Singapore CEO's turning point came when he realised he didn't have $6 to pay for his daughter's school fees

Singapore CEO's turning point came when he realised he didn't have $6 to pay for his daughter's school fees
PHOTO: Jonathan Quek

At his lowest point in life, Jonathan Quek was left with less than $6 in his bank account — insufficient even to pay for his daughter's primary school fees.

The letter from the Ministry of Education (MOE) — the second reminder — set him off into a spiral of self-blame and guilt.

"I cried when I held the letter because I felt I wasn't doing my part as a father," said Jonathan, 47.

That was in 2015, when the entrepreneur hit rock bottom following a failed business venture, falling into depression for six months.

But the moment in which he received the notice of the unsuccessful deduction also marked the turning point, giving him the motivation he needed to pick himself up again.

Losing $400,000 in savings

Jonathan's troubles began when the education-tech venture in which he had invested $400,000 of his life savings failed to take off.

He had developed the online learning programme with his wife Violet, a former counsellor who holds a post-graduate degree in psychology.

Jonathan reflected: "I realised working parents didn't have the time nor energy after work to go through the online curriculum daily with their children."

In hindsight, Jonathan reflected that the business might have been several years too early, noting how the Covid-19 pandemic had shifted parents' mindsets in approaching online learning.

After the business folded, Jonathan found himself lost and struggling mentally. 

"I put in a lot of hard work into the business and when it failed, I felt very useless," shared Jonathan.

But although badly shaken by the setback and burdened by a sense that he'd failed Violet as well as his business partner, he "didn't go into depression yet".

"Because I had no more money, I knew that I had to find a job. But at the time I was already 40 and at that age it's difficult. That was when I really went into depression."

For six months, Jonathan holed himself up in the bedroom, going the whole day without talking and, sometimes, without food.

"Essentially, I just gave up. I didn't want to do anything or to meet up with people, even my kids," said Jonathan, who has two daughters, aged 14 and 11. 

The financial burden fell onto his wife Violet, who dipped into her savings in order to sustain the family's expenses.

"I was like a one-man show as I took over his role as a father and was daddy and mummy at the same time," said Violet, 50.

She also had the added burden of ensuring that Jonathan was at least eating, "because if he stays in bed all day, he may not".

Jonathan recounted how he would get upset whenever Violet nudged him about finding a job after his business failed. "I would get angry and not talk to her and she would just leave me alone before coming back again."

Violet described it as "timely" that the MOE letter came, as it was the wake-up call he needed to seek help. "He was then more open to the idea of going to a psychiatrist or psychologist," she shared.

For Violet, the turnaround was also a relief financially.

Getting a loan from their parents would have been a last resort, but "we didn't want to burden them with our problems, not when they're so old", said Violet.

Added Jonathan: "Her parents might understand (his struggle with depression), but I think my parents would not. They'll probably say, 'you're so weak'," explained Jonathan.

But Jonathan realised he "couldn't continue on like this".

Of the realisation after receiving the letter from MOE, he shared: "I can give up on myself, I can suffer myself, but I realised my actions will affect other people, like my wife and my kids. If I don't pick myself up, then what's going to happen?"

He finally went to see a psychiatrist for his depression and anxiety, the latter of which was so debilitating that he could not sit down for a haircut without perspiring profusely.

"It took another six months after I saw a psychiatrist before it slowly got better," shared Jonathan, who at the same time found the courage to dip his toes into entrepreneurship yet again.  

With an initial investment from his parents, Jonathan set up smart cleaning company, Globotix, in 2016. And he did it only after getting his wife's blessing. 

Violet admitted that it was "90 per cent support, and 10 per cent apprehension" when he decided to take a second stab at doing business.

But the stay-at-home mum recognised that given her husband's enterprising character and free-spiritedness, a regular office job might not sit well with him.

Shared Violet: "I thought to myself that if he likes what he's doing, he's probably more likely to sustain and succeed in the business. And with the hard-earned lessons from his first business failure, he'd be in a better position to make something out of his second venture."

It helped that the cleaning industry wasn't completely foreign to Jonathan. From his previous experience working in facilities management, Jonathan had seen how the turnover rate for cleaners was always high.

"Five years ago, [the market for] commercial cleaners was still in its infancy so I saw that there might be an opportunity," said Jonathan, who scoured the internet for potential partnerships with makers of robotic cleaners.

Through his online search, he discovered a Canadian start-up founded by a pair of fresh graduates. With some persuasion, Jonathan became the first distributor here for the self-cleaning robots that they created.

This eventually enabled Jonathan to clinch his first major deal with Changi Airport in 2018, where he provided them with 22 cleaning robots.

But few may know that the hard-won $2 million contract was two years in the making. Jonathan recalls spending night after night at the terminals "testing the robots after 2am where there's less human traffic" and getting in only four hours of sleep daily.

When asked how he survived financially before being awarded the lucrative contract, Jonathan explained that being a one-man show then, selling "one or two" $80,000 robots a year was sufficient to cover his expenses. 

But even when he got the letter of offer from Changi Airport, anxiety and worry weren't far from Jonathan's mind, which he attributed to being still in recovery.

"I wasn't really happy yet. I was still worried about the business, if I could deliver," he stated.

With the successful deployment at Changi Airport however, other airports around the world soon began to contact Jonathan to make purchases for their facilities and business soared.

"So it was only then that I felt that I accomplished something from nothing," said Jonathan, who also had the opportunity to present the robots to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the opening of Changi Airport's Terminal 4.

Today, Jonathan not only manages a team of 18 employees as CEO of Globotix, but he is also looking to build and manufacture their own range of robotic cleaners. The next frontier? Outdoors, shared Jonathan.

'Be patient and persevere'

One of the biggest lessons Jonathan has learnt in his journey is to "be patient and to persevere".

He credits his wife for being his biggest cheerleader.

"There were times (when pursuing the Changi Airport contract) when I asked my wife if I should just give up, but she was the one who told me to be patient and to continue until the day they say 'no'.

"Sometimes, you may take two steps forward and then one step back, but you just have to grit your teeth and move forward.

"I can't say that I'm not worried about failure; there's always this fear and worry behind my decisions. But for now, I can manage it and continue to do what I'm supposed to do."

Jonathan points out that it is a continuous journey with regard to his mental health, and he still checks in with his psychiatrist regularly.

"It was only in 2019, after several years, that I felt much better. But I still have worries, it's just that I can better manage it."

His advice to others who are going through the same experience is to "be more open to your loved ones who are there to help you", and to seek professional help. "Don't think that if I go and see a psychiatrist, what will people think of me?" shared Jonathan emphatically. 

Jonathan learnt the hard way as well that feeling better does not equate to being okay.

"Without telling my psychiatrist, I stopped my medication for one month, but I began to feel the anxiety creep back again," said Jonathan.

As for being a caregiver for someone who is struggling, Violet shared that the best that one can do is to have "lots of positivity and patience". 

"If there's any negativity or frustration, you try to work it off somewhere else, because you can't fight negativity with negativity."

Despite Violet's background in psychology and counselling, getting Jonathan to seek help often felt like an impossible task.

"It's really not easy living with someone who's depressed. As much as we talk about the importance of mental health, I don't think normal people can understand the depths of despair that they feel, and how difficult it is to climb out," said Violet. 

However, Jonathan added that "it's because of her and my kids that pulled me out of depression", sharing that the journey has brought them closer together as a family.

The parents have also used their experience to encourage their children to speak up whenever they are troubled.

"They understand that mental health is nothing to be ashamed of and if you have issues, you just have to face it and manage it.

"We have a closer bond now and we can talk about anything. I think our relationship has changed for the better, to be honest."

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