Franchise queen

Sofia Leong Abdullah worked in many different industries as a personal assistant (PA) to the managing director (MD). She has also worked in the food chain, real estate and insurance sectors. But it was her role as PA to the MD of a master franchise company that would really have an impact on her career.

Spending 13 years in that company gave Sofia the chance to learn everything there’s to know about franchising. From her humble beginnings as a PA, she was eventually tasked with overseeing various development programmes within the company.

During her time in the company she also served as a committee member of the Malaysian Franchise Association (MFA) and rose her way to the top role as chief executive officer of MFA. After fulfilling her two years contract there, she decided to start up her own franchising consultancy.

Sofia talks to SAVVY about the ins and outs of franchising, why it’s a good route towards entrepreneurship and what it takes to be a successful franchisor and franchisee.

Sofia Leong Abdullah

Besides on-the-job training, how else did you learn about franchising?

I learnt a lot from my boss who was very nurturing and encouraged me to upgrade my knowledge of franchising. He didn’t want me to just remain a PA forever and he gave me many opportunities. I travelled overseas to many franchise trade shows where I got to mingle with international franchisors. I wasn’t shy and always made a point to pick the brains of the most successful franchisors. After 13 years, I did learn a lot about franchising working in that company.

How different is franchising in Malaysia from other countries?

Generally, franchising is a globally-recognised business approach so there are many similarities in how franchising is conducted in various countries around the world. But of course different countries have their own specific laws that govern this activity. In Malaysia, for example, we have a franchise act that governs the industry.

All those who want to be involved in franchising — whether as a franchisee or franchisor — must register with the Registrar of Franchises (ROF). This act was initially set up to ensure that the franchisor doesn’t take advantage of any vulnerable or naive franchisee. But there are also quite a number of clauses that protect the franchisor as well. We have good legislation in place for the benefit of both franchisee and franchisor. The government has been quite proactive about this.

If a person is interested in franchising — either as a franchisee or franchisor — but doesn’t know where to begin, how should he/she go about it?

If that person owns a business and wishes to use the franchising model to expand that business, he/she can always consult with a franchise consultant. If that person is someone who wishes to buy a franchise, he/she can always refer to some of the trade associations which would have details of members who are franchisors. For example, the Malaysian Franchise Association or the Asean Retail Chain & Franchise Federation.

Why is franchising a good option for an entrepreneur?

Assuming you’re franchising from a company with a solid track record and a good reputation, the risk of failure is greatly reduced compared to starting something completely from scratch. Not only does the franchisor extend the use of their established brand name, they also supply you with best practices, training and support. You also don’t have to worry about ongoing research and development as these are taken care of by the franchisor.

What’s a crucial ingredient for being a successful franchisee?

A good franchisee must have good business sense and be a good “people” person because it’s essentially about being a good general manager. Remember, technical skills can easily be acquired by attending the franchisor’s training programme but business savvy can’t really be taught. Many people underestimate the importance of having good business sense.

It’s like being street smart. Even with the benefit of guidance from an established franchisor, the business will fail if the franchisee doesn’t shed the employee mentality and adopt an entrepreneurial mindset. Yes, franchising is less risky than starting a business completely from scratch but it’s still about running a business so you have to have that business sensibility within you.

What exactly do you do for your clients?

My core service is to help companies become successful franchisors. They need to have proper documentation and have good standard operating procedures in place. I basically help to ensure that these companies are able to comply with the requirements of the Malaysian Franchise Act. I also ensure they’re familiar with their obligations as a franchisor.

How do you charge for your services?

It depends on the documentation I need to assist in drafting — some businesses are more complex than others — and the condition of their current operational procedures. The fee for franchise development can vary from as low as RM35,000 to a high of RM85,000.

How do you keep up-to-date with the latest rules and regulations relating to franchising in this country?

I try to make myself available for most franchise activities within the country including expos, seminars, conferences or business networking opportunities. It’s at those places that I get to meet other people in the industry. We do a lot of sharing at these events. I also get updates from time to time from the Registrar of Franchises.

Is the government supportive of franchising?

Very much so as it recognises that franchising is a good way for people to get into business. Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world that has a government agency set up specifically to support the franchising industry. It provides financial support, subsidised training and organises overseas trade missions relating to franchising.

What’s the most common question you get asked about franchising?

“Which is the best brand to franchise in Malaysia?” Well, there are many good brands out there so it’s not fair to single out just one. I’d say look up the franchise award winners for this year, read up about them, and make up your own mind up based on what you see there.

Have you yourself franchised a business?

No, I haven’t. I’ve publicly stated on many occasions that my passion isn’t in managing my own franchise but in helping local brands to successfully extend their franchise across the country and even the region or the world. I get a lot of joy from seeing a brand make it globally because they consulted with me.


Expressing herself on clutches

Some people express their creativity through painting. Former model-turned-entrepreneur Shana Azahari, who loves painting and loves bags, has managed to combine both passions to create a very niche business selling hand-crafted clutches.

Upon graduation from University College London, Shana started out working as a model and dabbled with a tech start-up before taking on a job in sales and marketing with a company handling automotive equipment, tools and engineering solutions. She’s currently the marketing and social media manager for BeGroup, a lifestyle group of companies that includes a wellness centre, restaurants and a kindergarten.

“All the time throughout my career I’ve been working on Azooi,” says Shana, referring to the company which she runs in parallel with holding a full-time job. She talks to SAVVY about how she turned her passion into a business, why she still chooses to have a day job and the challenges she faces.

What made you decide to start your own business?

While I was modelling I wanted to be more in control of my life and my potential to earn more so I started researching some businesses I could start. Not surprisingly, I found myself working on a fashion-based business.

Why bags?

I love other fashion items too but bags really captivate me. I pay more attention to bags than anything else. I initially thought of creating an online store just to re-sell bags but I didn’t like the idea of selling items that were easily available elsewhere. So, I decided to sell my own products.

How did the idea of selling hand-crafted clutches come about?

While I was modelling, I began painting on clutches which I treated as tiny canvases for me to paint on. It was an outlet for me to interpret the things I found beautiful. I wanted to create a very different kind of product that would resonate with people. I didn’t want to keep them to myself so I started selling them online. This is how Azooi ( was born.

Do you do all the painting yourself?

Initially it was just me but I’m very lucky to have found a few more artists and artisans who have come to make up our team.

But are the designs all by you?

Yes, I’m the creative head of Azooi and I come up with the designs. When I come across something I like looking at, I try to imagine what it looks like on a clutch. Then I’d sketch it out.

What materials do you use to make the clutches?

We work with acrylic paint, wood like Mahogany and Robles, and we also do a lot of work with shells like Abalone, Rainbow Pen, Kabibe and Mother of Pearl.

All your clutches are hand-crafted. How long does it take to make one?

The complete process takes about four to six weeks depending on the complexity of the design.

You have maintained a full-time job while running your business. Why?

I didn’t study business at school and had no business background so I wanted to be prudent in my approach to entrepreneurship. I feel I still haven’t learnt enough about business yet so I think this is the right strategy for me at this moment.

There are obvious downsides to holding a day job and running a business on the side but are there any upsides?

When you run a business while maintaining a full-time job, you quickly learn to focus 100 per cent on completing specific tasks and you also learn to manage your team very efficiently. These are skills you are forced to learn.

Do you have time for other things?

Not much. Only family time and some exercise. I do make sure I get sufficient sleep though. I get about seven to eight hours of sleep every night. So, I can’t complain.

Do you plan to keep it a small business or to scale it up?

I’d like to scale it up when the time is right but to do that won’t be easy. Our products are all handmade so scaling up would definitely be a challenge. To expand, we’d need to have a presence in multiple countries. Then of course the challenges of logistics will come into play. Not easy.

Where are most of your customers from?

We have a good mix of local and foreign customers but it’s undeniable how important the support of the local market has been for us.

How do you do most of your marketing?

It’s all online through social media. We’re on Instagram (@azooiofficial) and on Facebook ( Many of our customers have found us through Instagram where we curate a lot of photos of our clutches as well as pictures of our clutches being made. My modelling background has also been useful because a lot of media industry folks are friends and acquaintances so I’ve been featured in various publications talking about Azooi.

Are most of your sales online or are they sold through physical stores?

No physical stores. All our sales are online, through our website. Many of our customers make their orders through Whatsapp.

Why through Whatsapp? Can’t they just order online through your shopping cart?

They could but customers tend to want to communicate with someone especially when they want to make a customised order. This is actually an important, no, an integral feature of our sales process. Communicating through Whatsapp simulates the personal shopper experience, which goes beyond just shopping online.

Would you ever consider selling through marketplaces like Lazada?

In general there’s a lot of value selling through a marketplace like Lazada where there’s lot of traffic but it depends on the product you’re selling. Ours is a very niche product. I prefer to focus on our own website first.

How tech-savvy are you?

I’d say I have a broad understanding of IT but I would not say I’m tech-inclined by nature. I’m more artistic.

How much does technology play a role in your business?

A lot. I need to contact my team and my customers from anywhere in the world and the Internet facilitates that. Whatsapp and e-mails are important modes of communication for us. Instagram and Facebook have allowed our small business to have an online presence and to gain an audience. Technology is definitely an empowering tool.

What advice would you give someone who’s considering becoming an entrepreneur?

I’m an action-oriented person. I believe action is always better than inaction. So, if you want to do something, just do it. Don’t hesitate and let fear hold you back. If you’re going to fail, might as well get it over with and learn from the process.


Work-life balance

Work-life balance is a difficult thing to achieve under any circumstances. And more so for people with young children to take care of. Communications veteran SY Phang managed to achieve it for herself by working as a freelancer early in her career and is now dedicated to training parents — especially stay-at-home mums and single mums — on how they can do work from home or do part-time work.

Phang talks to Savvy about the origins of her company, Flexxi Associates, that she set up to provide such training and her plans for tweaking the business model to offer her associates even more flexibility.

Why are you such an advocate of freelancing?

As a single girl, I went into freelancing in the 1970s when I was still new in the workforce as I valued job flexibility even back then. Family and friends were worried and told me that I was committing professional suicide because at that time, freelancing was far less common than it is now. But freelancing proved to be a right career choice for me. When I got married and had kids, this mode of work allowed me to have a career and yet be at home to take care of my children. I want other women in my situation to be able to do that too.

What type of companies did you do work for?

When I started out, I just did some small freelance work but things changed quite a bit after my stint working full time at Shell, which lasted about two years. I left on good terms and Shell was willing to outsource some work to me.

Because it’s a corporation, I had to set up a proper company to take on the work. So, I created Word Design Communication in 1991. Thanks to good word of mouth and associates’ recommendations, I also got work from the likes of Nestlé, Telekom Malaysia, Nissan, Petronas and Schlumberger.

What was your motivation for setting up Flexxi Associates?

I set up Flexxi Associates in 2001 with a business partner named Tham Yew Wai to explore business models that promote work-life balance and job flexibility. Tham was not able to re-enter the job market after her husband unexpectedly passed away. She was trained to be a secretary but having been a housewife for about two decades, she was too out of touch to be hired as a secretary. Her case made it clear to us that it’s vital for a homemaker to constantly upgrade her skill sets in case something were to happen to her marriage or spouse.

What kind of training courses does Flexxi run?

Our focus is on communications training for two key reasons. Firstly, communications is an industry I’m familiar with. Secondly, over the last three decades, I’ve built a network of communication practitioners who are very competent trainers. In a nutshell, we offer affordable editorial and social media courses.

Can non-writers really become good writers just by taking these courses?

Our associates don’t just go for training. They also get on-the-job experience working under the supervision of communication practitioners with between 20 and 30 years of industry experience. Apprenticeship is an effective way to master editorial skills. Once we have a pool of competent writers, we can look for suitable projects and outsource them to those who are keen to be part of our network.

In what ways does Flexxi’s business model promote work-life balance?

To promote flexibility and entrepreneurship we encourage our associates to set up their own companies which we can outsource to. It’s up to each entrepreneur how much work they want to take up, which will vary from person to person depending on their situation at home.

Is working from home the ultimate solution?

Working from home offers a lot of flexibility but it’s not without its challenges. As a stay-at-home mum, you have to deal with childcare, household chores and work simultaneously. Your children won’t understand why sometimes you can’t play with them even though you’re at home. Family members will ask you to run errands because they think you have all the time in the world. Work gets disrupted. So, it’s not so easy.

What could be an alternative to working from home?

Over the years, we have experimented with different work arrangements in order to create an eco-system to support job flexibility. Our traditional model was working from home but I can envisage our associates working in teams and shifts in a co-working space.

Under the co-working space model, how do the children get taken care of?

I remember in the past having to look after the babies of my freelance writers and graphic artists as they rushed to make amendments for my projects. That’s obviously not a scalable model. Since then, I’ve been looking for a better approach. I think “The School by Jaya One”, a kind of education mall, could be the ideal solution. It can be a place for parents to take courses — and later, do their work there — while their children take enrichment classes. An education mall is an excellent place for parents and grandparents to hang out with their wards. It’s a playground of knowledge where children are enriched by topics and skills that might not be taught in schools.

How is that idea coming along?

We’re currently in negotiations with The School by Jaya One to do a few different initiatives relating to our training workshops and also to have a co-working space there for our associates. If this concept works, this business model could be duplicated in any other malls.

Do your associates know each other?

Yes, we have organised networking and knowledge-sharing lunches where home entrepreneurs can mingle and help each other promote their respective businesses. We also have guest speakers who talk on topics such as technology updates, entrepreneurship, work-life balance,

public speaking, time management, parenting and social media. Our guest speakers do this on a voluntary basis and there’s no fee charged for the talk. Participants just pay the café for the cost of their lunch.

How important is IT to your business?

Super important! The Internet — which didn’t exist when I started freelancing in the ‘70s — has made job flexibility much more practical and achievable than ever before. Now, I can collaborate with my associates and e-mail the PDF of an entire magazine to a client through the Internet. And social media has changed marketing as we know it. It’s important to embrace disruptive technology so that we don’t get disrupted by it.


Renting design staff

There are so many online market places for renting things. AirBnB is an online market place for renting apartments and houses, and if you think about it, the likes of Grab and Uber are online market places for renting a car and driver. But how about renting design staff?

Well, there’s actually one for that called Rtist ( which was co-founded by industrial designer Tony Chua. From its humble beginnings with just a handful of designers, it now has several hundred designers registered under its portal. Its services are used by many advertising and design agencies.

The entrepreneurial Chua speaks to SAVVY about how this idea came about, how he grew his portal and his plans for the future.  

How did you get started in the graphic design business?
I studied industrial design at the Malaysian Institute of Art and when I graduated, I worked in industrial design for four years. After that I tried my hand at selling insurance because I preferred to be self-employed. I did this for a couple of years and was quite successful at it. When my sister, who studied graphic design, decided to start up a design studio, she asked me to join her and I accepted. But my role in the business was sales not design. I had learned how to sell during my insurance years and I put that skill to good use in the new business.

How did Rtist come about?
We’re a mid-range design company with many SME clients. One day, one of our clients asked for us to place a designer at their office because at the time they needed a lot of design work done and wanted someone on hand all the time. This was something we were not equipped for and we couldn’t fulfil his needs in that regard. But it made us realise there could be a demand for graphic designers for rent.

What was your first experience renting out a designer?
As a design agency, we’re always looking for new talent. This wasn’t easy to do as there was no online market place for us to source for them. So, it had to be done the old fashioned way, through referrals and word of mouth. One designer who applied to join us was not suitable for our needs but we felt he could be suitable for one of our clients, who happened to be looking for a graphic designer for a limited engagement. So, we arranged to rent him out to that client on a daily basis for up to one month. It was a success so we decided to continue offering this service.

What was the market response like?
Our clients were happy with this arrangement as we removed a lot of the hassle they’d otherwise have had to go through such as vetting the designer for quality, etc. We do all that for them so they don’t even need to conduct an interview. We have confidence we can supply the right candidate for the job. In the event that we’re wrong, it’s no big deal as these designers are being rented out on a daily basis and you can determine within the span of one day if that person isn’t the right fit.  They usually are though.

Was it easy getting designers to sign up?
At first we had to recruit them one by one and we managed to recruit about 10 designers that way. We started to rent them out to companies and word of mouth spread among clients as well as designers. From there it grew. Today, we have about 300 designers, so there’s a critical mass now.

What are the main benefits for designers joining your portal?
Rtist is a platform for them to gain access to many work opportunities, more so than they could ever get on their own even if they had a big network.

What does a designer have to do to sign up?
We have a briefing session every month that new designers must attend. These days we don’t do one-to-one interviews anymore. Rather, we evaluate them through a very detailed application form that allows us to understand their skill sets, what software they’re familiar with, what their work experience is and so on. Our application form is more detailed than JobStreet’s!

How many clients have you had since starting the business?
I’d say we’ve had at least 100 clients so far. Some rent our designers for just a day; some for a week; some for a month. Design agencies have got their peak seasons and when there’s a huge amount of work, they come to us because we have a good ready supply of suitable designers.

What type of clients do you have?
We have all sorts, from big agencies to niche or boutique agencies. Many of them need designers urgently when some project comes in and they don’t have enough people. Or sometimes one of their designers is sick or away for some reason. If someone is missing at 9am, I can get them a replacement designer by 11am. No one else can offer them this on a consistent and reliable basis.

Do you have non-agency clients?
We do have some SMEs that need designers for short stints. For example, TeaLive hired a designer from us for three weeks while they were preparing to launch.

What’s your income model?
Our portal is free for designers to join. We currently take a commission of between 15 per cent and 20 per cent, depending on the complexity and nature of the assignment. But we’re looking at a radical new business model for the future. We might be able to do away with commissions if the advertising model comes through. It’s hard to say whether this will work. We’ve just got to give it a try.

How do you see your portal evolving or growing?
I want to include a broader range of artistic people. Not just designers but copywriters, photographers, videographers, social media managers, etc. all under one roof. And I want to go beyond the rental concept to also offer full-time and part-time opportunities as well. That’s the dream!


Healthy ready meals for diabetics

FOR many people, their careers are pretty straightforward. They go into the profession they trained for. Engineering students will usually go into engineering, medical students become doctors and those who study accountancy become accountants.

But for industrial designer Zas Ishak and his broadcast journalist wife Fiza Hussein, life had an unlikely twist in store for them, career-wise.

Both are self-declared foodies but they never expected to go into the food business. Indeed Zas worked in the design field and Fiza was on TV for some time. Both only seriously got into the food preparation after Fiza’s parents’ diabetes condition got bad.

Initially, their aim was to create diabetes-friendly food. This eventually led them to building a business around it. “To jump into the food and beverage industry is something we never imagined doing,” says Zas. “But we were open to new challenges and this project is very close to our heart. Both of us left our jobs to do this and we’re now focused solely on The Foodster.”

Zas tells Savvy how they went about creating an online diabetes-friendly food service from scratch and what he feels lies ahead for the online food industry in the country.


This project began when we decided to document every diabetes-friendly meal that we had prepared for my late parents-in law. Our thinking was to share and inspire others to prepare healthy and tasty meals for their loved ones who had diabetes.

Diabetes is a disease that can’t be cured but can be managed through a healthy diet. This ultimately led to The Foodster Diabetic Meal Plan.


Fiza and I both love food, and we wanted to come up with a name that’s fun, catchy and memorable, as well as something that’s digital savvy. After much brainstorming, we came out with Foodster.


At first, we had no clue how to turn our idea into reality. Then we stumbled across an entrepreneurship development programme run by CIMB. From there we were introduced to the MaGIC Accelerator Program, which was very helpful. We underwent four months of intensive mentoring where we learnt about different aspects of running a business — from marketing and sales to production and management.

Such knowledge is crucial to successfully running a business. We didn’t have that knowledge beforehand as neither of us had a business background.


It always is unless you happen to come from a wealthy family. We didn’t have a lot of money to start off with so there was a bit of suffering at first. We had to be very careful about how we spent our money. Shopping and vacations were no longer a priority. We also had to learn to work odd hours. There’s no such thing as a 9-to-5 mentality when you’re an entrepreneur, especially during the early stages of the business.

There were times when we worked until 3 or 4am. You don’t get much rest. You’re always thinking about what your next move will be. So, yes, it was tough but fortunately, we have very supportive friends and family members who encouraged us and kept us motivated.


We use social media extensively. It gives us a lot of exposure and best of all, the platforms are free. The beauty of social media is the amount of data that you can get from your followers. This data can be analysed for a better understanding of your target market, which is useful for product development.

Right now, we market mainly through social media but we have plans to develop a mobile app too. We’re not a traditional food company in that sense.


My background is in design, remember? Packaging and design are really important because they are differentiating factors. Take Apple, for example. It is known for its clean, simple and minimalist packaging, which is so elegant. Because people tend to think of healthy food as being plain, boring and bland, we feel that it’s very important to make our products as appealing as possible.

One way to do that is through packaging that looks good. We also purposely make the packaging a part of the eating experience by providing some facts on diabetes and how to manage it. We use our food service as a method for creating awareness of diabetes.


Currently we have five different types of lunch boxes, which are available through pre-order or weekly/monthly subscriptions. We have also just launched our top-selling Triple Deck Premium Sandwiches and Cold Pressed Juices.


Digitally although at the moment it’s not very sophisticated. They can order through Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, and they pay either via online bank transfer or cash-on-delivery.


We have a lot of individual customers but we also have corporate clients. Jobstreet, Standard Chartered, Bursa Malaysia, Malaysia Green Tech and Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre are some of the companies that order our food when they have events or team building activities. It’s heartening to see some local companies encouraging a healthy diet among their employees.


People today are more aware of what they consume. They pay attention to labels and packaging on food. On our part, as food providers, we try to be as transparent as possible about the ingredients we use and the method of cooking we employ so that customers know exactly what they’re paying for. We choose our ingredients wisely even though sometimes this costs us much more than it should.


Yes. There are a lot of companies out there that provide food on delivery — in fact, they’re sprouting like mushrooms — from small-scale home businesses to big corporations. The major problem we find with online food providers is the delivery service, which is sometimes slow. Food needs to be delivered fresh but this can be a challenge, especially in the Klang Valley, where there are traffic jams everywhere. It’s a challenge for us too.


You could say that we’re using our food business to tackle a major health issue in this country, which is diabetes. As mentioned earlier, both my in-laws had diabetes so we know firsthand how terrible this disease is. We’re not just selling healthy food but we’re also raising awareness of diabetes.

Prevention is always better than cure. I should add that although our food is branded as diabetes-friendly, it’s healthy food for everyone to enjoy, not just for those who have the illness.