Almost immediately upon meeting me, the warm and eloquent Mr James Pang got down to business and started telling me about a defining moment in his life: when he sat in front of his laptop in a hotel room in Vietnam and read every article about the Spirit of Enterprise candidates, which got him thinking about what passion meant to him. So began an enjoyable interview with Mr Pang, founder and overseer of Mydrumschool, a specialized music school grounded on a solid curriculum and love for music. Mr Pang emanated a positive spirit that inspired me to get moving and find my own passion in life. Here is his story.
In just 5 years, My Drum School has skyrocketed to encompass a cumulative strength of over 1,200 students and 18 staff members – and it is growing steadily. Its students are solid drummers, as seen from their 0% failure rate and their average examination grade of 93.25%. However, the school is not about work alone: play counts for significant part of the corporate culture. From Wii sets to “Gangnam-styled” corporate videos starring 6-year-old students, this is the music school to watch out for. The man behind all this is Mr James Pang. Besides being a drummer who is fully proficient in more than just a handful of other musical instruments, Mr Pang also completed his Bachelor of Business Studies with a First Class Honors at Nanyang Technological University whilst holding 2 scholarships and being on the Dean’s List for 3 consecutive years. The Business Times has also featured him twice as a “Successful Entrepreneur under 30”. Mr Pang uses teaching as a platform to help and inspire people: he was a guest Lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, a NTU Final Year Project Grader, and he serves a consultant to numerous churches in Singapore. He judges nation-wide drumming competitions on top of teaching with, running, and improving My Drum School.
Almost immediately upon meeting me, the warm and eloquent Mr James Pang got down to business and started telling me about a defining moment in his life: when he sat in front of his laptop in a hotel room in Vietnam and read every article about the Spirit of Enterprise candidates, which got him thinking about what passion meant to him. So began an enjoyable interview with Mr Pang, founder and overseer of My Drum School, a specialized music school grounded on a solid curriculum and love for music. Mr Pang emanated a positive spirit that inspired me to get moving and find my own passion in life.
- As a starter question: what kind of music do you like?
I grew up listening to gospel music. My background is from church, which is where a lot of Singaporeans start out. I first took up drums when I was 17. Back when I was seventeen, there were only two places that provide drum lessons: Yamaha and YMCA. I chose YMCA and my teacher was Blair Sherrill. Under his tutelage I built a foundation of hip-hop and a little bit of jazz.
- Tell me about your company.
My company is called Mydrumschool, or MDS for short. We started out in 2007. I always had a passion for music and my initial intention was to be a private tutor. I was teaching right at the comfort of my own home in 2007: we had a room that we soundproofed. After two years I had 50 students and about 40 students on my waiting list. I actually felt a push by all this demand. I could not just take down my website – that would be irresponsible. I had to take action, even though I liked the freedom I got when I taught from home, because I felt responsible for all these people, and I believed they needed a music education. This was why I opened my first centre in Lavender in April 2009. I hired four part-timers and I was the only full-timer at that time. I did not really know how to run a school then: I had to come up with lesson plans, syllabi, etc. I had never thought of managing the different departments in my business – marketing, accounting, HR, etc. I put a lot of time and effort into that.
I opened a second centre last year here [in AMK]. There are now eighteen staff members, and two more will be joining soon. We’ve enrolled about 1200 – 1300 students in terms of total strength and currently we hold more than 300 students.
- How did you get so many students in such a short span of time?
I have a strong background in IT – I coded a website and managed to get it within the top five hits of every search engine. So people came in from there, and the best way of course is by word of mouth.
- Did you always know that you wanted to start a drumming business?
I will always remember this interview I had with Citibank. I was in their Managament Associate programme selection upon graduating with First Class Honours from Nanyang Technological University. (Mr Pang also held two scholarships, was on the Dean’s List for three consecutive years, and won a gold medal for emerging top of his academic cohort.) I made it to the top twenty - they had even gotten me my own credit card! The interview was nearly mere formality. Over the round-table dinner the vice-president asked me, “What is your passion in life?” I thought about this for a while and said, “Music.” She looked at me and she said, “Sorry, you didn’t get the job.”
I was very disturbed – I could not figure out what I said that was detrimental to me. Her next sentence was what stuck in my head in a very long time. She said, “If your passion is not earning money, don’t come here.” But she also left me with one line – “James, why don’t you do what you are passionate about in life?”
Also, I was in the top department at Deloitte as a freshman doing corporate finance – that was the big industry, the buy-and-sell. I was doing well - I had developed an IT product which reduced productivity from five hours to one – but I was not passionate about it. It was very frustrating – I was very good at what I was doing but I was just not passionate about it.
I realized I like drums, and I like business as well. Business was a commonsensical thing to me. So I left my job and started this business.
- Were you ever afraid of business failure?
I took a calculated risk. I was already doing part-time teaching so I knew roughly what to do. Once I tendered my resignation, I called up the students I used to teach. Because I was working from home, I had no expenses. I could live on what I was making.
To be honest, I could not see the breakeven at the beginning. But I knew that if I were to come out, I would be able to survive after paying rental. Now, at the back of my mind, I have a chart measuring the earnings I would have made in my previous [prestigious finance] job versus the earnings I make now. Earning as much money as I could have in my previous job is not my motive of starting a school. But it is good motivation.
- How has your business changed over the five years it has been in existence?
In 2007, it was quite relaxed. I did administrative work in the morning and taught around five hours in the afternoon when my students strolled in after school. I didn’t incur any expenses then. It is very different now.
- Tell me what a typical month of running your drum school is like.
We sometimes start our month with a negative PNL. I have to make sure the accounts are right. In the mornings we do a lot of accounting. We don’t have a receptionist here, as you would have noticed. I am a business-oriented business, and I believe in doing hands-on work and looking at my financial statements personally. Some mornings I’d meet my staff and train them by getting them to role-play or sit in lessons. Every Wednesday we have a staff meeting. Sometimes we do recording – MDS has a very active social media following.
I am also a hands-on person with regard to operations. In our Lavender branch we used to have a toilet in our facility. When the pipe came loose I had to fix it. If a lightbulb were to blow I would change it myself.
I teach in the afternoons. Mostly, I take the intermediate and advanced students. I still like to be in the frontline on top of being founder and director: I love to inspire people and to play the drums as well.
As an entrepreneur, most of your time is spent on work. So, on weekends I learn things. For instance, I designed this whole thing myself! (He hands me a brochure, then a calendar.) I had to take time to learn Photoshop and examine a lot of other brochures to learn about design. I also created our website in our free time. It was a 9-month project and it won an award for innovation.
- I noticed you designed a batch of Mydrumschool-themed calendars and are selling them to raise funds for charity. Could you please tell me more about this venture?
We do have children with special needs in our school. We have at least three children with autism and we have a lot of children with dyslexic needs – they have a disability in reading and get very frustrated when they see words and notes. Most schools won’t take them in: that’s why they come to us. In fact, research does point to drumming helping improve brain-eye coordination. There are children who are sent here by doctors who tell them to find a drum school. Thus we thought that if there is a charity we should support, it ought to be the Dyslexia Association of Singapore. That’s how it started out.
- What is the working environment like for you and your staff?
When I was in college, I went to Silicon Valley and saw the Yahoo! headquarters. I loved the working environment I saw. There were big slides that you could sit on every morning before you started your work day. I felt that was what I wanted to create with my school. Back in 2007, we had a Wii set for people to play with at our Lavender branch! Now we play videos for parents who have to wait for their children – this month it’s <<Iron Man>> and <<The Karate Kid>>.
- What sets Mydrumschool apart from other music schools?
There are music schools that have good branding, and ran by people who understand the music business. What I think sets us apart from these schools is our focus on bringing the company forward from a technical perspective rather than providing music for leisure.
We are specialized, we have our own syllabus, and we are more serious about drum education because we come from the perspective that we know our craft and we were founded on the basis that there is a lack of drum education in Singapore.
We do not mould our syllabus from an examination board’s. I write my own syllabus level by level. We have the learning points put in a formal presentation – for instance, we have slides when we teach. In this sense, we are a specialized drum school and the way we approach our syllabus and teaching is unique.
Nor do we use a purely song-based approach. This may attract a lot of people but those who want to be serious in their craft may find themselves stuck if they want to make progress at advanced levels.
- What are some other traits that make your business different from other businesses in general?
There are some websites you see, eg music schools that put up the price of camps that are two years outdated, that display zero passion. MDS has a very active social media following. In this sense we are more dynamic than other companies which can be very static.
Because of our market we have a lot of people who come from churches – it is a bonus when we hire people from church, because they can teach both contemporary and church music! But music is international. We have students who are not from church, and we have Malay students, and Indian students.
- Will you ever expand your business to encompass other skills besides drumming?
That’s a great question. I am fully equipped to do because I started playing guitar when I was thirteen and I am graded in the organ and the piano. No, expanding would not be against our rationale. However, consider the competitive advantage we possess. You wouldn’t go to a food court and expect the best laksa. Likewise, I have always associated branding with specialisation. If you want to study drums you would go to a drum school rather than a generic music school with a drumming department. I wanted to be very niche. However, the segmentation of businesses is an established practice: Volvo and BMW use the same engine, Lee Hwa and SK Jewellery are the same company.
So, if I were to branch out it would be a sister school, although “Myguitarschool” sounds a bit cheesy because it’s “MGS”!
- What would you say was your greatest setback in your story so far?
I was discouraged when I first started Mydrumschool. I didn’t have a lot of students, so I printed 1000 flyers to give out in my estate. I went door-to-door, floor-to-floor, to give out my flyers. After a tiring afternoon I sat back and expected lots of people to call. Only one person called to ask for the price of the course! I was discouraged – but then I began to think a little bit. My failure challenged me to revamp my thinking. I told myself, “If this doesn’t work it will never work.”
In business school I read up on social media and thought it was cool. Back then, it wasn’t so cool! Anyway, I learned about the importance of understanding the market and the economy. People love YouTube: everything is there. That was the direction I wanted to head towards.
I set up a Facebook page. I invested in four DSLRs, and a lot of lighting equipment. I was actually featured in the newspapers: Canon interviewed me. But back then, I didn’t know anything about photography, videography, corporate branding. . .you should have seen my first flyer! I started doubting myself – was I really capable of coming up with all this? Learning videography? Properly writing my syllabus in notation software? Setting up this whole thing to record myself? It was a big challenge for me to get past the old-school way of marketing and thinking. I had to sit down and decide what direction I wanted my company to head in, and what the pillars of my company would be. It took me months to draft out what I wanted to do.
So if I just got discouraged and stuck at one point, I would still be there, giving out flyers.
- What other problems do you face on a daily basis?
I do get some angry parents and children who cheat us out of paying school fees! I also have people in the drumming industry who become jealous and spread falsehoods about the business. On the other hand, I do get a lot of support from the parents and the students.
- Let’s move on to success. Would you call yours a success story?
There is always room to expand and grow but I think every year we keep getting better. Basically, we plan for our company to be successful. My personal motto is: “Every week I want to do something new for the school.” I have a soft-copy file that stretches till October that contains my plans for my company. For instance, I know that on Monday I am going to make a <<Gangnam Style>> video with a 6 year-old. Before we hit 5000 fans on Facebook we planned a banner, and a celebration, plus we planned to release our celebratory video at a certain time.
- What are some KPIs you look out for in measuring the success of your company?
We try to benchmark ourselves in different categories. My own KPIs include a strong social media following, good syllabus, the ability to replicate physically, and good financial standing. Also, the staff team must be growing, and academic results must be sterling. Based on these factors I would say we were quite successful but there is always room for growth.
Financially, we have grown. This year we have crossed our turnover of more than half a million dollars. I am also entering our school into some “fastest growing company” competitions.
We are growing in terms of physical expansion as well: I am looking for a third centre. While our Lavender branch is considered central and this AMK branch is north-serving, we are looking for one centre in the East and another in the West. When we look at success of a music schools, we see if they can replicate themselves.
The number of students we have have always been increasing: to date, we have 330-40 current students. Last year, we were at 270 for a very long time until I opened this [AMK] centre. We also have a growing number of staff.
This year we also entered a few awards. We are trying to be more recognized in terms of our brand and I would say that we have actually appeared in a lot of places and I am quite happy for that. I have been featured on the OKto channel, and have had students appearing on CNN, Suria and Disney Channel. We have also appeared in both the Straits Times and the Business Times. We also film our students playing songs, and they get over 100,000 views on YouTube.
In terms of exam results, we are the highest:, not just in Singapore but in Australia. The average grade in my school is 93.25%. The grade for first class honors is 95%.We whack all students – we are very strict! This year we are sending in 125 candidates. (In the background, a student thumps away steadfastly.)
- You talked about planned success: before you hit the milestone, you have planned the party. How much of life do you think you can plan?
The more you plan the higher rate of chance. More hard work will bring about higher chance. For example, if I don’t put Mydrumschool in 4 locations in Singapore, the chance of hitting 500 students is perhaps zero based on physical capacity. But if I plan to put myself out there, there may not be demand but there are more chances that I will hit my target. Of course, you would then have to keep track of all the outlets as if with a holistic corporate balance sheet.
- What is essential to success?
The foremost answer is passion in what you do. If you are not passionate you will give up.
For me it is the passion to run a drum school and to genuinely teach students.
I have told you about my experiences with Citibank and Deloitte. At the time I could not reconcile what the VP of Citibank was talking about. When I read the SOE website, everybody talked about passion. All entrepreneurs had passion. . .it was so textbook! But it struck a chord. It made me realize that I am passionate about drumming, and I like business as well - business is commonsense to me.
- What are other personal characteristics you possess that have helped you achieve your business goals?
Number 1 – Passion. I grew up in the Commandos. We were taught to be passionate about being the elite force – to never give up, and have a never-say-die attitude. Be the best. It taught me a lot of principles when it came to business – eg when 1000 flyers later, only one call comes back, it’s not over! If I didn’t have passion it wouldn’t drive me to continue what I want to do.
Number 2 – Direction and vision for the company. Long-term planning, being a big-picture person, and being able to foresee everything are a must. It’s not just about drumming – you have to come up with staffing policies, leave policies, you have to work with the government about pay structure, you have to manage your marketing and operational sides – that ranges from renovations to equipment to putting a centralized Intranet in place. All this has to be planned. You must think of how everything functions and the best thing is when your system can function without you.
Number 3 – You must love to win. My Mandarin name means “everchanging victory” and I am a very competitive person. Playing in a game, there are people who are willing to lose. For these people it is difficult to make a successful business. Running a business is like playing a game -- you start at level one. In order to be in the top, some people have to lose and be in the bottom. It is a sad game because some people will lose, but that’s how it is.
Number 4 – You must possess the spirit of excellence. For example, when I am designing items like my brochure, the paper must be of good quality and the design must look professional. Here’s a QR code – it shows that we are relevant. There are simple steps on how to register. There are instructions on how to get there. Everything must be excellent. If you want to do a lousy brochure, it’s not going to work out. I hire people to take professional photographs. It helps you bring your company to a higher place.
Number 5 – Love problems. Problems are there to help make you better. If someone tells you your shirt is dirty, it is a cue for you to correct it. This may sound very strange to some people. Some might ask, “If there are problems am I supposed to like them?” The answer is yes. Of course I don’t mean this in a sadistic way, ie “Yay! A staff walked out on me today!” But problems help you shape your character and take preemptive measures so the same problems won’t arise in the future. For example, I used to teach at this drum studio. The equipment was lousy. I had students, who were children, climbing everywhere the entire lesson. They could not pronounce “snare drum”. . .I had to draw L’s and R’s on their hands! Now, if I did not face this problem in the past, then I would not have thought to have an age limit and to buy good equipment for my school. I do have part-time staff that say, “Hey, I can’t teach on Friday night.” So this made me have everybody be available on standby for a secondary night, and find a bigger pool of part-timers. I also had problems with compatibility with regard to Mac and Windows. I solved this problem using Dropbox.
Everything you see here was a problem! The exit light there did not satisfy the fire safety rules, and the magnetic board we bought from Ikea in order to organize our schedules.
- How did you put what you learned in college to use in your business?
I put what I learned in Business Law to good use when I trademarked our logo and we had two claims against us because the term “Mydrumschool” is very generic. I had to write into Intellectual Property Office of Singapore. I stayed up a few days, took caselaw from the USA, and learned about trademarks. I tried to argue that logo is distinct – the two ”O”’s in “school” form the bass drum, the alphabets make the cymbals, etc. I won the case!
In addition, people used to write in every day to ask if there were free slots for lesson. Because of my IT background – and my robotic brain that tries to automise everything – on the Mydrumschool website there is now a live schedule with the most updated slots which students and customers can access easily.
- What is it like running a business in Singapore?
There are a lot of things to be thankful for with regard to doing business in Singapore. Our government gives no special favours - there is a fair playing ground. The game is better played when the rules are fair; no one would want to watch a fixed or uneven soccer match. In some other countries it is not fair.
- What do you enjoy most about running a business in Singapore?
If I were to have a problem with CPF, I can log on to the CPF website and everything is there for me. There is a hotline I can call and people who are willing to help me with what I want to do. A lot of people are afraid to do business because it sounds like a very big thing. But the government puts in a lot of work to make it easy: ACRAS and all that. They have it in your language – step-by-step instructions to help you fill everything up. I’m so happy to be doing a business in Singapore, so privileged to be doing a business on fair ground. Transparency and integrity are paramount – you cannot cheat on your taxes. It would be difficult to open MDS overseas.
- What are some policies Singaporean businesses should take advantage of?
The Budget this year is good. For any increase in my employees’ wages I need to contribute 60%. Also, if you’re doing really well you don’t have to pay tax in the first year. There are productivity claims and innovation claims . . . in fact, if I bought a thousand-dollar computer, the government would give me a thousand back, and then $600 more. It’s strange but true! Can you see that they are trying to encourage you to be more productive? Can you see that they are trying to encourage you to spend that amount of money to build your business so that people will invest in Singapore?
So I would say that I complain less and I learn to count my blessings.
- Do you have any advice for budding entrepreneurs?
It was through SOE that I was inspired so hopefully it would be the same for some future younger person reading this. Passion does help but you never know unless you think about it and jump into it. Steve Jobs once mentioned in one commencement speech that “when you begin to look back in your life and join the dots, you begin to see how all the things join together”. And I do. Everything happens for a reason.