"I was always a child who was a bit different. I was neither conventional nor rule-abiding."
"I grew up in a dysfunctional family where illegal activities were by no means foreign to my family members," confessed Jacki Ng.
At the tender age of 13, Jacki joined a local gang and dabbled in all sorts of vices, although no serious crimes were involved. He was mainly tasked to act as a 'jaga' (a look-out) and committed only petty crimes.
He was even expelled from secondary school later on for fighting.
"I don't think there was a single factor influencing me to stray but imagine meeting a group of friends as a young boy who accepts you for your differences. It is not only attractive but comforting," he reasoned.
But when a close friend of his was sentenced to death for a crime one day, that served as a harsh wake-up call for him.
"Seeing that as a grown adult would scare you, let alone when you are just a child," he recounted.
"The incident made me re-evaluate my life choices and also made me realise that there really isn't a successful end to this path no matter how hard you try."
TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF
Determined to put his troubled past behind and turn over a new leaf, Jacki taught himself English and earned an NTC3 in Motor Vehicle Mechanics from the Institute of Technical Education.
But because he did not exactly excel in academics nor have an outstanding job resume, he figured that carving his own career path would make the best choice.
He wanted to start his own business and be his own boss.
Alas, that ambition left him losing a "great deal of money" and he soon sank into depression.
His concerned friends started introducing diving to him as an activity and it ended up becoming a huge help in overcoming his depression.
He soon fell in love with the diving life and started helping out his friends with their diving business called Gill Divers.
"After a while, they wanted to give the business up. It was then that I took over and decided to adopt Gill Divers as my own," said Jacki.
After five years of running Gill Divers, he met his current business partner (who also ran a successful dive centre) and that's when they decided to form Asia Dive Academy (ADA) together.
This was back in 2009 - the duo wanted to form an entity that would empower dive organisations and make the entire industry efficient.
"I wanted to work with different dive entities so that we can make our operations more efficient. The company was merely the binding force," he said.
But the startup life wasn't exactly a smooth-sailing journey, and they faced many challenges during their early days.
"Some key business challenges I've faced is the dynamics of the South Eastern market, the disruptive forces in the tech industry, and the challenge of getting staff to understand the deeper meaning of our work."
REVOLUTIONISING THE DIVE INDUSTRY
Fast forward to today, Jacki is revolutionising the dive industry in Singapore, as he empowers young people to start their own dive businesses and introduces new technological developments to improve the operation and logistical capabilities of dive companies.
"There are plenty of courses that teach people how to dive. However, education with regards to running a dive operation or dealing with tourism and hospitality in the dive context is duly lacking. Because the skills needed in this industry are so unique, we created a programme four years ago to address these needs," said Jacki.
"This 8-month programme takes you from a non-diver all the way to an instructor with skills from multiple areas needed to be successful in this industry, and allows people who are passionate about diving to carve a career from it. ADA then provides an influx of ready professionals with relevant skills into the industry, hereby empowering it."
Throughout his time in the diving industry, Jacki also noted that the existing processes were incredibly manual. Not many people were digitalising their business and investing in technology-driven solutions.
He wanted to bridge this digital gap and saw the potential for a software-driven system to help scale businesses.
As such, ADA went on to introduce their own dive management software, which is apparently the first of its kind in the world. It makes use of cloud-based technology to improve the operation and customer experience for dive centres.
The integrated platform allows business owners to manage customers, equipment and payment; and also gives students access to online training at the same time.
So far, transactions done through their online platform has grown by over 80 per cent in the past 8 months.
Encouraged by such positive response, Jacki expressed his hopes to make the software completely open source in the future, so as to improve efficiency for the whole industry.
He also sees the potential of bringing in more new technology into the dive industry.
He intends to make use of the Internet of Things to track the usage of tanks, and to work on improving the sustainability of the industry by tracking and monitoring the number of dives an area can sustainably hold, which helps to reduce the impact diving has on marine life and parks.
IT'S NEVER ABOUT THE PROFIT
Since inception, Jacki has been bootstrapping the startup, which has since grown into a team of 80 people and raking in a huge profit turnover of $4.5 million.
But Jacki insisted that it's never about the money.
He simply has a strong passion for the diving community and wants to give back and improve an industry that means so much to him.
ADA has also gone regional in the last year and a half. It has clinched partners from all over the Southeast Asia region, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Papua New Guinea and the Maldives, offering a global approach to professional dive education and training for recreational and technical diving.
Moving forward, Jacki said that ADA is looking to explore deeper into dive resort business opportunities.
When asked to impart some final words of advice for fellow young entrepreneurs, he said that "tenacity will always outweigh luck and risk is just an illusion that you have something to lose."
True enough. Despite being a school dropout, Jacki has proved that hard work and effort never betrays - it only pays.
This article was first published in Vulcan Post.