Building a Business Through Sheer Grit and Giving Back to Society – Interview with Joewin Tan from Huone Singapore

The core trait that I think every successful person has, businessman or not, is to be thankful for what you have.

By STYLEGUIDE

January 31 2018

STYLEGUIDE sits down with Joewin Tan, CEO of Huone Singapore and founder of Linear Dots Production, as she shares with us her entrepreneur journey and about giving back to society.

STYLEGUIDE: How did you get started initially and what inspired you to do what you do?  

Joewin: The very first instance with events was many years ago when I was still studying in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. At that time, they gave us a choice to either stay in school or do an internship. I wanted something more dynamic and exciting so while I wanted to nail an overseas internship, I knew my family could not afford it so I decided to opt for a local internship instead.

I was assigned to South West Community Development Council where I started to plan youth events. Being a youngster myself then, and with a lot of work involving working with volunteers, we planned a lot of events from film festival to amazing race for the disabled. It was through my experience there that I kind of got started with events and fell in love with it.

Years later, after graduating with a degree in finance in Canberra, I got an opportunity to join a management consulting called Frontier Strategy Group where a big part of my work involves partnering multinationals to help them be successful in Asia Pacific. As part of my job then, I had to organise roundtables and it was very stressful because it was one single individual (me) managing clients, organising events and handling the logistics aspect. I was very blessed too though. I had a very good CEO who gave me a lot of opportunities; he thought very highly of me and allowed me to take the big accounts when the opportunity arose.

At 25, I worked alongside senior executives from multinationals – many of them were over fifty, big-sized and mostly Caucasians. And it was strange for them to look at this little Asian girl trying to tell them what to do with their business - it was a challenge, and I had to learn how to overlook my age, gender and petite size in order to be firm about what we proposed. It really helped me grow as a person.

I really liked my job, but didn’t love it. Hence I decided to leave and start my own event agency called Linear Dots Production. I realised that there were many things I didn’t actually know as I came from the client side, so at the start, I had to learn everything from scratch. From carrying sound equipment to venues for small set ups to sitting down with AV technicians while they smoked just to ask questions – I have done it all.

I can’t say that every event is a success. There is no such thing as a perfect event. There’s always something that will happen, and whatever will go wrong, will go wrong. We’ve done good, we’ve done bad, we’ve learnt the hard way and we’ve been shouted at by clients. Gradually, we received more opportunities, which led to Huone Singapore, and I must say that I’ve been very blessed to be able to have met very good people, both friends and clients.

STYLEGUIDE: What were some of the biggest challenges you've faced?

Joewin: When I first started my business, we didn't know a lot of people and we were trying very hard to make ends meet.

So before I quit my job at FSG, I took on a lot of personal loans using my then salary and I maxed out all my credit to buy the necessary AV equipment to start the business. Being a new company, it was very hard to get customers and we did not know what we were supposed to do.

The first year was tough because we barely made any money and we had to service the bank loans, pay for rent and other expenses. I won't even say we are able to live from month to month - we really struggled month to month.

I had banks calling me almost every day just to chase for payment. The interest snowballed, and things really got to quite a bad stage at that point. There were a couple of times where I was close to giving up, because I had enough. I have never gone through something as stressful as this.

I mean, work will be stressful, but having banks hound you all the time for money, and not having enough money to even eat, not even having enough money to pay for transport and necessities, it was a struggle. Coming from a humble background and not having enough money to give to your parents as allowance made me feel like a failure. I felt like I couldn't even take care of my parents and that was emotionally very daunting.

STYLEGUIDE: What is your main driving force?

Joewin: Along the way, when I started doing my business and meeting different types of customers, I realised that running a business shouldn't just be for money. Yes, you need money to sustain the business, but that should not be the end goal. If you really do business just for the money, you're not going to do well because when you're so fixated on it, you can't deliver the kind of excellence that you strive out to do. But when you put your customers' goals and objectives in mind, you will go all out to strike a balance and achieve excellence.That's when you will be great at what you do. So that has moulded me into who I am today.

I also met very good people that I've learnt from and one key thing that I really learned was that no matter how small your business is, even if you're not successful yet, you can and should always give back. You can do it in your own little ways and you don't have to worry about what people think. You just do it because you want to.

So my driving force is a combination of wanting to do good and striving to provide the best value to my customers.

STYLEGUIDE: Can you share your greatest inspiration in life?

Joewin: I think it has to be my parents, especially my mum. My mum is someone who is very selfless. Coming from a big family herself, she was tasked to look after her younger siblings and the responsibilities of the household chores. Eventually she couldn't cope with her studies and decided to quit school. Looking back now, all her siblings are now very successful in their lives. Even as an adult, she continued to sacrifice for our family and my dad.

At Huone, whenever we have leftover food, we make it a point to not waste it. We would bring the food back and give it to the cleaners who live in our estate or to people who may need it more than we do. There was this period of time where we had a lot of foreign workers at our HDB estate doing repainting works. After bringing the leftover food to my mum, she made it a point to heat it up the next day, bring it down and personally distribute to all of them for two consecutive weeks.

It's an extra effort but she will do it. One, she doesn't like to waste food. Two, she feels that since we cannot finish it, why not share it?

Many of the traits that my mum has are what I would aspire to have. She is my greatest inspiration.

STYLEGUIDE: What would you say is your purpose in life?

Joewin: To be frank, my purpose in life has kind of changed along the way.

When I first started to work, my purpose was really to provide for my parents, because they have sacrificed so much to put me through school. Along the way I got swayed to think that money is the most important thing in life, so then money became my goal. As I came to start my business, I realise that a business goes beyond just making profit. So now my two main goals for Linear Dots Production and Huone Singapore:

1) To make sure that I take care of the people around me, and by "people", it's not just my parents but my team and our customers.

2) While we make money, we take care of the community as well.

Ultimately there is only this long that you can live in this world. How much can you take away with you at the end? Take care of the people around you and have them pay it forward as well.

STYLEGUIDE: What is the change or impact that you want to make in this world?

Joewin: I dare not say that I have the ability to change the world in any way, but I think there are two key things that I want to make a difference in.

One is to change the way people think about SMEs and to encourage people to give SMEs a chance. Sometimes I feel that there are very talented individuals within there, and it’s a misconception to think that big companies are always better. Look past the scale of a business and you would realise that within SMEs, there are some very talented individuals waiting to be discovered.

The second is to change the way people think about event spaces and services, and for them to really go down to the core of why people buy their service and addressing them. We want to change the way people think about how meetings and events can be run, to let people know that meeting do not necessarily have to be organised in a conventional space. This is why Huone is here. We are here to make a statement.

So we want to change the way people think, to look beyond the superficial side. I mean it not just in our business, but in all different types of businesses, and really addressing customers’ needs.

STYLEGUIDE: What does success mean to you?

Joewin: To me, it's not about dollars and cents. You can't use money to define success as there is no boundary, or limit, or end-point as to how much money defines success.

For businesses, if you're in the growth stage, success could mean being able to grow year after year; if you're in the mature stage, then it’s about being able to sustain your foothold and at the same time, do good and give back.

I think that as a human being, we should look at that as our life goal - to be able to give back, no matter how small it is. In the area of work and business, it will be to first take care of our stakeholders (team members, investors, customers) and work towards giving back to the community. 

I think personally, I would say that one is successful when you're contented with what you have and not complain about what you don't. Because there's so much more to life than material items.

STYLEGUIDE: What would you say was the single most influential factor in your success?

Joewin: Success has different definitions to different people. The core trait which I think every successful person has, businessman or not, is to be thankful for what you have.

I grew up in a poor family where we didn't have toys. Even things like soft drinks and donuts were considered a luxury. Coming to where I am today, being able to sponsor a child through World Vision and pay for their entire livelihood for a year, I feel success in that, although I do not have a net worth of a few million, the most perfect family or that I still have to work 14-16 hours a day.

STYLEGUIDE: What is the most interesting life experience you’ve had so far?

Joewin: I think it has to be during my time in Australia when I was living alone. Even though I grew up in a very poor family, I've always been quite dependent on having many siblings and people around me, and I never thought I would be able to live by myself.

There was this particular day where everything was just not going my way. I was walking outside and I tripped and had a deep cut. After getting home, I was trying to cut myself some fruits and accidentally cut my finger quite badly. It couldn't stop bleeding for the next 24 hours and I had to drive myself to the hospital to get it fixed.

Within that one day, I literally felt like the most unlucky person in the world. After all that drama was over, I sat down and reflected and realize I've actually grown to be independent as a person. Because if I was still in Singapore, I think I would be reliant on the people around me should the same unlucky chain of events happened to me.

It just kind of opened my mind that when you're really stuck in a situation, you'll be forced to adapt and your survival mode will come on. That's when you learn to deal with the difficulties that life throws you.

STYLEGUIDE: If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Joewin: Network more. When I first started working, I hated networking. I know a lot of people don't like networking because it is a chore to go out, smile the whole night and give out your cards frivolously while talking to people. Some people do it very well but to be honest, I'm an introvert and I don't enjoy doing that. It's very tiring for me to network so I always try to avoid going for such events.

But when you start to run your own business, you realise you don't really have a choice.

One thing I learnt about networking is that every person you meet teaches you something new, no matter what status or position they hold. It could even be just an ordinary person on the road. 

Always go with an open mind and don't be in a hurry to sell yourself. Be more eager to hear about what people do and what they have to offer. Naturally, when you build a good relationship, business will come. You don't have to search extensively for it. The worst networkers are the ones who are too eager to (over)sell themselves - they're the ones who usually won't get any referrals. You have to be genuinely interested in what others do and always ask how you can help them because ultimately, the people who gets the most are the ones who give.

STYLEGUIDE: What are your hopes and aspirations for the future?

Joewin: My main aim for both my businesses is to train a leader who can do (better) what I do, so that I can entrust the company to them. I've always had trust issues so I find it difficult to delegate. I think it's a problem that a lot of entrepreneurs face.

I've worked to a point before, where if I don't trust my team with my work, I won’t have time to think about the bigger picture for my business. Now, I'm learning to step back by giving them more tools and resources to help them be successful. My success is only as big as their success.

I think that when they're in a good position and see success coming out of it, they will be more motivated to work on their own personal growth. That will be my main goal for now.