ISAIAH TAN WEI-AN
Other than running a business, Mr Isaiah Tan is also involved in helping students in their career choices and work experiences through the Career Mentorship program at Queensland University of Technology. He started this business when he got interested in video production during his school days and had never looked back since then.
Visualise Media is involved mainly in corporate video production from the initial conception to the post production editing. This helps to ensure the quality of the production. To date, it has served over 100 clients since the company's inception.
Mr Isaiah Tan epitomized the spirit of "Never say die, never give up." Even though he had some businesses which did not take off eventually, Mr Isaiah Tan continued to innovate and looked for new business ideas. Right now, he is also the proud owner of a small bistro located just across the company. I really liked his idea of profit sharing among the employees whereby they will feel like they have a stake in the company and contribute more towards the company.
- What is the nature of your business?
We mainly do corporate video production - planning, conceptualisation, scripting, filming, and post production editing. However, we also do animation and photography as well depending on the client requirements.
- When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur / take over your family business? NOTE: If it is not a family business, ask: Do your parents have their own businesses too? Have they inspired you in one way or another? (Select appropriate question according to the entrepreneur being interviewed.)
I decided to start my own business after losing my job in the dot com crash in 2000. My job then was to travel to several countries and film places of interest. I covered Singapore and I was planning to go to Thailand so in the end, I did not even get the chance to travel overseas. I had already lost several months pay as the company closed down suddenly. It was demoralising and disappointing. I told myself, "If the company, with the backing of a major bank, can collapse, I want to be responsible for my own livelihood from now on." Starting the business is a decision that I had made on my own. My father was a businessman, but he let me do what I wanted to do as I am an independent person.
- What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
Initially I joined Mass Communications in Ngee Ann Polytechnic because I wanted to write and go into journalism. However after experiencing video production, I was really interested and passionate about it. I started out at Shaw Organization editing TV commercials, cutting films and created the website from scratch. Even up till today I enjoy experimenting and improving, and photography as a hobby has enhanced my video production horizon. These days, lines have blurred between video production and photography and we use DSLRs to film everything in full HD glory, and it's just amazing how technology advances. You have to keep up or you'll be left behind.
- How did you put together all the resources needed to start your business? For example: getting the start-up capital, hiring staff, doing sales and marketing, advertising, etc.
I rented cameras for my first few projects, and bought a state of the art (at that time) computer to do the video editing. I used up most of my savings from my 3 years of work. I worked from home and I worked mainly alone to save costs. I remember often seeing an entire crew filming - with a Director, Director of Photography (cameraman), Production Assistant, Producer, Soundman etc,. I did everything by myself - I setup the lights before the shoot, I put the mikes up on the interviewees, I setup the camera, I wrote and supervised the script. It was hard work but very satisfying to know that one person could do the work of an entire team, at a fraction of the price, and yet the end result is indistinguishable. Till today my staff ask me, especially after a particularly tiring shoot, "How did you do it all alone?" There were lights to carry, tripod, camera, accessories, etc. It was the passion that carried me through. My first client was Performance Motors, distributor of BMW. I got to know a few people from the marketing department from my work at the dot com. The first project they gave me was a BMW Advanced Driver Training video, a job which seemed so huge to me at that time. I put everything into it, and they were pleased with the result. In fact, so pleased that they offered me a retainer package to film all their subsequent events, and this was a major client that gave me regular business for several years. It was quite a good start for me. After a few projects I saved up enough to buy a small camera, and years later I started hiring staff, when I was sure that my business could support them, and office rental. As for advertising, a few years ago I spent weeks learning how to optimise my website for Google and search engines. I tried Google Adwords and other online advertising programmes, and I also do Facebook advertising. The Visualise Media website ranks among the top in corporate video production related search terms, a lot of my clients find me via the Internet, and via referrals.
- What are some interesting stories you have about your first few customers/first few years in business?
I've already told you about my first customer; let me share with you the story of my first employee. He applied for the job with almost no video experience or training. I interviewed him and was hesitant, but I saw that he had a passion and a good attitude. I like to give people opportunity to prove themselves and attitude is the most important thing. I hired him and personally trained him up for almost 3 months. Of course training for my staff is ongoing, but for my first guy, it was all out, 100% training. He borrowed books from the library, surfed the Internet to improve himself, and learnt as much as he could and as fast as he could. He was a qualified nurse who had done one or two wedding videos, and within 3 months, he had become a videographer that I could trust to handle my projects. However, his parents were pressuring him to go back into nursing. So after 2 years, he decided to go back to nursing. He's a perfect example of someone given an opportunity, who was prepared to grab it with both hands, and pour his heart and soul into something he wanted. Together with another Producer, Visualise Media reached new heights that year. To me, that's the spirit of entrepreneurship. It's not just about one person all the time. I could not have developed the business to the way it is today without the help of all my staff, past and present. I thank them for playing a part in Visualise Media. I give all my staff a profit share, and I not only treat them as friends, but as partners in the business. I find that this motivates them and encourages them to do the best that they can. It's not just another job, they have a stake in the business as well.
- What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business?
When I first went into business, it was difficult to market Visualise Media to potential clients as ours was a new company. I had invested heavily into equipment and I was hesitant to spend more on marketing/advertising. I created a website on my own, but it was not that popular or impressive. The problem I faced was how to market Visualise Media to more potential clients. Besides that, working on my own, I needed a lot of discipline and determination to stick to the course. There was no one by my side I could depend on when I was sick, or in Reservist Camp. I was struggling financially and I hardly took any holidays for the first few years.
- How did you overcome these challenges? Please share some specific examples of the action you took to overcome the challenges.
For the challenge of marketing Visualise Media, I self-learnt web optimisation for search engines, and that was one of the best investments of time I had ever spent, business-wise. Till today, I still get many queries over the Web. Over time, satisfied clients referred me to others, and the business built up from there. As for the discipline and determination, it builds character, and it's always rewarding both financially and psychologically. It gets easier through the years.
- Can you remember your worst day in business or a time when you felt like giving up? What happened that made you feel that way and how did you triumph over it?
My worst day in business was probably when both my employees quit at almost the same time. My first employee was under pressure from his parents to go back to nursing, and my Producer wanted to start his own business. I was quite supportive as well. I lent the Producer quite a bit of money. Even up till today, he has not paid me back yet. It was sad to see them leave. The first employee left in tears. He said "Visualise Media is like a sanctuary for me, I realised my dream of being a videographer here, at home my parents really pressurise me so much." I am still in touch with both of them up till today. Some have criticized my management approach as I am always quite good friends with my staff. There are no titles or political boundaries between us. Some are, however, amazed and astonished by it. When I go out with my staff for drinks or dinner, and they introduce me as their "boss", their friends always think they are joking. Laughter turns into astonishment when they realise it's not a joke. When they quit, it was more of an emotional and psychological blow to me because I had invested a lot of time training them, and had shared a part of my business and my life with them, as they are also my friends. I gradually learnt to accept that everyone has their own path, and their own dreams, sometimes it differs from the company's. I accepted that things change, people change, and sometimes, you just have to move on. I hired other staff and moved on.
- Can you share some of the lessons you learnt from overcoming your own business challenges that you think will help other businesses?
I think the biggest difference in Visualise Media is the camaraderie and the closeness of everyone. My management style helps to promote this, and I think it is wonderful when you get to work with friends. I hate office politics and I never want it to be a part of Visualise Media. You can have all your fancy corporate training and bonding activities, but when staff bond together, and work together well as a team without unnecessary boundaries and politics, they are productive and efficient. Besides that, they enjoy their work and create a positive work environment. In fact, when another staff, a Producer, quit recently to pursue a graphic designer job, I was slightly disappointed again, but I knew he liked designing and wanted to give it a try. Barely a month later he asked for his job back because the supervisor at his new job was unreasonable, and it was a nightmare over there. I gave him his job back, but not before ensuring that this job was what he really wanted to do, and I got him more involved in the creative processes like video editing and other design related stuff. He was then recently involved in a motorbike accident which shattered his ankle and knee. When I heard about it I immediately made plans to move my office from the 3rd floor to the ground floor, which would be easier for him to access. We are awaiting his return to work. He is not just another employee; he is part of the Visualise Media family.
- When was the moment you realised the business would work and support you?
The business for Visualise Media is not always constant. There would be times when I get so busy I spend days and nights editing video just to ensure it is complete on time. After 2-3 years, I started to recognise the peak periods, and realised that the revenue each year is quite constant, even though the workload varies from month to month. That was when I realised the business would work and support me. But could it support me, staff, and office rental? I could take personal risks, but I did not want to take risks on behalf of my staff and see them out of a job because Visualise Media could not sustain them. I had started Visualise Media because I was out of a job, and I know the feeling of losing your job is terrible. This was why I waited so long to hire staff.
- What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
I've produced many videos for MNCs, government organizations, SMEs and other organizations. No matter how big or how small the project is, I try to ensure my client is satisfied with the video. It's not about just producing a video, it's about meeting the client's needs. The video needs to be effective, and serve its purpose well. Each and every video I've produced is meaningful to me. I'm proud and honoured to have helped the client develop his business with my expertise. My proudest business achievement to date would be surpassing 100 clients in 2010.
- How do you differentiate your business from your competitors? Please provide specific examples.
More than ten years ago, when I first started Visualise Media, I promised myself that it would not just be about money. I was ambitious and wanted to set the highest standards possible, even though I was just one person. Quite a lot of the competitors work extensively with a huge, constantly rotating pool of freelancers. Not that there's anything wrong with freelancers, but the quality of work sometimes differs greatly. So when you view the portfolio of a company, some of the best work could be freelance work, and what you see isn't always what you get. At Visualise Media, we try to use trusted freelancers and we try to ensure that each and every project is produced in-house, with the objective being that the client receives a work of the highest consistent standard that Visualise Media can offer. There is no sales team, account manager, account executive, finance department, etc. It's just the 3 of us producing high quality work, with as much personal attention as we can give to each and every client. Some of the clients have become friends with me as well.
- What are some business ideas you have implemented that created great results in your business?
Firstly would be the profit-sharing model, which I believe motivates employees and gives them a sense of ownership, a stake in the business. If the company does well, you are rewarded for your hard work that helped the company to do well. Secondly would be Internet Marketing which helps us with leads and enquiries.
- Where or who do you get your business ideas from?
An unforgettable motivational speaker is A.R Bernard, who inspired me with just one principle, such a strong principle, but a simple one. "You have to increase your value. We're not paid for our time, we're paid for our value." So how does one increase their value? It's not just increasing prices - it's giving clients new ideas, new concepts, new technology, proposing a corporate video in a new style that hasn't really been done before. That's increasing your value.
- What do you see for your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?
In the next 5 years, I see my business expanding, definitely. In fact, we're hiring now. We've moved into a bigger office, and I have two very dependable employees whom I share my visions for Visualise Media with. We have built a sound booth for voice-over recordings, which would cut down some external costs for corporate videos, and I see us venturing beyond the realm of just corporate video production. I currently also own a small bistro, and it shows that I'm a person who is not adverse to risks. But I need the right staff to support the business. I believe staff attitude is really important in any business.
- What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Entrepreneurship to me doesn't mean success. It means failure. Everyone sees the success easily, but sometimes they don't see the failures that they have gone through. Initially, together with a few other friends, we discussed setting up a wedding video production company. However, none of the others wanted to give up their day job, so I ventured out alone, and decided to concentrate on corporate video production. Besides that, I also started a Design House with another close friend. That also did not really take off. I also started a restroom advertising company. It was popular in the US and the UK. We did a lot of work on that but it never took off as well. I was asked to help out in a tourism advertising company but it did not take off as well. I was always searching for new opportunities and challenges while this business was going on. Edison failed thousands of times before he invented the incandescent electric light. Entrepreneurship means having enough drive and determination to push your business forward even when everyone around you scoffs at you, when everything seems to be going wrong. To me, the spirit of entrepreneurship is persistence in the face of difficulty. To clarify, it doesn't mean you keep flogging a dead horse. If your business is going through a difficult phase, you have to ask yourself how you can change things, how you can improve and reinvent the wheel. When I filmed the corporate video for ZhangDe Primary School 5 years ago, I realised why they were the first school to win the People Developer Award. The Vice Principal, Mr Chong Chin Hong, waited for students to walk past in corridors, with a hand outstretched for high fives, all the time giving verbal encouragement - "We dare to dream! We dare to win! We dare to achieve!" At that time I disagreed with one of his phrases, which was "We dare to fail!" After some thought, I realised that if you are too afraid to fail, you don't take risks. Then you may be passing up an opportunity for success. Bill Gates probably went through many blue screens of death before succeeding, and Steve Jobs was even ousted from the company he built, and later re-hired, which is a testament to how inspirational a man he is. Entrepreneurship is about overcoming the failures and persisting until you get the success.
- What are some entrepreneurship qualities that you have which has helped you come this far?
I have a never-say-die attitude. I believe every person has the potential to achieve, with the right skills and knowledge applied, with the right attitude! Sometimes it surprises me when my friends or staff ask me how to do something. In this information age, it usually takes me 3 minutes to confidently reply with the correct answer to most of their questions. I Google it. I am quite an independent person - I enjoy trying new things even on my own, and I'm not afraid to take risks. I fondly remember learning to roller blade down flights of stairs, and falling many times. I was scarred and bleeding. But I persisted until I mastered it, and it was a joy and an achievement. I repeat - attitude is very important to me. If you don't have the skills but have a teachable spirit and are willing to learn, you can change. You can increase your value. You can succeed.
- In your opinion, what other qualities does a person need in order to be successful in business? And why? (eg. Educational qualification, work experience, family influence, attitude, etc)
I don't believe educational qualifications are necessary, neither is work experience or family influence. Attitude, yes. I believe a certain level of EQ is important - I worked with a partner in another advertising business some time back - his lack of EQ resulted in a high turnover rate, and an unpleasant office environment. Needless to say, the business never took off, and he's almost down to no staff today. Nobody wants to work with a low EQ person. You need to be a charismatic leader to your staff as well.
- In your opinion, what does it mean to have the 'spirit of enterprise'?
The "spirit of enterprise" to me means an attitude of innovation and persistence in the face of failure and difficulties.
- Who or what motivates and inspires you?
Leonardo Da Vinci was both an artist and an inventor. It is amazing and inspirational. When I visited Rome a few years back, it amazed me that many of the ancient buildings are still standing. I feel that the Romans really knew how to get it right the first time. By getting right the first time, it will remain standing for the next hundreds of years. The same goes for video production and anything I do in life - I hope and try to get it right the first time, but I'm not afraid to try again if I fail. I hope someday some of the videos I produced will be really appreciated by the next few generations at least. I hope to produce a feature length movie someday, and I'm currently working on a script idea of my own. I don't spend as much time reading as I would like to. I try to read up on other entrepreneurs, and always try to keep an open mind. Pastor John Shepherd Lim of Living Faith Church has been an inspiration to me lately - besides being a Pastor of a church, he's running several businesses, and he started one of the first IT schools in Singapore - back when we were all using Word Star instead of Microsoft Word! He encourages a small group of business owners to run our businesses with honour, integrity and a positive attitude.
- What are some of your business values and what would you like to pass down to others, particularly the younger generation?
I believe in giving a client added value when I can, and I always produce to the best of my ability. I don't put in less effort for small projects - it is a matter of pride in your work. When potential clients approach me with a small budget, and say that they don't mind a poorer quality, basic video, I always tell them it's not about the budget. Your corporate video represents the company and your products. Can you afford not to get it done well? I don't turn them away, but I try to work out alternatives with them, for example cutting down on filming time, animation etc to work within the budget. Getting it right the first time is really important. So it irks me sometimes that people tell me "It can't be done." or "I don't know how." Either Google it, or propose an alternative. This attitude is more constructive. Thus I don't base my business philosophy on what cannot be done, but "how can I do it?" The can-do spirit is important. Attitude is important.
- Can you share some of the more significant events / incidents that affected or shaped your business philosophy and the way you conduct your business? i.e. SARS, new competition or shifts in market behaviour and trends, etc.
Improvements in technology have reduced barriers to entry for my industry. Anyone with a decent computer and a camera can "produce" a video. I've read in forums about how business owners are complaining about the freelancers who 'spoil' the market, offering rock bottom rates because they are students or fresh graduates who have not much overheads to cover. While it may be true to a certain extent, a business owner with a spirit of entrepreneurship would ask himself "How do I differentiate myself from these freelancers?" I believe that companies who need a corporate video want an established company to handle it. Placing your brand in the hands of a freelancer may save some money, but the costs could be higher than imagined if your video is below average. It is a risk you take on behalf of the company every time you hire a vendor. I've had companies approaching me every year without fail asking me to "fix" a video gone horribly wrong, or to edit terrible footage some freelancer shot. I've even had companies decide on a freelancer, then approach me again months later because it just didn't work out. Sometimes it's better to get it right from the start. Visualise Media has produced videos for over 100 satisfied clients, over a decade, and our team will go that extra mile to ensure your video is of the highest quality.
- With the changes in the market today, do you think it has become harder or easier to succeed in business? Why do you say so?
I think the government has made it much easier to start a business, and with their startup programmes it's a very positive and nurturing environment for new businesses. It does make it easier to succeed in business, although it also means a lot more competition. However I believe it's the right way to go for Singapore in general. If more entrepreneurs are starting their own businesses, it is highly likely a lot more will succeed simply because there is a lot of support out there. There's the internet, forums, a wealth of information for any entrepreneur who invests time to research and plan. You can even buy business plan templates and ask experts for advice, all online. With the Spirit of Enterprise as an example, it's obvious that the spirit of entrepreneurship has achieved new levels in Singapore and can only grow stronger. I hope my story will inspire others to take that step forward.
- What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?
Plan, prepare all that you can, add the right attitude, and wait for the right timing and opportunity. If you go into a partnership do set the terms and conditions clearly even though your partner may be a close friend. Good friends do not always make good partners, although it would be nice to work with someone you trust and are familiar with. Conduct your business with honour and integrity. Without it, you are no longer an entrepreneur but a con-man. Don't be afraid of hard work. Don't give up. Innovate. Increase your value. Dare to fail.