What does surviving a failed venture teach? Start working on the next? For Muthu Singaram, who is currently involved with several ventures, including being the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Singaporean accelerator Appleseed and Principal at Ultimate Startups, an India-based startup venture advisory and mentorship provider, his experiences, has led him on a journey to build the ultimate platform to help upcoming entrepreneurs.
Currently living in Chennai, which is the locus of his professional activities, Muthu (as he is popularly known) was able to sit down with DEALSTREETASIA and share his insights into entrepreneurship, as well as his current activities
In the capital city of the Southern Indian state, Muthu is also associated with VibaZone that operates across India, Malaysia and Canada, providing market entry, positioning and business reporting services for startup ventures in its portfolio across these different geographic markets.
Rather than focusing on specific verticals, it takes the approach of looking only at the business model of the venture.
His latest venture is Ultimate Startups. This is reportedly the first startup where Muthu has taken external investment, and its specific niche is working with accelerators and incubators as a third-party provider. His vision : For incubators and accelerators to say ‘Ultimate Startups inside’, much like desktop PCs used to say ‘Intel Inside’.
Describing his ethos, Muthu explained “We are looking to work with all ecosystem players, from corporate incubators and accelerators to those niche accelerators and companies with intrapreneurship programs. It’s about going into entrepreneurship with something you have a passion for.”
Edited excerpts from the interaction.
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
I didn’t fancy working for anyone, as my threshold for boredom is low. So I like doing startups, because everything is new and interesting. My first business venture was a computer store, and I had the ambition to have a chain of them around Malaysia. But it wasn’t as easy as I thought, since I often had to deal with piracy and stolen parts. Other shops could undercut me, as they were willing to use cheaper parts that were pirated or bought off the black market, making the market too competitive, with insufficiently low margins. The problem about computers was that the more you put out, the more technicians you needed. With more technicians, your profit margins decrease. And in Malaysia, people expect service for free. So we ended up owing the bank money and the bank manager refused the overdraft, which was backed by my father. The bank manager told me he was doing me a favour by refusing the overdraft, which at the time I didn’t appreciate. But in hindsight, he was doing me a favour
Concurrently, I was running a web design company. This was back in 1996-1997, when the Internet was just emerging in the region. And this was very profitable. I actually used the profits from there to subsidise my computer shop. We also mitigated the losses by buying the building where the computer shop was, so when I closed the shop, I managed to recover my losses by selling the building as well. I was 32 back then
What was your first job?
I was a research engineer specialising in machine code and assembly language for security devices on 8086 and 8088 Intel microprocessors, which were being use in the UK border checkpoints. Then in 1993, I returned to Malaysia and joined a Taiwanese firm making ferromagnetic cores for about 6 months before getting married. Then I joined Carsem Semiconductors in Ipoh as a front-line process engineer in October 1993. I didn’t have any clue about process engineering, but I learnt on the job. I used to fix things myself with the production technicians and quality engineering departments, often without highlighting the issues to my engineering managers. Soon my engineering manager discovered this and recommended me for promotion to senior engineer. But by this point I was already setting up web design business and computer shop. I was just waiting to collect my bonus and quit, and I felt bad about it. But my bonus was for past performance, not future performance or retention.
I got the first half of the bonus, but not the second half, as attrition was very high in the beginning and the company often split it. I did the computer shop and web hosting business from 1993 to 2000 on full-time. I couldn’t pay any bills by 2000, so I reached out to a lot of people but a former client, whom I had sold a web server to helped me out – Stewart Forbes – who’s currently the executive director of the Malaysian International Chamber of Commerce (MICCI).
He gave me a job as an IT manager, as he needed an IT manager to connect all the Malaysian offices online. The problem? He was an Apple fan and I had no clue as to how OS X worked back then, so I had to rely on others to help me finish the project. But after 9 months I couldn’t handle it anymore, so I joined the Multimedia Development Corporation, which was looking for a talent manager. The idea was to cultivate new startups, so I applied for the job and got an interview through a headhunter – went for it and gave a presentation on what I can do for the startups – which got me hired at the start by the director for startups and the SVP for HR in 2001. They were so impressed, they sent me to the SVP of technopreneur development, which had just formed, to meet up and finalise my employment. I was there for 2 years, working on the startup scene back in the early 2000’s.
After this, where did you progress to?
British Telecoms offered me a post in Cyberjaya, running their Asia Research Centre as a project director at the end of 2002. This was a project with the Malaysian government, with the objective of creating 50 patents by Malaysian researchers. After 15 months, I wanted to quit, but the the head of the lab – eventually the CEO – offered to change my job scope to suit my interests. However, I decided not to take up the offer and became a training consultant, providing management training and forming Muthu Singaram Consulting. The Head of BT’s Asia Research Centre offered me my first contract as a training provider, to help me build my business. So I did numerous workshops on leadership and entrepreneurship during my time at British Telecoms. During the same period, I also started another startup called ODR World – an online dispute resolution platform, in 2002, with my wife. She’s the subject expert, being a certified legal practitioner in Malaysia, but because she wasn’t Malaysian, being an Indian of British origin, she wasn’t allowed to practice in Malaysia. This came about as a result of it being her Master’s thesis, when she did an M. Phil in Cyber Disputes
As I ran the training company, I was teaching about innovation and entrepreneurship as a Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (Madras). During my visits to India, someone approached me to advise on starting a business school, and ODR India was already a supplier to ebay India, being an online dispute resolution partner.
So I took up the offer but didn’t realise the contract stipulated I had to move to India, which I did. At this time, Ebay India offered my wife a full-time position as the Head of Community Court as we were in the process of moving to India. So ODR’s work halted static, due to her being recruited by ebay. While I was starting the SMOT School of Business, a conflict amongst the founding team emerged due to differing visions about business direction, leading me to quit after 3 years. So I started PQMDC, the Professional Quality Management Development Centre, where we conducted consulting and training in quality and management. We started in 2007 and ran until 2014. However, due to the founding team having different directions, we all exited and cashed everything out, closed it down and rebranded it.
So how did VibaZone and AcceleratorU come about from this?
I founded these because of my own experiences. I felt there wasn’t a suitable platform to help entrepreneurs with things like mentoring, coaching and funding in Asia. So I started VibaZone in India, Canada and Malaysia in 2010, to support entrepreneurs in these markets and provide the necessary tools. But the platform hasn’t really taken off. In 2012, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Sri Najib Razak, launched an agency called Innovasi Malaysia and VibaZone was engaged as one of their consultants operating programs. Because of this particular engagement, projects for consulting and training emerged in India, Canada and Malaysia, where we became a consultancy for innovation and entrepreneurship.
During this time, we discovered that a lot of incubators and accelerators lacked the components for entrepreneurship. During my days at SMOT School of Business, I became friendly with the Chancellor of St Mary’s University in Canada and Canadian Management Consultants (CMC) in Canada. The lead facilitator became my close friend. When my book was published, the Vice-Chancellor invited me to speak to his staff about entrepreneurship, which opened my road into the Canadian market. Since then, I’ve become rather active in the Canadian entrepreneurship scene. During this time, my wife and her boss started Modria.com, a new startup for online dispute resolution, which is based out of Silicon Valley and Chennai (Madras), which is the end-point of the story for ODR India.
How did Ultimate Startups originate?
I came up with the idea for the Ultimate Startups after my experience with VibaZone, and my stints working with accelerators and incubators in Canada, Malaysia and India. Many lacked the necessary components for entrepreneurship. The idea was to start in Chennai (Madras) and come up with the ultimate startup – ideating and incubating big startups to be based out of Chennai. Ultimate Startups is meant to function as a catalyst, providing the missing pieces for incubators and accelerators, like mentorship. Because of this, we partnered with Appleseed, our first Singaporean accelerator partner, to provide their missing link – managing their mentorship program.
So how did you get involved with Appleseed, the venture accelerator in Singapore?
I knew their Chairman, Subra Iyer, via the Indus Entrepreneurs in Chennai. The Chennai chapter is based in the IIT Research Park in Madras. When I heard he was starting an accelerator, I showed him a presentation of what we could do, and he invited me down to Singapore to discuss collaborations. Ultimate Startups decided to partner with Appleseed, managing the mentors that ventures incubating there deal with.
What do you think of the attitude that entrepreneurs need to sacrifice everything for the business?
You cannot just be doing entrepreneurship, when you cannot afford to do it and lack the cash for it. I had to put my entrepreneurship dreams on hold, as I had to pay the bills and settle my loans with the bank. Hence the consulting work with British Telecom in Malaysia and the other contracts I undertook. An entrepreneur should be willing to take care of their immediate needs and family, rather than compromising their family’s finances – a point I’d like to drive home. Many entrepreneurs say it takes everything, but I wouldn’t be flying every third day unless I could pay. And it comes out of my personal accounts, not my business accounts. You need a lot of family support, especially from your spouse and perhaps your parents. Friends can also help, in terms of granting you opportunities, like Steward Forbes and many others did for me. When I was running a computer shop, the very first order I got was from the purchasing manager at Carsem Semiconductors, B.G. Lim,. Over the years, I’ve had lots of support from different people, as your mind has to be peaceful to start a startup.