#BuroAList: In conversation with entrepreneurs Roen Cian and Timothy Tiah
This Movember month, we're putting the spotlight on the big boys of various industries in a series of exclusive interviews. The Buro A-List kicks off with Roen Cian and Timothy Tiah, who are both entrepreneurs that have made a mark with their strong business acumen.
Roen Cian co-founded The Group, an organisation that has made many a tummy happy with a number of F&B establishments such as Signature at The Roof and Stratosphere. He has also set up a sports complex, artist management and events outfit, cold pressed juice bar as well as his latest co-working module, Common Ground. Having left advertising to jump head on to running his own business, Roen has succeeded in carving a name for himself as an astute businessman, who is always raring to go and daring to take risks.
Timothy Tiah first established himself as an entrepreneur when he launched Netccentric network in 2007. From revolutionising the blogging scene in Malaysia to getting listed on the ASX in 2015, Nuffnang was one of the fastest growing dotcoms in the region. With that, Timothy was also named as one of 25 best young Asian entrepreneurs by Businessweek. His credential has grown since and he has certainly come a long way in creating his own brand. This year has proven to be a year of change as he embarks on another business venture by starting a co-working space–Colony–together with his wife, Audrey.
Here, we speak to both men on their entrepreneurship journey below. Read on for the full transcript:
Can you share with us what you have been up to lately?
RC: Besides building a whole bunch of brands–like a co-working space, football fields, entertainment, nightlife, LifeJuice–I've just become a father. It has become the largest part of my life right now. I'm just busy being a dad, learning how to be a dad and enjoying every moment of it.
TT: This year is a completely new year for me cause last year I left the business that I started ten years ago. The new thing now is Colony, which is a co-working space where we're looking to change the working experience.
You're both in the business of co-working spaces now–do you foresee this is where our work culture will be heading to next?
RC: Well, all the signs are pointing in that direction. This is an upcoming trend for Malaysia. We're slightly behind the curve in Southeast Asia but things are looking up for us. There is a growth in that sector but we need to look at which point are we going to be heavily saturated like Singapore, where they have over 100 co-working spaces registered. It's going to get extremely tricky then.
TT: Co-working spaces address a trend where the expectations of work and the millennial workforce are changing. They want to work in a different environment, one where they can meet and collaborate with other people–so that's the whole selling pitch of a co-working space. And that's why it's all coming together now. So, it's growing very quickly in Malaysia. There are 37 co-working spaces right now according to the latest report from CBRE. This is more than doubled from last year and I think next year we'll hit 70 or 80.
How will you be able to distinguish your spaces then?
RC: Like Tim said, we are selling a lifestyle. You are introduced to a space of opportunities–we build spaces from 15,000 to 27,000 square feet, so you're looking at meeting some new 350 people. As an expat or a start-up, you will immediately get a network to these people. The lifestyle also includes a gym membership and we offer all kinds of extra services like accounting and legal advices, which all ends up as an attractive proposition.
Tim, can you tell us how was your transition like coming from Nuffnang to this?
TT: It was quite a humbling experience. I mean for the past 10 years I've been quite spoiled where in my previous company, I have a team and a personal assistant, so I've forgotten what it's like. So to come out again to do my own thing, I literally have to do everything. But the company grew very quickly and now we have a lot more challenges that come into play. I really feel like I've just started again this year.
Since you both handle your own businesses and you are a boss in your own right, what are some of the biggest challenges that you've faced?
RC: I say it's a challenge but it's also strength at the same time, and it's the people. We are in the industry of people–from the customers to the guys behind the scene–I invest heavily in people. They can build your business and they can also take it away. So that's a massive challenge.
The elephant in the room is the economy. It's not in favour currently, so that's a mad challenge. I don't foresee the economy rising as quickly as people would like it to. Hence, you have to think differently as an entrepreneur. I put it down to ideas that are recession-proof, which is important for me right now.
TT: When I left last year, I took some time off and I did all sorts of things. I wasted two weeks just playing games, doing nothing else. Laughs. Anyway, I started reading a lot of books and one part was on how to deal with people and manage them. I always found that to be the hardest thing about business. After two-three months of reading these books, I actually came to a realisation that whatever model success I had in the past wasn't because of me but it was more really in spite of me. Looking back, I realised I made a lot of mistakes and I could have been a much better manager.
I'll give you a couple of examples. When my team member comes up to me with an issue, we might have a quick argument about how to do it but I'll just ask them to follow how I believe it should be done. But what I've learned is that it's more powerful to get people to realise on their own rather than have me telling them; it's better for me to ask them questions that will lead them to the right path. Because when they do come into their own realisation, they are totally sold on it. Also, I learned that you should never criticise a person 'cos it never helps. You can criticise the work but never the person. I used to make that kind of mistake myself. I don't think I'm fully there yet but I'm definitely better than how I was six months ago.
What have you learned about leadership?
RC: I learned that there are many different kinds of leaders, for countries, companies, etc. I don't necessarily think there's one style of leadership that works for everybody. I also don't think that I'm the best leader. I'm good at inspiring my people but I don't think I'm the best leader. At the same time, I don't think that just because you're a good leader, people work hard for you. Sometimes if you've laid the path for them, they can work on their own. You guide them to where they are supposed to be and let them find their way to get there. That's the leader I choose to be.
TT: I agree as well. I don't think there's one leadership style that works for everyone. But the one thing that all leaders share in common is that how- or whatever way they choose to do it, it's just about results. They're measured by results, like what they can garner this group of people–whether it be a team, company or country–to actually achieve something. For example, my colleagues could say that I'm a good leader but if I don't show the results to my investors or do anything great, everyone is going to know it's all just fluff.
So, what are some of the qualities that an entrepreneur should have? Any tips to share?
RC: Discipline is very important. I always say that this doesn't happen by accident; a lot of people look at it and say it's very easy to be successful but there's mad dedication behind the scene. So I'd say don't shy away from hard work, it only gets better. You just have to get it out of your system and believe that it will get better.
My advice is that when you have a great idea, hold it close to your heart and see it through. There is no better joy than seeing that idea comes to life and there is no bigger regret when someone else nicks your idea. So don't let that happen to you; go do it. Secondly, surround yourself with the right people and hang out with wiser, older people; they will be the ones who will pull you up.
TT: Yes, I really do think that who we hang out with and who we talk to on a daily basis really influence the person that we are. For me, the one thing that an entrepreneur needs most is great tenacity; just never stop moving. Things hardly go as planned, so you must always figure out how to pull it together and keep plugging away at it. Everyone always tells you to never give up–it's kind of cliché but the way I handled it whenever I ran into a lot of my hardships and problems is I don't see it as negativity. I think of it as a process to building a great business. It's never going to go smoothly all the way and I'm definitely going to have a lot of struggles, so this is just part of it.
Now let's talk about fatherhood. How has being a dad influenced the way you work?
TT: It has changed my work habits for sure. My kids—Jude and Penny—go to school in the morning and they come back in the afternoon, but that's when I'm working so I can't do anything about that. I used to work until dinner then I go off but now, I make it a point to go home by 5pm and spend some time with them before they go to bed by 7pm. Just to have that two hours with them every day is rewarding. I'll continue with work after that.
Fatherhood has also changed my perspective on things–like time has become a lot more 'expensive' now. Whenever I need to go out do something or hang out with friends, I really need to weigh between that and spending time with my kids.
RC: Agreed. Time is extremely valuable and you just got to do it. But there's a beauty in being an entrepreneur—you have flexi hours. It's suddenly now you see an extra benefit of being an entrepreneur because you get to play with your time. These days we can work on a laptop and communicate through WhatsApp, so you can pretty much be anywhere.
With my kid, Shaelyn here now and my nature of creating, I'm looking at building a daycare and learning centre. It's still being conceptualised but in each stage or facet of my life, I try to tie it back to what I love doing. Like I love football, hence I build a soccer field; I was a bartender so I opened up a bar. Now I have a child and I'm building something called a curious child. So that's me, taking the next stage of my life to another level.
So what exciting projects can we expect from you next?
RC: I've let a few cats out of the bag already. Laughs. But yes, I'm looking at a daycare and learning centre; the expansion of soccer fields to maybe up to eight by February 2018; Common Ground is going to go hard with more offices; while for LifeJuice, we're in talks with a team in Japan who is interested in the brand–so there's a lot of things going on. Ask me again in three months time and I'll tell you which one comes to life 'cos we're always pitching to see what works and our focus will be to grow that.
TT: I'm the kind to focus on just one thing at a time. I'm really bad at multitasking, just ask my wife. Laughs. My main focus is just on Colony. I'm not as aggressive as Roen with Common Ground; that takes a lot of guts. I'm a lot more conservative; I'm only looking at opening two more branches in the next 12 months and that's the maximum already for me. I've also been asking my wife if she'd be ok to have a third kid. I've applied but it got rejected, so it's on appeal now. Laughs.
RC: Now that puts an idea in my head. Laughs. I've always wanted a baby boy.
Roen is wearing Hublot Big Bang Unico in white ceramic; Timothy is wearing Hublot Classic Fusion Blue King Gold.
Stay tuned for more Buro A-List in the next few weeks.
Photography: Gerald Goh / Metal Bees
Videography: Octopost Studio
Styling: Cai Mei Khoo, Joan Kong
Hair: Juno Ko
Makeup: Ling Chong
Art Direction: Chong Yi Suen