MOL founder advises young entrepreneurs to be most careful when successful

  • Practical advice for those starting and growing businesses
  • Challenges can be faced with the right strategies

MOL founder advises young entrepreneurs to be most careful when successful

"MALAYSIAN entrepreneurs are blessed to have all the government support that they do. It is so supportive of entrepreneurs today, including from the highest level of government,” said Ganesh Kumar Bangah (pic), founder of MOL Global and deputy chairman of the National ICT Association of Malaysia (PIKOM) at the recent Coach & Grow Programme (CGP) graduation cum awards ceremony 2015/2016.

Ganesh was delivering the commencement speech for the CGP’s third cohort of graduates. Modelling his speech on one given by Steve Jobs at Stanford University in 2005, he divided it into three sections, each detailing a different part of his life as an entrepreneur.

[Corrected: An earlier version incorrectly referred to a Bill Gates commencement speech at Harvard.]

Starting out

Ganesh started his speech by explaining how he got started in the working world and in business – at 17, right after graduating from school, he was a manager of a cybercafé. “I still remember that my cybercafé had 10 personal computers with a total bandwidth of 90kb/s,” he said, adding that that line cost US$4,497 (RM20,000) a year. It was very difficult to monitor usage because there was no real management system in place.

Ganesh’s Eureka moment came when Bill Gates visited Singapore. Living in the southern Malaysian state of Johor, he was able to watch Gates on television on a Singapore channel. “I told my boss at the time, who later became my partner, that I would be the Bill Gates of Malaysia.”

Once in university, he seized the opportunity to develop a cybercafé management system, getting another student to write the software. The system was first used in the cybercafé Ganesh was managing, and then eventually sold to 30 other cybercafes in Malaysia.

Ganesh’s next inspiration came from a talk he attended by the executive chairman of the Malaysian Exchange of Securities Dealing and Automated Quotation (Mesdaq) Khairil Anuar, who spoke about how the MESDAQ needed companies such as Hotmail, which had no revenue but was bought by Microsoft for US$400 million. Ganesh decided to give out his management software for free while making money from eyeballs.

“We needed investment, but at that time there was no government agency that would fund startups. But fortunately we were in the dot com bubble and corporates were funding startups,” he said.

Ganesh’s startup was funded by MOL.Com Bhd in 1999, and he explained that he had no choice but to agree to its terms – RM2 million in funding for 60% equity. “There was no option at that time, unlike today where you can go to angels or seed funds. It’s so easy to raise funding today that I sometimes feel that entrepreneurs are spoilt.”

With the funding, things took off and within six months the software had 16,000 downloads in 180 countries. It took Ganesh and his team a while to figure out how to make money from the business, eventually launching MOLPoints, a virtual currency used for games.

Ganesh emphasised the teaching from the first part of his entrepreneurial life: “If you have no choice, you have to accept what you get.”

 

Growing

About three years later, Ganesh listed MOL on Mesdaq, becoming the youngest CEO of a listed company in Malaysia at 23.

In 2008, a big Silicon Valley-based Internet company that was looking to expand into Southeast Asia wanted to acquire 100% of MOL for three to four times our market capital. Ganesh di not want to sell, preferring to partner with them to grow the business instead, an offer that was refused.

“I told them that if you want to buy 100% of the company it’s because you believe so much in it that you don’t want to share it with us. And they said yes,” he revealed.

After turning them down, Ganesh conducted some research and found that Friendster was the second most popular site in the Southeast Asia. Ganesh sent an email to Friendster proposing a commercial deal, an investment or an acquisition.

Ganesh never got a reply, but subsequently Friendster started trying to monetise Southeast Asia and compete with its rival Facebook, which was gaining popularity through its games. Friendster chose MOL as its exclusive global payment service provider.

When Friendster decided to sell, MOL bought it. “Although Friendster eventually died, we managed to get a huge percentage of Friendster users to become MOL users,” said Ganesh. At the point MOL bought Friendster it had about 200,000 users, which had taken it about 10 years to achieve. Two years after buying Friendster, it had 3 million users.

Besides being a huge revenue and profit earner, the branding that MOL got from the acquisition opened doors in the Silicon Valley, allowing it to secure deals that enabled it to grow regionally.

“At that time, Southeast Asia was a far distant and unimportant place for those in Silicon Valley, unlike today where e-commerce is the fastest-growing industry in the fastest-growing region in the world,” said Ganesh.  

With the doors open, MOL successfully completed numerous acquisitions. “I remember there was one year where I bought six companies across the world,” quipped Ganesh.

At the same time, Ganesh and MOL won almost every award they could. “Unfortunately, awards don’t make you money.”

In 2013, just after launching a project in Johor, Ganesh suffered a stroke.

 

Realisation

“I was at the peak of my career but this was one of the biggest challenges of my life,” said Ganesh, adding that he is still recovering from the stroke.

Ganesh continued to work hard, however, as he wanted to list MOL – it had been de-listed and privatised in 2008 – and by October 2014 MOL was on the Nasdaq. “On the morning of the IPO we were worth US$800 million. In the evening we were worth US$500 million,” he revealed.

[Correction: It was incorrectly stated that MOL was worth US$50 million in the evening.]

Ganesh cited this as a lesson in valuation – the valuation MOL targeted was too high. “A lot of us fall into that trap of believing our company is worth that high valuation, which puts pressure on us to actually meet those expectations,” he said.

Looking back, Ganesh said that listing on the Nasdaq was one of the biggest mistakes on his career, stating that running a company that is on a foreign exchange is very difficult due to high costs.

The second challenge came when a subsidiary in Vietnam made a mistake when reporting its revenue during the first quarter results, causing share prices to plummet by more than 70%.  Ganesh faced pressure from investors to fix things overnight.

“That’s when I told myself it was time to take a step back,” he said. He resigned as CEO and spent a year as chairman.

Ganesh summarised his entrepreneurial growth thus: an upward trajectory for the first 14 years, and then getting hit by a brick – his health challenge and stock prices plummeting.

“Entrepreneurs are most vulnerable when they are most successful. The bricks don’t hit you as hard when you are down and out. If you close shop at the stage you are still building your company, it doesn’t get publicised. But when you are successful and you make mistakes, that’s when you actually fall,” he said.

“The lesson I have for entrepreneurs today is that when you are most successful, be the most careful,” he advised.

 

Words to the wise

As a mentor to young entrepreneurs, Ganesh had some words of advice: there will be challenges at every stage of being an entrepreneur, especially when you are most successful.

In closing his speech, Ganesh identified what he sees as the three biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs.

The first is strategic planning for growth, something all entrepreneurs should focus on when starting and growing their business. Ganesh opined that when planning for growth, entrepreneurs should plan for three things to increase revenue by 30% each. “Focus on the 3 by 3 strategy so that even if only one thing succeeds you have 30% growth. If three things succeed you will have done an excellent job.”

The second challenge is performance reporting, which Ganesh sees as the biggest challenge due to entrepreneurs being blinded by stories out there of companies such as Uber not being profitable. “But they are still building value for investors, who are giving them the value for their performance they are achieving. So performance reporting is very important,” explained Ganesh.

Ganesh cited an example from MOL when sales in Manila shot up from RM10,000 to RM30,000, which turned out to be caused by credit card fraud. The problem was quickly solved and there were minimal consequences to MOL’s performance report.

“Performance, KPI and financial management are key to building your business. You need to have accurate performance reporting on a timely basis.”

The third challenge is risk management. Ganesh stated that forecasts are tuned to perfection to maximise valuation, but things always go wrong in the real world. “You will never be 100% right in your plans. If you’re just 30% right, you’re good and you can make it,” he said, going back to his first point about a three-part plan for growth.

“Tell your investors two strategies you are planning and keep a card in your hand. If things go wrong you always have one card for backup. So planning what to do if things go wrong is important for success.”

Another key lesson Ganesh shared is that an entrepreneur who is always successful will never learn as people learn most when they make mistakes.

“One thing I find most critical about being an entrepreneur is to keep trying,” he advised.

Ganesh ended his commencement speech by sharing three quotes from three different businessmen. The first is from Indian business tycoon Dhirubhai Ambani: “Ideas are no-one’s monopoly.”

The second is from Ganesh’s friend, Russian entrepreneur and billionaire Alex Shnaider, who once told Ganesh “Money is the language of conviction.”

The final quote is from a Malaysian billionaire who once advised a small Malaysian company to ask for 10 times the amount it was being offered by a large Internet company looking to acquire it: “Don’t be shy, no harm trying."

 

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