From clinical depression to organizing Singapore’s 1st happiness festival: Interview with Vincent Ng, Author & Entrepreneur

Photo Courtesy of Vincent Ng
Photo Courtesy of Vincent Ng

Diagnosed with clinical depression and almost jumping off the 15th floor nine years ago, Vincent has turned his many entrepreneurial start-stops into a recently-published book, Why You Should Fail. He also spearheaded Singapore’s first Happiness Festival in November 2017 and became a curator at A Good Space since July 2017. Vincent shows us that sometimes we must accept the end of something in order to build something new.

1) Share with us the activities you took part in during your time in NUS.

I matriculated in August 2013 and completed a degree in Business Administration in 2017. I had applied to business school in hopes that it would teach me how to start a business but the reality was very different. Thus, my focus in NUS was really on trying to gain more entrepreneurial experiences, which I am grateful to have achieved through valuable programmes like the NUS Overseas College (NOC) and organisations like NUS Enterprise.

After National Service and before matriculation, I was reflecting on my failed business ideas over the years and felt that I should find a mentor to guide me and accelerate my learning. I chanced upon an education start-up on the start-up internship portal Startup Jobs and felt drawn to their mission of enabling anyone with a mobile device to learn powerful skills from global experts to find happiness and career success.

They wanted to do it through a series of short five-minute videos that people could watch in their spare pockets of time, to learn skills like public speaking, speed reading, personal finance and more at a very affordable price.

I had first been diagnosed with clinical depression in 2009, when I went through what I thought was a massive failure back then. Finding myself unmotivated, uninspired and disillusioned, I became a self-improvement junkie, spending all the money I had on motivational books and seminars, hoping to raise my self-esteem and find happiness.

This start-up was in the self-help space and because of my experiences, the idea of making this content available to more people really resonated with me. The promise of getting to work on real tasks that impacted the company’s growth intrigued me and even though the three-month internship was unpaid, I jumped at it because I wanted to soak up as much as I could about entrepreneurship. Working for free helped me gain access to skills I wouldn’t have in Business School. Three months eventually became three years until I left in 2016.

Besides this, I also joined the NUS chapter of Conjunct Consulting in my freshman year. I loved volunteering but had always wondered how sustainable the social impact of us spending three hours at an old folk’s home each week was. In particular, the idea of volunteering our skills to help non-profits and social enterprises tackle their problems for long-term change intrigued me.

After going through their training program for a semester, where they taught us basic problem- solving skills and consulting frameworks, I was selected to become a student consultant, eventually working with a local social enterprise to develop a start-up incubation program.

In Year 2 of NUS, I was given the opportunity to become the trainer. This meant conducting a seven-week training workshop (two hours per week) each semester for two semesters to train aspiring students to become student consultants. Hoping to create a larger social impact, I jumped at the opportunity. That experience further flamed my passion for education and learning.

Year 2 was particularly tough as I was juggling my work in the start-up, my duties to Conjunct Consulting and managing my studies. There was just not enough time for me to do everything so I decided to prioritise the start-up over my grades and saw my grades fall significantly. At the time, it did not bother me as I felt what I was learning at the start-up was more helpful to my eventual goal as an entrepreneur compared to school.

This routine was not sustainable as it was very tiring emotionally and physically. I was up for 20 hours most days for seven days a week. Then I discovered NOC Singapore (then called the iLEAD programme) and successfully convinced them to allow me to use the program to work on the start-up.

I spent the entire second semester working at the start-up, with it counting as credits towards my degree – it was a win-win situation. One of the lessons I learnt from this incident was that if you don’t ask you will never know. If you don’t ask, the answer will always be a definite no, so know that there is nothing to lose in asking.

After the iLEAD programme, we were sent on an overseas study trip to Silicon Valley, where we visited various start-ups and established companies (like Facebook and Google), spoke to founders, had a guided tour of Stanford University and attended several events. I remember that feeling of possibility in the air and feeling so inspired by how young the founders were.

Upon returning, I made a bold decision to take a gap year and focus my energies on bringing the start-up to revenue. Three months into my gap year, we launched a web platform with videos from multiple experts in Singapore, including a Guinness Record Holder for memory, thinking there would be demand for the videos. Unfortunately, months went by and no revenue came in. I learnt a painful, but very important lesson then to always test a product with our target market before launching and not to make any assumptions.

Out of money and out of funds, we then pivoted into physical training, becoming a marketing company for trainers in Singapore, the complete opposite of the original business model. We eventually became profitable through this model and sustainable as a company yet I felt something was still missing for me.

Towards the end of 2015, I woke up with a realization that I could not continue working in the start-up any longer. My values were just not aligned with the company anymore. I headed back to school to complete my education and felt a deep sense of sadness and inadequacy as I saw my batch mates building their resumes, having gone on multiple internships and exchanges. Deep down, I wondered if what I had did for the past three years was all worth it. It felt like everyone had progressed and that I had regressed.

Trying to rediscover a sense of purpose, I chanced upon a conference called the World Domination Summit (WDS) in Portland, Oregon in the United States in the summer holidays of 2016 and decided to fly halfway across the world without knowing what it was after watching a video on their website – something about it just spoke to me.

WDS brought together thousands of people from all walks of life around the world to explore how we can build a better world. There were entrepreneurs, social activists, digital nomads, professionals, art teachers, actors etc., and what was so beautiful was that space of non-judgment they created that helped us have deep conversations and connections with one another.

At WDS, I attended a Meetup titled How to Revolutionize Higher Education by Michelle Jones, founder of the Wayfinding Academy. “Most of us are forced to pick a degree at age 18, when the real choice is what life to pick,” she said, sharing about a two-year college she had set-up to help students discover their purpose and build a portfolio around it.

Right there and then, I realized that my life’s calling was to serve Singapore’s education sector by setting up a similar school here to help more students find and pick the life they want to lead, finding their own definition of success and through that experience life’s ultimate goal – unconditional happiness.

Coming back to Singapore for my final year, I started learning from my mistakes in the past, deciding to test the idea first before launching the school. This led me to organize a Happiness Festival shortly after graduation which brought over a hundred people in Singapore together to explore the question: what is a good life and how do I live it?

Around the same time in my final year, I met a friend who also experienced failure in her past business. We set out to find mentors who could guide us in various areas in funding, team building, marketing, negotiation; and with hard work, eventually interviewed 23 of Singapore’s top entrepreneurs who were willing to share their wisdom with us. We were learning so much and decided to write a book to share what we learnt with our friends, hoping to help aspiring entrepreneurs and struggling entrepreneurs.

I spent most of my final year holed up in the Business and Central Libraries transcribing, researching and writing the 23 chapters page by page. This experience helped me to learn that sometimes success is about doing small things consistently. It all adds up. Eventually we published the book Why You Should Fail shortly after graduation and I’m very grateful that it got a positive response, as we sold over 900 copies, became a bestseller in a local bookstore and received a feature in the Straits Times. With that, my life in NUS came full circle to completion.

2) What is the greatest takeaway you had from NUS?

To build relationships rather than a contact list. In the business context, a lot of people are very transactional. We would go to a networking event, exchange namecards and only contact people when we have something to sell or want something from them.

I think the most important thing we can do in university is to build meaningful relationships; not just with our friends but also with our professors. Our friends will provide us with a strong social support structure as we go through the ups and downs of life (which are inevitable).

Our professors will give us a perspective that we may not necessarily have due to our limited experiences. I would lunch with professors whose classes I enjoyed and engage in deep conversations with them. Stand on the shoulders of giants. As a student, a lot of older and wiser people would be very open towards helping you because they like to play a part in grooming a younger person – in a sense you are part of their legacy.

Why would someone seemingly more successful than you want to help or mentor you? I pondered over the question a lot on my journey. I think there are two reasons, which primarily also contribute to building meaningful relationships that last.

One, because you are authentic. When you show up as who you really are, openly sharing your struggles, hopes and dreams, placing yourself in a space of vulnerability with a risk of being judged, you are real and people connect with that. It takes a lot of courage and self-awareness but it is really powerful.

Two, when you find ways to create value for them. I translated English Whatsapp messages to Mandarin and also built a personal website to help out my current business mentor when she was struggling with both areas. Or work for them for free. But in working for free, remember to have a timeframe and key learning objectives and when you have met your objectives, continue to evaluate if you wish to continue working for free. (Looking back, my mistake with the start-up was not having a clear timeline to exit. I had dragged out my internship for too long even when I was not learning much towards the end.)

It doesn’t have to be something technical. It could even be sending them a postcard during Christmas, sharing an article you know they will enjoy or just providing a listening ear. Do it with a sincere intention without expecting anything in return. Be a true friend.

It will pay off in ways you can never imagine. Building relationships has created multiple personal and professional opportunities for me but most importantly, it has brought me a circle of friends and mentors I feel very grateful to be around with every day.

3) What is the Happiness Festival about?

On 18th November this year, I organized a Happiness Festival with my co-organiser Raniel (one of the entrepreneurs featured in the book), modelled after the World Domination Summit. We felt that the high emphasis placed on one dominant definition of success – starting with grades in school and career achievements, wealth and status later on in life contributes to the toxic cycle of discontent, anxiety and stress we all feel.

So many of us compare ourselves with others, never feeling good enough, yet we rarely stop to ask ourselves: is this definition of success serving me? So, for the Festival, we brought together over a hundred Singaporeans to explore the question: what makes a good life and how I live it?

There were talks and games led by eight of Singapore’s most enlightened minds, together with a whole host of mystery activities and surprises! We hoped to use the Festival to test the curriculum for the Wayfinding Academy type of school we wanted to set up here. The positive response was very encouraging and we are looking to do this annually.

As for the school, we are hoping to enrol our first batch of students in January 2019 so 2018 would really be about creating more pilot tests to prove that the school can be a sustainable business. For example, in May 2018, we will be conducting a three-month program over the summer holidays, targeted at university students who might be feeling lost, not sure why they are studying and what to do after graduation.

I hope the curriculum we develop would teach them how to discover their purpose, experience fulfilment and find their own definition of success. We will pair them up with organisations to work on real projects and also connect them to the network of mentors we’ve built over the years who can help them with the things they want to do.

My vision is for us to complement the formal education system by producing changemakers: people who can invent their own path in this ever-changing world, picking their degree or major intentionally, knowing who they are and what they can be, instead of just being a brilliant checklist ticker.

4) What advice do you have for young undergraduates who are pursuing entrepreneurship?

Like Steve Jobs said, have faith that the dots will somehow connect for you in the future. Maybe life is a journey of experiments, where, at the end of our life, we find out how we should have lived in the first place. If everything in my past did not happen, I would not have met all these people who I know now.

From my perspective, you do not need to know 10 steps ahead – dream of it but be bold enough to take the first step. Then, evaluate from there. If an idea feels right to you, then make the decision and go validate it with the market, because there will never be a time where there is perfect information.

Put a timeline to your dreams. What does success look like? What are the objectives and metrics and by when would you like to achieve it? With these questions, you create a plan and your dreams become real.

Find a definition of success that serves you and embark on a quest to find your purpose – your reason for being on Earth. Pursuing your passion is not meant to be easy – in fact pursuing your passion entails this question: what am I willing to suffer for? Entrepreneurship (and life) is filled with uncertainties. In fact, the only certainty is that life is uncertain. Your purpose and passion will be your anchor that guiding you through tough times.

Even then, don’t feel too pressured to know all the answers now. It will take an entire lifetime to know yourself, to ask yourself what is important to you and that’s fine. Above all, keep failing (but make sure you learn from your mistakes) and know that you only need to be right once in life to succeed. Just hang in there long enough to be right once.

 

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