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Passion drives growth

Benjamin Cher
Benjamin Cher • 7 min read
Passion drives growth
JustCo’s Kong Wan Sing turned down a Goldman Sachs job offer and went on to build a leading co-working space player
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JustCo’s Kong Wan Sing turned down a Goldman Sachs job offer and went on to build a leading co-working space player

SINGAPORE (Oct 14): Joining Goldman Sachs straight out of school would have been a dream come true for many graduates, but one that Kong Wan Sing, founder and CEO of co-working space provider JustCo, chose to turn down.

Instead, Kong, who graduated from New York University’s Stern School of Business, went on to start his first venture, an online equity research subscription business, at the peak of the dotcom bubble in the early 2000s.

Kong and his partners tried to run the business using what they had learnt in school. They operated on the simple idea of customer acquisition through advertisements alone, but they did not have sufficient funds for a wide reach.

The enterprise folded within four months. “We were just too naïve, [being] fresh out of school. When we did our advertisements, we did simple — and what I would call naïve — analysis,” Kong tells The Edge Singapore in an interview after he won this year’s EY Entrepreneur Of The Year award in the workspace solutions category.

Kong says his parents, who run a textile business in Malaysia, were his inspiration for starting his first business venture.

He subsequently went to work for professional services firm EY in the US, before returning to Malaysia to help out in the family business. While doing this, he ventured into other businesses, including a steamboat restaurant and a bubble tea franchise.

He then joined Mapletree Investments in Singapore, where he spent five years in a large, corporate environment. During his stint there, the entrepreneurial bug bit him again. Kong felt the urge to start something of his own instead of devoting his skills and energy to be a salaried employee. “Is this what you want to do for the rest of your life? Or do you want to build something yourself?” he pondered.

The idea for starting JustCo came to him during his Mapletree stint. Being in real estate, Kong saw how the serviced office market, with players such as Regus (now known as IWG), was becoming more popular — yet, there were service gaps that could be filled. “I thought that I could do something better. That’s how I said ‘ok let’s give it a shot’, and started up something,” he says.

JustCo was founded in 2011 and has since grown rapidly. Around half of the company’s co-working space is in Singapore, but it has expanded into the region, including Indonesia, Thailand, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Australia. Besides individual freelancers and start-up owners, companies that take up JustCo’s space include Dropbox, Allianz, Aston Martin, Electrolux, Xiaomi Corp, NTUC, RHB Bank and Facebook.

Passionate builder

Clearly Kong is undaunted by his first failure as an entrepreneur. He remains true to his passion for building things from scratch. “I like the thrill of seeing an empire you’re building grow bigger and bigger. I think it’s the passion that keeps me [going] despite all the challenges and setbacks,” he says.

The challenges Kong faces now are a lot different from those in his early entrepreneurial days. For one, he has more real-world experience and a much better understanding of how society really works. “I am more realistic now. I know what is doable and what is not,” he explains.

“The challenge today is how to scale the business in the shortest time. We are not growing very fast. It is not about the business model but more about how to find the right talent to grow the business.”

Like many entrepreneurs who have got their business off the ground and are trying to grow it, finding the right talent is a challenge. On top of that, Kong needs to find suitable partners as well.

While people may advise would-be entrepreneurs to get some experience before starting their own ventures, Kong believes that experience is not as important as passion and perseverance.

“You must listen to your heart. Are you sure you are ready to take on this challenge? Is this the path you want to take? If you really have the perseverance and determination to do this, just go ahead and do it. Sure, you will face a lot of challenges; you will always be in uncharted waters and you will always need to figure things out,” he says.

“No matter what experience you have gathered, it will never prepare you for life as an entrepreneur. For example, what I’m doing now is not something I learnt at Mapletree or my family business. It is more about my determination and embracing the challenges.”

While being an entrepreneur seems glamorous, there are downsides as well.

As Kong puts it, when the business hits a rough patch, there will still be overheads to bear and salaries to pay.

“There are challenges right from the very beginning. You’ve started this business, created this product and you want to sell to your customers. Our customers are Facebook and Google — big enterprises. They will ask you questions such as ‘who are you?’ and ‘are you sure you can deliver this?’” says Kong.

Convincing large enterprises to sign up was a challenge when he set up JustCo. As it did not have a track record, they were reluctant to sign up as customers. Fundraising, too, was a challenge, as Kong recalls trying to persuade investors to listen to his pitch.

“You meet 1,000 investors and maybe only one says ‘ok, I’d like to hear more’. There’s a lot of negativity when you talk to investors,” says Kong. He remembers presentations where investors gave non-committal answers or questioned the validity of his business model.

The problem of finding a strong supporting investor is no longer an issue now. In 2017, JustCo received a US$12 million Series B funding from Sansiri, a Thai developer, valuing the company at US$200 million.

Growth versus agility

Being relatively young and tech-savvy, Kong appreciates the way IT systems can help improve the company’s management and productivity. “You cannot be stingy and not invest in IT systems. Those systems are super expensive. In today’s society, you really need those systems, because you cannot do it manually,” he says.

Finding the right leaders is important too — after all, Kong cannot clone himself. An entrepreneur needs the right leaders to help grow the business as well. “You need the right leaders, who believe in your vision and what you are doing, so that in their respective countries they can work with their staff and inspire them,” he says.

Entrepreneurs may find it hard to delegate, as many treat their ventures as their own children. Many founder-entrepreneurs fall into the trap of not being able to remove themselves from the day-to-day running of their companies. Kong consciously tries to avoid making that mistake.

“You need to let your staff make mistakes and learn from them,” he says. He likens this to raising children and letting them learn from their mistakes, adding that if he were to make his employees do things his way, it would damage their relationship.

“The thing is, you need to delegate and strike a balance [between overall control and the day-to-day management]. It is very different working in a professional CEO-run company and in an entrepreneur CEO-run company,” says Kong.

He also stresses the need to be agile even as JustCo grows. As companies get bigger and put in place more structures and processes, the downside is that decision-making becomes more cumbersome and companies are less agile in adapting to change.

“There are a lot of things that can help you overcome this problem: the right IT systems, people and mindset, those who don’t just follow the process. You should think about the main objective. If the process doesn’t [achieve] the objective, you might want to think of a way to make it happen, by changing the process and things like that,” he says.

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