Giving it everything

Considering how the information technology (IT) sector dominates global headlines and gets investors all excited, you’d think the public would have a better understanding of the nitty-gritty of it by now. Software engineer Ken Chee Beng Kean discovered just the opposite.

According to 20something Chee Beng Kean, “There’s a void in the market in terms of computer knowledge. The usual practice for it services companies is just reselling computer products, and computer servicing. That’s it. End users have absolutely no idea what’s going on with their computers, or why their computers are faulty and in need of servicing. To them, as long as it works, it serves its purpose. I think that’s the wrong mindset to have in this fast-paced, technologically advanced world we live in.”

Chee’s company is located at Suntech@ Penang Cybercity, which is still waiting for its MSC accreditation.

This was partly why Chee decided to start his own business. Teaming up with three partners, including his elder brother Daniel, he formed Quentissal Solutions, an IT-based business that specialises in software customisation and network solutions, as well as server customisation, selling computer hardware and “anything else IT-related, mostly”. He is adamant that people should be more informed about how their computers and software work. “Most services and products are old and redundant, but customers don’t realise this. Sub-par products are being sold, and while they’re cheap, are they good enough? Can we do better?”

Chee envisioned Quentissal as a company that could do just that. Based in Suntech@Penang Cybercity, Bayan Baru, the company designs software for small businesses, mostly serving the beauty industry. “It’s an odd choice, but we look at it as an open market space.” His company discovered that not many software solutions providers have approached such businesses, allowing Chee and his partners to take advantage. He estimated that there are 150 beauty companies in Penang alone.

“We decided to focus on the beauty industry for our first year, as part of our five-year plan,” he said. Eventually, the company plans to expand into the automation and manufacturing industries, though he declined to elaborate on those plans. Quentissal also has plans to go international, setting its sights on expanding its client base to Singapore.

A software programming graduate from Sunway College, Chee has always been drawn to the IT world. (He broke his first computer at age seven.) He had originally set out to start his own business right after graduation with some friends, but when that fell through, he spent three years with his parents’ company, which trades in machine parts. There, he worked on IT-related issues while meeting clients and honing his salesmanship.

“The experience helped a lot,” he reflected. “I got to learn new skills and meet new people. That’s where my customer base is from, actually.”

In spite of the valuable experience, Chee felt the itch to do his own thing. “I felt that I couldn’t advance far in terms of my personal career growth. I also couldn’t ignore this burning desire to venture out on my own, considering the ‘void’ I saw in the local It industry. Running my own business is the biggest challenge of my life, but I find it fulfilling to test my limits and see how far I can go.”

His mother, he said, was hugely supportive of his decision. “I think her exact words were, ‘Kean, if this is what you want to do, then go ahead. If you need any help, you can come to me and we’ll figure it out together.’” Quentissal presently has five personnel in Penang and three in its Sunway Damansara branch in Selangor.

It hasn’t been a smooth six months, however. “What we discovered is that the Penang market isn’t willing to spend, which we feel is why many small businesses have to close down,” Chee said bluntly. “Software solutions cost a lot up front, maybe RM5,000 or RM10,000. Many small businesses aren’t willing to give you that much cash up front. It’s up to me to convince them to part with this money as an investment in a solution that will help them.”

How difficult is it to convince small businesses to spend? “It depends on their requirements. People need a problem first, after all. Larger companies like Intel and Motorola can afford to come up with their own solutions. Smaller ones usually can’t.”

Compounding the company’s difficulties is a lack of accreditation. The Suntech building is technically an MSC-compliant building. Yet it doesn’t have MSC accreditation, something it should have received upon its completion two years ago. Chee said he doesn’t know why the approval is taking so long, noting that without it, it’s much harder for companies like his to compete internationally. The federal government’s MSC Bill of Guarantees promises, among other things, tax exemption for up to 10 years, and the lack of accreditation could severely limit companies’ prospects overseas.

“If you’re an IT-based software developer without MSC accreditation you won’t be as highly regarded as an MSC accredited developer. There’s nothing stopping us from going global, but without MSC status, we’re severely handicapped.”

Chee said that in spite of the setback, Quentissal is doing well domestically. How does a new software company stand out among the competition? “Same with any other business: service. What you’re selling is your product as well as your service. We feel that, in the past six months, our smaller competitors don’t have efficient support teams, or they’re not knowledgeable enough to deal with all the problems people are facing out there. We have personnel who are capable of resolving most issues our customers face, and I believe we’re giving them the better choice in terms of service.”

What does the boss of his brand new company do? “Everything,” Chee said with a straight face. “I do programming, support, servicing, network implementation, financial planning, management... everything.” He spends a lot of time meeting customers, determining their problems and solutions and developing specific products that meet their needs. These days, he actually spends less than 15% of his time on programming, preferring to leave the bulk of the workload to his staff. But in spite of his origins in software programming, he doesn’t miss it. “Programming is very tedious. I’m more of an outdoor person, and I like to meet new people. Sales and marketing is much more suitable for me.”

“Running my own business is the biggest challenge of my life.”

Chee’s heavy workload does come at a cost to his personal life. “There have been some complaints from parents and lovely reminders from my significant other regarding my devotion to my business,” Chee admitted. “But I believe they understand that this business demands a lot from me. I’ve made it a personal goal to make time for them, however. It’s a challenge to juggle all these things, but between business and loved ones, loved ones would be the more important of the two.”

Mountain climbing, his hobby, has also come to a halt, putting a temporary stop to his life’s goal to scale every mountain in the country. He does, however, make time for weekly badminton sessions and the occasional drink with friends.

What advice would he give budding entrepreneurs? “I doubt I have much good advice to give,” he said jokingly. “I’m always open to new ideas myself. But I would say, keep your options open. Be open to criticism. The current economy is shaky, but hold your ground and study all your options thoroughly. Then give it everything you’ve got.”

Jeffrey Hardy Quah was never all that into IT because that’s for nerds.

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