Born to be an educator


Most Malaysians might not read that many books a year, but they are certainly keen to learn. My AOne Learning Sdn Bhd founder Dr Darren Gouk Shiou Wah, 29, tells LIM WING HOOI how he started his online website for classes and instructors, and ended up receiving calls from happy parents.

What were you doing before you founded the company?

I was tutoring when I was an undergraduate, majoring in chemistry in a local university. By providing chemistry lessons to A-Level students, I was able to earn pocket money while deepening my interest in the subject.

Chemistry involved learning about everything from something as simple as colour to smell, as they are all caused by chemical properties.

After my first-class honours degree, I was offered the opportunity to commence my doctoral degree without going through a masters degree, and I focused on researching the nutritional value of palm oil in relation to health.

When I completed my doctoral degree in 2009, I was offered a job as a post doctoral researcher in a university in London. But I did not take it up.

Why was that?

That is a life decision that is hardly understood by friends and family.

While waiting for my doctoral degree results, by chance, I attended a free Internet seminar through a friend’s recommendation. The very next day, I created my very first website – AOne Tutor – to help students find tutors. I had a passion for creating a brand or product which people will use and would benefit the community. Subsequently, I realised that just getting private tuition classes for academic subjects was not enough.

From my experience, I realised that our education system is very fragmented and can be further improved by developing a one-stop platform for offline lessons.

Across most markets in South-East Asia, heavy emphasis is placed on extra-curricular activities, be it on foreign language courses or tuition classes.

This is a reflection of an increasingly competitive education system, rising aspirations of families in the region, and also the recognition that children need a well-rounded education, which includes music, art, sports and other fields in order to excel in life. That motivated me to create a platform with the motto “Anyone Can Teach, Everyone Can Learn”.

After a few years of validating the idea, improving the website and developing my own app, I started my current company in 2015 with another partner.

But weren’t you already doing well in the chemistry field?

Since I started my entrepreneurial journey, surprisingly, I discovered that running a business is comparable to conducting a scientific research. It involves the various stages of a startup process, from the ideation stage to product validation, and commercialisation. We should approach a business idea like a scientist, posing questions and testing various hypotheses.

As such, I am able to apply the knowledge (which need not necessarily be scientific) and experience garnered throughout my five-year PhD research and my current entrepreneurial venture.

What is your business model?

We have over 4,000 tutors and instructors from various academic fields to non-academic with skills in areas such as swimming, yoga, music, cooking and others.

Using a subscription model, these instructors can enrol for free but when they want to take a student on as their client, they will have to subscribe to the app whereas clients get to use it for free. Apart from that, for instructors who have classes, we help them to promote their classes on our portal, and for every sale we take a commission.

We have a wide range of clientele, from parents looking for tuition or any other type of lesson for their kids, to adults who are looking for fitness classes or self-enrichment courses. And when happy parents call me, it makes my day!

Besides that, we also work with corporates and instructors (mostly in the fitness and wellness-related fields) to arrange for weekly activities for their employees. It is good to strengthen the bond among employees, keep them healthy, and build a healthy company culture and working environment. Every week, the employees can experience different lessons, from yoga to baking classes, and this keeps their employees engaged.

Are you a bookworm?

I do read books when I am free, but mainly to relax and recharge myself. I read mostly motivational books, not chemistry books which I have not touched for quite a while (laughs).

I also exercise and go to the gym regularly, usually at the end of the day; I get a good night’s rest after that.

What is your philosophy in life?

I believe that if you have not received much rejection, this may suggest that you have not been aggressive enough in growing your business to another level. Also, one cannot go back to make a brand new beginning, but one can always start now to make a brand new ending.​

Any role models?

I admire Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma for his resilience and never-give-up spirit, which transformed him from a school teacher to the founder of the tech giant Alibaba. His persistence and belief in Alibaba during the early days is inspiring, especially when no one believed in him then.