From runway model to successful entrepreneur, Joel Neoh will give any 30-year-old a run for their money.
AT the age of 20, he earned his first million – after founding a fast-growing student agency set-up. Three years later, he emerged as the winner of Malaysia’s first corporate reality TV programme, The Firm, despite being the youngest contestant on the show.
Joel Neoh has come a long way since. Now, he is an integral part of one of the world’s fastest growing companies, Groupon (as listed by Forbes in 2010).
Apart from juggling his day to day as the CEO of Groupon Malaysia, Neoh heads Groupon Asia Pacific, overseeing operations for the public-listed group-buying website company in 11 other countries: Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand.
The mechanical engineering graduate, who also modelled part-time during his university days, has been named Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year 2012, Asia’s Top 10 Young Entrepreneurs by Top 10 of Asia magazine, and most recently, Young Global Leader 2013 by the World Economic Forum. Earlier this year, as a result of his professional achievements, Neoh was awarded the Malaysian Service Medal by the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
Appointed as a key line-up speaker for The London Speaker Bureau and Asian Business Angel Forum in 2012, Neoh now also serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Business, Monash University.
That’s a whole lot to take in, for someone who just turned 30.
“Growing up, I was always asking a lot of questions; always challenging the status quo. I must’ve annoyed a lot of people. But looking back, I think that’s one of the key criteria of an entrepreneur – curiosity,” he said over a phone interview, undoubtedly squeezed in between his daily meetings.
In 2006, Neoh had set up Youth Malaysia, a non-government organisation that managed events for youths. After the successful conceptualisation of YouthSays, a survey platform for Malaysian youths (which become a big revenue churner), the organisation went on to organise Youth 08 – arguably the largest youth festival at that time.
After organising its third youth festival in 2010, Neoh realised that the Internet offered great business growth opportunities and that e-commerce, especially, was the holy grail of the World Wide Web.
In September 2008, Neoh founded GroupsMore, a Malaysian e-commerce company based on the business model of US-based Groupon Inc. Within three months, GroupsMore was catering to over 20,000 customers.
The company’s seemingly overnight success eventually caught the attention of Groupon Inc and instead of filing a lawsuit for copyright infringement (which Neoh feared when he first heard from them), the American corporation expressed interest in collaborating with its Malaysian counterpart.
In January 2011, GroupsMore was acquired by Groupon for an undisclosed sum and Neoh’s company became known as Groupon Malaysia. Under Neoh’s stewardship, Groupon Malaysia has become the leading social e-commerce platform in Malaysia and was dubbed the fastest growing country in Groupon for 2011.
“I’m always looking to take up the biggest challenges because I know that would give me the largest opportunity for growth and learning. It was difficult at first – while my friends were excited that it would soon be payday, there I was, worrying about whether I had enough money to pay my staff. My journey as an entrepreneur has evolved and every day is a challenge. But I believe in never, ever giving up,” Neoh opined.
Neoh also believes in this: recruiting people who are significantly better than himself. “I make it a point to hire people who have better skills so that we can all learn from each other. So far, we’ve brought some of the best talents onboard.”
Of course, doing that also requires the man to set aside his ego.
“It’s hard, but it must be done. There’s no point in hiring people who aren’t better than I am, because all I’d would get be team that listens to me, without really challenging what I have to say. I tend to think of my work as leveraging conflict rather than managing it and often times, we learn the most through conflict.”
Neoh is also big on giving back to the society, and has been championing for the larger group to take on more of such activities. Most recently, he pooled resources to raise over USD$100,000 (RM318,700) within a week for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
In retrospect, Neoh revealed that he had a hard time convincing his family, particularly his mother, about his passion for entrepreneurship.
“My mom had no clue what I was up to – she must’ve had a hard time explaining what I did to the relatives. I was constantly trying to convince her to let me become an entrepreneur, and that was also part of the reason why I joined The Firm. After I appeared on the show, she started burning DVDs of the episodes for all my aunts and uncles.”
Still, Neoh was quite sure that his mother had yet to catch on to the bigger picture.
“It was not until a year ago when I bought her an iPad that it finally struck her, because her friends kept telling her to go onto the Groupon website. I think the best way for my mom to understand what I did was to be an end user of the service itself. For me, the most rewarding thing is when the people you care about start using and believing in the things you build.”
– Contributed by Lee Mei Li The Star