An Internet pioneer steps up again, as a corporate angel

  • Through Make The Pitch, TS Wong re-emerges in the startup scene
  • Social media biggest difference between the startup era circa 1999 and 2012

An Internet pioneer steps up again, as a corporate angelIF you knew TS Wong, founder of MyEG Services Bhd, from back in 2000, you would know that he has that Peter Pan look. He hardly seems to have aged over the dozen years since.
 
He came into the limelight last year when MyEG sponsored Make The Pitch, a reality TV show that pits startups against each other, with the winners getting funding from MyEG.
 
Up till then, he was a peripheral figure in the tech scene in Kuala Lumpur and as a result, none of the current generation of startups know anything about him, nor care to probably.
 
But he has a place in history (Malaysian at least) of being the first local tech entrepreneur to do a reverse takeover of an Over The Counter (OTC) company in the United States back in 1999, subsequently moving to the American Exchange (Amex) which was then absorbed into Nasdaq.
 
It was an exciting time for him, more so since he was riding on the China play and even had a billboard up in the city of Beijing promoting his set-top box company called MyWeb.
 
As he recalls, “We were a company which had interesting growth potential but minimal operating cash-flow. This was alright when we were in the bubble as investors kept pouring in money to sustain the bleeding, but it came to an abrupt crash once the bubble burst.”
 
As MyEG deals with government projects, the time taken to execute a project will test the patience of an impatient entrepreneur like Wong. Thankfully, now that he has more resources at his disposal, Wong, who admits to being bored while waiting for projects to be implemented, now has his role as a corporate angel to keep him engaged and challenged.
 
While initially reluctant to be interviewed, he relented after persistent persuading from DNA. So, here, at the age of 40, are the thoughts of the wise young man of the tech scene in Malaysia.
 
DNA: In a previous startup you launched around 1999, Technochannel, you had a billboard up in Shanghai promoting your product. What was that about?
 
Wong: I have always been a firm believer in the power of a brand and I believe it is especially important for web-based companies. Trust is an important factor when you are transacting with an unseen counterpart. This billboard was among our early forays into building a brand and sometimes you need to make some mistakes as you go along.
 
DNA: What lessons did you learn from that startup which you eventually listed  in 1999 on Nasdaq via an OTC reverse takeover? This was when you were all of 28?
 
Wong: Just for the record, we moved from the OTC to the American Exchange (Amex) which was then absorbed into Nasdaq.
 
We were a company which had interesting growth potential but minimal operating cash-flow. This was alright when we were in the bubble as investors kept pouring in money to sustain the bleeding, but this came to an abrupt crash once the bubble burst.
 
My biggest lesson learnt: Despite all my brave talk about giving things for free, I always ensure my core business generates enough operating cash-flow to sustain any cash-draining projects. Cash-flow is king.
 
DNA: You are among the handful of internet entrepreneurs who were there at the first wave of the Internet fever in Malaysia. Would you now classify what you see today as the second wave? More importantly, what is the main difference you see between the set of wide-eyed entrepreneurs then (which includes you!) and today?
 
Wong: Yup, in Malaysia we are undergoing our own version of Web 2.0. But there is no bubble to sweep everybody up yet.
 
The biggest difference between now and then is that the explosion of social media in the last few years has evened out the playing field. Today, the difference between operating your business out of Malaysia is no different from doing it anywhere else in the world except perhaps Silicon Valley.
 
This is of course a double-edged sword.
 
I can't really tell the difference between the entrepreneurs back then and today because I am seeing them from a different perspective, that is, I never judged them back then from the perspective of a potential investor.

DNA: It is a given that as an entrepreneur, one has to work his socks off but one South African startup founder recently told me he adopts the approach that he has a boss to report to. This is to keep him from slacking off. Interesting approach. Do you think entrepreneurs need to be reminded they have to work really hard?
 
Wong: I don't believe so. Of course, there are all sorts of entrepreneurs and isolated cases of success stories among selected type of entrepreneurs, but in general, I believe for an entrepreneur to succeed, he must definitely enjoy what he is doing and he must be so excited by what he is doing that he can't sleep well at night.

DNA: You once said that Bill Gates was the person you admired most in the New Economy (the question was posed to you 12 years ago). You said it was a boring choice. Fast forward to 2012 and one can make the case that MyEG is a boring business too. Boring but profitable as it has recorded 40.7% CAGR (compounded annual growth rate) over the past five years with net profit of RM22.1 million in fiscal year 2011. Was this your motivation for creating Make The Pitch?

Wong: I wouldn't describe what MyEG is doing as boring as whatever MyEG does has an impact on the entire Malaysian population. We also have tremendous leeway in being creative in what and how we deliver our Government's services.
 
I always tell my colleagues that we should be very thankful to be given the opportunity to contribute to society positively and make some money out of it.
 
On the other hand, MyEG's core business of delivering government services cannot move as fast as what we would like, and it is nobody's fault because what we do has repercussions which have to be carefully studied and requires inputs from different government ministries as well as various industries.
 
Now that we have more resources at our disposal, we feel that we can do a bit more during our in-between project time. (Okay, I get bored while waiting for new projects to be implemented).
 
Our second objective is that we want to see a Malaysian company becoming the international leader in its domain and we want to be part of that. It is difficult for MyEG to replicate our business models in other countries (not impossible but difficult). Therefore the way to achieve this objective is to invest in Malaysian startups with the potential to be international leaders.

DNA: Having taken money from an angel investor right after you left university in 1995 in Singapore, and now as a corporate angel yourself, what do you feel are the key things entrepreneurs should be doing, after they take money from an investor?
 
Wong: Work their ass off

DNA: What do you think of the following startup concepts:
 
Wong:
Fail Fast – I don't believe in overnight success stories.
Constant iteration – Most definitely important.
Bootstrap – A company that can bootstrap itself is a company that will survive the toughest times.
Skin in the game – Don't even take any advice from someone who has no skin in the game.

DNA: Why don't you put some of your own money into the game as an angel?
 
Wong: I would but if the startup then does some partnership with MyEG, the issue of conflict of interest arises and we would be required to classify it as related party transactions. I have a substantial stake in MyEG so when MyEG invests, I consider myself invested.

DNA: If you look at the tech ecosystem today versus during the time you started (1997-2000), what have been the biggest areas of change (in a positive manner)?
 
Wong: The most important aspect i.e. funding has not changed. Does anything else matter?

DNA: Can you update us on the MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) signed to provide e-government services in Khazaksthan?
 
Wong: That's an MoU to allow us to share our knowledge and experience with them to enhance diplomatic relations. So we are in constant communication with our counterparts.

DNA: Increased digitization of work and play are good for MyEG as it makes more people comfortable doing things online. What are some of the trends you see in this space that will help push the overall E-Government agenda further forward?
 
Wong: Authentication of online identities will be the next crucial step to enable even more highly personalized and confidential services.
 
Related Story:
 
The ‘boring stuff’ is equally important (with video)
 
 

 
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