- He gave up a five-figure salary to start a firm helping SMEs with online marketing
- He went without pay for six months. Now, his firm's annual revenue is more than $1m
HURDLES and hard times are par for the course when starting a business, and Mr Leonard Tan has copped more than his fair share.
If having to clean toilets was not bad enough, the tech whiz also had to contend with the stench from a rubbish-clogged alley at the back of his office and the hordes of rats infesting it.
Visiting clients were so shocked by the rough and ready office that they noted Mr Tan's identity card number in case his start-up, PurpleClick Media, was a scam.
Those traumatic days seem like a bad dream now, and although Mr Tan, 30, is unlikely to forget them in a hurry, he has better things to think about these days.
Like how PurpleClick, which offers search marketing solutions to smaller firms, is thriving just two years or so after its less-than-glamorous start.
Like how it is already well into the black, debt-free and eyeing an ambitious regional expansion.
Things did not look that promising back in February 2006, when Mr Tan, armed with $100,000 of savings, quit his two-year job as a sales account manager at Yahoo Search to set up PurpleClick.
The spark came from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that were constantly asking him for advice on online marketing.
He soon spotted an untapped niche: 'There was no agency or department offering such services then. I saw a potential. It was a risk I wanted to take.'
PurpleClick was formed to be the middleman between search engines like Google and Yahoo and businesses hoping to advertise on them. It would, in short, link the providers of goods and services to potential buyers searching on the Internet.
Even though his wife, Ms Vivian Lai, 30, was expecting their first child, Mr Tan gave up a close to five-figure salary and went without pay for six months while he strived to get his dream off the ground.
The shoestring budget meant his office was a tiny, ramshackle rented dwelling at the back of a shophouse in Chinatown's Temple Street.
That was one company HQ where first impressions certainly were not going to count for much.
The 100 sq ft space could just manage to fit four tables, and rubbish lined a rat-infested, unlit back alley. Rainy days made the room deafening - thanks to the zinc roof - while hot days meant the windowless 'cave' became an oven.
Those early months were a slog: Meeting prospective clients, cleaning toilets and emptying dustbins during the day, and doing administrative work, research and conceptualising the business in the evenings.
'I was fighting against time, having to do everything from scratch - from administrative work, fixing the computer, even emptying dustbins,' said Mr Tan. 'I had no sleep, no life.'
Qualified staff were a bit reluctant to throw in their lot. 'When we first tried to hire people, we saw some interviewees walk out within two minutes right after seeing our office structure,' he said.
'It's tough hiring people to join us when we haven't proven ourselves, not to mention having to work in such a lousy environment.'
There was also the challenge of earning the trust of prospective clients.
'The level of trust was very bad,' he recalled, especially after clients took one look at the Temple Street set-up. It looked so seedy that the more suspicious ones recorded Mr Tan's identity details just in case the business was a sham.
Good mentors and the new firm's commitment and ability to deliver, however, brought a steady stream of clients, including Far East Flora and online recruiter JobsCentral.
PurpleClick is now profitable and debt-free, with a good cash flow. Annual revenue hit the $1 million mark in the first year of operations, and it has been increasing steadily, said Mr Tan.
The company now employs 12 people. It has escaped the Temple Street rat trap and is set to move to an even flashier office at Bukit Pasoh from its current premises at People's Park Centre.
PurpleClick also has an office in Malaysia and plans to establish a regional presence in other South-east Asian markets in the next five years.
'The Internet is growing so rapidly day by day,' said Mr Tan. 'We can't wait.'
Profits are re-invested in promotional activities, trade show participation and staff training, but the challenge of recruiting good employees remains.
'Without people, it is very difficult to scale the business and increase revenue,' said Mr Tan, admitting that luring qualified personnel who would rather join big guns like Google and Yahoo has been hard.
'It is not an easy product to sell. You need to have patience,' he said.
In September last year, PurpleClick organised a seminar for more than 200 SME participants that stressed the value of Internet marketing.
'SMEs have been slow in tapping into the power of search engine marketing,' said Mr Tan.
He said the Internet would suit SMEs, as they have leaner budgets and limited manpower, and so cannot afford big advertising campaigns.
'It is important to find good mentors and supportive customers,' said Mr Tan, citing his supportive former bosses who imparted their experience to him.
Sharing insights and experiences from fellow SMEs and customers also helps scale the learning curve.
'There's bound to be a lot of issues and problems in running a business, but the key is to think positive and never lose faith,' he said.
Even if you have to clean the toilet and deal with rats.
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