Grit, an Entrepreneur’s Currency

By Regina Hoo

November 2021 FEATURE
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“I THINK THE essential quality hasn’t changed, but at this point, it’s probably grit on steroids,” muses Tony Yeoh, CEO of Digital Penang (DP). We are discussing if, given the current global climate, the definition of grit has been injected with new meaning. Not so incidentally, “grit” also features in DP’s debut publication, Founders’ Grit: Inspiring Life Stories of Engineering and Technology Entrepreneurs in Penang.

The volume, likely to be the first of a series, chronicles for posterity 29 entrepreneurial journeys and their contributions to Penang’s economic ecosystem. But beneath these lambent tales of jubilance, Founders’ Grit also beams the spotlight on the array of shared symptoms that have both plagued and propelled these personalities onto the path less travelled.

To Stay the Course or Take the Plunge?

From an early age, Clarence Leong had it drummed into him that all life decisions must be thoroughly considered to guarantee a future that is financially secure; so, he dimmed a burgeoning interest in graphic design and made to follow the local cultural ambition.

Clarence pursued an engineering degree, first in KL then Swansea, before landing a cushiony job in Wales building rocket parts. His life plans were gelling well, but Clarence was also growing very restless. He yearned for a purposeful do-over. Much to his parents’ chagrin, he quit his eight-year stint abroad to return to Penang, where Clarence set up EziVoucher, a platform for voucherless redemptions, and later, EasyParcel, an online booking platform for parcel delivery. He hasn’t looked back since.

Like Clarence, Howie Chang found himself in the uneasy clutches of comfort. He had been part of two major Singaporean start-up acquisitions, Viki.com by Rakuten and RedMart by Lazada, but Howie was also suffering from what he describes as “the itch of every entrepreneur”.

On moving back to Penang, and working as a consultant for the state government to nurture a start-up ecosystem, Howie chanced on his next exciting challenge. Paper qualifications were doing little to buoy the confidence of industry players in onboarding new recruits; many still fell short of the skills required by the industry.

It was improbable to attempt reforms to a traditionally ingrained tertiary education system, but with creative circumvention and partnerships with industry minds to curate relevant syllabi and curricula, Howie established Forward School in 2020, to furnish aspiring tech professionals with industry-ready skills for the fast-moving tech sector.

Read also: Pit Stop on Penang’s Digital Journey

“A common denominator of entrepreneurs is their inherent thirst to problem-solve, where the learning process takes precedence over the outcome itself,” says Tony. DP runs a similar programme, Rekanomi, to encourage start-up founders and solvers of real-life problems to converge and ideate with engineering and technology. But equally important too are the measures of resilience and risk-taking, as well as finding opportunities that are unfettered from geographical and temporal constraints.

Penang in 2012 was just warming up to the idea of a technological future, when owning a smartphone was a novelty but not yet a necessity. At the same time, local restaurants were struggling to brand themselves. Leong Shir Mein, who was then working for The Star, saw potential in closing the loop between the establishments and their patrons through “some form of online advertising”. This soon led to her developing the food delivery app, DeliverEat.

With the app already built, Shir Mein was faced with a conundrum: To shelve it or quit her full-time job to concentrate on this new venture. DeliverEat showed as much promise as risks; but with her family’s backing, Shir Mein decided to throw caution to the wind. She does not believe in doing things “half-baked” and so fixed in place strong fundamentals for the brand first, before growing it from the ground up. Her efforts paid off when just this August, DeliverEat was sold to AirAsia’s logistics outfit, Teleport, for an impressive RM41.4mil.

No Entrepreneur is an Island

An idea for a start-up is only as good as the team that supports it. The recruitment process is thus crucial in assembling a company of people with the right values and mindset. “They need to be innovative, hands-on, to have grit, stamina and a high threshold for pain,” explains Tony.

Also vital is the leadership style for cultivating an environment where people want to work. Even before creating Piktochart, co-founder Goh Ai Ching already had a culture and value system in place, a result from having been badly traumatised by a toxic work culture at her first job. She was determined to be an employer who treats her employees as assets, and not as commodities.

“In our culture, ‘father knows best’; this paternal form of leadership just does not work. A leader must know that he does not have all the answers, and if he thinks he does, it is very likely he is setting himself up for failure. The start-up, whether fledgling or established, needs the minds of all on the team,” says Tony. “The point is not to become too answer-focused, it defeats the entrepreneur’s ambition to challenge conventions and ask the hard questions. The leader does not have all the answers, he has to accept that.”

To purchase a copy, visit our PM Shop.

Regina Hoo

is the deputy editor of Penang Monthly.