Saturday August 11, 2012
Up close & personal with Joel Neoh
By EUGENE MAHALINGAM
LOOKS. Brains. Talent. It definitely seems like 29-year old entrepreneur Joel Neoh, has it all.
Some may recall hearing that name or actually seeing him in action in Malaysia's first corporate reality television programme, The Firm in 2007. Not only was Neoh the winner, he was also the youngest of the 10 participants on the show.
The health buffs, meanwhile, may remember seeing Neoh on the cover of Men's Health magazine some time back.
Neoh modeled part time while studying for his mechanical engineering degree at Monash University.
“The money was good, but after a while I decided it was not what I wanted to do. I didn't find it that exciting,” he tells StarBizWeek.
Even after completing his degree programme, Neoh felt that becoming an engineer was not his forte.
It was then that Neoh decided to try his luck (and his wits) against other fellow upstarts in The Firm.
Winning the reality show, Neoh realised that his true passion was to be a part of the corporate world.
One of the prizes for emerging victorious in The Firm was a brand new car, which Neoh eventually sold off to raise money and start a business that connected companies with graduates and students seeking part-time work.
In October 2006, he set up Youth Malaysia, a non-government organisation that managed events for youths.
“We started to explore events for youths. I then realised that the Internet was a growing space for young entrepreneurs,” Neoh says.
“And there are many successful people that start out from the Internet,” he adds, citing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a prime example.
Neoh says Youth Malaysia started to organise several online-related activities but claimed that none of them were “really making money.”
Things started looking up for Neoh when Youth Malaysia conceptualised YouthSays, a survey platform for Malaysian youths.
“We did surveys about practically anything, ranging from the best brands to government policies.
“After a while, we had agencies like the media and even the Government coming to us, asking us to create surveys for them.”
Slowly, YouthSays became a revenue churner for Neoh's organisation.
“We realised that we were sitting on a small pot of gold,” he quips, adding that Youth Malaysia even received a grant from the Multimedia Development Corp (MDeC).
In 2008, Youth Malaysia organised Youth 08, arguably the largest youth festival at that time.
After organising its third youth festival in 2010, Neoh realised that the Internet offered great business growth opportunities.
“We started to realise that e-commerce was the holy grail of the Internet,” he says.
“We found that e-commerce was especially eminent in countries where digital advertising and research was high.”
The advent of e-commerce was slowly picking up in Asia, Neoh says.
“E-commerce was taking off in parts of the region and we believed it was only a matter of time before it would become popular in Malaysia.”
The Groupon business model
Realising the potential opportunities that the Internet could offer, Neoh decided to emulate the business model of US-based group buying website, Groupon, to kick off a (hopefully) successful online venture of his own here in Malaysia.
Launched in 2008 as “Getyourgroupon,” US-based Groupon (as it is known today) offered discounted deals that are activated by a number of buyers.
The American company became profitable within less than a year of operations and would later go on to earn the title of “the world's faster growing company in web history” by Forbes magazine in 2010.
At the time, Neoh felt that the Groupon business model was compelling and would be workable in Malaysia.
“As a consumer myself, I used to wonder why Groupon was not in Malaysia,” he says.
In September 2008, taking a leap of faith, Neoh founded GroupsMore a Malaysian e-commerce company based on Groupon Inc, the successful US group-buying company.
“We got (haircare company) Peek-A-Boo Malaysia as a merchant and provided coupons offering services costing just RM18 instead of RM36,” Neoh says.
He adds that initially most of the coupons were snapped up by his own staff.
“Half the office bought it which wasn't a lot as we started off with around eight people,” says Neoh.
“We selfishly used GroupsMore to get the services for ourselves,” he quips.
Through word of mouth news of Neoh's online venture spread like wildfire.
“We were telling our friends about it and they too started buying the coupons.
Neoh recalls that initially, many of his friends were still a little hesitant about buying products online.
“Most were concerned about being victims of credit card fraud and things like that. So we actually ended up buying the coupons for our own friends!”
But GroupsMore's popularity grew quickly. According to Neoh, the website was already catering to over 500 customers within a month of operations.
“By December, we had about 20,000 customers,” he says.
Neoh's hunch about the Groupon business model being workable in Malaysia was paying off and news of this (now not so tiny) e-commerce company spread so rampantly that it even got the attention of Groupon Inc itself!
“One evening, we received an e-mail from a company that claimed to be Groupon, asking us if we had heard of them!”
Neoh's immediate emotion was a mix of skepticism and anxiety.
“I was afraid that they were going to threaten us with some sort of a lawsuit for copyright infringement or something like that. But instead, they had heard how successful we were and expressed interest in expanding into Malaysia!”
The following week, Neoh flew to Japan to meet with a representative from Groupon Inc.
“All the while, I was actually wondering if the e-mail and proposed meeting was some sort of a joke,” he recalls.
“But we met and a deal was struck.”
In January 2011, GroupsMore was acquired by Groupon for an undisclosed sum and Neoh's company became known as Groupon Malaysia. Neoh was appointed its chief executive officer.
With the US-based firm's backing, the challenge now was to grow the Groupon business model to new heights.
Groupon Malaysia was growing at a rapid pace and with this came the challenge of serving its ever-growing customer base.
Neoh points out that many companies that experience exponential growth have difficulty not being able to deal with their ever-growing customer base and end up compromising on their service and quality.
“Putting up a website is easy. Delivering is the challenge. We were growing very fast, and we needed the headcount to deliver on our promise to serve our customers to the best of our abilities,” he says.
From just eight people, Groupon Malaysia today employs around 150 staff. The working hours have also been extended to be able to cater to customers' needs.
“We hire some of the youngest and brightest talents out there and we are constantly trying to improve ourselves,” Neoh says.
Today, Groupon Malaysia serves over 1.5 million customers in the country, featuring over 160 deals per week from some 3,000-plus merchants.
In terms of discounts offered, it is estimated that over RM234mil worth of savings have been experienced by Groupon Malaysia customers so far.
Apart from helping customers get what they want, Neoh also believes that the Groupon business model is a boon for local small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
“One of the biggest challenges for SMEs is the ability to market their products. Chains like McDonalds have their own marketing team.
“But SMEs don't have the marketing element they either don't have the right knowledge or budget for it.
And that's where Groupon Malaysia comes in.
“We actually help them with their marketing needs. Through us, we can match their products with consumer needs.”
As part of the Groupon conglomerate, Neoh felt that he had a point to prove to his principal in the United States.
“Groupon is in over 40 countries. When we became a part of the group, we were the lowest-ranked country compared to our counterparts in the region.”
While he was still studying, Neoh recalls taking part in a national engineering competition in which his team emerged as champions.
However, when they competed on a global scale at a competition in Australia, they finished last.
“Thinking back to that engineering competition, I told myself that it would be different with Groupon. We wanted to be big not just in Malaysia, but internationally as well.
“I told my team at Groupon Malaysia that after one year, if we were still ranked the lowest internationally, then it would be pointless to carry on with this business.”
Fast forward a year later and Groupon Malaysia became the fastest growing Groupon company globally in 2011.
“Our principal was quite impressed with us,” says Neoh.
So impressed were they that Groupon Inc actually asked Neoh to spearhead its Taiwan operations.
“We took over the Taiwan operations and turned the company around,” he says.
Today, Neoh is also the vice-president and general manager for Groupon's South-East Asia operations, which includes Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and India.
“India, especially, is super challenging! The country is so huge it feels more like a continent. Every city is so big (with its huge) population that it's large enough to be a country of its own!”
“But I see these added responsibilities as more of an opportunity than a challenge,” he says.
BORN: Oct 11, 1983
HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: Monash University, Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering (Honours) and Monash Scholarship holder. Among the top 3 students in the course
CAREER: Vice-president and GM for South- East Asia and India Groupon; founder and CEO of Groupon Mala ysia; co-founder of Youth Asia; founder and organising chairman of the National Youth Entrepreneur Convention
FAVOURITE FOOD: Nasi lemak
FAVOURITE PLACE: Krabi, Thailand world's best outdoor rock climbing area
HOBBY: Self exploratory, personal improvement learning, doing, reflecting (eg. learning to play the piano on my own, etc)
INSPIRATION: I'm inspired by entrepreneurs who build cool companies for their people to work in