Why did a Successful Entrepreneur go to University ?

Photo www.business.asiaone.com

This time round, Digital Senior is very privileged to talk to Singapore’s very own ”Mark Zuckerburg”.

Nickson Guay is the founder of Marketlight Pte Ltd, a digital marketing agency with revenue of more than half a million last year. Thats not the most shocking thing. He is only 20 years old and a student in Singapore University of Technology and Design. Marketlight is his second business. He was featured on newspaper last year. How did he do all that ? Did he have a lot of financing help from his family ? Or does he look very mature for his age ? Most important of all, why did he go to university !? Lets dive into his secrets now.

Your business requires you to talk to many business owners who are older than you. how do you convince them and get them to trust you ?

There are 3 factors. You can actually use your youth to your advantage.

  1. In this field, the younger you are, the more people trust you. They will generally not expect someone who is more mature to be well versed in Facebook.
  2. People think that you are easy to cheat and will want to do business with you. I gradually learn by taking a lot of deals that are not advantageous for me.
  3. I read alot of books and acquire a wealth of knowledge which makes it easy for me to converse with them and prove that I am worth my salt.
What books do you read ?

Only non-fiction books on marketing, business, HR, entrepreneurship etc.

Zero to one by Peter Thiel is very good.

How do you strike the balance between learning and taking action ? Many gets stuck in the endless cycle of learning.

Doing just-in-time learning*. I learn only when I need to. For example, my accountant showed me our balance sheet the other day which I am clueless about. That’s when I read on finance.

*In schools, we do just-in-case learning instead whereby we learn something just in case we need it, but more often than not, the knowledge we acquire will never be put to use. Just-in-time learning is about learning just enough to take action and saves the time in doing redundant learning.

How did you get started in business ? what was the first step you took ?

Start small. Many people have big fussy dreams such as building the next Google or Facebook. However, without track record, its hard to get funding. For example, Mark Zuckerburg built many applications prior to Facebook. Apple was also started in a Garage.

I started by doing surveys. I collect data of people, put it in excel and sell it to property and insurance companies and agents that need those data. It was back in those days. (Now, with the Personal data protection Act in full force, you can’t do that anymore.) I would make cold calls to prospects, get rejected countless times and finally meet up with those interested to sell those data to them. After that, business grew and I need to build a website. I learn how to do it by myself. With the website, I need to attract traffic to the website. Thats where I equip myself with digital marketing skills such as SEO. With those skillsets, I began to offer it for other businesses as a service. The digital marketing agency was then born.

Tell us about your first experience with a client.

After many cold calls, there was this insurance agent who finally agreed to meet up with me. To my surprise, he was willing to pay me $150 for my data. He asked me to issue an invoice which I dont even know what it is. I have to learn by reading. As for the digital marketing side, we started by providing the service at cost price for our clients. When they see results in the form of increased business, we began to charge more.

How did you chance upon your business idea in the first place ? How would you suggest people look for business ideas ?

 Basically I was doing something (surveys) and chanced upon an opportunity to do something bigger. There are a few ways. One is, if you have no idea, just start small first – from there you will eventually find better ideas or ways to serve a market need.

The other approach is to think of how you can do something that is 10x better than the top player in the existing market, and build the revolutionary product from there. It doesn’t have to be new. Google is not the first search engine to appear in the market, and Apple is not the first company that invented the MP3 player (we know that Creative did)

Do you have a partner ?

Now, one of the directors of SgCarMart* is an investor and partner of Marketlight. After the newspaper article was published, I receive many calls for partnership. Prior to that, I don’t. So It was tough. I did everything from sales, operations, finance to accounting all by myself.

*SgCarMart was sold to SPH for 60million dollars.

Why digital marketing ?

It is a sunrise industry and people are willing to pay for it because it allows them to earn more money in return.

Marketlight Team
Photo www.ajcaa.com
 Why did u go to university when you already have a thriving business?

During the interview in SUTD itself, I told the panel I am here for the knowledge, not the degree, which I dont really have a need for.

There are mainly 2 reasons.

  1. Technical knowledge is hard to pick up on your own.i.e. Programming , product development. For soft skills such as negotiation, selling, communicating, you can learn on your own outside. SUTD is a unique university that offers what I want in terms of technical foundation.
  2. I believe university days is the best phase of one’s life. I really enjoy going to school. I get to meet people of my age group, have fun and make a lot of friends. There’s also the exchange experience where we get to go to MIT and know some brilliant people.
Why did u choose SUTD ?

Basically if the whole idea about SUTD is not exciting to you, then you might not be a good fit for the uni. One thing that is rather rare is that people here are actually very sincere and you can actually be yourself. We don’t take appearances very strongly, and grades that seriously. What matters is how you can apply your knowledge to help someone, build something or make the world better.

Also, SUTD is one that teaches you to think in terms of first principles. Instead of forcing formulas down your throats, they instead teach you axioms (the fundamental truths of something) and then you combine these axioms to build your own formulas. It is surprising and refreshing to learn that memorization is something that is not really required when you have an education in SUTD.

Another idea is that we almost have no competition over here. Most people like to collaborate and build greater things together. Even if we have mini-competitions within classes sometimes, what everyone usually emphasize on is the learning experience rather than winning the competition. This makes it very different from the usual teaching method that most people are exposed to.

Many students struggle with mounting school commitments. What are your secrets for juggling business, school work, cca and social life ?

There’s a tradeoff. You dont see me in social events. There’s no downtime. During breaks, I would be on calls with my staff.

It helps that SUTD doesnt work on the bell curve system like most other schools do. Our marks are absolute.

 What do you think is the most important factor about you that brought you results in business ?

Taking calculated risks. Taking people’s investment without being sure if I can repay it. Starting a company while in NS which was not allowed according to rules.( but eventually yes, after I asked for permission) Doing something even though it may not work out. Basically, Just doing something!

What is your motivation for working so hard ?

It arises more from a need. I come from a poor family and have to earn money to pay for my university fees.   It is a survival instinct. Also, having been through poverty, you would be motivated not to experience that state again.


What’s up next ?

I am moving on to the next startup, most likely in the finance space.

It would be something that could automatically calculate credit worthiness of an individual and provide loans.

 Any advice for budding entrepreneurs ?

Start something and never give up.

Does this interview evoke the question of why you go to university in the first place ? In a meritocratic society like Singapore, Nickson’s story has proven the fact that we can succeed inspite of qualifications and age. If there’s anything you got out of him, let it be simply to learn for the joy of it and not go to university for the sake of it. There will be less unhappiness in university as a result.

University is a great place for learning if we become less obsessed about the grades and more about the learning. And it will become a better place for all of us! (how idealistic). Will you be the next success story interviewed by Digital Senior? Email us at info@digitalsenior.sg if you think you are the one. Or drop your comments below.


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