People to Watch
Photo credit: SME's YouTube Channel
William Ng is the editor-in-chief of SME Magazine and a self-made entrepreneur. He manages companies in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Having dabbled in and mastered everything from spa tourism and hotel management to publishing non-government organization (NGO) work, William still finds time to blog.
He gives Schema readers exclusive advice that is outspoken and honest. For a person so young, his success is staggering. William tells us of his youth, the first time he tried his hand at business, and how a class-topper in hotel management got into publishing. Read on for sound economic advice from a business mogul, as well as some candid political commentary.
Please tell us a bit about the history and intended audience of SME
We started SME Magazine as a vehicle to educate small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurs on issues that are important to them. Being an SME ourselves, we realised that the publications out there were very news driven—and as SMEs we wanted to know how we could improve ourselves; what other people were doing right so that we could follow. Hence, SME Magazine talks to SMEs but not necessarily about SMEs, as the idea is to help connect SMEs with world class practices, we feature a lot of successful entrepreneurs and best practices from global companies.
No, I never did journalism or such in school. I studied hotel management and graduated top of my class, but decided it wasn't really for me after all.
At that point I was already doing some freelance business on my own, so going to work in a hotel, dressing up and meeting guests weren't really appealing anymore.
I started my first business at the age of 19 doing mostly below-the-line advertising—graphic design, direct mailers, etc. It wasn't particularly successful, but it was enough to pay for college and food. Then I went into organising exhibitions and that proved to be a little more successful and we made good money. But we went through two busts very early in our business: the SARS epidemic in 2003 and the Asian Financial Crisis in 2007 almost wiped us out. We had to sell our cars and properties to pay staff salary, suppliers, and keep the company going. That got us thinking that we needed to build brands, because brands build businesses. So we decided that every thing that we do today is brand driven. SME is a brand. As a result, we now have the magazine, events, awards, exhibitions, conferences, etc all based on the same brand.
Could you tell me a bit about your childhood and youth in Malaysia? What led to your interest in your present career?
I had a happy childhood.
Dad and Mom were loving parents who gave us everything they possibly could.
They never had a chance to go to school. Dad was a carpenter and mom was a domestic-helper/maid. Between them, they barely made enough for our family of seven. I remembered eating out only about three times a year. And those were events that we looked forward to because we didn't have much money to eat out. Birthday meals were boiled eggs and homemade cakes. I used to cycle to school, and that's on a 15-year-old bicycle that I inherited from my older brothers who inherited it from my uncle. Mom used to buy the burnt ends of breads because they were cheaper, and we loved it because they were crispier!
But they were good parents. They saved enough money to put us through high school and encouraged us to work and save for college. They taught us the values of respect, honesty and hard work.
But it also helped us to see the importance of money. My eldest sister died at a young age from high fever because Mom didn't have money to get a cab to hospital and dad was away at work. By the time she carried her on foot to the nearest hospital (about 8 miles away), we had lost her. We knew from a young age that we just couldn't live the same lives again. All of us are now in business and doing relatively well.
Youth today are, of course, luckier. Malaysians in general have gotten wealthier. The economic boom in the 70s and 80s did miracles for the country.
For that, we are grateful.
Even as a student, I was always keen to be involved in NGOs. Perhaps it was how I was brought up. As a kid, I lived a nomadic life. I grew up with various aunts because my parents felt that we needed to grow up with our cousins and aunts who were better educated than they were. That, plus part time work throughout studies, meant I had very few real friends. I found solace in NGOs and other associations, where I got to meet people and help others. I spend about half my time nowadays in various NGOs and associations some in leadership roles and some as coolies (laugh!).
Would you advise young people to become entrepreneurs in today's economy? Where do you see this economy going? Also, how does your advice compare to what you would have said during the recession?
Sure go ahead and go into business.
People always ask me how to get about starting a business. My advice is the same—go ahead and do it! I started my current business with less than US$1,000. That went to a computer and fax machine. Today, we're doing close to US$10 million a year and growing rapidly each year. So the myth that you need a lot of money to start a business is not true. I can never understand all these rush for 'angel' investors and free money.
I think that free money makes you weak. Many of the companies that go bust during recessions are founded on free money. As an entrepreneur, you need to learn how to run a lean organisation.
Extravagances are for fashion designers and movie stars, not business people. As entrepreneurs, we have a responsibility towards our staff and business partners, as well as their family members.
The economy is constantly going up and down—can't worry too much about it, unless you are the size of Walmart. Recession or otherwise, being honest, prudent, respectful, and hard working is important. These are universal values that will put you ahead of others.
Be honest, be prudent, be respectful of others and work hard. If you stick to that, money will come. It might take a bit longer and at times, you might feel like giving up and the whole world is working against you, but the money will come. It's one of the irrefutable laws of entrepreneurship.
In your blog entry titled 'Is Obama Good for Business?' (January 24,
2009), you wrote about the new Obama administration, where you mentioned that his policy towards China would hurt Chinese businesses and consequently, a lot of small businesses around the world, putting promoting greener environment and human rights in inverted commas. What is your opinion of the environmental problem and how it may conflict with economic interests?
Like many young people, I am a fan of Obama and the change that he represents. But I also realise that politics is about self-preservation. I can understand that it is against U.S. interests for China to become too powerful economically. I am all for a greener world. But it's just not fair for someone who's gotten rich by polluting the world to now tell someone else who's trying hard to do so without polluting the world. It's like a defending champion in World Cup telling the other team to come fight a fair game but with only three players.
If you are so gung-ho with getting the other side to pollute less, then donate the technology to do so. Some of the largest beneficiaries of conservation projects in China are American companies. If the U.S. laws apply to intergovernmental relations, here's a clear case of collusion and market-fixing.
In June 2009, you wrote of a shift in global power, although you maintained that it would not be as miraculous as expected in the East, i.e. the U.S. would still remain quite powerful for decades to come. What is your opinion of the shift over a year down the line?
There's just so much at stake that the U.S. won't allow for a peaceful rise of China, or any other country. The military, political, and economic equation remains heavily tilted in favour of the U.S. There's certainly a shift to the East, with China, Korea, India and Southeast Asia rising as rapidly as we are. But that's hardly enough to make a dent and I don't think that governments here are very keen to compete with anyone. We just want to enjoy a better life, like everyone else in the rest of the world.
People to Watch
People to Watch
People to Watch