Success is a tough nut to crack, but it’s not out of reach.
In Singapore, our conducive environment makes it easy for enterprising millennials to start up their own brand, but what about overseas? You would need to re-built your network, navigate an unfamiliar territory and even find solace in solitude.
It’s a much more daunting process… but it isn’t impossible.
These are 5 Singaporeans who prove it so.
1. Calvin Cheng – Shanghai, China
Calvin Cheng began with franchises as Elite Models’ Asia head, “selling and managing [them] across Asia to set up new agencies, and to companies interested in organising the contest”.
After he left, talent management took him to China in 2011, but he soon found the industry too difficult to scale.
He ended up pivoting to ReTech afterwards, where they offer corporate training programs – digitised and gamified for clients such as Mercedes Benz and McDonalds.
China “was a very steep learning curve” and he had to “start from scratch” as he lacked the connections.
In addition, “things are not as orderly [there],” he says. “One needs to work with ambiguity. Singapore is [actually] an anomaly in the region.”
But despite the setbacks, the company managed to clock $6.8 million in profits by end-2016.
Now, ReTech has debuted on the Australian Stock Exchange – with a valuation of just over $111 million.
“Our profits are doubling every year and it was time to take it to the next level,” he told Tech in Asia.
The listing wasn’t an easy victory, as Australian investors harbour “negative sentiment” towards Chinese companies, Cheng told The Australian Financial Review.
“We bent over backwards during the roadshow to show we were different. We are a profitable company, we have real customers, and we will pay a dividend in our first year – but nothing could bridge the gap,” Cheng said.
Now that they have listed however, the perks are tremendous.
Australia’s large export of training and education was a huge draw as it would allow for strategic partnerships. Its “good tech IPO ecosystem” is also something Singapore still lacks.
As for advice to fellow entrepreneur peers, Cheng reflects that it’s always the same.
“Persevere and pivot, pivot and persevere. There is no other formula.”
2. Jonathan Quek – Seoul, South Korea
Quek is the founder of On The Grill, a BBQ restaurant located in the popular Myeongdong district of Seoul.
On The Grill is 2 years old, and is actually Quek’s second venture. His first was Aunt Piggy, also highly successful and has since been sold to a local BBQ franchise.
In 2010, Quek quit his job in a hotel to move to Seoul to be with his girlfriend – a decision that left him jobless for 7 months.
“Jobs were scarce and I was a foreigner,” he told Channel NewsAsia.
He went from door-to-door but with limited Korean competency, luck was not on his side.
When he did receive an offer, it was not from the 3-star hotels he wanted, but a BBQ SME where he stayed for a year before starting up Aunt Piggy.
“We withdrew every cent [and] my wife went back to her parents’ and I stayed in a goshiwon.”
The high-risk venture paid off generously and Quek edged out the 4 local competitors nearby.
In 2015, he branched into On The Grill, where he opened to a rocky start due to his lack of knowledge of the Myeongdong crowd and culture.
Today, they are known for their unique marinades, and enjoys the support from locals nearby. This is especially important as it allows On the Grill to thrive despite the fall in Chinese tourists (which has affected other shops in the area).
Today, Quek plans to bring the brand home and is talks to open it within the next few months.
“When I look back and see how far I’ve come, not just in business but as a person, I realised how much I’ve grown and I’m still learning. Everything that happened and people I met built me into the person I am today.”
3. Chelsea Scott-Blackhall – New York, USA
Scott-Blackhall is a fashion designer of Singapore-British descent, who found her success on the glimmering catwalks of New York City.
Her brand Dzojchen (doh-jen) has been featured on the runways of Paris, New York as well as Singapore Fashion Week.
She grew up in a creative environment. Her father was in advertising and her mother was once a theatre producer, she told High Net Worth. Sundays were spent listening to campaign stories.
It was like a game, she says, to come up with “angles to brand something, or creative taglines”.
As a young adult, Scott-Blackhall started travelling the world, from England to Australia, Hong Kong to Bangkok.
New York was meant to be just a holiday, but she ended up falling “madly in love [with it] within the first week”. She knew her future was in that city but as what, that was something she had to work out.
There was never a Eureka! moment when she realised she wanted to be a designer, she revealed.
“When I launched my brand, I didn’t perceive it to be my be-all and end-all. It just made the most sense at that time,” said the ex-model.
Scott-Blackhall credits her time in the Big Apple as being instrumental to her learning about the industry.
To launch her first denim brand in 2011, Scott-Blackhall spent 2 years learning as much as she could from animation design to digital photography.
“I can’t expect the skill to come to me magically. [Also], I did not want to specialise in one field and be a designer or a merchandiser.”
Other Asian designers in New York have neglected their Asian origins, she says, but Singapore “is everything to her”.
Scott-Blackhall does not bear any fanciful notions about changing the fashion mindset of her home country.
“I will reach a stage where [Singaporeans] can appreciate my brand, and having a ‘Singaporean tag’ in a creative field is not a negative thing.”
“We can be just as good as anyone else.”
4. Paul Yang – San Francisco, USA
Paul Yang is the co-founder of Lomotif, a video editing / social media app headquartered in California. The app allows users to do create videos – Lomotifs – on their smartphones using a combinations of videos, photos and music.
The startup originally launched in Singapore, but Yang decided the US would be a much better fit.
“The US has 318 million people – 58 times more than Singapore,” he told Tech in Asia. There was a potential for “explosive growth”.
While Singapore is only their 39th country by number of users, it took on a “life of its own” in the US. Yang decided that to “be closer to the users, and also understand the funding situation”.
There, he took the “hobo track“ for 5 months, couch-surfing at the places of NUS’ NOC (NUS Overseas Colleges) students. Food was either home-cooked or leftovers from events.
Another victory for Lomotif came with its acceptance into the StartX program, a non-profit that accelerates the development of Stanford’s entrepreneurs.
With this, Lomotif officially became the first non-Stanford startup to be ingratiated into StartX.
Meanwhile, Yang also became a Mentor at San Francisco’s Block71, where he offers insights on fundraising, building relationships with US-based VCs, as well as being an entrepreneur overseas.
One way San Francisco is better than Singapore is in the people’s openness and community helping, he says.
Although, the “pay-it-forward culture is [also] taking hold in Singapore”.
5. Syakir Hashim – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Syakir is the Chief Operations Officer (COO) and co-founder at Skolafund, a website that helps undergrads from underprivileged backgrounds crowdsource scholarships.
In Singapore, people are “comforted“ about the many financing options for students but this is not the same in other Southeast Asian countries.
Syakir himself also came from a humble background and experienced financial constraints. Meanwhile co-founder Syamil also noticed many undergraduates having problems affording basic necessities like food and school fees.
“These factors combined, resulted in us idealising and realising SkolaFund,” Syakir says.
The site launched in April 2015, and within 4 months, had successfully raised about S$8000 for 6 students.
Today, Skolafund has launched over 100 campaigns and fundraised about S$161,100 worth of scholarships since inception.
Meanwhile, the team has also raised a pre-seed funding from Startupbootcamp Fintech, as well as an equity crowdfunding round of almost S$100,000 for seed funding.
“We aspire to be the biggest higher education financing platform in Asia by providing better alternatives for students to finance their higher education.”
“Crowdfunding is just the first step for us,” the team envisions.
Starting up in Malaysia has not been easy, and Hashim emphasises the importance of “understanding the mindset of the new market”.
“Every country has its own unique culture [which] affects the way we conduct our business [and was] different and more complicated from the way that Singapore operates.”
“We had to spend time understanding the culture and psyche of the Malaysian society. This helped us in the messaging of our platform and creating a product that can be used by all Malaysians.”
Starting up in a foreign country can be very stressful, but Hashim enjoyed support from family, friends, the startup community and influencers on social media with publicity.
Greener Grass Overseas
Success isn’t a concept bound by national and geographical boundaries – and neither should entrepreneurs.
Unfamiliarity to foreign cultures and markets can make it infinitely more difficult to start up. But once the hurdles have been overcome, the grass might just end up being greener on the other side.
Featured Image Credit: Tech in Asia, Senatus, Johnathan Quek Facebook, Suphands