He is only 31 years old and already has several feathers in his cap and awards under his belt. Just two years after setting up his company specializing in search engine marketing and online media, Leonard Tan (BBA 2002) was nominated Asia's Top 25 Best Young Entrepreneur 2008 by Business Week. His company, PurpleClick Media Pte Ltd, won the 2009 Emerging Enterprise Award, and enjoys the unique and enviable honour of being both Yahoo!'s and Google's official partner; while Leonard is the first and only individual to be Yahoo!'s Certified Search Ambassador. Leonard Tan relates his journey from graduation to-date.
Did success come right after graduation?
No. Actually I could not get a job after I graduated in 2002.
At University, I was so busy running my own business that I skipped classes, attained bad results and, therefore, did not graduate with flying colors. I had been running a tuition consultancy with a classmate, matching students desperate for tutors with my fellow undergraduates who wanted to earn extra money giving tuition. Business marketing, advertising and administration required so much commitment that we neglected our coursework. I paid the price when my results were not impressive enough for potential employers.
While people might worry about reaching a career ceiling at some point, you seem to have hit a career barrier even before you started. How did you move ahead?
I decided to further my studies and improve my qualifications. As I had developed an interest in e-commerce, I decided to acquire a Masters degree specializing in e-commerce, in Chicago, from 2002 to 2004. As it turned out, I could not deny my entrepreneurial inclinations and ran a business there also. I sold second-hand textbooks at only sixty or seventy percent of the original price. I would collect the books from international students who had no more use for them, and then sell them on E-bay, Amazon.com and other electronic sites. I went to the post office almost every day with anything ranging from one to ten books to be shipped off to various parts of America. I was literally immersed in e-commerce, effectively putting into practice whatever I was learning.
The irony was my Masters degree proved to be another barrier when I returned to Singapore. Potential employers saw it as a liability; they feared I was overqualified for the openings they had and would chafe at being underpaid in relation to my qualifications.
Since you were so entrepreneurial in school, one would expect the bleak job prospects after graduation to push you into starting your own business. Did that happen?
Not quite. I managed to get a job as a door-to-door salesman for credit cards. During that time, I heard Yahoo! was looking for a sales account manager. I applied and was appointed to re-launch their search marketing product, bringing to bear all my experience in business, and my education in business school and e-commerce. I was able to multiply revenue several hundred-fold.
While that was fulfilling and encouraging, I saw even greater potential in the market as my customers were asking me, "What about Google or MSN?" I could not promote these products then, as they were Yahoo!'s competitors. But the market reality is that end-users were happy to use all these search engines together instead of any single one exclusively. That was when I decided to step out of my comfort zone - again - after barely having tasted success, to market all these search engines.
My entrepreneurial instincts had kicked in. It was inevitable as my father was also an entrepreneur; and in my childhood, he had instilled in me the nature of buying something at 10 cents and then selling it at 20 cents for profit.
It is usually acknowledged that career advancement inevitably requires one to step out of the comfort zone. How much of a sacrifice was it for you?
I had to give up my rewarding career at Yahoo! and strike out on my own, with a friend We invested about $100,000 into the business. In the beginning, our entire office was the size of just my room in our current office; the entrance was from a back alley; and when our two-man team began to recruit people, many job applicants would walk away without another word after they saw our pathetic little office. My partner gave up within a year to go back to an MNC.
When you run your own business, you need to roll up your sleeves and pull up your socks, to do all the work yourself. In an MNC, you have all the back-up, support and comfort you need. But I was mentally prepared for the rough and tumble of enterprise, and committed to the cause. Fortunately, through it all, my former employer at Yahoo! gave me his blessings and support, and mentored me.
How do you continue to advance your company and, consequently, your own career?
I make sure I set goals and targets to grow in revenue, market reach and size, for my team to achieve every year. People will stay with you and feel confident about their prospects when they see your company growing. Nobody wants to work in a small company that seems stagnant. I make a regular exercise of relating our achievements and awards to staff so they feel a sense of pride and satisfaction, and are motivated to scale new heights. They say my mantra is "Think Deeper" because I am always pushing them to think harder in solving problems. I tell them our value lies in the fact that we solve the difficult problems; anyone can handle easy problems, but we are good because we think harder