Taking The Leap, Time And Again
Throughout his career, Kelvin Phang has been unafraid of changing his path to take advantage of opportunities that emerged.
After spending the first seven years of his career as a journalist in radio, TV and newspapers, Kelvin Phang leveraged his media experience to make the move into the marketing communications game in 2003.
Two years later, he was posted to China by his then-employer; a stint that would last almost 10 years and open up his eyes to the entrepreneurial opportunities available in this vast and dynamic market. In 2012, he took the plunge and started his own marketing agency, ‘Empower’, in Shanghai.
Mr Phang has not looked back since, and today he is the founder of mobility startup ‘RIDEnjoy’, which he established in 2020 at the age of 50. BiZQ speaks to the entrepreneur on his journey from journalist to tech start-up founder to find out the challenges he faced along the way, and his plans for the future.
What made you make the transition from journalism to marketing communications, and now entrepreneurship?
When I started working in 1996, it was still the era of pagers and press releases using fax machines. In 1998, I had an assignment to Guangzhou and also an IBM-sponsored media junket to Silicon Valley. The contrast between the China and America market opened my mind to the potential of technology and scale.
I was incredibly blessed to make the transition from media to the agency side in 2003, and my first agency ‘Octagon’ moved me from Singapore to China by late 2005. To work and live in China from 2005 to 2014 during a double-digit growth period, and witness the rise of companies like Alibaba, Tencent and Didi transformed my mindset and how I viewed the world.
After almost a decade in an agency serving global brands like Pepsi, Nike, Adidas, Johnnie Walker, Hennessy, BMW, and more, I started my own integrated marketing agency ‘Empower’ in 2012. Besides media and agency experience, I was also blessed to have worked for two global sports entertainment unicorns – World Wrestling Entertainment and Ultimate Fighting Championship – leading their regional marketing efforts in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
When I started ‘Empower’ in Shanghai, I always knew that I would set up my second office in Singapore one day. In 2014, the opportunity arrived when our Chinese clients started to expand outside of China.
From 2014 to 2019, I divided my time equally between the China and Singapore offices, serving Singapore clients who needed our services in mainland China, and Chinese clients who needed our services outside of China.
The pandemic changed everything, and I have been grounded in Singapore since January 2020, which eventually led to the launch of my mobility startup ‘RIDEnjoy’.
What were the challenges you faced in changing industries and roles?
Journalists and marketers launching their own agencies is a lot more common these days than in the 1990s. I had an opportunity to start a PR agency in Singapore in 2005 with my ex-boss, but I declined as I craved exposure to a bigger market, bigger clients, bigger budgets, and China was the perfect opportunity for me to do so.
I believe in stepping out of my comfort zone. For example, I relocated within 12 days of accepting the China job offer. Every move brings new challenges, be it different cultures or working with colleagues of differing mindsets. Not every move or every client relationship will work out but being respectful and authentic can go a long way.
The adage “when one door closes, another door opens” holds true. The caveat is you must also work on your relationships. I have been retrenched five times in 16 years as an employee, but each time, I was approached by headhunters or received an offer from ex-bosses or ex-colleagues within weeks.
The term “Don’t burn your bridges” is true for any industry and at any stage of one’s career.
What inspired you to set up ‘RIDEnjoy’?
‘RIDEnjoy’ is Singapore’s first active mobility lifestyle platform that connects users to businesses and places through social navigation (navigating based on where others have gone before), rewards gamification, and location-based services.
Singapore is blessed with a fast-growing island wide network of park connectors. By using foldable bikes, it is so easy to walk, cycle, and ride (MRT) anywhere in Singapore.
As a life-long cyclist, I was deeply saddened by the rise in cycling fatalities on the road and accidents on the park connector network in recent years. Through geospatial technology, ‘RIDEnjoy’ can play a part in making walking and cycling safer and more enjoyable for years to come.
How has the business grown, and what are your expansion plans?
‘Ridenjoy’ is 6 months old, and our beta was the number one Lifestyle app (iOS) and number one Transport app on Google Playstore in late December 2021.
By Q4, we hope to launch our “J-Shops” marketplace, where users are rewarded with “J-Coins” for their mileage which can be redeemed for discounts, as well as “JoyStops”, where users can receive push-to-purchase coupons based on their location.
Looking ahead, we aim to launch the app in Malaysia by 2023 and Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines by 2024.
What traits do you think an entrepreneur needs to succeed?
Besides having a growth mindset, I believe one has to “embrace the terrifying”. Often the fear of failure is what prevents us from moving forward. I am divided on whether traits for entrepreneurship are inborn or taught.
My parents are both small business owners, and I saw with my own eyes their struggles. I never thought I would be starting my second start-up at age 50. For me, I hope to build something that can outlive me and make my kids proud of me when I am no longer around.
Why are you motivated to keep learning and trying new things at this stage of your career?
As a parent of three, I do ask myself, ‘Can we leave the planet in better shape than it is now?’ I don’t think I can clear all ocean plastic or save the rainforest, but I do believe ‘RIDEnjoy’ can play a small part and bring joy to people.
What advice do you have for other working professionals thinking of making a career switch, or starting a business?
Personally, I don’t believe entrepreneurship is for everyone. One must have the ability to handle failure and embrace change.
‘RIDEnjoy’ is my second tech start-up, and I believe the failure of my first has helped me. Having a purpose is important but so is timing. For ‘RIDEnjoy’, the pandemic further fuelled the global active travel and micro-mobility boom.
I believe that we still have plenty to offer in our 50s and 60s, and if we can leverage our experience, network and resources, anything is possible.
In terms of making a career switch, the hunger and humility to learn are essential. We are never too old to learn, even from someone younger. For me, I love working with millennials and soon the Alpha generation. Even old dogs can learn new tricks!