Jan Wong, founder of Openminds tells us about modern-day digital marketing.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jan Wong: It has been a challenging time getting used to what they call a ‘new normal,’ but we are keeping well. Thanks for asking! Being physically apart during major celebrations like Christmas, birthdays, and the New Year is no fun, but I’m grateful that we are all healthy and still able to keep busy despite being homebound for most of the months.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Openminds.
Jan Wong: I started my first company at the age of 17 while I was doing an IT diploma in college. It was a bootstrapped IT hardware retail business that began from just formatting PCs for college students. Business picked up in months and eventually scaled to retail, which was eventually pivoted to specialize in data recovery services about two years after. With some self-thought digital marketing efforts, the company gained immediate traction and attracted attention globally which turned us into an authorized data recovery partner for brands like Seagate, Fujitsu, Samsung, Microsoft, and more. After which, I also ventured into other businesses, including fashion, ecommerce, app development, before starting OpenMinds.
The motivation to start OpenMinds came from two repetitive happenings: One, where I was able to successfully navigate digital marketing and generated sales without having to spend on ads, despite being just a programmer’. And two, some of my existing customers and prospects were seeking marketing advice despite me, not in the business (yet). And such, OpenMinds was formed with a unique proposition to blend marketing and technological services under one roof back in 2012. Since then, we’ve established ourselves in Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Singapore with global clients in which we consult and offer custom-built martech stacks comprising of data, integration, and automation components.
How does Openminds innovate?
Jan Wong: Since its inception, OpenMinds has always encouraged education (learning) and exploration (entrepreneurship) and has designed a string of initiatives for these to happen. Starting from weekly learning sessions where team members are scheduled to share their learnings, experiences, and skills; to internal masterclasses where sessions are dedicated for different topics where the team can sign themselves up; to unlimited access to our public training programs, The OpenAcademy App, and Masterclass app; to personal allowance dedicated to learning where they can subscribe themselves to any courses that will help them grow. Team members are also always encouraged to push their limits in discussions, proposals and to even start businesses where the company will fund upon a successful MVP. While these initiatives and structures are not perfect, it has helped us innovate through the eight years in staying ahead of the industry, resulting in countless opportunities for us to speak in regional conferences, TV and radio broadcasts.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jan Wong: When the pandemic hit in 2020, it hit us hard. Having celebrated a hopeful new year in December 2019 with signed contracts and purchase orders received, up to 70% of these contracts were canceled without discussion. This incinerated our budget projections out of the window, leaving us to fend with very limited cashflow AND existing clients putting services on hiatus, eventually leading us to take cautionary methods by offering a wage deferment plan to our team members. This plan has two parts to it where both the leadership team and founders have a mandatory deferment, while the team members have an option to opt-in (or not) based on a % that they deem comfortable. While such plans were to ensure the survival of everyone, they also caused morale among team members to spiral with doubts in the company’s management, and with such, we lost talents.
What were just months felt like years to us, but we experienced some level of recovery in late 2020. We were able to keep ourselves active during the downtimes to gain new clients in the season while launching a mobile-learning platform called The OpenAcademy that kept us going. We did not fire or offered VSS to anyone. We repaid those that participated in the deferment plan in full, we even returned what we deferred with interest beyond bank rates, we gave out year-end bonuses, allocated funds for increment in 2021, and yes, we made some profits in 2020 despite the gloomy start. While the challenge remains real, we are still optimistic with the opportunities lined up and are still looking to grow in 2021.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jan Wong: Definitely! Aside from trimming internal pet projects that were loved but not performing and being adamant to not separate any team member, we had huge plans that had much hard work behind them for the year, and there was a constant battle between seizing the opportunity and risking survivability. We chose to cease growth plans (we were in talks for operations in China and expansion for Singapore) and to focus on the teams we already have. The collective of these choices taught us three things this season:
- In times of uncertainty, a purely defensive play is unwise. Instead of waiting and seeing how the pandemic plays out, there is a need to continuously innovate and explore even with limited boundaries and resources to stay ahead. It is with this strategy we launched The OpenAcademy App and grew our digital education offerings in 2020 while maintaining a more conservative approach for OpenMinds. This is a collective effort from existing team members that launched an MVP in April, which soon became a core offering by year-end.
- Cashflow and credit relationship is important. While having good cash flow is no a brainer for every business, having sufficient runway ahead and a good credit relationship with the banks are important. Many companies attempt to get a loan when they are in bad financial standing, and that’s often too late. Building a credit relationship when you are profitable and cashflow positive is important for rainy days like these as you will typically receive higher credit allowances comparatively.
- Don’t let too many emotions get in the way. In a crisis like the pandemic, there are a lot of emotions to manage – yourself, the partners, leaders, stakeholders all the way to team members. Simple and logical decisions like trimming non-performing projects should be done in a single meeting than four and coming up with the next step of action for team communications or to sustain cashflow should be done swiftly to keep everyone informed rather than aiming for a ‘perfect’ solution. Also, it is important to accept that people will talk regardless of what decision you make and will not be able to understand 100% despite over-communicating. Knowing that you’ve done your part and not linger at the moment will help you focus on the bigger picture at hand.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Jan Wong: I wish we knew if there were any tools, software, or management skills to help us better. We merely relied on the structure, values, and culture of the company to navigate this crisis. Operationally, we were already prepared for remote working arrangements as we have been practicing in-and-out of office days since 2012, which means the way we manage files, communications, meetings, and tasks is already a norm to us. Having transparency as one of our core values, a lot of time was also spent in making sure each team member’s mental and career wellbeing is addressed in 1on1 sessions that are reinforced with weekly town halls, learning sessions, and get-togethers. On the business front, we amplified efforts in adding value to the industry and community by hosting and speaking in various virtual events (hundreds of them), launched initiatives like www.StayOpen.my which is a compilation of business insights from 100 experts in the region, connecting engaging with more people on LinkedIn, and also by piloting digital initiatives with some of our existing clients that were willing to explore.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jan Wong: Due to the nature of our business, our competitors often take up segments of what we offer in consultancy, data analytics, tech development works, or digital education. This includes guys like boutique setups, global agencies, renowned consultancy firms, software houses, system integrators, and data/research companies. Our differentiation has always been our ability to consult from both a marketing & technological layer by having a closely integrated team; we have been a unique option for clients through the years. Moving forward, we intend to digitize parts of our current offerings by providing customized SaaS products to our clients to ease their dependency on human resources for repetitive decision-making tasks. Coupled with our education arm, we are looking to close the gap by extending the know-how to our clients through objective-driven programs to increase their internal capabilities. This way, we can continue to innovate forward instead of being bogged down by routine services.
Your final thoughts?
Jan Wong: There is a lot more to do than just staying afloat to survive this pandemic. The past year has been a great opportunity to evaluate internal systems, management styles, tools, innovation plans, processes and make progressive steps in improving them. While cost-cutting measures are inevitable for most, it is also important to implement the savings in areas of growth to ensure continuous activity within the company that contributes towards the future or a competitive edge. Companies also need not reinvent the wheel and start new ventures on their own. The pandemic also poses an opportunity to collaborate with other companies that have synergy with your offerings to share resources, cross-sell, or launch initiatives together.
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