E-business architects in the thick of the Net


  • Business
  • Saturday, 29 Mar 2003

By STEPHEN BOEY

OTHER people can tell their grandchildren what they did during the war. Netpreneur Ng Kien Lock would rather tell his grandchildren that he was in the thick of the Internet explosion, and that he made things happen. 

“Very fundamentally, I really want to be a catalyst in the Internet era,” says the chief executive officer of Sebas Sdn Bhd, which bills itself as e-business architects.  

“One of the things I told myself was, when I look down the road – 10 years, 15 years, 20 years – and people ask what I did during the Internet explosion, it would be very exciting if I could say 'I was part of it, I made something happen, I was there in the thick of it', rather than saying 'I watched it happen; didn't quite believe it then', which would be very, very sad. 

“So I made a decision that I wanted to be there in the midst of the action instead of talking about it and looking at it from a vendor's standpoint. I could actually go in there and start things. That's why I came out (from IBM Malaysia) and started Sebas, to build things and do things that we saw were crucial and would be important.” 

Ironically, the last job that he did in IBM was one of the major factors that got him thinking about leaving. It was – you've guessed it – in the area of e-business.  

“At the time IBM created e-business (in 1999), I was there and working on that,” recalls Ng. “I saw the potential of the Internet in the future. Though there was this slow boom of the dotcom and stuff like that, it was more of how the Internet would shape the future that got me really very interested. I believe I could actually become a catalyst.” 

So Ng left IBM and started Sebas with a few partners. He had worked 11 years in IBM, joined in 1988 as a trainee and rose to senior manager; and along the way was involved in systems engineering, marketing, regional work, networking and consulting.  

“In Sebas, we researched on industries that really could use the Internet. One of the industries that the Internet will lend a very good hand to – even in the future – is the hospitality and travel industry,” says Ng.  

“We spent time developing applications for that industry. The other area that we looked at, where we found a niche was CRM (customer relations management). 

“Traditionally, CRM, being very broad in its description, costs millions of dollars to build; and we felt that in countries like Malaysia and others in this part of Asia, people just can't afford that kind of money to do that kind of work. And people here are really not that sophisticated to use everything they pay for.  

“So we decided to come out and build systems around open source, especially the Linux environment, to keep the cost down, picking the best of the features to build on and offer it to small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) for use off-the-shelf.”  

So Sebas decided to build its CRM application very much around Internet technology. Ng recalls: “We used the Internet, we used the browsers, we used Internet databases, we used Internet architectures to develop our own set of CRM applications.” 

Sebas branded it X10Biz – a play on the words “extending your business”. “The Internet is supposed to extend your business,” explains Ng. “The Internet allows us to do things which we otherwise could not do. In the old days, when we had networks those were very, very expensive, and only the very rich corporations could afford them.  

“Now with the Internet, it only costs you literally cents to actually get on to the network. You don't have to invest too much. You can access it using your computer or your mobile device. 

“ 

“As time elapsed, the technologies changed. That was the biggest challenge, not any new way of doing the business; but really enabling them to do what they couldn't do before, very much from two standpoints. 

“One, the (extended) reach to their customers and employees change certain processes in the business, which they otherwise couldn't do before. Now they can do things more efficiently, and productivity is higher. 

“Two, is the area of costs. As you know, Malaysian companies and companies in this part of the world have become very cost sensitive, especially as the economy does not allow for debts. And they now pay significantly less – half, if not less than half – of what they used to pay. 

“That gives them opportunities to try out new things, and really venture where they never thought they could afford to go. We discovered in many of our clients that when they bought applications – and they paid millions of dollars for it – they don't use much of the functions in the first place, but had to pay for it nevertheless.  

“Asians, especially in this part of the world, are not that sophisticated yet, and to pay for extremely sophisticated systems which are designed for very sophisticated businesses – for example, AT&T – and start using it here would be an overkill. Even though we may pay for a smaller system, it is still very much an overkill. 

To catch the wave in today's fast changing trends, businesses need to react in double quick time. Traditional campaigns would take too long. So for fast moving consumer goods, Sebas solutions utilise next generation mobile devices like phone-PDAs (personal digital assistants).  

“The sales force can go out and do campaigns, recruitment, and ordering and distribution, all at one go,” says Ng. “These are specially designed such that people who use them do not have to be technology savvy. They don't have to do much, but they are the front point of putting data into the entire campaign and entire distribution system. That's what we see – mobile extensions working very well.  

“We leverage the use of GPRS (general packet radio system), we leverage the use of SMS (short messaging service), and eventually we will be leveraging the use of MMS (multimedia messaging service) to do much of this work. 

There were other, technological, learning curves along the way. “People thought that building applications was a one-off thing. We saw building applications as a base for a product, and that gave us a lot of leeway to build new products along the way without having to start from scratch,” says Ng. 

“Once we were able to do that it gave us a lot of flexibility. We become more agile. And of course our costs became much lower and margins healthier. 

“We are about to break even, which is not bad for a three-year-old company. Our focus has very much been to build intellectual property as a springboard for companies that need sophisticated applications, using Internet technology,” he says.  

If Sebas has been delivering cost-effective solutions, it is because it practises that at home. “We have invested RM6 million in the company, very must less than other application developers,” says Ng. “We need to live with what we believe in. No one can afford to throw money at problems. We certainly never did.  

“Problems that need to be solved need to be fixed in the cheapest, quickest, most efficient way. In the good old days of the dotcom, people threw money and swept the problem under the carpet. But it will only explode, and did.  

“Money is to be used for a springboard, not to be used to cover up. We used our money for the development of intellectual property rather than to fix problems.  

“Internally, there are many things that money cannot fix. So you need prudent management, strategies that can be executed, and ability to share that vision to drive the business. 

“I have learned a lot over the last few years, more than I have ever had in all my years of working. It has been an incredible three years, learning about every facet of a growing business as well as a changing economy, riding on an Internet wave that is constantly evolving.  

“It is very much like juggling. As you are fixing certain things, trends move and change, and you've got to get on that wave and make sure that your customers are protected and that they get the best of things that are happening.  

“And it takes time to develop, and that's why we need an ability to develop things very, very quickly. If everything has to be developed from scratch we would never see daylight ever. 

“Looking back at what we have achieved, I'm still not satisfied with where we've gone. We still have a long way to go, although we've come a long way already.  

“I am happy with the developments. But I am anxious to see more of this happening in the next few years, and for Sebas to develop into a true catalyst and true powerhouse to stimulate Internet business in the Asian region.” 

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