After almost four months without a chief at the helm, the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) announced its new lead last week, naming a familiar face in the startup ecosystem to assume the role of chief executive officer.
Ashran Ghazi, a serial entrepreneur who has run various businesses locally and in the US, is no stranger to the highs and lows of entrepreneurship. In the past several years, Ghazi has been involved with myriad NGO organisations that work on ecosystem building.
In an inaugural media interview as the CEO of one of Malaysia’s most well-regarded entrepreneurship agencies, he shares with DEALSTREETASIA his view on MaGIC’s position in the market, wisdom garnered from his 16-year journey as an entrepreneur and on the intensive learnings from his startup Joota.
In the first two years of MaGIC establishing its place in the local and regional startup ecosystem, the agency has made notable milestones, especially in exposing local entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley-esque influences. What are the key things you see yourself bringing to the table now as MaGIC moves into its third year?
The way I view it, the first two years of MaGIC was like building a minimum viable product (MVP), and like any MVP, you test it out. In MaGIC’s case, we tested out e@Stanford, Stanford Go2Market and some local programmes. When you do MVP, you do a niche market and that market here was the tech startups in the ecosystem. We took two years because of the entity that MaGIC is in for the ecosystem, not the typical startup agency.
Moving forward, we are formulating a viable scale-up strategy. I need to get more immersive feedback from the team on what worked and what did not.
The MVP has given us great insights and inputs. Now that you have the model, the market validation, and now that we understand the dynamics, it has come to how do we scale it to other sectors in the market. As I engage with the team, we see that the only way forward in that regards is through partnerships.
You cannot deny that tech enables businesses across sectors, but where we want to focus on is on creativity in entrepreneurship, to get entrepreneurs to think of new ways of doing business for the future. We want to harness that aspect. It could be using tech or how you’re doing business.
For the ongoing programmes, we will complete their tenures with the partners. What I will need to get to together with the team to formulate is the plans for the slightly larger mandate that is given to MaGIC now. How do we craft out a strategy that still works with existing capital and people resources to achieve that larger goal?
Even during the founding CEO Cheryl Yeoh’s time, what is clear is that we are trying to mould our own flavour of the Silicon Valley. The exposure to the culture in Silicon Valley was an approach to adopt to adapt. It isn’t to recreate a Valley here.
From an ecosystem builder perspective, it’s always about having clarity on what market segment that you are trying to deal with and what is your anchor pillar. Otherwise things can sound very similar and you may feel that you are doing something right but that may not fall back onto core pillar.
From what I learned from my role at myNEF, from the private and public sector engagement, it is important to have clarity in defining what you want to do in order to do it well. You need to communicate exactly what you mean to others.
Earlier this year, there were reports about the government’s pressure on MaGIC’s direction due to its insufficient support given to the bumiputera (native) entrepreneurs in Malaysia. What is your take on that? Will there be more native-focused initiatives going forward?
From a market positioning perspective, looking at this from the NGO side which is rather on native-centric development, I hold dearly to this but what most people don’t know is that I have also driven initiatives that are beyond the native entrepreneurs.
I kicked off the Rice Bowl Startup Awards, which is a regional play. I have accelerators – RAVE and Infinite Ventures – that deal with two different approaches, across sectors and races. I think people see what is most prominent, and associate only with that.
Philosophically, I have always been a believer of harnessing diversity in order to get the best out of what you want to achieve. For example, if you go to the co-working space at myNEF, it is actually a diverse group.
I hold on to the philosophy of doing native entrepreneurship development efforts but I look at it as a market segment to address. If you take the whole of Malaysia into consideration, you deal with each market segment a certain way. It is about different market approaches to deal with different segments; understanding these segments, you’ll have different campaigns and programmes to run.
That’s how I plan to deal with that aspect of development within MaGIC, it is another market segment to look at within a larger context.
What spurred you to become an entrepreneur?
Fundamentally, I get bored easily. I constantly need to look for things to excite me. When you are a junior executive (at Petronas which I joined after graduation), things get very routine. The minute things get operational, I get bored. I get excited about creation and doing things that people say are difficult; I get drawn to it. Sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes not.
I started Joota (with my co-founders) because it was a new thing, and I wanted to get out of the rut of doing projects, and Joota was a retail-oriented business. I was tired of finishing projects and pitching new ones. So while we were bouncing off ideas and the lead co-founder said let’s look for something that can really make a change. We looked for something that could be the next wave. It was a six months process before we started Joota, to make sure.
Joota has come across as a very valuable experience in your journey as an entrepreneur, despite not achieving the ambition it was set out with. Would you consider the venture a failure?
Initially, yes. Simply because I categorise failure as not being able to achieve the initial aspirations. But after the dust has settled, I don’t anymore because the lesson that I learned from it is so priceless that I don’t think I can get that anywhere else, wrapped in one package.
Small and medium businesses were sold on Joota, and we had the buy-in from investors in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Dubai, from our patent partner and distributor in the US, and the investment bankers in the UK whom we were working with to list. We were preparing to roll out in the US, and for a listing in London at a valuation of $20 million without a single product yet. The kick of seeing these buy-ins was priceless.
The mistakes we made were basic, in hindsight, but we were too absorbed with the potential we might have with Joota. We were blindsided.
When we started Joota in 2011, it was supposed to be a social network platform bridging people through content, and we carved out a business model where businesses could use it as a tool.
When our US partners gave us feedback on the product, all we heard was the good things. We did not address the issues that they brought up.
What I have realised is that when one bad thing happens, it is teeing you up for something good.
In that early stage, you wouldn’t typically have dealt with listing exercise, because we did not have revenue or traction yet. I had to accelerate my learning from all round – corporate finance, legal, negotiations on patent. I just don’t think I would be able to get it anywhere else.
I wouldn’t have traded that for the world. I won’t deny that it was painful, and I did feel like a failure immediately after we had to pull out of the US. If you ask if I will go through it again, I would – differently, of course.
My real value (to MaGIC), if you ask me, I’ll tell you is all the mistakes that I’ve done as an entrepreneur which I’ll tell entrepreneurs not to repeat.
(Joota had raised $2.1 million from its investors. It now licenses its white label social network platform, which can fit into any vertical, to customers worldwide.)
Profile of Ashran Ghazi
Ghazi graduated from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, US, in 1998 with a Bachelor of Business Administration (Finance & Computer Information Systems). He was a Petronas scholar, due to which he began his multi-faceted career in the oil and gas sector with Petronas MITCO, a subsidiary that markets and trades petrochemical products to both Malaysian and international customers.
In the two years he was there, he designed and deployed executive Information Systems and managed end-to-end operations of palm oil trading. Depicting the take charge attitude often seen in entrepreneurs, Ghazi had requested specifically to work in trading rather than leave his job assignment to chance upon graduation.
He then left Petronas to join some family businesses, trying out the construction industry as a corporate affairs manager with AIMS Worldwide (M) Sdn Bhd before embarking on his exhilarating entrepreneurial journey in 2002.
Ghazi founded Maya AG Technology Sdn Bhd, where he launched School in a Box, a new education product bundled with Bluetooth and marketed across the Asean markets. This endeavour led to identifying new opportunities in streaming media and the eventual an acquisition of a digital streaming company – ASIA STREAM DIGITAL TV Sdn Bhd.
The entrepreneur consolidated his efforts with ASIA STREAM and structured a merger between four partners, resulting in the ASIASTREAM Group, focusing in education, technology and communications.
In 2011, he co-founded Joota where he envisioned a disruption of social networking by connecting people around content and based on a business model of the ‘sharing’ philosophy where everyone in the supply chain is able to monetise their own content.
He also represents various entrepreneurship organisations; Chairman, New Entrepreneurs Foundation (myNEF); Chairman, myHarapan; President, Malaysian Association of Bumiputera ICT Industry & Entrepreneurs (NEF); and Deputy Chairman, Global Innovation & Entrepreneurship Foundation.
In addition, he has also served as an Advisory Board Member to Malaysian SME Development Academy (MASMED) as well as a Board Member for SME Corp. His most recent appointment was as a curator of BAHTERA – Bumipreneurs of Tomorrow, an initiative by Ministry of Finance in bringing in various communities, agencies and private sectors on board.
His latest initiatives are ComicXcel, a programme to tap the underserved community of Comic creators for potential monetisation within the various channels, and the Rice Bowl Startup Awards, a new Asean regional award for start-ups, exemplifies his flair for recognising local and regional entrepreneurial talent.