Gen Y Speaks: I fumbled my way into founding a tech firm, after deciding full-time university wasn’t for me
Ever since I was young, I’ve always been interested in technology, business and innovations and the limitless potential they could bring to society.
I fondly remember my first taste of “business” was when I was eight years old and had my daily pocket allowance of S$1.
Once, I observed my classmates’ craze over Pokémon erasers especially the rare and legendary ones. I saw an opportunity and purchased a box of 10 Pokémon erasers for S$2 from my school book shop.
I did this by saving on food expenses, eating less and taking the most cost-effective route to school. It turns out that in each box were a couple of rare and legendary erasers, which I resold for S$2 to S$5 each.
However, I was left with numerous common ones which I couldn’t just throw away or use. I decided to bundle four common ones together with a rare eraser and sold them for S$3. It was a hit, and within a month, I cleared everything and made a handsome profit, for a kid.
This was when I realised the importance of being resourceful and identifying opportunities. However, what is perhaps the most important of all is execution and the will to follow through.
I got my first smartphone (Android) only when I was in my first year in Ngee Ann Polytechnic where I pursued my diploma in information technology, as mobile data plans and smartphones were too costly for me when I was younger.
Prior to that, when I was in secondary school, I didn’t have much access to things like my class WhatsApp group, or the cool image filters that my peers used on Instagram.
Naturally, I felt left out and felt there was always a communication gap with my classmates as information was relayed through the app.
I would rush back home on my free days to use the laptop at home and surf the internet to feel connected with others. I always found it amazing how information could travel from one part of the world to another in mere moments, which is why I decided to explore the technology field in polytechnic and graduated from there.
While serving my national service, I was rejected by different local universities as I did not meet the cut-off grades for technology-related programmes as these courses were gaining in popularity, even though my peers were getting their places secured despite having an entirely unrelated background. After a few rounds of applications, I managed to enrol into the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) full-time programme in computer science and game design.
It was nice having a student life, but in my first semester, I realised that I could be doing so much more with my time as I was basically in school from 9am till 10pm due to additional classes and projects. By the time I reached home, it was after 11pm. I felt it is not the optimal way of spending my time as I was overly occupied with the school materials as a full-time student.
After serious consideration and contemplation, I decided to drop out of university and go into the workforce. I could sense the disappointment around me. My classmates were also shocked.
This decision was made after reading through the experiences and advice shared on various internet forums. I believed that what I was doing was in my best interests.
Fortunately, I had understanding parents who supported my decision after I convinced them about the benefits of gaining practical work experience in the rapidly growing technology industry. I knew if things are evolving that fast, I needed to get up to speed too.
I found a job in a dynamic well-funded telco startup filled with energy and brilliant people where we collaborated to solve problems across different countries they expanded into.
However, I decided to leave the company after it went through mass restructuring even though I was not directly affected. Seeing how some of my colleagues were affected was extremely demoralising and I could feel the same sentiment throughout the company. I knew things had changed and I needed to adapt fast to the situation.
After leaving, I applied and managed to enrol into Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), this time as a part-time undergraduate in business analytics. It was the Covid-19 period. SUSS part-time undergraduate programmes felt like the right choice as it gave me the flexibility in pursuing my education which, I believe, is important no matter how old you are.
One day, I was having a haircut in one of those 10-minute haircut salons, and received a physical loyalty card. I thought to myself, this hasn’t been changed?
Later on, I went to a fruit juice store, and received another card.
An “aha” moment struck me! I opened up my wallet and saw a bunch of stamp cards that were relatively unused or expired. After spending some time researching this, I came up with an idea and a basic wireframe to see how a software solution can fix this problem.
I called my contacts that may have an interest in this venture to create an online loyalty application and pitched my idea to them.
They were sold, and in 2020, I started Rhine Digital together with my friends — Edwin, a brilliant software engineer, and Bryan, a sharp designer. In the following months, we worked from a co-working office and grinded daily while sharing knowledge with each other to improve ourselves.
We tried to enrol in various universities’ venture builder programmes to get exposure to the startup ecosystem in Singapore but were unsuccessful. We were told that most loyalty apps are uninteresting and it is tough for startups to succeed in the Singapore market in this segment.
However, an external incubator company’s chief executive officer saw potential in our startup and endorsed us. Under his mentorship, we secured funding from Enterprise Singapore under the Startup SG Founders Grant.
A few months later, we pitched and were accepted into the SUSS-Alibaba Cloud Entrepreneurship programme. It was through this programme that we have pivoted our focus after our advisor told us to think about ways to differentiate ourselves even further, even if it is an entirely new category.
Having an open mind to receive feedback is critical. I went back to some of our old notes and saw an undeveloped idea on paper from 2020. It was time to build that idea and integrate into what we had built. From there, we have pivoted Rhine from being a loyalty app into a social discovery platform where people can watch short videos filmed by the community and discover more about places.
With our renewed focus, we clinched first place in the SUSS-Alibaba Cloud Demo Day 2022 competition where multiple startups pitch to a panel of investors and industry professionals. It was an unexpected outcome and we were very happy and surprised.
All these experiences have given me the validation and the drive to forge on even though the route I have taken is not very straightforward.
I believe what matters is having an open mind to collaborate, the agility to adapt, the grit to handle tough and ambiguous situations, and ultimately, an empathy for others.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Frederick Chng Yu Tao, 25, is a second-year business analytics student from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). He is the co-founder of Rhine Digital, a social discovery platform that connects people with businesses and attractions in Singapore and overseas.