Let me make a bet with you.
I bet that you’d be able to sing (or at least hum) along to the jingle that starts every video from TheSmartLocal.com.
I’ll make another bet with you.
You’d probably be able to name at least a few of their staff, quite a number of whom have appeared on their various video series.
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In a way, one can liken TheSmartLocal.com to being the ‘Buzzfeed of Singapore’.
But as much as some of its staff (or more accurately, ‘personalities’) are well-recognised, the founder of the brand remains very much behind the cameras.
We caught up with him recently, and asked him more about how TheSmartLocal.com began, some of the challenges he faced starting up, and the future of content.
Self-professed introvert Bryan Choo (34) is the founder and Managing Director of TheSmartLocal.com and all the publications under it.
A finance major, he graduated with an honours degree as he thought it was provide him with a comfortable career.
“But after graduation, I was the quintessential confused millennial, unsure about what to do with my life.”
Around then, he also started an e-commerce site, and in spite of being able to make a comfortable living from it, didn’t get the sense of satisfaction he was looking for.
Everyday, I’ll just wake up hundreds of dollars richer with orders from around the world. But I wasn’t very proud of what I was doing because I wasn’t adding any value to society.
“[However] the silver lining to that was being able to bootstrap myself without having to worry about finances or answer to external investors.”
There was something that he was passionate about, however – Singapore.
“I didn’t like the ‘Singapore is boring’ narrative that was going around. I love Singapore and I wanted to help change that.”
This was when he came up with the concept of creating a “positive hyper-local crowd-sourced review portal for Singaporeans to help them make better decisions about everything, based on reviews”.
Soon, he realised that this model couldn’t work.
“It was an idealistic notion because that assumed people would happily share this vision and contribute reviews. That didn’t happen.”
What he did realise, however, was that Singaporeans tend to prefer to “passively consume content”, and he pivoted his venture to become a media publisher instead.
“And that’s the TSL you see today.”
Gaming Champion Turned Media Entrepreneur
But there’s one side of Bryan that many might not know of – he was an avid gamer during his teenage years.
And it wasn’t just casual gaming he did like the rest of us – he was actually the top Singapore player 4 times in three different games – Starcraft, Warcraft 3 and Starcraft 2.
“In other words, I spent way too much time on computer games,” he jokes.
From the age of 17, he represented Singapore in the annual World Cyber Games (WCG) – something he recalls as the “Olympics of the gaming world”.
“If you’re the WCG champion, you’re sponsored to fly overseas and you’ll put on the team Singapore shirt and represent your country against the world.”
“I […] was just in awe of everything.”
It was also from his gaming days that he learnt very important lessons that proved useful when he started up TSL.
“Strategy games are all about predicting and reacting to your opponents by coming up with the optimal solution. Surface level problem solvers learn by referencing solutions other people come up with, so their strategies are predictable.”
“To obtain a deep understanding, you have to invest your own time, experiment and calibrate. And then you can create your own strategies.”
“In the context of gaming, that means tediously analysing games and using lots of trial and error to find small edges while developing your understanding.”
But to be at the top of anything, be it a champion or industry leader, you have to be an innovator who’s able to come up with something different through your own knowledge.
“In the context of digital marketing, something comparable is A-B testing. Figuring out what works with your audience through your own content. Then studying the results, making changes and refining your understanding based on the performance of these.”
“If you do this day in day out for years, you’ll become very good at ideating for specific audiences. You’ll be able to consistently create original content which gets the most shares.”
Even with his gaming victories, he’s also had a fair share of losses, and it was through that that he learnt the importance of grit.
“A lot of gamers give up out of frustration when they lose and can’t problem-solve. It isn’t always easy. They blame external factors like imbalance rather than looking inwards to fix flaws in their own game.”
“It’s easy to say, “Yeah, grit just means not giving up”. But we’re all human and negative situations take a psychological toll on us. So I think having grit means you’re able to detach your emotions and not be mentally affected for extended periods of time.”
On a side note, I believe there’s a correlation between top gamers and successful entrepreneurs. Gamers who are analytical and resilient tend to do well running their own companies.
The Early Days Of TSL: 16-Hour Days And Sleeping In The Office
TheSmartLocal.com was launched in August 2012, and given that he had no co-founder, Bryan had to ‘tank’ the entire operation himself.
“I badly wanted one but I was crap at networking!”
He wore many different hats – from sales, to editing, to ideation, to video production, to writing, and even tech.
“That resulted in me sleeping in the office for the first two years and working 16-hour days.”
As an inexperienced manager then, he also felt very distant from the rest of the team – mostly made up of fresh grads.
“Without a co-founder, I felt I was facing problems alone and I kept all of them to myself. But then I became a robot.”
I decided that feeling stressed was just an unproductive state of mind. So I detached my emotions and just focused on improving processes mechanically one by one.
And it was that grit that “somehow got [him] through the first 2 years” – something he credits to his gaming days.
But as TSL grew, so did his stable of talent, and he was soon able to hire “talented staff [who are] able to perform in their roles at a higher level than [he] could”.
“As our company grew, those full-timers grew into team leaders themselves, managing their own bunch of millennial full-timers.”
“Being young mangers, they started going through a lot of the issues I had faced earlier and we started seeing things from the same perspective…so communication within our core team now is great and I don’t feel I’m alone in this journey anymore.”
“Our team is highly skilled at what they do, which has taken our company to new heights.”
“And I get more sleep now!”
“When We First Started We Didn’t Even Have KPIs”
But there was also a time when his gaming background became a double-edged sword.
He adopted the ‘first principals’ problem-solving approach, which meant that he relies on experimentation as compared to following a “tried and tested” path.
While it was great in terms of creating content that other publishers weren’t producing then, it wasn’t conducive when it came to management and productivity.
“When we first started we didn’t even have KPIs, because I thought they weren’t necessary and people disliked it and I didn’t want to enforce anything people disliked.”
I thought good employees would be intrinsically motivated.
“It was really naive of me, because even great employees can benefit from direction and job scope clarity. And KPIs are also needed to justify career progression and give employees meaningful targets to aim for.”
Eventually he managed to balance out the use of this approach, and now runs the company with the tweaked-yet-enhanced version of the strategy.
What Is The Winning Formula Of TheSmartLocal.com?
An astute media entrepreneur, Bryan also shared some insights on what he felt was the winning formula in keeping TSL popular from then until now.
“Before Facebook, nearly all traffic came from search, so you had to be good at SEO. The first big change was in 2013. Many Singaporeans started using Facebook and listicles were what worked best then.”
So we created viral articles consistently that trended on people’s feeds and that’s how we got our initial traction.
However, the next big change (that you’re probably aware of too) was when Facebook’s algorithm started to rank Facebook videos higher than other content formats.
This was when he knew that TSL needed to grab that opportunity and create more videos.
“By 2016, we had a fully trained Facebook video team dedicated to creating Facebook videos daily across our sites. This was how we grew Eatbook.sg to over 100,000 followers fans organically over a very a short period of time.”
But more than just riding on algorithms and trends, Bryan emphasises on their mission – “to provide quality content for Singaporeans”.
And that applies to content creation for clients as well.
“This is done to create a high quality original piece of content that has a chance to go viral, getting crazy views and thus insane ROI for the client. For example, the Undiscovered Hiking Trails in Singapore piece.”
“Sometimes when we get a client, we’ll send a writer and photographer on a shoot for an entire week all over Singapore!”
This type of manpower investment would be considered absurd to most publishers.
“But because we did so much ideation and A-B testing over the years, we were confident that the article would perform well […] and most of the time, the articles do – this particular article above ended up getting over 34,000 Facebook shares, which is an advertiser’s dream!”
“However, there’s always the danger that if the ideation isn’t good enough, the article won’t end up getting many shares. And that 1 week going around Singapore would be a complete waste of time and very unprofitable. [So] you have to be confident in your ability to ‘engineer’ virality.”
“For example, we recently sent our team on a crazy 37-day trip from Singapore to London over land, documenting the whole process on YouTube. It was an expensive trip and a risk.”
“But the video went viral as predicted, the client was happy and the viewers had great content [to enjoy].”
Company Culture And…Cats?
Nothing makes a long work week better than some drinks on a Friday night.
And of course, awesome colleagues too.
From their formally-produced videos to the Instagram profiles of their staff, it’s quite clear that they’ve all formed pretty strong bonds with each other.
For Bryan, this boils down to hiring the right people.
We are extremely particular about who we recruit because a single toxic employee could create politics and an unpleasant work environment.
“Team fit and attitude are very important and no single ‘rock star’ employee is bigger than the whole company.”
Their office also has a large communal dining area, “where people sit side by side, Hogwarts style.”
“I believe families that eat together stay together. And I find meal times to be the best time for people to get to know one another better.”
“We allow employees to stay over and hangout in the office after work, we organise office parties, sport days and even have this signature hunt thing for new hires where they have to go around the office getting the signature of everyone by talking to them for at least 5 mins.”
Some may find this all terribly unproductive, but I feel it’s important to keep employees happy and feeling safe when they come to work.
“I also spent quite a sum renovating the office because a positive working environment was something every single employee would benefit from.”
“So the short answer to creating a positive culture is to create a conducive environment for employees to bond. And have the team leaders set a good example so the right values are ingrained in the company.”
Oh, and it also helps that Bryan’s 2 adorable cats – Pika and Jaymee – roam the office as well!
“They roam around the office and their special power is distracting people,” jokes Bryan.
The Future Of Content
TheSmartLocal.com has found the sweet spot in producing viral articles and videos for the regular Singaporean, but what does Bryan see in the future of content?
Content will continue to be a richer experience for user. I think augmented reality/VR will be the next game changer.
“For example, walking up to a cafe and you’ve already read reviews your friends wrote of the place through some form of augmented reality.”
“I believe they’re already implementing some sort of social credit system in China so individuals already have a ‘score’. If that goes well then it’ll probably hit businesses. There’s a fascinating Black Mirror episode which imagines a world that has become like that.”
Bryan Choo, founder of TheSmartLocal.com will be speaking at Content Summit 2017 on the 30th of October (Mon)! If you want to hear more about the untold stories of the brand and how he’s building the ‘Buzzfeed of Singapore’ do remember to get a ticket here!