Lessons of all kinds

It seems like online marketplaces are all the rage these days. We’re all familiar with AirBnB as a marketplace for people to find apartments and houses for rent. And recently, I wrote about Rtist, a marketplace for finding graphic designers for hire. How about a marketplace to help you find lessons of all kinds — from academic tutoring to cooking to fitness training? Well, we do have a home-grown portal that offers just that. It’s called AOne and it was founded by Darren Gouk, who at one time aspired to become a university lecturer. In fact, he was headed in that direction when he caught the entrepreneurial bug and decided to embark on an online venture instead.

Gouk had pursued a PhD in Nutritional Chemistry from Universiti Malaya in order to fulfil his ambitions of becoming a lecturer. He did well academically, receiving many awards and was even offered a post-doctoral position at Imperial College London. But he declined to take that up and other offers that came in in order to kick-start AOne in the country.“That was a life decision that friends and family members couldn’t understand,” recalls Gouk. “My mother, especially, thought that I was wasting my academic achievements pursuing an online business.” But he stuck to his guns and pursued his entrepreneurial dreams. Gouk talks to SAVVY about his online marketplace for offline lessons of all kinds, his plans for expanding and growing the business and the differences between running an online and offline business.

How did you go from wanting to be a lecturer to becoming an entrepreneur?

I’d attended a free Internet marketing seminar at the urging of a friend. There I was introduced to how online businesses work and I was so inspired by it. The very next day I set out to create the beta version of AOne, an online marketplace to match students and tutors.

How was the response like initially?

Word spread very fast and there was a lot of interest in what I was doing. What really encouraged me was the knowledge that I was offering something truly beneficial for society. I remember receiving a request from a single mother who wanted to find good but low cost tutoring for her kids. I managed to find a suitable tuition centre for her and she was very happy. Things like that told me that I’d made the right decision to do this.

AOne started out as an online marketplace for tutoring but it quickly grew to include many other types of lessons. Was this

always your plan?

I’d initially thought of doing just a marketplace for tutoring. But then I started getting inquiries from parents about non-academic lessons, especially music and swimming. There were quite a lot of inquiries about this. So, it made me think, why not expand the offerings to include other types of lessons and not just academic tutoring. I started by including music and swimming because those were the most in demand. But once I offered those, people started asking for other types of lessons so I opened it up. Now, you can find out about all kinds of lessons through our portal: ballet, drawing, cooking, Mandarin lessons, photography, computer programming, you name it.

Which lessons are more popular — academic or non-academic ones?

Both are performing pretty well but there’s a lot more spending for academic-related lessons. I guess it must be an Asian thing. Parents like to send their kids for tutoring.

What’s your business model?

Lesson providers list for free and students use the portal for free. But the lesson providers have to pay for access to leads, i.e. the queries by the students.

Does that generate enough revenue to sustain the business?

It generates steady revenue but of course we have to offer more services in order to bolster our revenues. We’ve just launched a new service called AOnePay which we think will bring in more revenue than the lead generation fees.

Is AOne Pay a payment gateway?

It’s an automated monthly fee collection service for learning centres, kindergartens and gyms. Our experience in dealing with lesson providers told us that collecting fees from students is a problem faced by many of them. Many don’t pay on time and there’s a lot of work when you need to chase for fees and keep track of who has paid and who has not. And this happens every month. So we decided to provide an auto-debit service for their lesson fees. It solves a lot of their headaches. Of course we take a small commission from the fees that we help them collect.

Aside from this online business, you also have two offline student enrichment centres. What do they teach?

I run two enrichment centres focused on maths in Kota Damansara and Sri Damansara under the brand name of SAM (Seriously Addictive Maths). It features a unique problem-solving curriculum designed for preschool and primary school students from the ages of four to 12.

Being both an online and offline entrepreneur, how do you find each sector and what are the key differences?

Running an online start-up is akin to taking a roller coaster ride while running a bricks and mortar business is like riding a motorbike. A roller coaster is a wild and bumpy ride all the way. Riding a motorcycle is somewhat risky but more steady and predictable. That’s the difference between an online and offline business.

Ever thought of going beyond being a matchmaker and actually becoming a publisher of sorts of online lessons?

It would make sense that I’d go into this because e-learning is definitely a growing trend. There’s a company in the US called which started off offering offline classes — like we do at AOne — but eventually they started adding online courses. That’s something we’d like to do too. It’d be great if we could someday create a localised version of

Have you thought of going regional?

Our long term vision is to be the central marketplace for all instructors and lessons in Southeast Asia. We’ve already launched a Singapore version of our site which currently hosts about 600 lesson providers. Eventually, we can replicate this across the region. But I know that doing so won’t be easy because of the differences in language, culture and government regulations. Malaysia and Singapore are quite similar, which is why we expanded there first.

Are you an ambitious person?

I’d say I am. My life goal is to create a business that can make a significant positive impact on society. For me to create such an impact, it has to be education or lessons because that’s something I know very well and is dear to my heart.

Do you have a role model?

Elon Musk. His entrepreneurial journey is amazing. His passionate, forward-looking, never-look-back and never-give-up spirit truly inspires me!

Any local online company you admire?

Yes, Grab. What an impact it has made. That company gives Malaysians the opportunity to earn extra income to support themselves and their families.


Helping start-ups across the region

When people think of becoming an entrepreneur, they usually think of starting a single business. But what if you’re someone who is interested in different fields and wants to be involved in many different start-ups?

Being a venture capitalist is one way to do it. And that’s exactly what Rina Neoh decided to do a little more than a decade ago. And she hasn’t looked back since.

A graduate of Computer Science with an MBA in International Business, Rina began her career working for a Microsoft reseller and later for an IBM subsidiary before teaming up with some associates to found Mercatus Capital to invest in start-ups in this region.

Rina talks to SAVVY about how she got started in this business, what it takes to be a start-up investor and how she manages a hectic lifestyle which requires her to maintain homes in three countries.

Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I’m not sure if I’ve always wanted to be one but I have been one since I was very young. My first entrepreneurial experience was at the age of eight when I started selling snacks around the block at my home in Rifle Range Flats in Penang. I don’t recall not having to work part-time throughout my schooling years — including being a shampoo girl in my mother’s hair salon — but I actually enjoyed it. Through it all, I learned a lot about the importance of listening to customer needs and expectations.

Rather than stick to one business, you have chosen the route of investing in various companies. Why?

The size of your success is measured by the size of your dreams, the depth of your passion and the strength of your determination and I asked myself why stick to one when I can do more.

How many start-ups has your company invested in so far?

Since 2006, through our own network of angel investors, we provided seed capital to more than 50 promising start-ups in Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.

What are your strengths as an investor?

I have a knack for identifying new businesses, finding new markets, creating unique value propositions and creating sustainable revenue streams.

What are the most important qualities to have as an investor of start-ups?

It’s important to have intestinal fortitude and inexhaustible patience when investing in small businesses. I work with the premise that for every runaway success story, there are hundreds of other businesses that may not book a profit for many years. Investing in start-ups is a hit-or-miss affair.

But if you don’t take a risk and invest, you won’t have any successful companies. My goal is to find the next game-changer so I’ll continue to invest in promising start-ups knowing that some will fail.

Investing in start-ups is a long-gestation play. How do you support yourself while waiting for the businesses to mature?

I have directorships in various companies including Mercatus Capital but also in other companies that we have invested in. We also get management and professional fees from such companies so there is some income but obviously that’s not where the big money is.

What kind of businesses are you interested in?

We have invested in all types of start-up businesses from technology apps, pharmaceuticals and healthcare technology to food products, educational services and FinTech. So, it’s quite a diverse range. The selection of industry sector is actually less important than the level of innovation and competitive advantages these companies have.

How do you source for start-ups to invest in?

We do this mainly though research and referrals from business associates, bankers and partners. We have built up our name and reputation over the years and the community knows how to reach out to us.

What kind of role do you normally play besides being an investor?

In general I don’t take an active managerial role in the businesses I invest in. Rather, I focus on guiding the core team so they can take the company to the next level of sustainability and profitability. I recognise the tough challenges young entrepreneurs face and I see an opportunity to make a difference in their lives by linking them to resources normally beyond their reach.

You jet set quite a bit. Where is home for you?

I reside primarily in Singapore, although I have homes in Malaysia and the Philippines as well. I am planning to spend more time in Kuala Lumpur these days as I am currently working with one of Malaysia’s most dynamic entrepreneurs in the tech sector.

What’s a typical day like for you?

It’s probably not as hectic as you might think. I’m very organised so I’m able to maintain very reasonable working hours. I like to get up early, around 6am and start my day at the fitness gym in my condo or in the hotel when I’m travelling. After breakfast, I’m usually at my desk by 8am. Then it’s calls and meetings with clients, business partners and colleagues. Lunchtime is spent mostly in the office as I try to avoid going out for lunch to save time. Then it’s more meetings in the afternoon. I usually call it a day by 6pm. I relax after dinner by listening to music or catching up with friends and family through social media. I also try to do some reading before going to bed before midnight.

How much time do you spend on the Internet every day?

Again, it’s probably not as much as you’d expect. I use the Internet for about two hours a day, mainly for work-related matters but also a bit on social media. I spend much more time thinking, planning and strategising than being online.

You got married recently. Will that affect your working style?

I tied the knot very recently yes, but I believe it won’t affect work or lifestyle. All of us have got 24 hours a day. That’s a lot of time if you know how to manage it well.


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.