It was a perfect clear blue sky Saturday morning in Singapore, 7:30am, in lush Bishan Park. William Lee recently co-founded his first tech start-up, and I wanted to capture his story.
William graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in Computer Engineering and Computer Science, returned to Singapore and joined the media industry. He has built multiple content-sharing platforms, digital communities and mobile apps, before deciding to venture out on his own.
William is not in his 20’s, nor 30’s. He’s in his 40’s. William happens to be one of the pioneers blazing the path in transforming the media industry in Singapore. There were many breakthroughs in William’s career: digitising the newsroom, creating an online newspaper, launching several TV channels across Asia Pacific (one he completed in 3 months!), and revolutionised over-the-top (OTT) digital media landscape in Singapore. There were some special moments in his career that he recalls fondly, a lot of them behind the scenes, for example, watching then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew typing away, with his wife next to him, responding live to thousands of questions from the public in an “internet chat room”, or switching over a brand-new TV channel, that moment of inception, “It works!”.
For easy reading, my questions are in Italics, and William’s answers are in regular.
I see myself as a digital path finder, someone who capitalises on potential business disruptors through technology, finding new ways of doing things. I’ve always had that intuition to see what is coming up, I see the potential in the new. I also see the patterns of disruptions the new creates. I thrive on being at the cusp of it, and experienced these disruptors in the digital age, whether it was the Internet, mobile or video streaming. I like finding new ways of doing things and solving entrenched industry-wide problems. My intuition guides me to push boundaries, to disrupt. I don’t like doing nothing. I don’t accept the status quo.
What was your first disruption?
I joined the media industry in Singapore in its heyday in 1994. We were printing cash, literally, people were queueing up to buy their ads. The internet was very new then, an unknown quantity. Computers didn’t come with web browsers. Catching the latest news meant reading the newspaper, or getting it on TV or radio.
My first project was to digitise the newsroom. The backroom was extremely manual and laborious then. Just to give you an example, we had a paste-up team of 50 men, manually cutting photos with penknives and gluing them onto pasteboards, and then scanning them through a large fax machine to the printing press. With the technology we implemented, the photos and stories could be cropped digitally onto the pasteboard, and then sent through dial-up modem to the printing press. This saved time; journalists and editors had more freedom to make last-minute changes to the newspaper. But with this change, most of the staff doing the manual work of ‘paste-ups’ lost their jobs.
It was a big blow to lose colleagues, but it was a change that had to happen. With this digital transformation, editors now had the ability to respond to the fast-paced nature of the newsroom.
Launching a TV channel in 3 months sounds like a mammoth task. It usually takes a year. How do you even begin?
Get in the right people. Then bring in the right equipment, and set up the right processes. But it always start with bringing in the right people who know what they’re doing.
What is your hindsight wisdom on the media industry in Singapore?
I’ve seen twice, a pattern of local market players competing internally. It was a war: bidding wars for content driving up costs and competition for advertising dollars driving down revenues. The media companies got sandwiched in the middle, and could not sustain the business.
The real competition was not internal, it was the Internet, quietly nipping at our heels. Decision makers’ focus was on the local market, which was too small.
Didn’t people see it coming?
There was a lot of focus on the shrinking pie. Although revenues were declining quarter on quarter, it was still a sizeable market.
Some people had a fixed mindset. They were in their comfort zone, unwilling to push the boundaries and think out of the box.
You recently co-founded a tech start-up. Tell us about it.
Together with my co-founder, who is also a veteran in the media space, our mission is to bridge the gap between traditional and new media, revolutionising the entire media industry in Asia Pacific. Who knows, even the world.
The business was an idea sparked from a serendipitous “catch-up” after 15 years. My co-founder and I come from very similar backgrounds, both of us spent 20 years in the local media industry. We talked about the pains in the industry. Digital has transformed the way people consume media. Innovation has put traditional media in a less than clear path, with newspapers and broadcasters struggling to adapt to this change and monetising their assets. They are still entrenched in the traditional model of selling ads. Online buyers are buying a different way.
The pain is real, it’s an industry-wide problem, and we want to solve it.
You gave up on a handsome job offer + expat package to do this. Why?
It felt right. My co-founder and I have very complementary skills, he’s the deal-maker, and I come in with the technical knowledge. We have more than 50 years of experience combined. We have the advantage of having more street cred than the 20-year old technopreneur.
This is the biggest adventure, the biggest risk, of my life. I’m earning much less pay, but I own the company.
Any advice for someone who wants to create the next disruption?
Think big, start small, preserve relationships.
When I was in a Telco, I saw the disruptive power of OTT, and its impact to the company and consumers. My boss had his eyes on other things, but he was supportive, and gave me a shoestring budget to go ahead. I started small. This pet project proved highly valuable subsequently when it became a key differentiator for the company to retain its customers.
I’m now getting my hands dirty again, leveraging every single piece of experience and relationship I have for a start-up. Squeezing every single drop of it. Relationships are more valuable than anything else. Always do good work, build that goodwill.
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About Roger Grant, CEO of PERSONNA
Roger helps organisations turn ideas into real business impact. The change comes from the inside out.
He has more than 20 years of experience leading large diverse teams to create innovative customer-centric technology services, including the launch of Nokia’s first enterprise mobile device support service.
Photo credit: William Lee