By Eric Chean Yufei, SMU School of Accountancy
Looking back to 2008 when I was 17, I would never have imagined that less than a decade later I would already have set up not one but two start-up initiatives and bounced back stronger from the experience of a struggling business venture.
Coming from a family with no entrepreneurial experience and parents who worked in the civil service, I was never encouraged to create a start-up. Right up to March 2011, I was still convinced that my journey ahead was to walk the beaten path of being a professional and getting a stable job. However, somewhere deep down, I knew I wanted to dream bigger and find a job that I could be passionate about every single day. So when the chance to go for a two-month attachment to Dubai in an offshore marine company came up, I jumped at it. What started out as a two-month attachment became a year, which meant I had to give up my place in NTU and face my parents’ intense disapproval. The material benefits were few; I stayed in a tiny storeroom in the office with no windows, slept on a foldable bed, earned pittance and worked almost six out of seven days on most weeks. However, in exchange, I was given the opportunity to support the Managing Director in attending meetings, follow-up on projects, devise strategies and execute them. These experiences allowed me to build a network, gain key business development skills and get a taste of entrepreneurship first hand.
Visiting a vessel
Taking the big step
After returning to Singapore, I secured a place in the SMU Bachelor of Accountancy programme and had no plans to start a company. However, in August 2012, as I was just starting school, a Middle East contact called, seeking help to source for a vessel. Seizing the opportunity, I set-up Oceanus Offshore Services Pte Ltd, a ship-broking firm focused on providing offshore support vessels, either for sale or charter, and proceeded to establish relationships with vessel owners in Singapore. This involved going door-to-door and cold calling to introduce myself and my services. Thinking back, I still surprise myself with how gutsy I was to do that considering that I knew almost nothing about the shipping industry and that my clients often would ask me questions I did not have the answer to. I would just say, “Let me check and get back to you.” Through those questions, and with subsequent research, I plugged the holes in my knowledge and slowly learnt about the industry; my customers were my greatest teachers.
Naming Ceremony for a vessel we sold
Surviving the hard knocks
Whilst it was easy to set up a company, I soon learnt that closing a sale was not. For months, after setting-up the company, I failed to close any sales. The numerous times that I was on the verge of closing a sale, I would encounter a problem that would derail the deal. There was an incident where just as the contract was about to be signed with the customer, the owner of the vessel I had linked up with decided to accept another job at the last minute. I was left to face the customer alone with months of work gone to waste.
These experiences were learning points and they helped me close two deals in the following six months. I soon faced greater challenges such as staff management, balancing business with school work, cash flow problems, customers’ refusal to pay for services rendered, and many more. These were stressful and I would often lie in bed awake in the wee hours of the morning, pondering how to deal with them. By August 2013, I finally began to see the company generate healthy cash flows and I thought the company would be on firm ground going forward.
Oceanus Visit to a vessel about to depart for a job in Saudi Arabia
Unfortunately, my period of calm was short-lived. While Oceanus did well from 2013 to 2014, by the end of 2014, the market became increasingly challenging due to oil prices falling by more than 50%. Clients had also started to face payment problems and that meant my company didn’t get paid, as well. As a result, I had to let most of my team go as projects dried up, which was another trying phase.
Not willing to let market conditions affect my goals, I decided to spend the free time I had reflecting on my experiences and see what news ideas I could come up with. With this came the new idea of creating an online platform to market vessels for rent and sale. I enlisted the help of fellow SMU student and long-time friend, Timothy Ong, from the SMU School of Economics, as my CTO, and subsequently named the platform Marine Nexus. After working on the project for almost three months, we achieved our first success: winning the Eureka Prize—a S$20,000 grant sponsored by the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC)—at the SMU-SICC Eureka Prize competition organised by SMU Institute of Innovation & Entrepreneurship.
Winning the Eureka Prize. With Timothy and SICC Chief Executive Victor Mills
If any reader were to take away a lesson from my story, the most important one would be that to become an entrepreneur, you need to be prepared to face the ups and the downs. I will never trade what I have experienced for another path and I have absolutely no regrets. But aspiring entrepreneurs must be prepared to slog it out and not give up, in order to achieve entrepreneurial success.
Also, I am truly thankful that at every stage of my entrepreneurial journey, I have always had people who lent a helping hand to me, be it my former employees, my family or my clients. I work, not because I want to seek huge amounts of wealth, but to make the people who have blessed me proud and, hopefully, to be a blessing to others in the future.