Tan Liang Tek introduced military-styled dog tags to the country five years ago, and with business growing from strength to strength, is planning to open a shop next year. MEK ZHIN reports.
ONE of the greatest inventors in the world once said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. It was a testament to Thomas Edison’s unshakeable self-belief and his willingness to learn from mistakes.
Tan Liang Tek may not be on the verge of discovering something that will change the history of mankind, but he definitely takes a leaf out of Edison’s playbook when it comes to persistence.
The 30-year-old’s first few forays into the business world were shaky, meeting with small victories but ultimately coming to dead-ends.
That is, until he hit on a business that no one seems to have latched on here in Malaysia – personalised military dog tags.
After five years and having discovering his niche, Tan’s Malaysia Military Tag now boasts a yearly turnover of RM300,000 to RM400,000. The online business has recently expanded into military-inspired fashion and accessories, and a brick-and-mortar shop is expected to be set up next year.
What inspired you to go into business?
I have a brother and a sister, both of whom run successful businesses. They both became franchisees of a bakery and kindergarten brands respectively. My sister runs seven outlets and my brother has three. I’m really inspired by what they do and dream of the kind of financial freedom I see successful businessmen have.
I suppose my parents also set an example for us. My father, before he passed away some eight years ago, had his own insurance agency and a palm oil plantation business in Sabah. They also invested in properties. My mother was a primary school headmistress but is retired.
What kinds of businesses were you involved in prior to this?
One of my earliest forays into business was selling fake CCTV cameras, the kind that you can put batteries in and it will have a light that blinks and makes it seem real. It was actually pretty successful, until some local chain shops started selling them too, and at my cost price.
Then I started selling US basketball jerseys which I sourced from America but the sources were not too stable so I had to give it up. I learnt a lot from my previous businesses and it has helped give me a headstart when I went into military dog tags, which is a growing business from year to year.
What did you need to do to start this business?
Before I went into it, I researched it. It really is a niche market and I could find no one else doing it. Then I researched on the various equipment available and eventually bought a RM10,000 machine for embossing dog tags.
It is light and manual and can be operated by one person, which made it ideal for me. When my business grew, I changed to an automatic machine which was said to be cost-efficient, costing me RM40,000. Today, I have three machines for embossing the dog tags. As for the tags and the other items, I get them from various sources.
Who are your customers?
Most of my customers are bikers because I think such items suit their style! I also have a lot of outdoor lovers for customers and now military fashion seekers too since expanding my product range.
My bestselling item remains the military dog tags which can be incorporated into a number of other items such as paracord bracelets and the usual chain. It is very useful as you can put in a number of pertinent information such as name, blood type, religion and more. Our second bestseller is the paracord bracelets which can be pretty useful in emergencies because the cord, when unwound, is about 2-3m long and can hold up to 220kg in weight.
Currently, my customers are mainly locals but there is a growing number of overseas customers.
What’s the biggest challenge in your business?
Business in the beginning was quite slow and I only got 20 to 30 military dog tag set orders per month. The problem was that this product was so niche that people just didn’t bother looking for it, so I started investing in marketing.
At one point I even had a booth in an event in Singapore, but eventually I found that online advertising worked the best with my product so these days I mostly put advertisements online. These days I put in between RM3,000 to RM4,000 for ads on Facebook and Google. Now I get between 200 to 300 tag set orders. One set has two tags and a chain and sells for RM50.
What’s the next step in your business?
Currently, I employ friends and family to help out. After about three years in the business, I have already seen a return on my investments. And about a year after I expanded into other products, which has generated a lot of enquiries, I’m also seeing returning customers who are purchasing multiple items with each transaction because I have variety.
My immediate plan is to open a shop by next year and hire full-time staff.
Pet peeve: People who complain about their job but aren’t willing to do anything to change their situation.
Hobbies: Futsal, gym, computer games
Favourite food: Fried kuey teow