for the software came about when Leong’s childhood friend, Chang Chew Soon, had a chat with his father.

During the conversation, Chang’s father talked about how his company salesman had run off with a large sum of money that he had collected from customers.

Chang’s father had been unable to obtain the mobile electronic data capture terminals from a bank because of the cost as it was way beyond what most small or medium enterprises could afford.

Realising that there was a gap in the market, Chang decided to address it since he had the technical background.

Leong says that the idea for Soft Space spawned because a son was desperate to seek a solution to his father’s financial and business dilemma and others who might face the same problem.

This is not Leong’s first entrepreneurial stint. In the past, he started his own business and worked with Cradle Fund — an agency under the Finance Ministry.

He also founded an angel investment group and mentored students in the Microsoft Imagine Cup.

(An angel investor is someone who provides financial backing for a startup. The capital the investor provides is to help a business succeed, rather than reaping a huge profit from the investment.)

“The life of a true entrepreneur is full of worry and sacrifice,” he writes in a blogpost, as a reply to the frequent student programmes that promote entrepreneurship as “a cool thing to be in”.

“The first thing an entrepreneur loses would most likely be the social life. Clubbing and drinking sessions and any other non-essential activities would most likely be the first to go,” he writes.

He adds that entrepreneurs must be prepared to work on holidays as “every day can be a workday” and they might have to be conscious of their personal cash flow.

Leong has a Master’s degree in Business Administration and the knowledge gained comes in handy when expanding a company.

“But if you apply all the business theories to a startup, you might never start. In the beginning, you have to ‘do more’ than plan, and be able to make quick decisions,” he shares.

Optimising knowledge

Leong’s personal definition of an entrepreneur is someone who is willing to take risks and challenge the status quo, whether or not he owns the business.

These are qualities that PKT Logistics Group Sdn Bhd group chief executive officer (CEO) and managing director Datuk Michael Tio definitely has.

From starting his own used car business while he was studying abroad to taking over the family business, Tio says that he has from a young age wanted to be a businessman.

When he became the company’s CEO, he decided that he wanted to turn it around from being a small company with “old school” views to one that was larger, dynamic and with a more conducive working environment.

He said that his formal education played a large role in his task of restructuring and diversifying the company’s business. “I knew how to restructure a company and come up with a diversification plan. It was all from the textbook,” he says.

Besides diversification of products and industries, Tio also came up with an “employee transformation plan”. He came up with 10 key result areas as part of employee motivation including health aspects.

“Motivation was also a subject that I studied during my master’s degree,” he says, adding that spending money on motivation courses was worthwhile, as “happy employees are productive employees”.

Currently managing a workforce of about 400 people, Tio says that he is “the only CEO” who reads all the company’s security logs. “My staff work via Facebook”.

He has different Facebook groups for the different departments in his company and even allows them to come up with their own group names. His sales team, for example, have come up with their own catchy names.

The security guards write all their reports and upload them to Facebook. “They even include extra details and photos in their report,” says Tio.

“I found out about Facebook when one of my staff members suggested that I block it. I asked him to tell me more about some of the Facebook features and realised that I could make use of them,

“I don’t even have to meet my staff to approve things anymore,” he adds, showing off how employees would tag him in posts that required his immediate attention.

Tio has even expanded the business to include more than just logistics. He has also managed to bring his alma mater — University of Hull — to Malaysia. They will be opening a campus in Batu Kawan, Penang.

Entrepreneurs at work

Tio is a business owner but there are also others in salaried employment that have shown the same entrepreneurial spirit and have grown their respective companies.

Tropicana Golf & Country Resort senior general manager Herman Tan has ventured into and managed his own businesses in the past, but says he prefers working for an employer.

“As a small business owner, you have to join forces or be bought over by a bigger company to expand. I went back to a company because there was more that I could do.

“For small businesses, the pace of expanding is slower. If you want faster growth, you hook up with a big company,” he says, adding that he has learnt much over the course of his work.

“I’ve done organic farming, landscaping... and we’re also venturing into education now,” he says.

However, he adds that attitude plays a large role in how much a person grows as a corporate employee. He says that he treats the company as his own and says that he puts in as much effort as he would if it were his own.

“Life will always give you back what you put in,” he says, adding that his company has also rewarded his hard work with perks.

He adds that if one attempted to tackle a problem, a solution can always be found.

“I remember when I first started the buka puasa buffet. With 200 people we couldn’t cope. Now we’re handling about 2,000 people every day and have no issues. And we grew the business from a RM100,000 company to RM2mil,” he says.

Frost & Sullivan director Rob Cayzer recommends entrepreneurship only to those who “want an adventure but are prepared for continual defeat, disappointments and setbacks”.

While he has considered starting his own venture, he never pursued it as he was too involved in his earlier jobs.

Cayzer began his career with a diploma in computer programming and took on technical IT roles such as software engineering and IT consulting.

“Having a fancy degree with good grades may be a sign of high intelligence and a hard-worker, but employers are looking at other aspects of your life as well,” he says.

Even with his diploma, he managed to work his way up the corporate ladder quite quickly.

“Back in the early 1990’s, IT was a rare skill and I was crazy enough to try a few things which helped my company generate revenue and save money,” he shares.

“Being an employee saves me the headache of sourcing customers, dealing with matters pertaining to finance, managing different people and personalities, and deciding the direction of a business, all at the same time.

“Additionally employees can map their future through their career, along with additional income,” he says.

“It is vital that employees find a job they enjoy in a company they like and with a supervisor they can work with. Otherwise, they might find their careers stunted and life too difficult to cope.

See Hoy Chan Sdn Bhd Group Human Resources and Administration assistant vice-president Nicole Choe has had to keep practising entrepreneurship at work.

“A degree from a top notch institute or excellent grades can give someone an edge but it is more important to remain optimistic and have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge if you want to make it to the top,” she adds

“Be proactive, take the initiative to get things done but most importantly, be passionate about what you do.”

“Being asked to head a business unit and look into staff development was something new and challenging for me. I had to have the mindset of an entrepreneur while at the same time run a business to make it profitable and sustainable,” she shares.

Her five years being in charge of the business unit forced her out of her comfort zone and she enjoyed the many challeneges it presented.

Choe took everything that happened as a lesson in self-improvement and it has been this attitude that has seen her soar up the ranks.

 This article is written in support of the Star Education Fair 2013 which will be held at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre on Dec 14 and 15.

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