When she noticed cashless payment systems becoming popular, Koh Lee Ching, 49, thought: What potential. Eventually, she tells LIM WING HOOI, she left her job and started CALMS Technologies to offer smartcard solutions.
How was the business climate when you started your company?
I started the business in 2002 after spending more than nine years as a product engineer, marketing computer-aided engineering (CAE) programmes. I was one of the lucky few who were still in the line we studied — I graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering.
I was fascinated with how the software could be used to simulate loads for engineering purposes, like determining the strength of structures. But subsequently, the company I worked for decided to market smartcard solutions. That was when I started learning new terminologies and concepts.
I see this segment offering unlimited possibilities, unconstrained by engineering formulas!
Malaysia was at the forefront in implementing smartcard technology in our National ID, the MyKad, as well as the migration of credit cards towards smartcard-based systems.
I saw the potential of enabling multi-applications utilising smartcard technology. There was an unmet need, as the cost of technology was very expensive then and only available via overseas developers.
And so, we decided to develop our own systems. That got me to start the business with four workers.
Was it tough?
We were lucky to come in at a time when the local venture capital companies were willing to invest in early-stage companies, and we had a technology with great potential. We got an investment after talking to six potential investors.
We used the seed-funding to hire programmers to develop our core product called Card Application Lifecycle Management System (in short CALMS).
Today, the product continues to remain relevant and has become the core component of our solutions that enable multi-application smartcard implementations.
Despite the challenges, entrepreneurship has always been in my blood.
My mother used to run a small business selling vegetables at the local market and later opened a small sundry shop.
I grew up helping her out, and although I didn’t plan to go into business, when the opportunity arose, it was not a difficult decision to make.
I also have a very supportive husband, which matters a lot.
What is your business model?
When we first started, we used the normal licensing model whereby we would install the software at the customer’s business site and charge them one-time licensing fee with optional annual maintenance fee. The customer owned and managed their own server.
This year, we launched our latest product offering called EDUPurS (or education purse) on cloud. So now we host and manage the core application, and customers pay based on an annual licensing model together with a pay-per-use fee.
This application allows a company or institutition to programme the smartcard areas that a user could access or to use it as an electronic purse to pay for facilities like laundry and vending machines.
It’s been 14 years. Any moments that stand out?
Our early customers, the educational institutions, were cautious. Questions like “Am I the guinea pig?” and “Would you still be around in next two years?” were common. We told them we could give the source codes to a trusted party (such as a lawyer) should we fail to sustain the business. But it never came to that.
Today, we have grown and have a workforce of 34 and operate in UPM-MTDC Technology Centre, Serdang. We have distributors in Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
These days, when clients ask for referrals, we ask them which of the hundreds of clients, which range from education institutions to corporates, they would like to visit.
When was your first foreign deal?
Our first foreign deal was five years ago in Jakarta. We had been exhibiting in Singapore for two years prior to that, but we did not get any sales or traction. We followed up the leads remotely via phone calls and email, but without success.
It was only after we had a dedicated salesperson to look after the international market and following multiple trips to see partners and distributors that we were able to start closing deals.
We learnt that we needed to have face-to-face meeting for things to move. And what works in one country does not necessarily work in another country.
Do you have a motto you hold to?
Our company’s core culture revolves around professionalism, having a global mindset and being agile.
Professionalism is vital as our customers are enterprises, so we need to make sure that we meet their needs. You need that if you aspire to be a global brand.
Being agile means enabling multi-applications within one smartcard.
We need to be able to integrate our solutions with the different systems, hardware and devices out there. We also believe in incorporating what the customer has already invested in, so that we can maximise their return on investment with minimal cost.
I enjoy jogging in the early morning to enjoy the fresh air. It helps to give me a fresh perspective of things. I also enjoy going out to try different foods.