Why Indies Who Pursue Love Matter in the Big Money World of Travel

Each time I return to Penang, I discover a new and interesting business set up by yet another entrepreneur out to make a difference on the island. This island, after all, was built by traders, merchants and immigrants, much like my father.

Hikayat is a new creative and arts space founded by former business news anchor and entrepreneur, Bettina Chua Abdullah; and researcher, writer, editor, bookseller and activist, Gareth Richards.

Jason Chan and Christian Lee.

This was where the private screening – you could call it the Malaysian premiere – of Jimami Tofu, the set-in-Okinawa movie made by Singapore’s film producers, Jason Chan and Christian Lee, was held. We wanted the independent movie, made in 2017 on a grant by the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau, to inspire our delegates attending WiT Indie – an event and experience designed to empower tours and activities operators and providers, independents, creatives and start-ups in the digital age – the next day.

The reception was unanimously positive. As Chan and Lee fielded questions after the screening, I could tell the movie, which revolves around a Singapore chef who finds himself in Okinawa searching not just for recipes but answers to love and life and his relationship with a Japanese food critic, who hails from Okinawa, had struck the same emotional chord in the audience as it had in me, the first time I saw it last year.

A teenage girl asked where she could watch it again and again, and Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng, executive director of Penang Institute, was sufficiently moved to rewrite his opening speech at WiT Indie the following morning.

“The film got me asking a series of related questions: What is tourism and who is the tourist? When are we a tourist and more importantly, when are we not a tourist? The refugee, the migrant, the itinerant, the journeyman, the traveller, the tourist, the visitor, the foreigner, the outsider, the alien... the uprooted has many names,” says Ooi.

“The tourist thus appears on an existential dimension, somewhere between the frog in the pond and the bird in the air – between evolution and escapism.

“The short answer I came up with to the question ‘What is a tourist?’ is this: he is unfulfilled desire. He is our wish to catch a glimpse of the many lives not given to us to live.”

The making of Jimami Tofu played beautifully into our WiT Indie theme, “Love & Money: How to Do Both”. Often, entrepreneurs are motivated to create a business out of love but soon find themselves struggling when their product or service cannot find a market – so the whole idea of the one-day event, held in Penang, followed by Kuching, was to inspire and educate entrepreneurs, whatever businesses they are running, to use digital tools to make money so they can continue doing what they love.

To commercialise their talent, film producers Chan and Lee first made corporate videos. They found they didn’t like clients. Then they created a start-up to offer travel videos – instructional videos on how to get there, what to eat and do, etc. Soon, they found that unfulfilling as well and they asked themselves the hard question: what do we really love to do?

Their answer was “to create aspirational Asian films in English for global distribution” and travel was the road that got them to Okinawa to explore the idea of making a movie set on the Japanese island.

In doing what they love, Lee and Chan asked many questions of themselves. Is no money better than some money because with the latter could come compromise? Do you love it so much that you would pay to do it? And what do you want your day to look like in five years’ time?

Asking hard questions like those gave them the will and motivation to focus their talent and time on making movies they wanted to make.

Encouraged by the success of Jimami Tofu, which has won critical acclaim in indie film circles as well as sparked a surge in travel to Okinawa, the duo are working on their next movie.

Why Large Companies Have to Care about Independents

Kuo-Yi Lim.

If anyone wondered why Louise Daley, deputy CEO, Asia Pacific of Accor, was speaking on the WiT Indie stage – it is after all a massive hotel company with 4,700 hotels in 100 countries, and the leading hotel operator in Asia Pacific (1,070 hotels and 203,000 rooms) – she put paid to such speculation, saying it was important traditional travel companies stayed on top of disruptive trends and “it is among entrepreneurs and start-ups that the disruption often comes from.”

Daley, who sits on the New Business unit of Accor, advising on acquisitions, says areas of interest included tech and services around food, hospitality and loyalty.

She also painted a promising future for travel, sharing research from Mastercard that shows an Asian affluent class driving trends and demand for the next generation. And the good news is, it’s not limited to India and China, but across South-east Asia, with consumer spending on Mastercard on the rise.

Driving spending are premium food and drink experiences and the fast adoption of mobile payments, leading to a complex mobile payment landscape emerging in Asia. “This is why global companies need to work with local entrepreneurs who can fix local problems we can’t,” said Daley.

Meanwhile, Kuo-Yi Lim, principal of Monk’s Hill Ventures, Singapore, shed light on the thinking of investors. His fund’s first round was US$80mil and it is currently in the midst of raising a second round of US$120mil.

So far, it has invested in up to 20 companies. In travel, it has invested in Taiwan tour and activities start-up, KK Day, and Malaysia-based GoQuo that helps airlines and other suppliers sell ancillaries. One of its most successful start-ups is Ninja Van, South-east Asia’s fastest growing last-mile logistics company.

In a climate where private capital is consolidating and being channelled to a handful of large companies, we asked Lim, who used to run Infocomm Investments, a Singapore government-backed SG$200mil venture fund, what the role of the publicsector should be, as governments, from Singapore to Malaysia, invest in starting and creating start-up ecosystems.

His answer was clear: “Governments should invest in companies and sectors that the private sector does not want to go into.”

This will be good for entrepreneurs who are trying to solve healthcare or education pain points that may not be as attractive for private venture capitalists to get into, but are necessary for society.

(Right to left) Yeoh Siew Hoon; Stephen Joyce, founder of Rezgo, a tour and activity booking platform, and his wife Barbara; and Louise Daley.

Money is of course crucial to how businesses are run, but Lim says love is essential for entrepreneurs to create and pursue their dreams. But the biggest mistake founders can make is not being able to let go of their “love” and allow the business to scale, while the biggest mistake investors can make is to “fall in love too much” with the founding team such that it blinds them to the reality that the business may not be working out.

Lesson of the day: Do what you love, love what you do but don’t let it blind you to the realities of business. It’s never been easier to make money – it’s just a question of how much you want to make to do what you love. And when push comes to shove, if you have to choose one or the other, do what AccorHotels’ Daley did.

“Lomey,” she said. “You need both.”

Penang-born Yeoh Siew Hoon is the founder of WIT, a media and events company specialising in online travel. She loves to write and she loves to travel. And oh yes, she loves gadgets.

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