Digerati50: From selling videos at a night market to selling services across 33 countries

  • Time and commitment needed to break into overseas markets
  • Benefited greatly from programmes such as MDEC's GAIN, Matrade's MDG

Digerati50: From selling videos at a night market to selling services across 33 countries

Digital News Asia (DNA) continues its series that profiles 50 influencers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy, from Digerati50 2020-2021 (Vol 4), a special biennial print publication released in July 2020. The digital copy can be downloaded from the sidebar link.

The following article is an expanded version of the print edition.

"For me, the moment of creativity strikes after midnight when I am back home alone," acknowledges Johary Mustapha (pic), Forest Interactive founder and CEO. "I whip out the laptop, catch up on pending emails, and take the time to send out more in-depth, lengthy pointers for the next day's to-do list!"

If it sounds like the man is in a hurry to get what he wants, truth is that success has been some time coming. Established in 2006, Forest Interactive helps content providers monetise their solutions (such as mobile games, eSports and video content services) through mobile phone operators. Since then, the company has established 13 regional offices in areas as diverse as the United States, the Middle East and Latin America. Along the way, they have garnered partnerships with 50 mobile operators, and a reach of 1.1 billion subscribers across 33 countries.

[Ed: As of April 2021, they now have subscribers in 39 countries with 17 regional offices.]

This success may have seemed far away when Johary was much younger. Middling academic results as a schoolboy ("When I took SPM, I got 34 as my aggregate!") then led him to obtaining a diploma, then leaving home to sell video tapes ("I went and sold this at the night market, making RM2 per VHS tape"), followed by a detour offering internet and computer repair services behind a diving shop at Pulau Perhentian, Trengganu. Times were certainly interesting.

 

Target for half the revenues to come from abroad

Eventually, he "settled" down to the entrepreneurial life he leads now, founding Forest Interactive. He started by offering the SMS subscription services that were so prevalent before smartphones became the mainstay.

As time went on, he developed IP to deploy a Platform-As-A-Service (PaaS) for Mobile and Network Operators (MNOs), making it easier for them to replicate their technology in markets beyond their borders.

"Malaysia is quite a small market when you look at it," Johary points out. His target now is for half the company's revenues to come from the export market.

Nevertheless, he stresses that any decision to expand overseas isn't one to be taken lightly. "How serious are you to expand?" he asks. "A lot of people I meet say they wish to expand, but all they do is to attend a few conferences and, and that's it," he observes.

"It goes back to how focused are you to move into these territories," he continues. "Are you seriously going to spend that time?"

He points out that, "Just going for one conference and saying, 'Hey I'm trying to commit and see which partner I can work with' - that's not enough of a commitment."

His own experience has shown him that, “And if you want your customers to take you seriously, you should present a serious intent to do business.”

According to him, most or potential clients, don't want to hear 'Hey, I want to set up an office here'," he explains. "They want to hear, 'I have a team here'."

Johary says, bringing local talent to conferences and meetings really sends a message. "What we do is we normally recruit first. Don't look at the dollars and cents."

"What does it take for you to hire that one single person overseas?" he points out. "It's only one single person one salary for all 12 months. I mean, how much is that going to cost to bottom line?"

 

Help from MDEC and MATRADE

Another thing that Johary is grateful for is the various public-sector programs to help companies that want to go abroad.

"We definitely benefited from MDEC's (GAIN) program," he said, referring to his experience with the Global Acceleration and Innovation Network (GAIN) in 2015 as part of the first cohort.

"That was one of the reasons we set up in Silicon Valley in 2016," he says. "They prepared us even before the trip, coaching us preparing our three-minute pitch deck, elevator pitch, all sorts of pitches!".

"Another one which we benefited greatly from was the Market Development Grant (MDG) from MATRADE," he adds. Some entrepreneurs dismiss the program, as they can only claim up to RM 15,000 for exhibitions held overseas, a fraction of the usual total cost.

"I say, just use it. It's about 10 or 15 percent of the cost that you're going to exhibit," he points out. "Exhibiting for us has really changed a lot, as compared to just merely attending. You really get to understand the market you're in."

It is this sort of drive that keeps Johary burning the midnight oil - or at least the glow of the laptop screen. But he is certain he knows what works.

"Focus on the one thing that you are really good at and continue doing it day in and day out - weekly, monthly, or over the years," he insists. "Success will not happen overnight. Just put your mind to it."

 
 
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