5 Entrepreneurs Share The Things They Learned As Founders Of Award-Winning Businesses

"No one man is an island."

Back in October 2015, Alliance Bank ran its annual SME Innovation Challenge. 20 finalists were announced and they later attended coaching sessions by business leaders and well-known entrepreneurs.

20 young Small & Medium Enterprises (SMEs) were chosen to be coached by business leaders for a few months. They were given the chance to sharpen their business skills by attending business coaching sessions and learning from influential leaders like Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin, Dato’ Chang Kim Wah from EcoWorld Development Group Berhad, Malek Ali from BFM89.9, Dato’ Cheah See Yeong from Golden Scoop Sdn Bhd and Datuk Wira (Dr.) Ameer Ali Mydin from Mydin Mohamed Holdings Berhad.

Over the course of 2 months, these 20 finalists were given the chance to pitch their business plans and 5 SMEs were chosen to win cash prizes for their businesses

At the end of that programme, the selection was narrowed down to just 7 SMEs. A panel of judges chose one grand prize winner to win the coveted Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin Entrepreneurship Award!

The winners who walked away with the cash prizes from the SME Innovation Challenge 2015 are:
1. Champion / Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin Entrepreneurship Award: Twenty3 - Sherlyn Tan
2. First runner-up: Humble Beginnings - Amos Chong Kai Seng
3. Second runner up: Freshcart Grocer - Jonathan Oh and Soh Shangrong
4. Manulife Sustainability Award: Ash Be Nimble - Hui Mathews
5. VISA Retail Award: CarBengkel - Armin Baniaz Pahamin

What did the winners learn throughout the challenge and their journey to success? We asked all 5 winners and here’s what they had to say:

1. Sherlyn, champion of the SME Innovation Challenge 2015, and founder of fashion startup, Twenty3 found it very humbling and learned how to lead and communicate as an introvert

As part of the coaching sessions from the challenge, meeting Tan Sri Liew was an eye-opener for Sherlyn. "I recognised the same fiery drive and determination in him that I possessed, and to hear his story of success and rebuilding, and to still see that passion after so many years, continues to push me to realise my own dreams.”

Through the sessions as well, Sherlyn found the leadership training to be very useful, especially on communication. "I immediately organised a bonding session with my team where we opened up our likes and dislikes about each other. Some tears were definitely shed, but it brought our team much closer together as a result!"

As an introvert, pitching her ideas effectively can be challenging at times. Aside from communication within the team, Sherlyn also learned some valuable lessons on communicating with her audience and brushed up on her presentation skills.

Sherlyn with Jimmy Choo.

Image via Twenty3

In her journey to success, Sherlyn encountered early on that there were plenty of closed doors simply because she was young, inexperienced, and had no connections, but that didn't stop her

Having founded her company only at the age of 23, Sherlyn had to fight really hard to prove herself to earn the trust of others and for them to believe in her.

There were times when she only lived on bread as cash flow was her biggest challenge in the early days. However, that forced her to strategise quickly to adapt to the demands of the market. “At the beginning, it really wasn’t about making big bucks, I just wanted to create something that could sustain itself and myself. So I persevered. That became my mantra. In fact, it’s our company motto: The Beauty in Perseverance!

Her tenacity certainly paid off because Twenty3 is now one of the biggest fashion brands in Malaysia, with 2 retail stores, and has served nearly 40,000 customers online from over 20 countries.

The Twenty3 team, which has now grown to a total of 20 people.

Image via Twenty3

2. Amos, founder of dessert cafe Humble Beginnings said that even when things get tough, it's important to stay strong and positive

Amos took his cue from Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin to persevere. This has since been his motto in his entrepreneurial journey and has inspired him to always stay strong and positive when faced with challenges instead of taking the easy way out.

Amos also took the advice of Dato’ Cheah, President of Golden Scoop Sdn Bhd - Baskin Robbins’ partner in Malaysia, to make tough but necessary calls for the business. For instance, to take proactive action when you realise an outlet is not profitable. “Shut it down or relocate. I find this to be true. I have first-hand experience of the same situation; trying to maintain an outlet took a toll on my company’s finances. After we have decided to shut down the outlet, we managed to get our cash flow back to normal in a short period of time.”

Humble Beginnings specialises in mille crepe and uses only the finest ingredients.

Image via Humble Beginnings

Aside from helping him get over his fear of public speaking, Amos also learned what it means to be a better leader from the coaching sessions

Having been bullied and laughed at during his childhood for his cleft palate, Amos lacked confidence and grew to fear public speaking. The coaching session he received, however, helped allay his fears, and guided him in making good, impactful pitches. “I was taught to not talk too fast and pronounce my words properly due to my situation. [This is so] audiences are able to listen to what I say.”

Besides that, Amos struggled at the start to share the workload with the team as he was used to running a one-man show. “The struggles and issues were very much my own to bear. Even after having people on board, I still have the mentality to do everything on my own.”

He understood that, to be a leader, he had to practice his ability to influence and move others into action. “I learnt to also use and embrace talents of my fellow teammates, to nurture their talent and understand the right techniques to elevate their abilities.

Humble Beginnings doesn’t use artificial ingredients, preservatives, and additives.

Image via Humble Beginnings

3. Jonathan Oh, co-founder of online grocer, Freshcart Grocer, saw the SME Innovation Challenge as a space for sharing. "We didn’t see ourselves as competitors but share a common vision of making each of our businesses successful."

From the coaching sessions, Jonathan discovered a lot about what it means to build a great team, grow together, and strive for the same vision.

Building a great team doesn’t stop at just hiring the best. It’s also about the people who subscribe to the same vision. This means, everyone is fighting the same battle. “How the culture is in any business really has to do with the behaviour of everyone in the business - even the co-founders.” It’s not about micromanaging or commanding the team to listen to the bosses. Always focus on processes that inspire people to lead an awesome company culture. Start with the ‘why’ to define your company’s core value, and the rest will follow.

Leadership in a team is also pertinent. Being a leader means having the ability to influence the people around them to go the extra mile with the co-founders. It starts with a better understanding of every person in the team and their own key strengths. Once that’s figured out, it’s a matter of using each person’s strengths to mobilise them in their areas.

Co-founders Soh Shangrong and Jonathan Oh.

Image via Freshcart

The co-founders have come a long way since the many 20-hour work days and manual labour in the early days of Freshcart Grocer

When Freshcart Grocer first started, co-founders Jonathan and Shangrong found logistics to be most challenging. They’d have to start their day at 4am daily to buy, check, pack and deliver the items themselves. They also had to constantly engage with their customers to make sure they were having a great experience both online and offline.

The coaching session served as a reminder to Jonathan to focus on the bigger picture when it comes to the company. “As a business owner we need to sometimes have an aerial view of the business and not just be bogged down in the daily task. Too many operations or daily task does take a toll on the business owner in making necessary strategic decisions for the company.

However, those labour-intensive days also proved to be a very humbling experience for the co-founders. Despite the tough times, it taught them a great deal about business, fulfillment and the customers’ demands. It’s now a running joke in the office that the co-founders know the routes so well, there’s no use for Waze or Google Maps.

Freshcart Grocer delivers handpicked, fresh fruits and artisan goods to offices and homes daily within Kuala Lumpur and Selangor.

Image via Freshcart

4. Hui, founder of sports apparel brand, Ash Be Nimble, powered through the stresses of the challenge during the final trimester of her pregnancy. She found the experience "daunting, challenging and rewarding at the same time".

For her, being part of the challenge was an encouragement to her as she got to speak to other entrepreneurs who are mothers as she was expecting her first child at that time.

Hui, who went into 6.5 hours of labour barely 24 hours after being announced the winner of the Manulife Sustainability Award has 4 key takeaways from the challenge:

1. Recalling Tan Sri Liew’s advice, at the end of the day, it’s about the kind of person and legacy you are leaving, not necessarily the business or product you’re building.

2. “The best athletes in the world were pushed, not pampered.

3. Figure out your blind spot as a leader, and determine how and what to do about it.

4. From the coaching sessions, Hui understood that marketing efforts should be focused on interested groups, not so much on the masses.

Ash Be Nimble is a homegrown Malaysian brand that designs and manufactures sports apparel.

Image via Malay Mail Online

"Entrepreneurs are just a bunch of crazy people who have recognised an itch no one else saw, and have the urge no one else had to scratch it and make a difference"

Through this experience, Hui has made it a point to keep working harder and smarter, and not make excuses. “I’ve always thought that entrepreneurs are partly-born, partly-made, perhaps for me a small excuse at the back of my mind if one day I should give up, that I could say ‘oh well, I’m just not cut out for it’.

Meeting each of the contestants who have such varied work backgrounds, life experiences, family situations and networks has convinced me that entrepreneurs are just a bunch of crazy people who have recognised an itch no one else saw, and have the urge no one else had to scratch it and make a difference.

Ash Be Nimble aims to make a difference in fitness in the ASEAN region with affordable and quality wear.

Image via ash be nimble

5. For Armin, founder of the CarBengkel app, it was a thought-provoking process, and taught him to take advantage of 'free marketing'

Recalling on the experience of joining the SME Innovation Challenge, the passion and support displayed by the rest of the participants has stayed with Armin. “The top 20 founders that met each other during the coaching session only quickly became acquainted and became best of friends.” Instead of being pitted against each other as competitors, the understanding and good communication they shared had united them.

Armin found the coaching sessions to be very fun and enjoyable, as much as they were informative and inspirational. They served as great lessons on marketing and taught him to capitalise on the no-cost avenues for exposure like the importance of an email signature, a website, preparing company profiles that are ready to be shared via mobile, wearing uniforms, as well as using immediate family and contacts on social network, etc.

CarBengkel helps car owners locate a good mechanic, matching them with trusted car workshops according to location.

Image via arminbaniaz.com

These ‘free marketing’ should be fully exhausted before embarking into paid marketing.” He also learnt that despite all the free marketing tools available, companies should still have a marketing budget and plan in place. “When we need to spend money on marketing, a thorough study should first be conducted to ensure the target market is reached.”

Much like others, the coaching sessions have helped him with better hiring choices and taught him to share the burden with his team

“No one man is an island. Sometimes I feel and believe I can do everything myself,” said Armin. However, he has now realised that it’s important to rely on his team as well. “A strong team would complement each other and have each other’s back and make it a perfect combination.

Hiring the right people in a startup is imperative due to the limitation in the number of recruitments. Identify the attributes, credentials, experiences and qualification of the talent the company is looking for, and find the closest match. Instead of interviewing candidates in a formal environment in office meeting rooms, Armin now prefers to interview them at a cafe in a more casual manner. “This way, we can see the real person and not the formal act they [put on to] impress us during an interview.”

With the CarBengkel app, Armin hopes to reduce car owners’ bad experience dealing with workshops.

Image via arminbaniaz.com

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