Interviewing serial entrepreneur JeeShen Lee in Malacca Malaysia (or Melaka) has shown me one thing: starting a tech company in a small industrial town requires lots of courage and determination. JeeShen has started a software solutions company called BizVise, and is looking to disrupt the hotel business in South-East Asia with a second company called mySoftinn.
JeeShen Lee met his partners and many of his clients through his involvement with JCI, a non-profit organization that aims to unite tech entrepreneurs in the region. He’s helping to pioneer a nascent tech ecosystem in Malaysia.
Tech may be new in Malacca but entrepreneurship isn’t. Historic and situated in-between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Malacca is charming. The streets downtown are lively, and its traditional cuisine, called Nyonya, has a unique blend of Chinese and Malay cuisines, an artifact of the many Chinese merchants and entrepreneurs who have moved into South-East Asia since the 17th century. Those earlier entrepreneurs created many prosperous businesses.
JeeShen and I had a great time discussing at the charming Calanthe Art Cafe in the city’s old quarter. I candidly asked him a few questions about his journey.
How did BizVise start?
I started to think seriously about starting up a company after I finished second in the MDeC IHL Business Plan National Competition. I was finishing my master’s degree at Multimedia University in Melaka and was looking for ways to start a business.
The journey really started when I freelanced to make machinery test solutions, during evenings and weekends at my former employer, for factory clients I would meet through friends. When I was getting more referrals than I could handle, I saw the potential to scale my operation and decided to quit my job. Each factory has special requirements and we build custom software that helps them in operating their business. I started hiring developers (and by the way, I still enjoy developing) and we’re now thriving.
How did you choose your partners and early employees?
I met my current partner while he was one of my first factory clients and was funding the early venture. He became more involved and started meeting potential clients with me. That’s how we became closer and decided to partner up. We also worked together in the JCI Malacca City Entrepreneur organization. I feel this is the best way to choose a partner because you get to test the relationship before making it more serious.
To me, trustworthiness and a good attitude are the most important attributes in partners and employees. It’s like family.
At the beginning, I had trouble finding good developers who can work with us. I had a very small experienced team when I started and we’re now used to working together. It has been challenging to scale our knowledge, bring new people in seamlessly. We’ve solved the problem by having our office close to the Multimedia University in Malacca, and give lectures and workshops to students about web programming. From there, we recruit new grads, train them, and if they fit with our culture, we invite them to join our company. We have a distributed team of developers and we collaborate online through “Team Foundation Server.”
And what now?
We are now moving to cloud solutions for the hotel industry in Malaysia. We have come up with lots of interesting ideas by working closely with them and looking holistically at the problem. So far, we have offered a solution to more than 10 hotels in Malacca. Our solution makes it super simple for a hotel to connect online and start selling within a week after signing up. It looks promising for our ambition to create a scalable company in South-East Asia. I’ll keep you guys posted.
How do you find your sources of inspiration?
I was inspired my late grandfather who came from China in order to start businesses in Malaysia. He did very well setting up coffee shops, grocery shops and rice plantations throughout Malaysia. Unfortunately, he died before I was born. His war stories were told by my uncles, which has inspired me to become an entrepreneur as well. I didn’t know at the time how challenging it was.
When I joined JCI in Malacca during college, I met other people with similar aspirations and I learned from their experience. I have been quite active at the club as I’m now the vice-president of the Malacca chapter. We visit factories, talk to real-life entrepreneurs, have community projects. In one project, we helped clean the Malacca river. There are only a handful of tech entrepreneurs here but I see opportunities to bond further together and inspire more people to jump off the boat.
My main source of inspiration is my love for creating solutions for my customers. Even when I started with very few customers, I knew how much value I was providing to them with our skills and knowledge, and that has kept me going.
My girlfriend was also helping me during the early stage with the accounting part of the business. In Malaysia, you need to show proper accounts even at the beginning. That was a struggle for me. At the beginning, the income was not stable but my family was very supportive by telling me to persevere and by listening to my problems.
You seem to want to build a scalable business. Why not raise lots of money?
Silicon Valley is very different from Malaysia. I have applied for pre-seed grants from which you can get a hundred thousand ringgits from the government to make a prototype. There are VCs in Kuala Lumpur. Because I started off as a service business, providing custom solutions to my clients, it was not yet a scalable business that they we are interested in. Plus the valuations there are not as good as they could be.
At one point, we were running short of cash and I was forced to decide on either getting decent monitors or comfortable chairs. We ended up buying monitors and using the bubble bags that came with them to make our chairs more comfortable.
The valley is unique and I can’t build a business the Silicon-Valley way. I need to be creative to fund my business and learn about my customers in order to build that scalable product over time.