Most entrepreneurs start something to solve a problem or scratch their own itch. To fill in the gaps of a market void or had dreams of striking it big. Instantly.sg however, was neither of those thing. It was a wholly unplanned move.
My name is Ewan, and I started Instantly.sg. I first conceptualised the business in April 2014. 2 months later, the company had its very first event in June 2014. A lot of people always thought that i started this business because I’m passionate about photography. The typical ‘technical guy who knows photography’. Truth is, I am not technical at all, and certainly not a photographer – in fact, I don’t fancy photo taking at all!
PS: Credits to Tan Ruo Yu for the awesome face swap on the left. See if you can spot me!
9 to 5
I graduated from NTU back in 2013 with a Honours Degree in Economics. During the course of my university education, I was exposed to entrepreneurship as a result of a minor course I took up when I was in year 2. In fact, I started a business back then with my good buddy from Partymojo.
‘9 out of 10 startups fail’
The odds were a heavy risk. So, just like my peers, I decided to work first after I graduated. Job hunting suck. I hated it. I faced a couple of rejections here and there, before I finally got into a Singapore telco as a Management Associate. The pay was pretty decent, higher than average, and I consider myself really lucky.
I was in the digital group within the company and things are a lot more interesting. Work was fun, and I got to work with amazing people there. My bosses were nice and I had great opportunities. I got to visit countries like Israel and Europe, to see what the rest of the world is doing. It was an eye opener. The world is huge, and filled with smart people (way smarter than me) doing incredible things. It was a humbling experience for me.
I was fortunate to meet about 20 startups during my trip to Israel with my boss during 2014. They presented to my boss their business, hopping that our company would take an interest and invest in them. Of these 20 startups, I can still remember quite a few of them till date. As I was writing this article, I went to research back on them. Almost all of them has since closed down. A few have pivoted.
Meanwhile, I settled into the work rhythm and things started to come to a standstill. I started getting bored. My daily job became a chore. It was always about slides, slides and more slides. Meetings were most of the time meaningless. I wanted something more hands-on. To really work on something and see it turn into tangible results. I started to explore various ideas, discussing them with my girlfriend (current wife) back then . Every single night, when I reach home, I would tinkle with things, read up on self help online tutorials etc. That’s where I picked up a little programming, and managed to start a food menu website called maksmenu.com (now defunct).
As the new guy in the department, I was ‘arrowed’ to work on the department’s D&D. As I thought of ways on entertaining guests during the dinner, I chanced upon a website that allowed Instagram photos to be projected in real time based on a designated hashtag. I witness how fun it was at the D&D. Instagram was a growing trend, and everyone around me were snapping away and uploading their photos to Instagram and hashtagging it with our department hashtag. Laughter could be heard everywhere as the photos came up one after another.
Then, I thought to myself, why not get these photos printed?!
Immediately, after the D&D, I went back to research on this possibility. I read Instagram’s API, and tinkle with it by myself every single night. After two months in June 2014, with some external freelancer’s help, I had my service ready and functional. It was really a MVP (Minimal Viable Product), and things were manual. But it’s ok. It’s at least functional. Following suit, I set up a simple wordpress website, and cold emailed to various events organizers, telling them I would like to be at their event to provide my service for free. In that same month, we had our very first event.
I can still remember clearly – it was a tech startup event held at Kyo. I was excited but at the same time worried that we may screw up. My wife came to help, along with my good buddy and his wife from Partymojo. The response was good. It was really happy and satisfying to see my guests enjoying our service.
Two months later, I closed a huge event in August – Color Run 2014. I was very lucky to get it. Till date I still had no idea why I was chosen. My company was the smallest (a one man show), and had the least experience. We’ve only completed about five events at that point of time and none was a paid event. Not to mention, we had limited equipment. I was so sure there were other companies out there with better pitches.
It was a really tough ride during the weeks leading to the event. Fortunately, I had help from my family, cousins and friends. I recalled taking multiple leaves from my corporate job and ploughed through the night. Right at the very night before the event, I was still reading up on ISO, AV, Shuttle speed etc.
For this event, the client requested for a photo booth in additional to our Live Instagram Printing. At that point of time, because I was really hungry to get the deal, I just said we can do it. But the fact is, I have no idea how to do it. In fact, I don’t even have a DSLR camera (Xinhe if you are reading this, Thank You for lending me your camera). In the end, somehow, I still manage to get the photo booth set up. That was Instantly.sg first ever photo booth service :’)
The final response was good, and the clients were happy. The excitement was kicking into my veins. I realized then, that this was a viable business, and was definitely more thrilling than doing my corporate job. With this business preoccupying my entire mind, I was obsessed with making it work.
To quit or not to quit
Around Nov-Dec 2014, I started to ponder over quitting and working full time on Instantly.sg. I discussed this thought with the people around me.
My wife’s words rang with me. She said
“If you don’t do it now then when? Don’t wait till our opportunity costs get high then you do it. You have my full support.”
My parents advised me to think it through, as they expressed similar concerns. I remembered my father first 4 words were “eh tan jiat bo?”
My direct boss’s answer to me was simple. Two words “Do it”
My big boss’s answer said this “If you want to be an entrepreneur, no one can stop you…. Work hard and remember… fire in the belly…”
So all in all, most of the people I cared about was supportive. But I had concerns of my own… What if I become broke? What if I fail?
I had intentions to get married at that point in time, and there were opportunity costs to risk. I mapped out a couple of alternative routes, listing the pros and cons to myself.
- If I fail, I could always get a job outside.
- It was a calculated risk, and I already had some potential clients lined up.
- My idea was proven and validated, and it should all be fine.
- Worse come to worse, I can always teach tuition to supplement income here and there.
I was 80% sure to tender, but there’s still 20% left. I felt unsafe, and pondered over it even more. With all the ‘what if’s hanging in the air, I was in search of that one last push.
The little blue bird
I was going back home from office as per usual, and made my way to the locker area to grab my bag. Near the entrance to the locker are was a high-tech door which uses facial recognition. Upon successful detection of a staff’s face, a blue bird will appear on the screen. It will send a personalised greeting with a randomized, famous quote before opening the door. For example, “Hi Ewan! Stay hungry stay foolish – Steve Jobs”, or “Hi Ewan! Move fast and break things.”
That day was no different – or shall I say, made all the difference. I will forever remember the words flashing on the screen.
“Don’t be afraid… just believe”.
The next morning, I tendered my resignation letter.