Digerati50: The quiet doer

  • Saw huge opportunity to connect consumers with local brick-and-mortar businesses
  • You’ll never get the business model right from Day One, so always listen to customers

Digerati50: The quiet doer

WHEN Joel Neoh announced in March 2015 that he was leaving Groupon, the US-based group-buying giant whose Asian operations he had been heading, there was probably a collective hush in the Malaysian, and even the regional, startup ecosystem.

Some, hearing that he was going back into startup mode, may have been worried at the possibility of a new competitor, but most would have been glad to hear that a high-profile personality was coming back into the fold.

High-profile? That actually belies his quiet management style, which goes against the attention-grabbing grain of most of the entrepreneurs today, where it is often more ‘talk’ than ‘do.’

Chok Kwee Bee of Teak Capital, one of the most experienced venture capitalists in the region and who had banked on Joel early in his career, has described him as “one of the best managers I have worked with.

It was probably this quiet competence that saw his new venture KFit, the fitness-sharing platform which connects gym-goers with gym facilities, getting pre-seed funding in April 2015 a month before launch, then landing a US$3.25-million investment in a round led by Sequoia Capital by July that year. To cap off its great running start, KFit landed a US$12-million Series in January 2016.

“There’s a huge opportunity to connect consumers with local brick-and-mortar businesses,” Neoh says, when asked what led to the idea.

“Fitness was one of the verticals that intrigued me – while gyms help people live healthier and more active lives, they’re hugely under-utilised; so connecting them to customers more efficiently was something I was really keen on fixing.

“As we fix this for fitness, we see the opportunity to do this for other verticals in local retail services too,” he adds.

But Neoh does not just bring management capability to the table; he also has a keen eye for the disruptive changes technology can bring, and the business opportunities those changes can engender.

With his pal Khailee Ng, also a Digerati50, he founded Says.com, the pioneering social content site; and also Groupsmore, the Malaysian group-buying site that Groupon would eventually acquire to penetrate into the Malaysian market.

The US company recognised Neoh’s obvious talents and had him running its operations in Asia. And quiet though he may have been, he was named to the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders (YGL) Class of 2013, based on “his professional achievements, leadership and commitment to society.”

Other young leaders named to the annual list include Wil.i.Am of the Black Eyed Peas and Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former US President Bill Clinton.

Not bad for a boy from the sleepy suburban city of Subang Jaya, who went through the public school system and whose parents were both educators.

No special background there, and indeed, when he started more than 12 years ago, his parents “didn’t fully understand what I was doing – I had to get on an entrepreneurship-based TV show to get their buy-in,” he recalls.

It’s been a long time, but while Joel is also known for being reflective, it’s doubtful he has ever looked back in regret for having taken the entrepreneurial plunge.

When asked about his key takeaways from his experience building startups and from his corporate life, he says, “You’ll never get the business model right from Day One, so always listen to our customers and be prepared to adjust the startup fast.

“You’ll never have enough great talent, so always be recruiting.

“And, you’ll never have enough clarity, so always spend time to clarify and align,” he adds.

This article formed part of the Digerati50 magazine that was published in Feb 2017. The digital version of that publication can be downloaded from the links at the top right corner of the page thanks to the sponsorship of Telekom Malaysia Bhd, Malaysia’s broadband champion.


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