It is hard dealing with the loss of a family member, especially one that never made it into this world. For Jeremy Foo and his wife Quin Yeo, who lost their unborn son in the third trimester, the pain was even greater as they took a long time to conceive him. They had planned to call him Elliot.
“We married quite young at 26 and thought that conceiving would be very easy. So, after trying for several months, we consulted a gynaecologist and discovered that Quin has what is called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). That basically means you can never have a child without the help of medication, and even then, it’s not a sure win but at least it improves your chances,” says 35-year-old Foo, founder of public relations (PR) consultancy Elliot & Co.
After five years, the couple received the best piece of news that they were finally pregnant in early 2017. This was around the time Foo also started his own communications company — then known as Prospr Communications — handling public relations and digital marketing for SMEs and start-ups.
Foo got his feet wet as a PR executive in 2013, running campaigns for one of the larger communications agencies in Southeast Asia. During this time, he was drawn to the world of start-ups and their founding stories, drawing parallels between his life and theirs.
However, he was disenchanted by the corporate culture of big companies and left the industry to take a soul-searching sabbatical to the US to work for a Christian ministry. “At the time I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I always thought that I would go into charity work with my brother as we own a registered charity in Australia helping Afghan refugees. My pastor asked me: Do you want to be the funder or the funded? Rather than work for the charity and wait for money, why not run a business so that you can fund this charity? So, I started Prospr quite accidentally and then from there it just took off,” he says.
Foo (extreme left) and his brother (fourth from left) founded Imagine Global, a charity in Australia providing healthcare to Afghanistan refugees
Having zero managerial experience, Foo could not shake the feeling that he might have fallen into the deep end by starting his own company. “When I left the industry, I was not even a director. My industry peers thought I was crazy for taking this leap so early in my career. I felt like an underdog myself and didn’t think I deserved to be here. But I knew in my heart that I had to support the smaller player who is always fighting the incumbent. Every start-up deserves to have their story told. That is why our tagline is breathing life in untold stories.”
The early days were a challenging period for him, having sunk $60,000 of his life savings into building the company from the ground up. As a new business attempting to enter a traditional market, the early months were spent facing countless rejections and sleepless nights, while struggling to stay afloat with only his wife’s salary.
“When I started in early 2017 there were no companies like ours. These small business owners would ask what is PR and will it translate into sales? There was a great deal of education on my part. I literally had to make cold calls and go down to the factories in industrial estates because a lot of the start-ups are there. I didn’t discriminate either. I would even visit cosplay companies — as long as you’re a start-up!”, he laughs.
After many months of toiling, the company ended the year with 100 clients and a six-figure revenue.
Life was hard and the only light during that tough year was the arrival of their long-awaited bundle of joy. Unfortunately, things took a sharp and fatal turn on Christmas Eve 2017. What was meant to be a New Year’s Eve office party and celebration to mark his newfound role as a parent evolved into the worst day of Foo’s life.
That morning, Yeo — who was 36-weeks pregnant — was suffering a slight stomach ache that felt innocuous. So, they went to the hospital for a check-up only to find that the baby had no heartbeat. They received the same news after a second opinion. She broke down in the worst way. “It was the most excruciatingly hopeless scream that I ever heard and one that I will never forget,” recalls Foo.
They had to wait another two days before being admitted to the labour ward to induce the birth. They were two of the darkest days of their lives, followed by a harrowing birth that left them physically and mentally broken. Till this day, their doctor cannot give them any explanation for their baby’s death.
“It took a while to induce the labour and contractions. When the baby came out of her, there wasn’t even a doctor around, only a midwife. Next door we could hear the cries of newborns and here we are with a dead child. Can you imagine how abandoned and neglected my wife felt?”, he says.
As the baby was too big to be thrown out as medical waste, the couple had to proceed with a cremation. Foo knew he had to be strong to take care of all the necessary arrangements and was forced to push aside his pain. But what he did not realise was that internalising his grief would do more harm than good.
Elliot’s footprints after the stillbirth
The downward spiral
In those two years after losing his baby, he prevented himself from talking about it. Yet the mere sight of a baby picture would set him off. “I grieved alone. It took me much longer than my wife to recover. When she started to get better, about three months down the road, she wanted to try for another baby, but truthfully, I really wasn’t ready yet,” he admits.
His guilt and devastation led to a gut-wrenching revelation that dawned on him: in giving up so much for his business, he had neglected the health of his wife, and in a way, sacrificed the life of his own baby. “I felt the greatest amount of guilt because I felt responsible for his death. I felt like I had sacrificed my son for my business. My first instinct was to shut down the company but I knew that if I did that, there would be nothing left except to look back in regret. I would forever link the business to the death of my son. That cannot be the way I remember him,” he says.
The years that followed, he threw himself into work but quickly lost focus and lost himself. “Work was already on the upswing but that whole year felt really empty. And because I was so distracted, I made mistakes in the business. Bigger clients were coming in so we hired more experienced staff and as a result, we started losing money. We became too corporate which went against everything we stood for. We lost our identity and ourselves,” adds Foo.
A time for acceptance
A business mentor who told him “Never let a tragedy go to waste,” suggested renaming the company to honour his son. That is why today it is called Elliot & Co. — and by some stroke of divine intervention, life started to get better for Foo. It helped him to step out of the shadows of his son’s death. Slowly, he regained control of his leadership and downsized the firm to focus on hiring younger talent who possess the same spirit and integrity.
The business started to flourish again and the couple successfully conceived and delivered a healthy baby girl Elizabeth, who is now two-years-old. “I think everything turned around for me once I could confront my demons and become at peace with myself,” he says.
The Foos: (from left to right) Jeremy, Elizabeth and Quin
Today, Elliot & Co. serves as a tribute to Elliot, the son who never got a chance to live and tell his story. Understanding the struggles and pains of all business “parents” (or founders) in bringing up their babies (or their companies), Foo strongly believes that every story deserves to be heard through better communications and marketing support, and no business should go through such a quiet and tragic loss.
Fast forward to 2021 and a legacy is well on-track to be built. Elliot & Co. is set to garner almost $3 million in revenue by the end of the year, a 100% increase from the previous year despite the challenges of the pandemic. The company is now also in three different markets — Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia — with about 40 staff, having served more than 700 SMEs and start-ups in the past five years.
Foo sits down with Options to share his passion for industry underdogs, the struggles that come with it, and his government-funded app set to revolutionise the PR industry.
Why do you feel so strongly for start-ups and SMEs?
During my time in PR, I saw that SMEs often could not afford to engage expensive PR services. And that made me realise that there is a misalignment in the whole industry as start-ups have great stories too.
Statistically, most start-ups shut down within the first five years of operation. They go through so much hardship and sacrifice. And it somehow parallels my own journey as the owner of my own start-up. If people like me could somehow help give them a leg up and gain them more visibility, many would still be around today.
What would you say are the challenges dealing with small companies?
For start-ups, many are trying to save money or have their purse strings tied. They may feel PR is not important for them now. A lot of them will not spend more than $2,500 because they feel that it does only one thing. Whereas if you hire one staff member for $2,500, she can do 100 things.
A lot of bigger agencies feel if they charge lower, they will lose their margins. But for Elliot & Co, we hack our business model to make it more modular, more cost-friendly and hours efficient. We offer packages starting from $1,000 and still promise the same out- come as someone’s charging three times the price.
How different is your business model from other agencies?
Elliot & Co is virtually the only company that specialises in start-up PR. Too few people are doing this simply because we focus on short-term contracts with a high churn rate, whilst traditional agencies service retainer clients. But we can live with that and are totally comfortable with it. The world is moving towards shorter, faster, cheaper — which is why we are growing at the rate we are growing.
The sheer volume of contracts we get is also because we have a sales team, which has not really been heard of in a PR firm. We flip the model on its head and become more like a consumer company.
The Elliot & Co. Singapore team
You also promote an open corporate culture, don’t you?
I’ve never felt like an entrepreneur or a boss. Forcing this business to just be a typical business with the usual agency mindset would be very counterintuitive to the kind of person that I am.
We have a flat culture and hierarchy here. Everyone here is young and has the potential to be a leader. In fact, the head of our Malaysia office has never led a team in his life prior to joining the company, and he’s now leading a team of 25 people.
I always tell my COO and HR manager to make this place a Neverland where the staff can work and play but still have a level of discipline to help them grow. When you give them a sense of ownership and autonomy, they feel very invested in moving the company forward.
We also try to be as radical as we can like giving the girls period passes once a month and reward value champions. We also appraise them not by sales targets, instead 50% of their KPI is based on how well they have abided by core values such as integrity.
Can you share more about this app you’re building?
One of our core values is innovation; we are constantly challenging ourselves to find new ways to do new things. Right now, we are trying to create a digital platform that offers the client more self-service options for PR thereby making it more cost-efficient.
This is not to say that you don’t get any form of human interaction, but this will help streamline things and make workflow better, faster and cheaper. If tech companies have always been operating this way, why not PR? Rather than have a person hand-hold the client, why not offer them all the resources at their fingertips.
We have great plans for this but can’t share too much, only that we’ve received a grant from Enterprise Singapore and it’s being developed as we speak.
What are your future plans for expansion?
We definitely want to expand into more countries around Asia once travel restrictions are completely lifted. In Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia alone, there are at least 1.2 million start-ups. That’s enough ground for us to cover two generations over! I would also love to go to Vietnam, Thailand, and China, where it’s like a start-up minefield. That’s something we’re aiming for hopefully next year.
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Portrait: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore; All other photos: Elliot & Co.