In a time when tech giants Apple and Samsung dominate the market, homegrown brand Creative Technology has arguably faded from its heyday.
But even as their products are overtaken in terms of sales figures, the contributions of the company and its CEO Sim Wong Hoo are never forgotten – especially by Singaporeans.
Established 38 years ago in 1981, it started off as a computer repair shop, where Mr Sim developed an add-on memory board for the Apple II computer.
They then quickly became a company of firsts, launching the first commercial Chinese character software in 1982 and a computer with bilingual capabilities, the Cubic CT, in 1986.
But it was the Sound Blaster, their sound card for consumer PCs that truly catapulted them into global fame.
Launched in 1989, it has since sold over 400 million units.
Most recently, Mr Sim was also lauded by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in the Budget speech for 2019.
The spirit of entrepreneurship is critical for all these endeavours – having a vision of the future, and taking practical actions, day in, day out, to explore a range of possibilities and solve a myriad of problems. Mr Sim’s story illustrates the point that to succeed, we must learn, we must walk the ground and we must persist.
As a throwback, below is an interview that Mr Sim did with Lianhe Zaobao in 2017, where he reflected on (then) 35 years of Creative Technology, and his vision of things to come.
Creativity Is The Key To Survival
When asked how he intends to bring the company forward in the coming years, Mr Sim states that, just like the company’s name, they have to “continue to be creative”.
If you’re not creative, it’s the end of the road.
Other than releasing new iterations of their products, Creative has also gone into creating gaming gear for the growing gamer market.
And it’s not just product development, Mr Sim also emphasises the importance of being creative and innovative with marketing as well.
“In the past 30 years or so, the market has been changing every 5 to 10 years. […] We’ve been through many such cycles, every 5 years a new era begins. We persevered and survived. We kept coming up with new and creative products.”
“I Think, To Be Able To Survive Is Already No Mean Feat”
“Of course, sometimes you succeed, sometimes you don’t.”
Once known as “King of Stock”, Creative’s stock prices were at their highest at close to $70 per stock in March 2000. Since then, however, the figures aren’t as rosy.
However, Mr Sim reiterates that this hasn’t fazed him.
I think, to be able to survive is already no mean feat, because the technology market is undergoing huge changes.
“Not just the technology sector, other sectors are also affected by technology and are undergoing changes too. For example, look at the taxi industry, Uber entered the market with a low-cost business model, offering cut-throat prices, how do you compete with them?”
Choosing To Not Participate In Price Wars
“That is why I chose to go upmarket, to venture into areas others dare not go.”
In a time when consumers are spoilt for choice when it comes to price points, Mr Sim refuses, with a stubborn adherence, to produce inferior products for the sake of capturing the market segment that only looks at the price tag.
“Products that are sold at a low price, the quality can’t be good. They are not of superior quality, just usable.”
While most would say that their products are mostly around the mid-range in terms of price, the company recently released a S$5,000 high-end sound bar – the X-Fi Sonic Carrier – which Mr Sim described as “a super high-end audio system and the latest and greatest home theatre, loaded with all the bells and whistles you could imagine”.
“One must have the audacity and patience to undertake this challenge as it is a super high-risk endeavour.”
To Young Entrepreneurs: “Keep It Lean And Mean”
Citing the Cubic CT in 1986 as one of the products he’s proudest of, he revealed how, with 3 and 1/2 engineers (him being the 1/2), they managed to launch it in half a year – “I was young then, so I was able to charge forward like that.”
With over 3 decades running Creative, Sim advices young entrepreneurs to “keep [their operations] lean and mean”.
You need to exist on a very low cost, only then, you would be able to survive and live on the chance of another breakthrough. […] Don’t spend a lot of money at once.
For him, being young also comes with another advantage – the possibility of making a comeback even after failure – “If you fall, you can still pick yourself up.”
Understand Your Disadvantages
A homegrown brand that has been facing competition from global giants, Mr Sim states the sobering truth about being a company in Singapore – the market is small, and being open to foreign companies just means you could be up against a company many times larger than you are.
But instead of throwing in the towel, Mr Sim reiterates the importance of understanding the disadvantages and finding a way to work around them.
“In this local market, you need to compete with foreign companies. You need to compete with these big companies. And when you go overseas, you are unable to compete with others. Those are our disadvantages that we need to know and understand.”
“Failure Is No Big Deal”
Mr Sim also casually admitted that “usually, you encounter many more setbacks than successes, so I’ve gotten used to it”.
Not one to be paralysed by failure, he also makes certain to analyse the situation to see what’s wrong before moving into a new venture.
“Very often, it’s not the product, it could be that we chose the wrong strategy. Many times, we could have overestimated ourselves – we made too big a leap.”
“We may have been brave, but if the leap is too great, and there is not enough back-end support, we will fall. So we must learn from it moving forward.”
“The Worst Defeat Was Probably The MP3 Products”
“We launched a lot of MP3 products then, we wanted to take on Apple. We wanted to do more than Apple, but that was the wrong strategy.”
Before Apple’s iPod took over the large majority of the MP3 player market, many of us would remember loading our favourite songs onto Creative players.
Back in 2004, a Forbes article referred to the battle between Creative and Apple as “David vs. Goliath”, in response to how Mr Sim declared that he wanted his products to take 40% of the market.
With a plan to spend US$100 million globally for marketing, Creative’s Zen player was poised to be an alternative to the iPod with several tricks (including a longer battery life) up its sleeves.
Eventually, the dark horse still lost, and while Mr Sim counts it as one of his “worst defeats”, he remains at peace with it.
“We were facing a giant like Apple and we overestimated ourselves. But we did get something out of it in the end, so you can’t say it was for nothing. So next, we decided to venture in a different direction.”
“My Passion Is Singapore”
Revealing that he has “3 passions” in his life – two of which being technology and Chinese, his final one explains why instead of moving their base to overseas (like how fellow tech brand Razer did), he chose to stay at home.
“My third passion is Singapore.”
In fact, for Creative Technology, the best place to grow is in the US. […] Don’t stay in Singapore, just move everything to the US and look for talent there. There’s so much talent there, especially in Silicon Valley.
For Mr Sim, his passion for Singapore is more than just lip service.
“But we decided to stay in Singapore, and invested in Singapore – all the marketing, technologies and methods are here in Singapore, we want to nurture locals.”
“Even for projects involving the Chinese language which should have been done in China – I said, do it in Singapore.”
Till today, Creative Technology still holds a special place in the hearts of Singaporeans, and we do hope that with Mr Sim’s leadership and never-give-up spirit, it will continue to inspire local companies to dream big and not be afraid to make mistakes.