Brandishing a wide smile, Mr Wee is the CEO of Savant Degrees. His clients include people who are leaders in various industries. His leadership and creativity has elevated Savant Degrees' digital innovation to a whole new level.
Savant Degrees is a Digital Innovation Studio that helps businesses to stay ahead by designing digital products that are strategically aligned to business goals, user expectations and constraints. We assist our clients to stay ahead in IT technology through the Savant Method which consists of Discovery, Strategy, Concept, Build and Evolve. We strive to be a fluid, open and collaborative entity.
Zwee is charismatic and energetic person who has always been interested in digital innovation. His leadership has enabled his clients to have a leading edge through usage of technology and digital touch point. A lifelong learner, he is always on the look out for new opportunities for his company to evolve.
- What is the nature of your business?
Savant Degrees is a digital innovation studio. We develop concepts and coach innovation to achieve our clients' business objectives. We play a big role in transforming businesses through the use of digital technology. We facilitate the process of digital innovation for our clients to generate transformative and executable ideas. We then enable them to implement or incubate the innovative solutions.
- When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur / take over your family business?
I have always been interested in entrepreneurship from an early age. My dad is an entrepreneur and I have been fortunate to be work with several successful entrepreneurs in my younger days.
- What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
I have enjoyed programming since I was 16 years old and got my first job by studying a new programming language one evening and was then interviewed for it the following day. There's so much to learn in this space and it pushes me to ask a lot of questions. Programming was a very practical way for me to create something useful and yet indulge my passion for learning. For this, starting Savant Degrees in digital technology is a natural choice for me.
- 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.
After my first job, I continued to work as a freelance programmer. Although I was in the university, I was still able to spend time to work on projects. Through the years, this has become a stepping stone where a reputation and clientele is built and hence founded Savant Degrees without much capital. Over the years, we had to continuously plough back our profits and evolve our offerings. In the first year, we were just engineers. For the second year, we focused on building a team for user experience. By the third year, we were hiring experienced product managers from MNCs and start-ups to join us. This completed our transformation to become a full-fledged digital innovation studio focuses on engineering (feasibility), user experience (desirability) and lastly the viability of the product.
- What are some interesting stories you have about your first few customers/first few years in business?
At our age, most people, especially in Asia, have a perception that we may not be experienced enough to guide them in making strategic investments in digital technology. One interesting experience I had was with an elderly businessman when he commented after our recommendation was "I've been in business for 40 years, what do you think you can teach me?" It was hard to recover from that moment but it left me with a stronger desire to build our portfolio and credibility. Another interesting experience we had when we first started was that we were helping other entrepreneurs to build their digital product. At that point of time to be able to gain the complete trust of another entrepreneur was mind-boggling. Give.sg was our first start-up client and they came to us with a vision of democratizing the act of giving. Today, they have a system which we built together and have raised to more than SGD2.5m for various charities. I'm glad we were able to be part of their initial years in spite of Savant Degrees' lack of resources.
- What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business?
It is the responsibility that comes with it. It is challenging as a fresh graduate who has never gotten the experience to lead a young team and looking into matters beyond myself. Examples are employee payroll, office furnishing, rent and learning the skills of negotiation and so on. I think the challenge lies in transitioning from an individual to an entrepreneur. It is different from the corporate job where you may get to travel around the globe. Being an entrepreneur has huge responsibilities. It's like working 24/7 even on weekends as my company grew!
- How did you overcome these challenges? Please share some specific examples of the action you took to overcome the challenges.
As a young entrepreneur, I don't have all the answers but I was willing to reach out for help. I am grateful to have good mentors and coaches who are willing to spend time on the business and me. I have mentors who took the management team on a retreat to help improve the efficiency of running and growing the business. There's also an incident where we had to negotiate with an investor and one of them flew back from London to be in the meeting.
- 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?
I believe every entrepreneur would feel overwhelmed with work and other commitments at some point in their career. I had a period when my dad was critically ill and I didn't want my mom to be worried as she was already trying to manage my dad's business. His condition was so serious I had to travel to SGH 3 times a day. It lasted for over 40 days. I was tired and overwhelmed with work and at that point of time, had thoughts of just taking a break and calling it quits. What kept me going were the people in Savant Degrees and the intrinsic motivation for the love of what we do here. Our raison d'etre is to work with inspired, curious and talented individuals to transform business. It is reflected in our employee handbook and also on a poster in the meeting room.
- Can you share some of the lessons you learnt from overcoming your own business challenges that you think will help other businesses?
Learn to appreciate knowledge and experience. Most importantly, know when and who to ask for help. Active learning is a must. A big part of overcoming some of my toughest challenges comes from the guidance and experience of people around me. From the basics of legal and administrative activities to management theory, finance, negotiation, talent management and succession planning, there is just too much to know and absorb. All these are important skills to run a good company and you need to be able to accelerate your own learning with people who care. Find good mentors.
- When was the moment you realised the business would work and support you?
The value of our contracts grew and we believe we were providing a service that is valued by businesses and our clients. That is the biggest validation of the viability of the business.
- What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
We had clients who have been with us since the start and most of the time we become friends. The relationships we built through projects is something I take pride in. We also had clients who became our colleagues as they respect us the work and professionalism we have in Savant Degrees. That happened at least twice.
- How do you differentiate your business from your competitors? Please provide specific examples.
It lies in the reason of our business existence. Savant Degrees is founded on 2 guiding principles
1) Working with inspiring curious and talented people
2) To transform the businesses we work with
These two principles enable us to build a great culture so as to attract talented people and also to continuously innovate our offerings to provide even greater value in our consulting work. By staying true to our principles, we are always ahead of our competitors.
- IWhat are some business ideas you have implemented that created great results in your business?
Evolving our business offerings helped us grow fast. When we first started in 2009, it was about providing engineering services to companies. However, we quickly learn that to provide significant value to what we do for our clients, we need to build other capabilities. In 2010, we developed a user experience and concepts team. It became a core offering and we were taking projects from MNCs, thereby building up skills and portfolio. By 2012, the drive to creating even bigger impact got us to invest in experience product managers and that enabled another growth spurt in the business.
- Where or who do you get your business ideas from?
Clients are a big part of where we get out ideas from. By going beyond technology and learning about what businesses care about, we were able to evolve and move ourselves up into the brains of organizations. For us, it's also important to look outward for ideas. My team regularly gives talks at speaker events, volunteer to be judges of entrepreneurship competition or sit on government committee to drive productivity. All this engagements play a vital role in helping us innovate.
How much have your business grown since you have started? In terms of $ revenue, customers base, number of employees and number of branches? (rate of growth in percentage or numbers) What do you see for your business in the next 2 to 5 years amid the current market condition in 2009, and does it include any plans for expansion?
In the last three years, we have grown to about 25 full-time employees now and also have a full-time presence in Indonesia. We have also completed a few bigger projects for MNC brands like Nike and Converse in China. In the next few years, we will ride on our external investments to maintain and accelerate this rate. With the investment, we will leverage on the money and the investor's network to establish a stronger overseas presence.
- What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Entrepreneurship is an attitude to me. It is sheer passion and tenacity towards solving problems. Most people just give up in the midst of it.
- What are some entrepreneurship qualities that you have which has helped you come this far?
Curiosity and Tenacity. Curiosity pushes me to constantly seek answers and solve problems. Tenacity keeps me on the job regardless of set-backs and failures.
- 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)
Passion. We should always have an intrinsic passion for what we are doing to be successful in business.
- In your opinion, what does it mean to have the 'spirit of enterprise'?
It is having the tenacity to face challenges and provide solutions.
- Who or what motivates and inspires you?
Most people don't associate success with the sacrifices needed to be an entrepreneur and so sometimes it's just hard to share the tough times. Hence, I'm always inspired by stories and biographies of people with the conviction to create something meaningful, leaving behind them a legacy for the benefit of the society and people. These range from politicians who shaped entire countries to entrepreneurs who have built enduring brands and businesses.
- What are some of your business values and what would you like to pass down to others, particularly the younger generation?
Taking a longer-term view of success is important. Sometimes it's easier to take a short cut but if you truly care about the long-term success, you'll make the right decisions for yourself and your clients. Don't give in to instant gratifications.
- 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.
I cannot recall a particular event that is significant. I view events as feedback and these enabled us to evolve and stay ahead.
- 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?
For us, I think it is easier. I believe Savant Degrees is riding on the wave of digital technology right now. In the past, people talk about 2 different things - Online and Offline. Nowadays, everything is so integrated people understand in order to be successful they need to be able to leverage digital technology and media. For example, Customer experience is no longer just a phone or an application but the whole integration of the offline and online aspects.
- What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?
If you are set on starting your business, my advice is to start something and get into the deep end with a tenacious attitude. It's the fastest way to build upon opportunities and learn.