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Man of Humility: Tommy Chieng

Tommy Chieng, co-founder and COO of SEA Gamer Mall (SEAGM) started as an employee in 2010. Over the past few years, working closely with Mr Wong, CEO of SEAGM, he has been recognised for his contribution and been identified as the next leader in SEAGM.

Tommy has led SEAGM, a Malaysian online e-commerce platform that sells digital goods and services for global gamers to achieve a total of MYR1.2 billion (USD 290 million) in revenue growth since he joined the company in 2010. Since then, SEA Gamer Mall has been growing at a CAGR of 41.30% from 2010 to Nov 2019.

In additional, Tommy spearheaded the Digital Goods and Services Marketplace, KALEOZ. KALEOZ has grown from MYR 1.5 million (USD 350,000) to MYR 38 million (USD 9 million) since it launched in 2017 (a 2500% increase in growth). He had also helped to structure and led the growth of SEA Gamer Mall’s team from 12 to 140 employees. In this Your EntrePoint article, he will be sharing his two cents on what it takes to work in an SME as a co-founder.

(1) Could you share with us how you started in SEAGM, and what were you doing before joining your current company?

I joined Mr Wong, the owner and current CEO of SEAGM, as an employee in March 2010 after returning to Sitiawan (Perak) from Singapore. Currently, I’m the Co-Founder and COO of SEAGM. Working together closely with Mr Wong, I manage the company’s Finance, Tech, Customer Service, Marketing and Business Development departments as well as external engagements with our partners.

I graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2004. Before joining Mr Wong, I have worked in various jobs ranging from Network Support, Insurance, Solution Sales to Enterprise IT sales specialising in IBM products.

(2) What motivates you to work for SEAGM?

Ten years ago, I had to return to Sitiawan because of my family. I had a chat with my sister when I was back in Sitiawan, and she shared with me that there was a vacancy at an online company – SEAGM. They were looking to hire stock management personnel to handle in-game items then. I went to check out their website and found out that their User Interface (UI), User Experience (UX) and SEO were quite terrible and not fully optimised.

I addressed the issues as mentioned above to Mr Wong during my interview with him and suggested a few things that can help to improve SEAGM website. To answer the question, it was the challenge to improve the company’s website that made me wanted to stay longer at SEAGM.

Over time, Mr Wong shared with me about his vision and passion for the company. He is kind and generous to his staffs – he offers company’s shares to us as one of the many motivations to keep us going, and the requirement was to fight the battle and grow the company together with him.

I took up the challenge and joined the company – since then we’ve grown from 12-13 staff to more than 140 staff now; Our operating hours from 8 am – 1 am daily was changed to 24 hours 365 days to serve our global customers; From a flat structure with no department to departments with HODs.

We have also expanded our team oversea – a tech team was built in China to overhaul, revamp and provide continuous improvement on our system’s backend and frontend with automation and security.

(3) Have you considered starting your own business?

I do have the desire to start my own business as my mind is always filled with plans and ideas. What has been stopping me from doing so was a lack of courage and skills. Often procrastination also prevented me from starting my own business in my 20s.

I did execute some of the idea and plans. I started a blog that ranked the top 50,000 sites globally. During the peak, I am able to earn a pretty decent income from AdSense, paid posts and digital affiliate marketing of digital books and courses. I did not manage to go beyond that. Facing the same problems with the rest of the first time entrepreneur, I am worried about the capital and my ability to run a real business.

Mr Wong shared with me that the biggest driver of being an entrepreneur is to be able to build something from scratch. Also, Mr Wong inspired me on how to be a man of humility – always there to improve the lives of staff/colleagues as we should prioritise our staffs’ welfare. A healthy working environment is ideal when it comes to maintaining a positive outcome in a stressful atmosphere.

After working at SEAGM for about 10 years now, I’m confident to say that I’m more capable of dealing with change and adversity and I had also improved on the things that I lack previously when I first joined SEAGM. This long journey has moulded to what I am today as an entrepreneur. I learned all these the hard way, and I’m very thankful that I did this early in my 30s. Other than skillsets, I have also learned something more valuable about life – always be prepared to face challenges and changes, embrace the adversities that you face, turn them around and view them as an opportunity given to us rather than an obstacle.

(4) What are the unwritten rules of working at an SME as a co-founder?

Being a co-founder myself, I find the role highly demanding. There are tons of responsibilities to bear. At the early stage, have to manage almost most of the responsibilities in SEAGM. We have to start with as simple as structuring the organisation structure and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).

Slowly and working closely with Mr Wong, we have built and structure SEAGM from scratch to today more than 140 workforces and achieve a total of MYR1.2 billion (USD 290 million) in revenue growth. SEAGM’s success is largely due to the hard work of all the staff and stakeholders of SEAGM for making it possible.

While we are building our mini-empire, disagreements are very common and inevitable. Both the co-founders have to find a way to overcome it by compromising and take turns to make decisions on matters. Ultimately, co-founders have to trust each other that we are making the best decisions for the company and agree on the approach to move ahead.

Hence, it’s crucial to have co-founders to work on consensus, compromise on specific issues and hustle hard together in an SME. It is a simple negotiation practice among the internal team.

(5) What are the challenges you faced working in an SME as a co-founder?

Managing disagreement between the co-founders.

When building up a founders’ team, it’s vital NOT to find someone similar to you. You can see different perspectives and be able to learn from each other strength. Also, when building up the founders’ team, do take into consideration of the skills set and asset they can contribute and fill up what you can’t.

My co-founder, Mr Wong, is a traditional businessman. The way a conventional businessman thinks is very different from a modern businessman. Traditional businesspeople tend to concern more on the welfare of their workers and the satisfaction of their customers, whereas modern businessmen place their concern more about how the world is changing.  The upside is that it allows us to contribute and manage the business using both the traditional and modern perspectives. The challenge is that our views on some issues are very different; Mr Wong will need to have more time to think through the initiatives and opportunities I proposed and identified. At the same time, Mr Wong is able to act as a gatekeeper, keeping in mind the team and the customers’ interest.

Another challenge will be partnering with more prominent brands when we were still at the infant stage as an SME. Thus, it’s crucial to build up one’s brand when it first started – giving your company a voice, an identity and creates awareness about your business. This will not only help your company to be noticed by others but also able to establish credibility.

Last but not least, it’s the talent aspect in terms of attracting talents to join an SME. It’s difficult for us to seek for talents when our company is located in a small town like Sitiawan. We do try our best to hone and nurture our employees in terms of skills and knowledge. I believe that there is great potential inside of everybody, and it can be trained, coached, and challenged to bring out the best in them.

 (6) What advice would you give people who want to work in an SME like SEAGM?

Work hard. Be proactive. Ask questions. Don’t be calculative. Learn as much as possible in every aspect of the business. Show value.

Usually, if you are working in an SME environment as an employee, you would be required to do cross-functional/departmental. Do not let go of such opportunities as that is the best time and place to learn and pick up the knowledge about the business.

One should continue to work hard, offer yourself to do extra work proactively and ask lots of questions (it doesn’t matter if it’s a stupid one). Many employees in big corporations would only be doing the work within their job scope. Hence, there is not much opportunity to learn about another department or job role.

About BlackStorm Consulting

BlackStorm Consulting is a boutique growth consultancy firm that specialises in corporate strategy, profit management and investment management. We mainly serve clients in four sectors: FinTech, Gaming, Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT), and manufacturing.

Our clients and connections are internationally present and range from small and medium sized businesses, MNCs, to government agencies.