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Going global successfully with start-ups

Mark Chang founded an online job portal in 1995 and built JobStreet Corporation Bhd into the most successful internet company in South East Asia. Last year, the company was acquired by Australia’s SEEK Group in a deal valuing it at close to RM2 billion. Chang now wants to dedicate his next 10 years to help 10 entrepreneurs build the next billion Ringgit company.

Chang has already invested in a number of start-ups; some successful, some not. One that stood out is RedOctane, which became famous for Guitar Hero, one of the hottest toys in the US in 2006. The company was sold to Activision Inc. in mid-2006 for US$100 million.

He is “scanning the entire landscape” to look for entrepreneurs he could work with. “I’m still looking, I have to be quite selective,” he said.

Chang is one funding source that prefers to be involved. “I want to be a partner, rather than just a financial supporter. I want to roll up my sleeves and help the entrepreneur grow the business and solve its day-to-day problems. As a business builder, I believe we don’t build a business in 4-5 years. It takes 10-20 years,” he said.

And those 10-20 years, more likely than not, could be pretty mundane. “If I’ve any message for entrepreneurs, it’s this: Don’t look for the highlights, the ups and downs. It’s not a movie where there’s excitement. It’s persistence; it’s discipline in solving problems, day in day out.”

Running JobStreet, he said, were in many ways “just been a boring 19 years of day-to-day of work and solving problems, day in day out. For me, it doesn’t feel like it has been 19 years. I feel like it’s been just five years.”

Chang advised entrepreneurs to not be simply drawn into what is currently hot but rather to look at less crowded areas and come up with unique products/services. 

“Businesses do well when they serve the community. The basic question I ask entrepreneurs is: how does the business serve the community? If it doesn’t serve the community, it’s not really that viable a business. It might be successful for a while but it won’t last,” he opined.

“When JobStreet first started in 1995, we were the first to put up jobs online [in the region]. There was no one doing that before. In 1996, we had job matching. When you have a start-up and you’re doing something everyone else is doing, the customer will question why they should buy from you. It’s better for a start-up to come up with something unique,” he said.

Chang highlighted the importance of understanding the customer’s issues and problems, and endeavouring to solve them.  And as customer demands continually evolve, one has to on the ball. “What was good enough last year may not be good enough this year,” he warned.

Execution is just as important. “Many companies and start-ups have good ideas but fail in execution. They are unable to continue in the execution year in, year out. So in the end, they give up,” noted Chang.

He also advised entrepreneurs to think regional or even global right from the start.

“Human nature is quite universal. What solves the problem of one society can be applied to many societies. Instead of solving just the problems of the Malaysian society, why not solve the problems of the world in general? We just need to think a little bit more,” he ventured.

JobStreet started by focusing on the Malaysian market and when it expanded into other countries, it tweaked the product to the local market. That, Chang admitted, was “a very poor way of building a business that scales globally”. He reckoned that what JobStreet should have done from day one was build a jobsite for the world. Then its template would have been more generic and could be readily rolled out in any market, with customisation, if any, easily added on later.

Chang estimated that start-ups need to put in just an extra 5-10% more effort, in terms of product features, to enable them to venture abroad. Subsequent retrofitting would cost a whole lot more, both in time and money. When JobStreet first started, its jobsite was only in English. It could have started with double-byte encoding, which would have enabled it to write in other languages such as Chinese and Vietnamese. “But I did not; and it cost me lots of effort just to convert to double-byte [encoding] to have the site available in Vietnamese and Chinese,” he shared.

According to Chang, cultural differences are the least important when expanding a business into other countries. “People are quite universal. If the product is good and the company has good intentions, people will want to use the product, regardless of their cultural background. The biggest problem is not cultural, but local laws and policies these could be a hindrance.”

Notwithstanding his candidness in highlighting JobStreet’s flaws, Chang firmly believed that failures and mistakes played a critical role in making the company successful.

“I always tell my people this: ‘For every year that you work for this company, half of what we’ve done was a mistake; only half will be useful moving forward.’ But it’s all the mistakes we’ve done that help us to become better the next year. If I did everything successfully, most likely I’d have a failing company today,” he said, urging entrepreneurs to have the willingness to try, with no fear of failing, as failures are the seeds of success.

Talking Heads: Creating conversations around Malaysians who have successfully gone global. Brought to you by the Economic Transformation Programme. 2015/02/12
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