Sharil Tarmizi is an experienced advisor, angel investor and mentor, starting off his career as a lawyer before becoming a regulator and a corporate advisor. Possessing a uniquely diverse and unparalleled experience in various sectors; in technology, media, communication logistics, automotive, aviation and highways, Sharil shares with us his valuable experience throughout his career, his vision, important life lessons and highlights the importance of integrity and dreaming big.
You are known to be an enigma and you hold a unique position in the technology ecosystem, where you have previously gotten personal access to some of Malaysia's most successful upcoming entrepreneurs, some at quite an early stage. Can you share with us in terms what you look for when you invest in some of these businesses?
Invest in people and good executors
“I am very happy to be here, I have always been supportive of what Endeavor does and I appreciate CGS-CIMB very much for supporting us. I have always believed that it is up to us how we want to give back to the community,” Sharil opened his talk before continuing, “I actually look at people, I will always focus on the individual and the entrepreneur because that is the genesis of where the idea comes from. Also, when I say people, I will also extend that to the execution team.” Sharil emphasized that a good idea can only go so far in articulating it, but beyond that, a good entrepreneur must have the ability to execute.
Disruptive and impactful business models
He also mentioned that before investing, he tends to look at things that are potentially disruptive, something that can change the status quo of what is happening today. Besides that, he analyzes a business based on how they create an impact, a business model that can add greater value not necessarily to the economy but to the community. Explaining further on how his thought process works, Sharil mentioned that sometimes he has invested very early on, right after the ideation stage but in some instances, he has to go through a second layer of filter to validate their theories and execution modality.
Sharil started to be active investing after he left Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) in 2015, where he helped develop a lot of the policies in Malaysia present today, focusing on the modernization and transformation of the Malaysian telecommunications industry. Prior to that, he was once a lawyer in ZICO and stopped legal practice in 2000. He was also involved with the International Telecommunications Unions (ITU), Commonwealth Telecommunication Organization, World Bank, and the United Nations Development Program.
Having spent time with people internationally from your numerous past involvements, what are the key differences between those teams and the personalities that you see in Malaysia?
“I will be very bluntly honest, a lot of the entrepreneurs here I feel have been mollycoddled too much. They are not as hungry as one would hope for,” Sharil answered and elaborated further, “I want to use this word carefully, but generally people in Malaysia, some in Asia, are not as aggressive, in a positive way.” Sharil then continued to explain that entrepreneurs are not out there to push the idea across, giving instances where he has met entrepreneurs in this region who did not grab the opportunity to pitch in a clear and concise manner, despite the circumstances and the time constraints. He then added that based on his experience, US tech entrepreneurs usually are very clear about their product, what they want to sell, what it is that they're trying to do and tend to be more forward. He said that sometimes these entrepreneurs will come up to him and ask “have you got 30 seconds?”. It is from bold movements like these, being able to make a good impression during the first 30 seconds’ pitch, that will sometimes open doors to further conversations.
Do you think that this is an advantage that Americans have compared to the Asians where they are amazing orators and they have been brought up that way?
No, it’s all about telling the story
When questioned further on whether culture and confidence influences an entrepreneur’s ability to pitch well, assuming entrepreneurs have clarity of thought and knowledge of the business model, Sharil simply replied, “it is about telling a story.” Sharil added, “for example, I used to tell the team to make sure they know what their 60 seconds’ pitch is going to be,” relating to his past involvement during the Endeavor ScaleUp program. Unfortunately, sometimes this has been misinterpreted as being arrogant but he emphasized that being able to deliver a convincing idea in a timely manner is a crucial skill to have. Relating back to his experience working as a government officer back then, “I may have a slide deck of 45 sheets but there were times when I had to brief ministers as they were walking towards their car. You really have to start thinking on your feet. I think my experience as a litigator back then helped but it is about being able to present all the important points during the short amount of time as he walks to his car that will hook him to then say, come talk to me on Monday when I'm back.” Sharil reiterated the point that entrepreneurs need to take the chance that people give, not wait for a chance to be presented on a silver platter.
At a macro level, there are a lot of policies in place in Malaysia to make things easier like the price controls due to inflation. However, this arguably instills the entitlement ideology even in the entrepreneurial industry. Can you comment on this?
Optimism is key for solutions
“I think I would like to look at things half the glass as being half full rather than half empty. There are many things wrong with many countries but it is how we approach and solve the problem.” Sharil shared that as he evolved in his career from being a lawyer to becoming an entrepreneur and a corporate advisor, his perspectives in life changed. “One of the things I learned from my teenage son, even when he was younger, is to approach life with the mentality that things will be better tomorrow.” Sharil truly believes that having an optimistic mindset will train your mind to look for opportunities and find solutions.
Gratitude goes a long way
Emphasizing on the lack of gratitude, “I think our people are forgetting to be thankful for what we have and that is not something to be trifled with.” Sharing his experience when he was doing a lot of work for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), he has traveled to countries like Ghana, some parts of Africa and Latin America. Some of the homes there were mainly huts with floors that were basically soil. These people of destitute were very grateful with the little bit of assistance that was given to them.
There are many positive things about Malaysia. One only needs to travel abroad to realize how tough life can be. “Let's be grateful for what we have, the good or bad, because this is our country. It's up to us to see what we can do.” Sharil then continued that the same rules apply to all the entrepreneurs. Instead of being upset by various agencies and using reasons like not having political connections, channel one’s energy towards finding solutions. “You need to be more than that,” he added.
When asked about the ability for Malaysia to wean itself off policy offering as a long-term measure, Sharil remains optimistic replying, “I would like to think so but it starts with every generation.” Sharil then continued saying that people have to realize the subsidies received now such as on fuel prices and government healthcare cannot last forever.
You have a very unique position in the landscape because you have access to these entrepreneurs and have been involved in the private sector. Can you tell us more about the unique way of Malaysia doing business?
Sharil is involved in land, sea, in the networks and in the electricity. Sharil had firsthand experience from various involvements including 5G, civil aviation and Lotus Group International (UK) Ltd, to name a few. He was also part of the consortium at board level at Gamuda.
“With the startups I have been involved with, no one gets a free lunch. If I sit on the board of that particular company, it is harder for them to get access to the company than it is if I am not on the company,” Sharil stresses that he is very disciplined as a person and wants to ensure that the entrepreneurs pass through stages based on their own capabilities.
When asked more about being on the board of Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB) and the development of telecommunications, Sharil shared with us his early years of being involved in setting up 3G and subsequently 4G to the country before leaving the public service for the private sector. “Technology brings a lot of opportunities, both for SMEs and for entrepreneurs because of what it promises to do, as we have seen in smart cars and smart homes.” Elaborating on the different types of broadband, he mentioned that the focus tends to be more on high-speed broadband, like 5G mobile phones. However, he believes that not enough efforts are put into looking at the other types of broadband, including the ultra-low latency opportunities. “This is where the government had to step in, to create a 5G ecosystem because if it was being left to commercial, it may not start.”
Sharil also shared, infrastructure consolidation basically allows a single infrastructure to have five networks. DNB is offering an asset-light structure, where the telecommunications companies that are present today do not necessarily need to physically own the network and the internet to be able to provide the 5G service.
Sharing more on infrastructure sharing, Sharil wrote the first white paper on infrastructure sharing 20 years ago when he was in MCMC, but it was not well received at that point in time. People from the industry only caught up 10 years later agreeing that tower sharing is a great idea. He said that countries like the United Kingdom and Sweden were already doing infrastructure sharing while still allowing companies to keep their own brands.
Being entrepreneurial in ones approach
“An operator actually owns the relationship between his network, business and his consumers. Does it matter who owns the network in between to get from me to you? It doesn't and it shouldn't,” Sharil emphasized that society should open up our lenses a bit more and look at things beyond. Sharil added that a consumer should be able to decide on the service provider and the price point that they want. Relating back to his experience as a regulator, he implemented something called number portability where customers are able to choose their service provider and have the option to change to a different one. These policies are just a few examples of innovation, a key aspect of being an entrepreneur. “Businesses do not like disruption, businesses do not like change because that changes the status quo. Being entrepreneurial in your approach, you have to constantly challenge the status quo, and that is what is happening now with DNB and 5G.” He also added that in order to push innovation forward in Malaysia, entrepreneurs need to have that hunger and the fire in the belly to solve problems.
Do you think our government does not engage closely as business would like and do you think our entrepreneurs have enough landscape in this country for them to rely on?
Chuang used an example of the business of electric scooters, with the benefit of trying to reduce city congestion and pollution emissions, only to be outlawed by transport ministers, arguably destroying their business model overnight. “Probably what we did not do well enough is communicating the engagement. I do not know the specifics but I believe consultations were done, engagements were done, but somehow maybe the information didn't get through,” Sharil responded.
Playing our part
However, Sharil highlighted the importance of being able to differentiate what is safe or unsafe. There is a minimum standard of what you need to have on a vehicle with different classifications before it goes onto a public road. He added that these e-scooters which are supposed to be only operating the sidewalks are not able to do so because of the bad sidewalk conditions. However, he reminded that everyone plays a role in the community, to escalate these problems to local authorities. Using his housing community as an example, escalating constantly with photos and information to the Majlis seems to work in getting things in order. “Let’s start with what we can do as a community together. The same thing applies to the ecosystem that we are trying to create with our entrepreneurs and that is what Endeavor stands for,” Sharil added that the focus should be more on finding solutions instead of finger-pointing or letting circumstances limit us.
As a former regulator, Sharil mentioned that he has always taken a developmental approach to regulation where he thinks regulation is not about control alone. Highlighting the point that what the country needs is enabling control, enabling legislation and regulations to help economic growth. Sharil encourages entrepreneurs to dream big, looking at ASEAN and regional strategies. Sharing his experience of scaling ZICO from a single law firm in Kuala Lumpur to ZICO being established in 10-12 countries all across the region now, Sharil said that they did not sit and wallow but instead had a “taking the bull by the horns” attitude.
With the ever-changing and volatile world, how do you advise entrepreneurs to really take the bull by the horns and try to springboard into the fast-coalescing region quickly?
Thorough research is crucial
Entrepreneurs, regardless of which industry, need to understand the problems that they want to solve, and location of the market that they want to tap into. “There is no excuse for not going deep, you cannot skim the surface and think you can be a unicorn. It doesn't work that way.” Sharil then said more important key learning points, “you have got to look at the industry vertical that you want to play in and before you start and make that first pitch, do your research and truly understand the market, not just from friends surrounding you, but really look into the region. There's a lot of preparatory work. Then put your thoughts down on paper, because talk is cheap.” He also mentioned that though some sectors may have very little data, you can very often find analysis in related sectors, encouraging entrepreneurs to seek information rather than waiting for data to be presented to them on a silver platter.
Leading by example, Sharil is constantly pushing his boundaries by trying to learn new things. Sharil shares that he is now learning more about deep technology and artificial intelligence (AI) with a data analytics firm in San Francisco which has a longer gestation period.
Do you think entrepreneurs coming from a wealthy background, though bootstrapping, creates a different mentality in terms of how they survive in the industry?
From past failures and experience comes maturity
“I think what you're seeing now with a lot of angel investors like myself is that we now tend to invest or work with older entrepreneurs. My current cohort of entrepreneurs mostly are in their mid-thirties. They have failed multiple times, they had startups that have failed, burned, and some half fledgling. It is important for them to go through that kind of exercise because it prepares them mentally, financially and more importantly, from making the same mistakes as you go along.” Sharil said that this does not mean that he is discounting younger entrepreneurs in their 20s but advised that these younger cohorts should research well and not be scared of falling down, scraping your knee, making mistakes because that is part of the learning process of becoming an entrepreneur.
Do not forget your beginnings
From working in large government organizations to sitting on the boards of very large companies, Sharil shared that he normally takes the opportunities from his time working with the entrepreneurs to self-reflect and keep himself grounded. Relating to past failures, he shared with us his experience when he was appointed as the chairman and chief executive of MCMC at the age of 42, the youngest to take that position not only in Malaysia but the Commonwealth region. At 45 years-old, his contract was not renewed because he stood his ground on certain things, which led him to lose his job. He was unemployed and unemployable. He admitted that It was a good wake up call for him and started to work more on himself internally. “Once you come back up, do not forget where you started,” something that Sharil holds true up until today.
What is the one rule to govern them all when it comes to succeeding in entrepreneurship?
Maintain your integrity, reflect honestly from failures
“Honesty. What I cannot take is an entrepreneur that is not honest. That applies to any business or whether you are working in any organization. Honesty and integrity is important because if an entrepreneur cannot do so, his team members or cohort of people that are working with that startup are doomed to failure,” Sharil replied.
When asked further, Sharil emphasizes that there is a distinction between embellishing a business plan and lying. If one starts to embellish based on dishonesty, the truth will come out eventually. Many investors today are very, very seasoned and they can see right through people who start embellishing without a core.
Sharil ended his session by highlighting the importance of having clarity, to be very focused on what you want to do, which sector to be involved in and the problems that you want to solve. Lastly, he reminded that entrepreneurs should always maintain their integrity, reflect honestly from failures to prevent repeated cycles and to persist.
The content of this article is summarized from our ‘Thought Inspire Series’, a series of six exclusive physical interviews with world-class & established company owners highlighting their entrepreneurship journey organized in collaboration with CGS-CIMB. The series is aimed to inspire, entertain and motivate all aspiring and existing entrepreneurs in the Malaysian entrepreneurial ecosystem. Follow us on our social media pages to get the latest news on upcoming events and key learnings.