Sunday
Apr302017

Foster creativity

AS we go about our busy lives, trying to make ends meet and pay bills and debts, it’s hard to find time for external projects that are done as a labour of love. Yet without such projects, our lives can be rather bland and unchallenging. Having some external passion is crucial for sparking creativity, which in turn can help our careers.

One person who really believes in this is Nizar Musa, an architect by profession who also dabbles in drawing and writing children’s books and writing plays, among other creative pursuits. Upon graduation with an architecture degree from New Zealand, he joined a big architectural firm in KL where he worked at for eight years before striking it out on his own. Walking away from an established company wasn’t an easy decision to make but Nizar hasn’t looked back.

“We do interesting stuff at QID,” he says. “We call our approach identity+design where traditionally-independent disciplines such as graphic design, architecture and interior design, are unified under one banner.”

Nizar talks to Savvy about why he thinks it’s important to have non-work-related external projects and shares his views about creativity.

WHAT DOES QID STAND FOR AND WHAT KIND OF DESIGN FIRM IS IT?

The company was originally named Qoravant Ideas & Design when I founded it in December 2008. At the time, I was looking for another challenge, to explore my interest in other design typologies outside of architecture. This studio was the means to do just that. At first, we took on all manner of design jobs: office interiors, animation, graphic murals, advertorials, corporate identity, car showrooms, etc. Doing so many disparate things was fun until financial realities began to set in. Clearly, being a Jack-of-all-trades wasn’t sustainable. When 2016 rolled by, we decided on a reboot. We shortened our hard-to-pronounce company name to QID and we reworked our processes and business logic to come up with the identity+design concept. We’re now very specific about what we want to do. If you want to know more, visit our website qoravant.com.

HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE CONCEPT OF IDENTITY+DESIGN AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Our motto, which means to produce design that forms identity, is a rationalisation of the work we do. It incorporates principles shared by many design disciplines. At QID there’s no distinction between logo, building, and any other type of objective design as they all fulfil the same purpose of being articles of identity to their owners. The differences are only in scale and complexity of function, which for us aren’t an issue since we have the experience and know-how. At the end of the day, clients want to see themselves in the design, and that’s what we give them.

CAN YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF IDENTITY+DESIGN IN PRACTICE?

We’ve just completed a retreat in Hulu Langat called Tanah Larwina where we designed the rooms, corporate identity, booklets, website and signages. It was end-to-end, A-to-Z design. The client’s really happy with the results. And for us, it’s immensely satisfying work.

ANY NEW PROJECTS YOU’RE WORKING ON?

QID’s developing a couple of identity projects, one in Singapore, the other Hong Kong. We’ve also been invited to collaborate on the design of an iconic pedestrian bridge in Sepang, which should be interesting. Our Tanah Larwina client is also keeping us on our toes with more additions to their grounds. The quantum of work isn’t huge, but it’s keeping our small firm afloat.

BESIDES YOUR DESIGN JOB, YOU DO OTHER THINGS LIKE ILLUSTRATING AND AUTHORING BOOKS, PLAYWRITING... — ALL INTERESTING STUFF BUT HARDLY BIG INCOME EARNERS — WHY BOTHER?

Honestly, I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t doing art of some kind. My earliest memory of drawing was tracing and colouring Donald Duck with my late grandmother. And then there were the books and comics. Mum always encouraged me to read, and I did that. The best part about reading was that these stories transported you somewhere else. That intrigued me, which led to a huge portion of my teenage years spent creating my own comics, writing plays for school, producing fantasy games that my friends could play. My artistic pursuits today don’t make much money but I enjoy doing them.

WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR YOU TO DO A RHYME BOOK THE HELPFUL ROBOT?

This was my first book, released last year under my pen-name Unizaru. I’ve always had a passion for science fiction and technology so having a friendly, Made-in-Malaysia robot, in the spirit of C-3PO and R2-D2, seemed like a novel idea. I’m also big on Asian values, respecting your elders, helping other people, etc. That had to be in there, too. I felt a rhyming story will be an interesting approach for a uniquely Malaysian story. It wasn’t easy to do but how often do you get the chance to rhyme English words with char kway teow? I’m currently working on a sequel.

YOU ALSO ILLUSTRATED THE BOOK. WHAT DOES DRAWING DO FOR YOU?

Sketching for me is like opening a tap — twist the handle and out gushes the things I see in my mind. It lets me test any idea, and quickly. A new book character, logo options for a client, a construction detail to solve a frameless glass wall-to-suspended aluminium ceiling intersection. All the magic happens at the end of my pencil.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO HAVE EXTERNAL PROJECTS?

It fills you with good energy. Achieving something through your own blood, sweat and tears is empowering and it gives you a tremendous sense of self-worth. And in a corporate world littered with reality checks, short tempers and biting criticism, that self-worth does wonders for your mental and emotional wellbeing.

External projects for me started when I was 12, when in addition to doing my school homework, I was also drawing, making up games and writing stories. I kept at it through high school, university, even after quitting my job and starting QID.

DO YOU THINK MALAYSIAN CREATIVE PROJECTS CAN MAKE IT BIG GLOBALLY?

Best-selling books? TV shows? Movies? Mobile games? It hasn’t happened yet. We’re a creative people but perhaps our mindset prevents us from striving for better and smarter content. I hope to see in my lifetime more Malaysian creatives breaking out internationally. Out with the jaguh kampung mentality, in with the Jack-Ma-All-Conquering attitude. I want to see Malaysians going toe-to-toe with the big boys at a global level. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having success locally or modest success at the Asean level but I believe we can, and should, aspire to greater heights.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF CREATIVE MALAYSIAN TALENT GOING ABROAD TO FIND SUCCESS?

Places like the US, China, Taiwan and the UK all have the creative infrastructure, supporting industry, massive fan base and global visibility to attract our best talents, which irks me a little bit because it contributes to the country’s brain drain. But I’d be lying if I said moving abroad has never crossed my mind. I’ve never seriously considered it though because a part of me — perhaps naively — still believes in the potential of finding success without having to uproot myself. What’s really important is for some local heroes to emerge to inspire others. Just like in sports, when one of us wins, everyone wins. And you needn’t look further than Lee Chong Wei for an example of that. His victories have inspired all badminton players.

IS CREATIVITY SOMETHING INHERENT OR CAN IT BE TAUGHT?

I think a bit of both. God-given talent can’t be explained, only appreciated. Yet talent alone can only get you so far. I was born with an innate ability to draw. Yet despite having that natural talent, I was never the top student in architecture school. There was always someone better than me, even though they couldn’t draw as well as I could. But what they couldn’t deliver in that area, they made up for in others.

They built intricate models out of wood and steel and acrylic. They produced 3D animation. They did paintings. They charmed the socks off our tutors with assured, confident presentations. What I’m getting at is that having natural talent doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be more creative than the next guy. Hard work and good old-fashioned commitment to the craft is required to deliver superb results.

Sunday
Apr232017

The online freelancer

CERTAIN types of work such as editing and copywriting are options that can be done from home but the challenge is the constant need to source for leads, which is hard to do from home. Azlina Abdul Jalil faced that problem when she decided to quit her job as a lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at Universiti Malaysia Sabah.

At first, she tried her hand at running a business involving advertising and publishing. She thought such a business would be suitable as it involves writing. However, she soon discovered that much of her time had to be spent chasing sales rather than writing.

This prompted her to look for writing-based work that could be sourced from the comforts of her home. Azlina talks to Savvy about online freelancing and how she has made it work out well for her as a stay-at-home mother of two.

HOW DID IT ALL START?

I turned online to look for available opportunities out there and that was when I discovered an online freelancing site called Elance (now known as Upwork). I signed up and started getting translation and writing jobs through Elance. That was in 2011. I wrapped up the advertising business about a year later.

DID YOU HAVE ANY DOUBTS WHEN YOU FIRST EMBARKED ON YOUR ONLINE FREELANCE JOURNEY?

I quickly secured some translation and writing jobs from Elance so there was no reason to have doubts. Once I got my first big online job — which paid US$400 (RM1,762) — I was convinced that online freelancing could be a source of regular income for me.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE ONLINE FREELANCING AS OPPOSED TO THE MORE CONVENTIONAL WAY OF SOURCING FOR FREELANCE WORK THROUGH EXISTING CONTACTS?

I chanced upon the online freelancing sites like Elance after searching for “money-making opportunities” online. This approach was ideal for me as I didn’t come from a writing background so I wasn’t well-known and didn’t have many contacts in the industry. With Elance, the clients were already there.

Through online freelancing, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many international clients, something I don’t think I’d be able to do if I were just to look for clients on my own.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN ADVANTAGES OF ONLINE FREELANCING?

The main advantage is that the client and the jobs are already there. Another one is the payment system. It’s very simple and secure. Clients are required to deposit their fund into the escrow system once they engage you for the job. This means that the money is already there and you don’t have to worry about it disappearing or having to chase anyone for payment.

Once you submit your work, the site automatically generates an invoice and bills the client. The client has 14 days to review your work, after which, if they do not take any action, the site will release the payment to you. Payments can be transferred to PayPal or direct to your bank account.

HOW DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH TO CHARGE?

When I first started, I did some online research to get an idea of how other freelancers were charging for their work.

So, I went with the general market rate at the time. There was one instance when a client actually told me I was charging too low for the project and actually suggested a higher fee! But many of the clients I took on were already used to engaging freelancers and they had standard fees for different kinds of work. I’d look at their budget and if it felt right to me, I’d take on the work.

CAN YOU GIVE US EXAMPLES OF WORK YOU HAVE DONE RECENTLY?

I’ve been working on translation of news articles and marketing material for health and beauty products.

There was a job where the client wanted me to adapt and localise their marketing material from US English to Malaysian English.

DO YOU HAVE REGULAR CLIENTS OR IS ALL OF YOUR WORK AD HOC?

I do have some regular clients whom I do work for on a weekly basis. The work is usually small and quick. The payment for such work isn’t big but I’m happy that there’s at least something coming in every week.

WHAT’S THE MOST UNUSUAL WORK YOU’VE DONE?

I once had to do a transcription of terms people used on voice searches. It sounds simple but it’s not so easy making out the words being spoken when so many accents are involved.

Some people spoke too softly, others too fast, some voices were creepy, while some phrases were rather inappropriate. Transcription of voice searches is quite a time-consuming job, as well as taxing. It’s certainly the most unusual work I’ve done so far.

WHAT KIND OF WORK DO YOU ENJOY MOST?

I like doing translation of subtitles for TV shows since it means I get to watch the shows. It kind of feels like being paid to watch TV!

WHAT KIND OF WORK PAYS THE BEST?

Translation and technical writing work pay the best. The best paymasters are companies that are well-established as they provide regular work and are willing to pay good money for work well done.

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION THAT PEOPLE HAVE ON FREELANCING?

That freelancing means you have a lot of free time. Yes, we get to choose the work we do, and it is up to us when and where we want to do the work. But that doesn’t mean that we have lots of free time to lounge around.

I put in a lot of effort and care into the proposals I send to clients. Some of the writing and translation jobs can be very technical and require a lot of research. I think about work so much that sometimes I have dreams where there are words just floating in air bubbles in front of me, non-stop!

WHAT’S THE BEST THING ABOUT FREELANCING?

Flexibility. Since I work from home and can set my own schedule — as long as I meet deadlines — I’m able to send and pick up my children from school and spend quality time with them at home without having to worry about finding daycare.

WHAT’S THE WORST THING?

Not knowing where your next pay cheque will come from. There are times when there’s very little work or when the bulk of the jobs coming in are small ones that don’t pay too much.

This is when you need to tighten your belt and be on the lookout for new jobs.

DO YOU FIND IT DIFFICULT SEPARATING PERSONAL TIME WITH WORKING TIME?

Usually not so as I generally try to finish off as much work as possible in the morning, when the children are in school or late at night when they’ve gone to sleep. With my regular clients,

I know their basic work schedule so they send me the jobs around the same time each week and I’m able to arrange my time based on that.

But, sometimes, there are unexpected requests from regular clients or new jobs posted online that I just can’t resist! Such work does eat into my personal time. But this doesn’t happen often.

WHAT TYPES OF PEOPLE ARE SUITABLE TO BECOME FREELANCERS AND WHAT TYPES ARE NOT?

If you have a specific skill such as writing, programming, design or even accounting skills, and you’re looking for work or additional income, freelancing is a good option.

With online freelancing, there are thousands of jobs available every week, all posted online for you to look through. And you can do all this from the comfort of your own home.

But if you don’t like working alone or prefer to have a fixed 9-to-5 schedule in an office environment or need the security of a steady income every month, then freelancing isn’t for you.

Sunday
Apr162017

Reversing cancer

CANCER is a disease that afflicts all regardless of nationality. Yet, the general sense among Malaysians is that if there is to be a cure for cancer, it will come from the West.

Few people realise that we have an organisation called Cancer Research Malaysia that is doing cutting-edge work on finding a cure for cancer. It’s been around since 2001 and has made some significant progress. It also has many ambitious targets set for this year.

Its founder Dr Teo Soo-Hwang speaks to SAVVY about her research organisation and shares some insight into the different types of cancers that afflict Asians disproportionately.

How did you end up in cancer research?

My parents always encouraged us to excel in whatever we do, with a view towards improving the lives of people around us.

Both my elder brother and younger sister chose to become doctors but I decided on a different path. I got an Asean Scholarship to attend secondary school and junior college in Singapore. Then I secured a Sime Darby Foundation scholarship to study natural sciences at the University of Cambridge.

Upon completion of my PhD in 1996, I wanted to focus on cancer research and chose to work in the laboratory of Professor Stephen Jackson, the youngest ever professor at Cambridge. Together, we identified new genes which were previously not implicated in cancer.

What led you to starting up a research centre in Malaysia?

In 1998, I was approached by Tunku Tan Sri Ahmad Yahaya, then the chief executive of Sime Darby, to consider returning to Malaysia to establish a non-profit cancer research organisation.

He was looking at raising funds in Asia to support research on oral cancer, which affects Asians more than Caucasians, and kills 50 per cent of patients within three years.

Over the next two years, with Toh Puan Dr Aishah Ong, we wrote the concept paper, presented it to funding organisations and successfully obtained RM5 million seed funding from the Tote Board, Petronas, Lim Foundation and Sime Darby to establish Cancer Research Initiatives Foundation (CARIF) in January 2001.

Is it very much a Malaysian-centric organisation?

CARIF (now called Cancer Research Malaysia) is the first independent, non-profit cancer research organisation which is funded by Malaysians, staffed by Malaysians and focused on conducting Malaysian-specific cancer research.

Our mission is to conduct pioneering research on cancers prevalent in the nation, with potentially far-reaching implications for diagnosis and therapy.

We started with oral cancer but now our research activities include work on breast cancer, the most common cancer in Malaysia; nasopharyngeal cancer, another Asian-centric cancer, and developing new therapies based on natural compounds from Malaysia’s biodiversity.

Research will enable us to reverse cancer. That’s why our logo is a “C” written in reverse — reversing cancer.

Why is your logo a “C” in reverse?

Cancer is often called the big “C” and most people believe that “cancer = death”. At Cancer Research Malaysia, we believe “cancer research = hope”. Research will enable us to reverse cancer. That’s why our logo is a “C” written in reverse — reversing cancer.

Why is there a need for a local cancer research centre?

We are developing ways to prevent and cure cancers which are more common here, like oral and nasopharyngeal cancer. Together these cancers make up 11 per cent of deaths in Southeast Asia but only 4 per cent of deaths in Western countries.

We’re also generating knowledge about how genes affect our risk to cancer and our response to treatment.

Asians make up more than 50 per cent of the world’s population but less than five per cent of research studies. So we hope to change that.

Where does your funding come from?

We are loosely modelled after the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, which has merged with Cancer Research Campaign to form Cancer Research UK. Like Cancer Research UK, we’re reliant on donations to support our work.

In the past 16 years, 66 per cent of our funding has come from core donors like Yayasan Sime Darby, Petronas and Yayasan Al-Bukhary.

These donors ensure that the overhead costs like staff salaries and equipment are covered so that other donations go directly to research programmes. About 20 per cent comes from fundraising events and 13 per cent from grants.

We also apply for international grants. We hope to get more direct donations from the public. It’s worth noting that about 40 per cent of the annual income at Cancer Research UK comes in GBP10 donations and we hope that Malaysians will also support us in this way.

Together, if each of us puts aside a small amount for cancer research, we can keep hope alive that we’ll find a cure for cancer.

What are some notable achievements so far?

We have developed a vaccine for oral and nasopharyngeal cancer and we’re testing whether this can reduce recurrence and also whether it can prevent these cancers from happening.

We have also developed a new method for genetic testing and this has brought down the cost of breast cancer genetic testing from more than RM10,000 to less than RM2,000.

We have conducted the first national study on ovarian cancer and are making sure that all ovarian cancer patients have access to robust genetic counseling.

What are the major plans for this year?

This year is a significant turning point for us. We’re the first Malaysian organisation to win a Collaborative Science Award from the Wellcome Trust and the first to beat 800 other applicants to win a Medical Research Council UK Challenge fund.

We also won four of the 12 Newton Ungku Omar Grants available. This year will be about delivering on the promise.

We would also have completed the first comprehensive analysis of 8,000 breast cancer patients and 8,000 healthy controls, coupled with an analysis of tumour samples.

We would also have completed our initial tests with vaccines for oral and nasopharyngeal cancer and we would have rolled out genetic counselling in 21 centres across the country.

How long do you think it will be before scientists are able to cure cancer?

We’re already able to prolong the survival for many cancers. In 1970, about 50 per cent of patients would die within five years.

Today, on average, the survival rate has doubled. Unfortunately advances in survival rates are not equal across all cancers.

For oral cancer, ovarian cancer and lung cancer, survival has not improved significantly. But I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to beat cancer eventually, one cancer at a time.

What gives you hope that we will one day find a cure?

We may not be able to cure cancer but I believe that we can make it a controllable disease, like diabetes or heart disease. I am optimistic because we’re no longer in the industrial age where production drives the economy.

We now have a knowledge economy driven by innovation, big data and artificial intelligence. I am confident that “disruptors” will find a way to hack cancer. Together, we can do this!

How important is the Internet to your work?

The Internet is everything. The start of any project is a review of what is known in the area and this would not be possible without the Internet.

The interactions with collaborators all take place online and this enables us to find the right people and the right expertise faster and more accurately.

Social media channels help us reach patients, doctors, researchers and many others to engage with the cause.

How do you go about raising awareness about the work Cancer Research Malaysia is doing?

Until recently, we have not done much to raise awareness about the work we do here.

This is because as scientists we’re careful people and we’re all afraid of overpromising. But we know that until we raise awareness about the work being done here, people won’t believe that a Malaysian organisation can truly be impactful in the fight against cancer.

We invite Malaysians to join us through our social media channels, support us through our website and attend our outreach events.

What keeps you motivated?

My life has been incredibly blessed — good health, a loving family, opportunities to study at the best universities and to work with so many accomplished individuals. Cancer Research Malaysia is an avenue for me to give back and to pay it forward.

My motivation is simple — to conduct the best possible research with a particular focus on the issues faced by Asians in the battle against cancer.

Sunday
Apr092017

From movies to retail and back

It’s rare enough that someone should make a big change in their career. It’s even rarer for someone to come full circle and return back to their first love. Wan Chun Hung, a successful cinematographer had once left the film industry to go into computer retailing only to return to it when digital technology rekindled his interest in the industry.

Wan had studied filmmaking at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Upon completing his studies, he moved to Thailand to start a film production company with a Thai college mate.

“We also brought in a fellow scriptwriter from Brooks to develop the script,” he recalls. “While trying to get funding and backers for the film we shot TV commercials. However, the 1999 Asian financial crises hit.”


Wan returned home to Malaysia without any idea what he’d do next. A chance encounter with a PC retailer sparked the idea of starting an Apple store business. He speaks to Savvy about his move into retailing and subsequent switch back to filmmaking in the digital age.

The leap from making movies to retailing Mac computers is a big one. Were you hesitant or nervous about it?

Although the businesses are completely different, I had the passion and interest in learning this new trade. More importantly, I was partnering with an experienced and well-established PC retailer. It was quite the perfect partnership as he knew next to nothing about Apple at that time and I had absolutely no foothold in the PC retailing business. So, I taught him about Apple and he taught me about retailing.

What made you decide to leave retail to go back into the cinematography business?

Apple had made big inroads into the professional post production market with their video editing program Final Cut Pro. When Apple released this program, it allowed me to bridge my two interests together, Macs and filmmaking. We started selling video editing systems based around Final Cut Pro to production houses. Towards the latter half of the 2000’s, digital HD cameras started making big progress. HD cameras were extremely expensive like the Sony cameras used by George Lucas for the first Star Wars prequel. But like any digital technology, prices rapidly fell to something that was affordable to many more professionals. Prior to HD cameras, you had to shoot on film to get good quality moving images. And those film cameras, because of their high price and maintenance, could only be rented. So with these affordable good-quality cameras coming out, I decided it was time to get back into making movies.

You studied in the era of film and now everything's digital. Some movie makers still prefer film over digital. Are they just sentimental?
I believe it’s a combination of sentimentality and the desire for the best image possible. On the one hand, many of the movie makers wanting to shoot in film actually grew up with film. Film still gives you that sometimes hard-to-find organic quality missing in the sometimes all-too-pristine digital image. That said, digital cinematography has come a long way. Digital cameras now have better low light sensitivity and are approaching the highlight retention that film is renowned for. At the end of the day, it’s the story that drives the film, and the camera is merely a tool and just one of the many tools available to the film maker. Lenses, production design, the colourist, amongst others are just as important.

How did you build up your cinematography business from scratch?
It’s all about staring small and working your way up. You have to pay your dues for the first couple of years. Being dedicated and having the willingness to learn everything on set helps a great deal. When I got back into the movie industry, much of what I learnt prior was very much foggy and rusty due to lack of practice. It helps to have a director who is willing to give you a chance and believe in your abilities to shoot something substantial that will serve as your demo reel to show to other producers and directors.

As a cinematographer, do you have to be tech-savvy?

I think almost every budding cinematographer gets tangled up in the technology, especially camera technology that’s progressing at such a fast rate nowadays, compared to the film days when film cameras just evolved slowly together with the film stock.

How do you keep up to date with latest developments in your industry?

There are many resources on the net that are available. A number of prominent cinematographers are also very open and contribute to discussions on forums as well as providing masterclasses that you can buy. Podcasts are also one of my main sources of knowledge.

Do you study the techniques of some great cinematographers?
Nowadays, you can get in-depth, behind-the-scenes breakdowns from podcasts and online courses available on the net like the ones from Shane Hurlbut. But I should say that many of the great cinematographers’ techniques may not be applicable to the shooting realities of the local production scene because we simply don’t have the budget or array of equipment available elsewhere.

What genre do you like best and why?

I love the dark, thriller type stories. Because anytime anything is dark, you can get creative with the lighting which plays a big part of setting the mood.

What is a fulfilling shoot is like for you?

When the chemistry of the crew gels, the production design is great, and the story is interesting. It’s great working with a director who is in sync and is a truly collaborative process, rather than being a one way street. And if the food catering is great, that’s icing on the cake.

When will the great Malaysian movie emerge?
If you are talking about a blockbuster-type action movie genre, I would say the chances are extremely slim for the foreseeable future. The budgets available are just not there. However, for small movies, there have already been a number of fairly successful ones making the international film festival circuit.

Besides the technology you use for work, what kind of technology do you use for life?
You could say I’m still an Apple guy at heart. My household is almost exclusively full of Apple products. I use the iPhone, which doubles up as my stills camera. I used to use a DSLR but replaced that with a mirrorless camera, but in the end I sold that too and now my iPhone serves as my go-to stills camera. I use a MacBook Pro for work and personal things. The Apple TV plays a big part at home too as that’s where most movies and TV shows are played from.

What movies do you look forward to watching in 2017?
Alien Covenant
Bladerunner 2049
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Sunday
Apr022017

The crowdfunder

By Oon Yeoh

Crowdfunding is not a new concept but in Malaysia it’s still at its infancy stage. Still, there are already six crowdfunding companies operating here. One of them was co-founded by Elain Lockman, an Actuarial Science graduate with a Masters in Operational Research who was one of the early employees at MDeC.

She also had stints at iPerintis (now called Petronas ICT) and Malaysia Debt Ventures before venturing on her own as a consultant for tech clients like DiGi Telecommunications, Packet One Networks, Green Science and MSC Management Services. Last year she helped found Ata Plus with two other business partners. Elain talks to Savvy about what crowdfunding is all about and its prospects in Malaysia. 

What gave you the idea to get into equity crowdfunding?
The original idea dates back to 2010 when we wanted to create a shariah-compliant microfinance crowdfunding platform to finance disenfranchised micro-entrepreneurs. We actually secured a Cradle Fund grant to develop a prototype for this. There was interest from Bank Negara and some financial institutions but we were a bit too early in the game as many people were unfamiliar with the concept of crowdfunding then.

Who are your partners in this business and what do they do?
I have two co-founders. Kyri Andreou, who has two decades of experience in strategic planning, marketing and branding, looks at product innovation, education, branding, marketing and communications. Aimi Aizal Nasharuddin, an accountant with over 25 years of experience in business re-engineering, financial restructuring, corporate finance and operations, is responsible for investor management, legal, regulatory and compliance.

And what do you do in the company?
My role is to look into strategic partnerships, operations, deal flow and screening, risk management and entrepreneurship management.

Is crowdfunding something very new?
The concept of crowdfunding is actually not new. Before the invention of the Internet, mobile technology and social media crowdfunding had already existed but it operated within a closed network, limited by personal relationships, proximity and geography. With the Internet we are able to reach beyond borders to people whom we don’t even know, who may have an interest in contributing to some business ideas or particular causes.

There are different types of crowdfunding. What areas is Ata Plus into?
There are basically four types of crowdfunding: Donation Crowdfunding enables the public to provide financial contributions for a certain cause, with no tangible returns other than the feel-good factor. Reward Crowdfunding enables the public to provide financial contributions to an idea, project or business; in exchange for a reward, in the form of product or service. The popular international sites for this are Kickstarter.com and indiegogo.com.

Equity Crowdfunding enables the “crowd” to provide financial contributions in a company, usually a private limited entity in most financial jurisdictions. In exchange, the “crowd” will get an equity stake or a certain percentage of shares, in the company. In Malaysia, Equity Crowdfunding is regulated by the Securities Commission, since it is a form of investment, and the funds are solicited from the public. Debt Crowdfunding or P2P financing, allows the public to lend directly to individuals or businesses in return for a predetermined yield. In Malaysia, P2P financing is regulated by the Securities Commission and is only available for business financing. Ata Plus is a licenced Equity Crowdfunding Operator.

Any plans to get into the other forms of crowdfunding?
Yes, we will be launching our Reward and Donation Crowdfunding platforms this year.

How is crowdfunding different here compared to the US other than the fact that it’s very new here?
The crowdfunding scene in the US is the largest in the world but when it comes to Equity Crowdfunding, the US is actually a laggard. This is because regulations in the US on equity crowdfunding only allows investments from accredited investors — high-net-worth individuals. This turns equity crowdfunding sites into online VCs. We feel the regulation in Malaysia allows for true crowdfunding as it allows everyone to invest, be it retail or sophisticated investors.

What are the advantages of crowdfunding over other traditional and more established forms of financing?
There are three key advantage of crowdfunding. Firstly, if a business is funded this way, it would attract lots of media and social media attention. That’s good publicity for the company. Secondly, crowdfunding lets you share your idea to a wider audience which could be a potential not only for investments but also for partnerships, feedback, new customer acquisition and market validation. Lastly, members of the public who invest will naturally become brand advocates for the companies they invested in – again, good publicity for the companies.

What’s your business model?
We charge a processing and administrative fee for application screening – currently at RM3000. For successful campaigns we charge a 7.5% success fee.

How has the past year been?
I’d be lying if I didn’t say it has been a proverbial roller coaster. We are a start-up ourselves with our own funding challenges. So, careful consideration is given on how to optimize the allocation of scarce resources to achieve maximum results.  Also, being a very new concept with minimal public awareness and understanding, it has been a challenge to both attracting investor interest and gaining entrepreneur confidence. However, as success stories reverberate, both those concerns have been slowly eroded.

It’s still early days but what’s been your best success so far?
I would say the successful fundraising campaign for Skolafund.com. They became the first social enterprise in Malaysia to successfully raise funds via crowdfunding. It’s a big challenge for social enterprises to raise capital in Malaysia because of the perception that social enterprises don’t make money.

Do you favour any particular niche areas to invest in?
Well, I should point out that Ata Plus does not fund the companies. It’s “the crowd” that decided which companies it wants to invest in. That said, as a company we are very supportive of social enterprises or companies that create positive impact. Since such companies are usually under-served by traditional investment institutions, we like to go that extra mile for them. For example, we co-hosted the Social Enterprise Awards late last year with Mercy Mission.

How long do you see yourself doing this?
As long as it still keeps my adrenaline flowing and gives me personal satisfaction, I will continue doing this. I think it will be a while before I move on to something else. 

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