The Risks and Struggles of Building a Thriving and Sustainable Company

Interview with Jan Wong, founder of OpenMinds Resources

The Risks and Struggles of Building a Thriving and Sustainable Company

Entrepreneurship is popular today. 

We see billion dollar tech companies, huge amounts of venture capital funding, and college dropouts becoming world-renown - It's as though being the CEO of a startup is what being 'cool' is all about in this day and age.

However, what does it really take to build a thriving and sustainable company? Is the journey always as glamorous as the media depicts it out to be? Is it worth the risk?

We recently caught up with Jan Wong, the founder of OpenMinds Resources - a digital consulting company based out of Malaysia and Hong Kong. 

Since it's inception, OpenMinds Resources has bootstrapped it's way from a team of just 3 to over 30 today, serving clients such as Sunway Group, Hallmark, BritishIndia, CIMB, and many more.

In the interview, Jan shares his story on the risks and struggles he and his team had to go through during the early days of starting out, and what it took to build the company into what it is today.

Below is the interview:

1) Why did you decide to start OpenMinds?

Ever since I ventured into business at the age of 17, I noticed a huge disconnect between marketing and technology. I was very perplexed at why companies separated these two functions and never saw eye-to-eye with one another when there is a clear advantage if both came together... and that led to a series of experiments to: 

  1. combine my marketing and tech knowledge and competencies
  2. putting them to practice in my earlier ventures. 
The result? A success. 

This was also reflected on a tech venture right before OpenMinds where we went around seeking validation, sign ups and funds where both people and huge corporations became more interested in the go-to-market strategy than the product, and offered to hire us as marketers instead. 

In fact, I was offered for a number of senior marketing positions (I was only 21 then) in some global companies. Some time passed after that, and the 'great pivot' happened - the birth of OpenMinds as a MarTech company in late 2012.

Jan Wong, founder of Openminds Resources during the earlier days of the company.

2) We understand that OpenMinds was bootstrapped, could you share with us more about your journey bootstrapping the company?

There's no sugarcoating it. The journey was tough (still is), but very fulfilling. 

I still clearly remember the early days where me and my partners (we were about 22-24 years old then) made a conscious decision to not draw any salary within the first year and survived on whatever measly savings we had. 

We started our company's bank account using our first cheque given by our first client and over time, saved enough to hire our first full time team member to assist us as we continue to acquire more clients. 

In year 2, we started paying ourselves a small allowance of RM300 and finally, a fresh grad's pay in year 3. It's not just the finance part though, it's the need to wear multiple hats throughout the day - be it sales, business development, operations and execution, client servicing, human resource, accounting and finance, culture building and being the janitor. 

It's also the need to sacrifice personal time and even relationships to be committed to the business to make it work and that was the most difficult of all.

3) What are some biggest obstacles you face in running a business/startup like yours?

In the beginning, the biggest obstacle we had was age. 

Being in a consultancy industry, clients expect someone that has a lot more experience (and unfortunately, experience is seen to have come with age) and we looked like a bunch of college students. 

On top of that is the challenge of the business model where there isn't a "real" need for digital marketing consultancy due to the existing landscape. Most digital companies are either media or advertising (i.e. execution) driven while we focused on being consultative in nature. 

We had to do a lot of convincing and provided a lot of assurance to our early clients in which some has stuck with us till this day.

4) OpenMinds has a big team. What motivates your team to work towards a common goal?

This will always be a work in progress and we believe that the key that helped us keep and grow what we have is by having the 'people' mindset throughout the team. 

This may sound a little vague but by emphasising that OpenMinds is a 'people' business, we practice a culture as something collective. This means our values, behaviour, work culture, goals, perks, and even nature of business is co-created by everyone on the team. Being transparent with our practices helps keep the team together and to see the bigger goal beyond the task at hand.

The team from Openminds Resources

5) Was it difficult to bootstrap a company? What advice can you give to entrepreneurs who are bootstrapping their companies?

Oh, bootstrapping is difficult - the sacrifices you'll have to make just to stay alive is tremendous, clinging on everyday with that unwavering belief that you will get there some day. But this also forces you to be creative and desperate; which are the 2 very important driving traits. 

If you're planning to bootstrap, know that you MUST give everything you've got (and beyond) and be ready to get your hands dirty in every aspect of your business. If you're already bootstrapping, you should take active steps to remain lean. Always seek to have progress over mere motion.

6) There are many startups focus on fund raising instead of bootstrapping. What advice can you give to entrepreneurs who are raising funds for their companies?

I'm not at all against fund raising, but only if you know exactly how to maximise the usage of the funds and that you have a working business model. 

When I say 'working', what I mean is that you are generating revenue i.e. actually making money (not burning them). While these may sound like a no brainer, you'll be surprised at the sheer number of entrepreneurs that has yet to even prove a sale and make an actual profit. 

It is simple, really - If you are not able to make your first dollar, how sure are you that you can make back the funds vested into your business? Entrepreneurs say this is 'risk taking'. I say it's wishful thinking. 

Work your first dollar, be sure to know exactly what does it take to make a profit, how much do you actually need to spend to run your business and where exactly the funds will be spent on. You don't need funds to make money, you'll need to make money before you get funds.

The Openminds team at their recent getaway

7) Best piece of advice you can give to entrepreneurs out there fighting for their dreams.

Your mindset determines the size of the lifegame you play. 

I came from a very typical average Malaysian background, wasn't the smartest kid in town, got looked down by peers, didn't have money to blow, introverted, you get the idea. 

But at the age of 17, I made a decision that I wanted to make a difference and I wanted to live a life that inspires others. I told myself that to do that, I'll need to give my all and live a life that is beyond where I was at. That mindset shift took me to where I was to where I am here today. 

That mindset gave me the strength to push through the moments I was ridiculed, knocking on doors for business, getting my hands dirty on the job, cutting on meals, entertainment and even losing close friends. I set my mind on something bigger than who I was, and everyday I strive to get closer to it. 

Entrepreneurship is a mindset. It's not a job, career or a glamorous lifestyle. It's a life you choose to live knowing it's all or nothing. 

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