Interviewed

Jasmine, who is one of my longest hosting customers, asked if her team could interview me for their school project, which they were supposed to pick and interview an industry entrepreneur, on things related to, well, entrepreneurship. While I did not quite like being associated with this over-rated term “entrepreneurship”, I at the same time found the request too interesting to be declined. In the spirit of sharing, I took it up.

I met up with her team at Geek Terminal, we then spent the next two hours on some great sharing. So great until I forgotten what I had talked about, until Jasmine forwarded a copy of their report to me.  As I read through it again, I was rather amused by the things I said. Once again, in the spirit of sharing, I thought you might like to be amused too. So here’s the full report.

Interview with Industry Entrepreneur – Dean Loh

Our selected industry for entrepreneur is Dean Loh from Dean Loh & Associates (deanloh.com) who is a successful Web Architect in the industry for 5 years (Dean’s note: actually it’s 8 years now). A warm and friendly person who has a different interpretation to the word ‘entrepreneur’, Dean, initially with only an ‘O’ level certificate, built a career path for himself with his diligence. With a copy of Microsoft Frontpage installed in his PC, he started his love (not passion as indicated by him during the interview) in PHP and web design. Recently, he was interviewed on 938 Live to talk about his career and how to start a web design business. Below is the excerpt from our interview with him.

Interview

Q: What made you embark on this venture choice?
A: The previous company (I was in) was a large company. Most big companies, the bigger they are, the lesser they (the employees) know what they are doing. It’s a sad truth. The founder probably really knows what they are doing, but as the company grows, he would have to bring in many people, many of which who would only work for the paycheck. Being one of those, I saw that many things could have been done better. My boss would usually ask, “Why go through the trouble (to correct the things done wrongly)?”

I am one of those who cannot take orders. It’s not that I don’t take orders, but I would only do orders which I think is right. If the company doesn’t want to improve on the way things are done, then I felt that I should do it myself, since I’m doing work on my own all the time anyway. So might as well I do it directly for the clients myself. So I moved on.

Q: How does your business work? (What is your job scope like every day?)
A: Nice question. Unfortunately, I don’t really have a fixed formula as much as I want to keep up with it. Because the problem of being on your own is that there’s no such thing as 9 to 5. Every waking moment is an opportunity to do work. There’s no paycheck waiting for you at the end of the month. When you go on a holiday for 3 weeks, then the 3 weeks are gone.

Because of that, whenever I’m not sleeping, I’ll be in front of the computer. During the day I spend my time meeting customers, doing proposals, during my freshest moments. At night, I’ll do the production work like coding and designing. The process is simple. I have better luck that most of my clients come to me through the internet, where I’ll choose which one to answer. I’ll qualify the customer, reply, explore what they require and do the proposal. And after they agree, then I’ll start to do the work.

Q: What is the estimated potential market size of your type of business? / How many projects have you completed till today?
A: I lost count of the number of projects I’ve done. It’s not a lot (below 100). My aim is to work on 1000 websites in 3 years.

I thought the market was small, but what makes it exciting is as long as you open your browser and find a badly done website, it’s considered a market. Many people say that this market is saturated, which is true, on the other hand, most of the people in the industry are still not doing it correctly, so those are my market.

Many people think this internet business is something of IT only, so companies which have nothing to do with IT would say that they don’t need a website, which is wrong. As long as they depend on someone to pay for their products, they need a website. A website is for communication, like a billboard. So the market is almost infinite.

Q: What is the current market trend? (What most people are looking for in building a website now days?)
A: Every week, I get people requesting to set up another Facebook (www.facebook.com – a social networking website) or Friendster (www.friendster.com). They don’t understand that these websites are actually not easy and quite expensive to build.

The trend now is moving towards building core developed websites, which is consumer driven. The website will evolve towards creating what users want to see. Some of my recent projects only have basic stuff and small programs that will analyze visitors trend and will study how they are using the website, what information they need. This would reduce the time wasted on building a website in trying to think what users want to see, build it, then realize it’s not what they want, and rebuild the whole website again.

Q: Which are your target customer segments?
A: I prefer to work with decision makers in SMEs. I don’t have much interest in big corporations unless their business ideas are interesting to consumers. If Hyflux came to me, I would definitely work for them. And also, of course, the budget is important.

Q: How did you get capital to start your business? / Do you need large capital to start your business?
A: Do not believe the saying that you need a lot of money before you can start your business. As long as you feel that you can do something that people would want what you’re offering, go ahead and do it. Money is always the last problem. Why I’m saying that is because I’ve seen many people who have an idea, they pool funds together, set up their office and all very nicely, and then “Who’s going to do the sales?” It’s a sad thing. The best situation is when you start doing your business, your business is rolling in and people ask “When are you going to set up an office?” then only you set up an office.  And when they ask, “When are you going to hire a staff?” then you hire someone to be your stuff. It shouldn’t be the other way round.

There are times when you wonder what if people looking for your business come and you’re not ready? Don’t worry.  As long as you know what you are doing, you are ready. Talk to your family and they will help you in any way (that they can).

To answer your question, I started with a Pentium II computer which I’d built myself 5 years ago when people were talking about Pentium III or Pentium IV computers. Of course I eventually got myself a faster computer when things got easier financially. You don’t need the fastest computer or the best equipment to start your business.

Q: What are some of the challenges in starting a business from scratch?
A: The first 6 months of my business was really trying because I didn’t know how to get business. I remember using Google AdWords to promote my business then. Income at that time was only $2000 in total. I still wonder how I’d survived those 6 months.

My first clients were kind enough to spread the word about my business. Also after 1 year, search engines picked up my website, from then onward, I didn’t have to look for clients, but they came to me.

Q: What are the essential qualities to succeed in business?
A: You have to love your business very much. If someone loves your business more than you do, it’s the end for you, because that person would be your biggest competitor.
We’re not talking about passion. Passion is when you work 18 or 14 hours a day and it can be confused with loving your work.

You’ll also need guts to succeed. I recently told a friend at a sharing session, to ask him if he’s ready to live without a paycheck. This question is easier for students to answer as you all aren’t used to having a paycheck at the end of every month, but it’s difficult for working adults.

I really encourage students to get a job first before starting your own business. Another essential thing about starting your own business is to know how business works. Knowing how to make the best Mango Smoothie is one thing, but knowing how to sell it, how to get people to drink and come back for more is another. You have to learn it from somewhere, like your future competitor, who is your current boss.

Q: Who are your key direct and indirect competitors?
A: To be honest I don’t know. It’s difficult to know for my kind of business as clients come to us for a project, we give our best in doing the proposal. When they don’t come back to us, we don’t know until several months later we look at their website and find out which other company got the project.

I would say though that if you search at Google or Yahoo! Search engines for “web designer” or “freelancer designer”, those few on the first page are my competitors.

Q: What is your unique selling proposition? (makes you different from your competitors)
A: I’m not sure if I would call it my USP, but it would be the way I carry my business.

There’s one rule I adhere to very religiously, which is to answer e-mails very quickly. It sounds very simple, as you might wonder, “Who doesn’t answer e-mails?” But yes, there are people who do not.

You can try e-mailing corporate websites or any company websites about an enquiry, then count the time they take to reply you. Those time in between is where I see it as my USP. When I come in at that moment, I win.

It always amazes my clients, judging from their replies like, “Wow, thank you the prompt reply.” From there I realized somehow it’s what makes me different.
Another thing would be because I’ve worked in a big company and use the style of a “big company” and offer the clients a “small company” price. The clients always love it.

Q: What are your winning marketing strategies?
A: Always know what is happening out there. Whatever your client mentions to you, you must have something to support that. For example, if a client mentions “Facebook”, you cannot ask, “Facebook? What is that?” You’ll be one point down.

In fact, you shouldn’t even wait until the customer brings an example. At that moment when the client mentions something like that, you should say, “Actually, I came across a case study of this company…”

Whatever business you are in, you have to know what your competitors are doing, what the market is doing, what the consumers want. Stay abreast of what’s going on and you won’t go wrong.

Q: Any interesting things to share about your work?
A: The perk of this business is that there are no rules. Even for publications, after all these years there are some things you have to follow. But for web, it’s still like a blank, empty canvas. We have the privilege. No limitations. Whoever who has a better idea can just bring it up. If you come up with something more as compared to someone else, you win. And if another person comes up with something even more than you and you come up with a new technology, you win again. It’s that exciting.

Q: List one project you have done that you are most proud of?
A: Most proud of? It’s a non paying project. I was in Bishan’s Toastmasters Club. Do you know what’s a Toastmaster Club? (All: “No”) You all should go. A Toastmasters Club is a public speaking community where people who want to improve in public speaking join it. It’s more of a sharing community where you get to share.

When I’d first joined it, it was a new chapter and it’s my nature to want to set up a website for any groups that I’m in. So I’d set up a website for them within one weekend and told the members about using it. The members were excited and went in to update the website and all and I don’t even have to manage it. Until today, they are still using it to post events, and I’m so happy to see that, because the users are using it. Initially we had problems where there was lack of members, but lately there were new members who joined and when asked how they knew about the club, they would mention the website.

I’m glad that the website served a purpose, because after all, a website is for the community.

Q: What advice would you give to young people who want to start their own business?
A: Go and get a job first. It’s lame, but it’s the truth. If you have a business idea, you can start it, but like what I’d mentioned, apart from being able to make a Mango Smoothie, there are a lot of other things you need to know. Even assuming that you already know all the things, there are still a lot of scary things out there waiting for you.

The reason for getting a job is to equip you not only with the business skill but also the people skill. From what I’d observed with many new entrepreneurs is that, they have the skill, but not the many other things that are needed to start their business.

Many old businessmen have the experience because they’ve “banged” on many walls and these things can’t be taught. You can’t say, “Show me how to ‘bang’ on a wall.”

My advice is, you can start your own business, but at least be in the real working world for a while. Because the last thing you want to see happening to yourself is, you start a business, because of the lack of experience, 10 years down the road, you are out, you are 35 years old, and you’ve got to look for a job.

Q: What are your qualifications?
A: I try to avoid this question. (laughs) Let’s put it this way. After my O levels, I was supposed to go to a design school. In fact, I’d already found which school to go to, and my parents had already prepared a sum of money for it. While waiting for the results I got a job, wasn’t happy and went to look for another job. In the end, I found a really good job. That was when I was supposed to start school. So I told my mum, “Why don’t I do this for one year and see how it goes?” One year later, I told my mum, “Actually I can do another year.” After the third year, she’d stopped asking.

Several years back I took night classes on E-commerce. So I can’t say I only have an O level certificate.

I’m not saying that you do not have to have a high qualification. In fact, that’s very important. It’s very important to be in school and be good in it. While you are in school, you get to go for internships. Be the one whom corporate companies looks for and you get an early start. Before your peers finish school and look for job, someone already took you in. You get an early start, learn things faster and you’ll be a lot ready when you decide to come out (and start your own business).

In fact, another reason you should be in school is to have more classmates and in future you can know who to hire (Fong Yee: “Networking?”). Yeah.

Q: Do you have to constantly upgrade yourself on the latest technologies?
A: Definitely. I don’t have to upgrade myself on the hands-on part. I have to know what’s going on. It’s important. I check on newsfeed, newsletters everyday just to keep myself updated and check on other people’s website.

Many times in business, it is after all not the “knowing how to do” that matters, because if you only stick to that, it would only limit you to making “Mango Smoothies” only. To see things from the macro angle is more important.

And like it or not, the guy who makes the best Mango Smoothie always ends up working for others. Because the boss is the one who knows who to hire to make the Mango Smoothie that customers want.

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