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From graduation to global domination: the expert advising aspiring entrepreneurs

A strong network and a wise mentor are as important as funding in helping budding, determined young entrepreneurs.

Amanda Suriya
4 minute read
The Covid-19 pandemic has added an extra layer of uncertainty for youngsters looking to join the job market. Photo: AFP
The Covid-19 pandemic has added an extra layer of uncertainty for youngsters looking to join the job market. Photo: AFP

In the past seven months, the pandemic has added an extra layer of uncertainty to the volatile job market with job losses across multiple sectors including retail, aviation and hospitality as companies downsize or close down.

This year, over three-quarters of a million workers have joined the ranks of the unemployed.

Additionally, with over five million graduates in 2019 joining the search for employment in Malaysia’s labour market of 21 million employed people, competition for salaried work is stiff.

Against this backdrop, it is perhaps unsurprising that some graduates may choose to explore entrepreneurship as a source of income, for the sake of survival or personal ambition, or even as a means of adding that much-desired work experience recruiters look for.

Even before the pandemic, the higher education ministry predicted in 2017 that by 2020, 15% of graduates would be setting up their own enterprises.

The entrepreneur development ministry, which provides start-up training for graduates under its Protege programme, reported in 2019 that over 200,000 graduates had participated in the programme, which was initially formulated to tackle youth post-graduation unemployment.

However, alongside opportunity and growth, entrepreneurship has its share of pitfalls.

While grants from ministries or agencies such as Cradle are lifelines for graduates without family financial support, there are other ingredients that determine if post-graduate entrepreneurship will go boom or bust.

Beta Foundation, headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, is a private organisation aiming to create business ecosystems for technopreneurship advancement. Lilyana Latiff, its CEO, is candid about what young entrepreneurs need to do and to possess. “Having a good network is crucial,” she tells MalaysiaNow, “as is curiosity and confidence.

“Even though many mavericks do well in the start-up struggle, the willingness to work with a mentor can make a difference.”

Having previously served as CEO of the Malaysian New Entrepreneur Foundation (MyNEF), a role which saw her vetting hundreds of business proposals from aspiring entrepreneurs, Lilyana dispenses advice not often found in business school.

“Some may have a more natural aptitude for entrepreneurship than others but having a close support system in the form of a father or uncle who is experienced in running their own business, helps a lot.”

She cites the example of Anthony Tan, founder of Grab. Tan comes from a dynasty of self-made businessmen. “If you come from generations of entrepreneurs, you will probably, as a graduate, be more comfortable exploring entrepreneurship.

“Having a good network is crucial, as is curiosity and confidence.”

“But,” she adds, “there are kids who perhaps come from rural areas and do not have these family mentors, and who don’t have that natural, maybe unfair, advantage or acumen, and yet, despite the odds, find success.”

One such rare success story is that of Arif Tukiman and Runcloud, an automated server management cloud hosting and web deployment company, now with clients in Canada and Europe, having begun as an idea of Arif and his fellow software engineering graduate friends from UTM Johor.

Lilyana invited Arif to attend the Nordic Startup Awards in Sweden three years ago, where having done the groundwork for Runcloud plus a grant from Cradle in hand, Arif met other young entrepreneurs like him, fresh out of college, struggling to see if the market would embrace their ideas.

He came away from that experience not just with more contacts, but also with the knowledge that a laser-like focus was essential to replace self-doubt and insecurity.

The experience refined for him the feasibility of software as a service that could serve global customers as opposed to a product bound by geographical limits and customs regulations.

Along the way, Arif and his cohorts were invited to TechCrunch, an American online publisher focusing on tech industry start-ups, and after a lengthy interview process, won recognition as a standout start-up.

Today, Runcloud manages over 200,000 servers for its clients.

Such successes may be rare but they are not unknown, says Lilyana, given the breadth of support programmes and resources available to aspiring entrepreneurs, whether they want to sell clothes on social media or design a service that harnesses technology.

Dropee, a marketplace where retail customers discover, purchase, and manage inventories for their stores, all on a single marketplace platform, is an example. It’s the second Malaysian start-up after DahMakan to have come out of the American Y-Combinator seed money start-up accelerator programme which funds start-ups that have the potential to scale up.

“A common factor of most successful young entrepreneurs out of graduation is that they are mavericks – you can tell them apart in a room,” says Lilyana.

“They will ask you the difficult questions and make you feel uncomfortable with their curiosity and their demands for answers.

“They probably already know the answers to those difficult questions,” Lilyana tells MalaysiaNow, “but they’re asking you because they’re seeking validation. As an investor and a coach, I don’t get upset if they don’t follow what I say, because ultimately I want them to own their decisions and their businesses.”

While a robust knowledge of the market they are about to enter is necessary, young and determined entrepreneurs will always benefit from the guiding wisdom of an experienced mentor.