Three cheers for Photobook founder Mark Koay and CEO Leow Wee Jonn, the newest Endeavor Entrepreneurs from Malaysia to join our global network of high-impact scaleup entrepreneurs. The duo are among 16 entrepreneurs leading nine companies that were selected at the 78th International Selection Panel (ISP) in Manila, Philippines recently.
Endeavor now supports 1,637 entrepreneurs leading 1,023 companies in over 30 growth markets around the world.
We caught up with Mark and Wee Jonn, to find out what they thought about the Endeavor Selection Process, and how becoming Endeavor Entrepreneurs has changed their outlook as entrepreneurs in the broader ecosystem.
Can you briefly describe your business?
Mark & Wee Jonn: We help people preserve the special memories in their lives by turning their digital pictures into beautiful photo products. Using our online and mobile platforms, customers can upload pictures and use our templates to design a photo product, which can be a photobook or any of our 50 categories of products. We then manufacture the product (in-house), and have it shipped directly to our customers.
Mark, as the founder of Photobook, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you first started the business?
Mark Koay: I started my career with a Sime Darby subsidiary, where I spent a year dealing with networks and IT administration. I left to start my own website design business in 1997/98 during the Asian Financial Crisis. We built over 1,000 flash-based websites for small companies in Malaysia. Each cost around RM2,800 (USD$720) and took between 5 days to 3 months to build.
Since I had this website business during the dotcom craze, I would also sit down in meetings with friends to brainstorm ideas for tech businesses. We looked at 15-20 ideas and tried to develop business models for them.
Looking back, we made a lot of wrong assumptions. Only four of those ideas became actual websites. We had a golfing website, a premium SMS website for businesses, a school supply website and of course, Photobook. Out of the four – only Photobook really took off back in 2005.
How did the two of you meet and eventually decide to become business partners?
Mark Koay: I met Wee Jonn through a mutual friend, eight years after starting Photobook.
The company was still small in 2013, but we had good growth and were already profitable. Unfortunately, we had reached a bit of a plateau. I felt that it was time to bring in a stronger management team to take things to the next level. So I decided to meet with this friend at a bar to listen to his consulting proposal. That was when I first met Wee Jonn, and the two of us hit it off right away.
After our second meeting at my manufacturing site, I knew that I wanted to work with Wee Jonn.
Wee Jonn: I was roped into meeting Mark because of my background in online marketing. I had just left as the CEO of Zalora Malaysia, an e-commerce company, to set up a venture capital firm focusing on e-commerce businesses that were scaling up.
I must confess I did not know about Photobook when I first heard about them, but when I met Mark, we immediately clicked. Mark was looking for advice on online marketing because Photobook was too reliant on Groupon as a marketing channel. This got me excited, and I started giving him some ideas. Back then in 2013 not many people were doing online marketing, or even if they were, they were not doing it well.
After our initial meeting, I decided to meet Mark at his shoplot where they were manufacturing the photo products. When I saw the shop, I knew that the business could really grow.
My first reaction was of course to fund the business, but Mark had different ideas. He wanted something more long-term, and for someone to work full-time. So I thought, what had I got to lose. I started out working 4 days in Photobook and 1 day in my venture capital firm, SEA Eagle Capital. After 1 week in Photobook, I fell in love with the business and quickly realized that it was not possible to do both.
I really enjoyed having operational control again at Photobook and I am glad that I did this early on. If I had stayed with the fund, I would have been on the side-lines giving advice to businesses, but never having the power to actually affect change.
Having full control meant that I could make things happen at Photobook. I could get my hands dirty, hire the right people and market Photobook more aggressively to help it grow faster.
Before coming in, had you actually heard of Endeavor? What made you go through the selection process?
Mark Koay: Wee Jonn’s friend, Fadza (Endeavor Entrepreneur and co-founder of FashionValet) wanted to introduce us to Endeavor. I looked up the Endeavor website, but had no clue what I was getting myself into.
After our first meeting, I started to understand Endeavor a little bit better, but I still did not understand the entire Endeavor Selection Process.
I really started seeing the value in Endeavor during my review session with TS Wong (Endeavor Malaysia Board Member and founder of MyEG Services). I was surprised that he was able to point out so many things even though he was unfamiliar with our industry.
He even challenged our decision to manufacture our products in-house. Although I disagreed with his idea to outsource production, our discussion prompted me to rethink our internal manufacturing and how we really needed a senior hire to optimize our processes.
Wee Jonn: I had heard about Endeavor 6 years ago, when a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to become the MD of Endeavor<laughs>. I did check out what Endeavor was doing, but I was just coming out of Zalora and it was so vastly different that I did not take him up on the offer. When Fadza wanted to pull Mark in, I pushed him to join because I knew Endeavor Malaysia had influential Board Members and mentors. I thought, if Endeavor had such a serious board they must be doing serious work with companies.
Was there anything that you discovered about yourself through this process and did it help you grow as a person in any way?
Mark Koay: I have a big fear of giving presentations and I am not used to telling my story to other people. I am much better now after Endeavor. I have learnt that I can get my ideas across just by being myself and explaining things in layman’s terms. I still have to work on this, but Endeavor has given me a good start. Besides, Endeavor’s mentors have given me a lot of ideas about the things we need to think about and act upon to grow our business.
Wee Jonn: I am a strategy consultant at heart and I really liked strategy, but I was fully focused on implementation at Photobook. Endeavor’s mentors helped me realize that I need to move away from execution, and focus on growing the company. We have built a strong executive team, my job now is to communicate with my team and align them to our business strategy.
On a personal level though, the process has helped me clarify why I need to push myself to become a successful entrepreneur. At times, it was not clear to me why I had to be successful, because I am not motivated by money alone.
Meeting Endeavor Mentors, who are extremely successful individuals giving back to other entrepreneurs, made me realize that success as an entrepreneur does not just mean financial success, but the ability to also impact society in a meaningful way.
Speaking about giving back, an important component of the Endeavor Model is the emphasis on successful entrepreneurs giving back to other aspiring entrepreneurs. How have your thoughts on giving back changed?
Mark Koay: Before Endeavor, I did not give much thought about other entrepreneurs. But as an Endeavor Entrepreneur it is only right to give back to others after all of the help that we have received. As a company, we are still pretty much teenagers trying to mature and we have a big task ahead of us in growing our business. As we become successful, I think the best way for me to help is to give my time, money and expertise – the whole package – to help other entrepreneurs.
Wee Jonn: I see time as being the biggest component of giving back. Money is a given, but time is the biggest factor. My experience with Endeavor Mentors, has given me more tools to help me advise other young entrepreneurs. I am also learning to be more targeted about the types of companies that I decide to help. That way, I can do more using the same number of hours. Most importantly, I have learnt that when you give back, you receive just as much in turn, because you are exposed to new and different things.
The both of you met a lot of mentors from both our local and international network. Was there anyone in particular whom you connected with? What sort of advice did he or she give you?
Wee Jonn: I felt a personal connection with Mark Chang (Endeavor Malaysia Board Member and founder of JobStreet) because of his personal story and overall outlook in life. Mark started out as an underdog, which resonates with me because no one pegged us to become a leading tech company in Malaysia. People also tend to think that we are small, and joining us is not as glamorous or prestigious, which is similar to Mark’s situation when he first started out.
The best advice that he gave me was when we were chatting informally. He told me that I needed to raise my credibility as a leader, as people will trust that you are making changes for the good of the company. I really took that to heart and hope to be able to build upon that in the next few years.
Mark Koay: I liked my sessions with Afzal Abdul Rahim (Endeavor Malaysia Chairman and founder of TIME dotCom) best. He spent the most time with us, really listened and was very real with us. He understood our business and gave us great advice about how we could better utilize our current machinery instead of investing in new ones. During the International Selection Panel (ISP), a panelist also gave me great advice on implementing a share option scheme to attract and retain C-level talents in our company.
Where do you see yourselves in the next 5 years and how do you see Endeavor helping you in that role?
Wee Jonn: Funny you should ask, because I have just completed my first 5 years in Photobook. With Endeavor’s help, in the next 5 years I want to take the business to the point where no one person is indispensable to the company. This means building a stronger foundation, having the right checks and balances and hiring the right people to drive the business.
Mark Koay: We want to be the most well-known, largest photo personalization company in Southeast Asia if not Asia. Being with Endeavor is like having a spreadsheet with clear milestones that we need to achieve to get there. It means that we need to keep disciplined and maintain focus in spite of the complexities in our business.
Would you recommend other entrepreneurs to join Endeavor’s selection process? What advice would you give to them?
Wee Jonn: I highly recommend it, but I would say that Endeavor is not for everyone. You need to know what you want first. Endeavor is not a platform for you to soul search and find out where you want to take your business. Endeavor helps entrepreneurs who know what they want and have a business that they believe can go really far.
Mark Koay: I think it is about discovery. At times, as entrepreneurs we may not be aware of our strengths and weaknesses. The whole process of discovery at Endeavor helps you identify your blind spots and work on them. Just the process of being challenged alone is valuable, even if you may not become successful in becoming an Endeavor Entrepreneur, the process can help you grow both as a person and as a business.
I personally am glad that I had this opportunity to talk about Photobook with the larger business community. Their perspectives have changed the way I think about different business situations. Even if the advice may not be right, I still have more points for consideration.
I say go for it, it is an awesome opportunity for any entrepreneur.