The label “self-made” is often thrown around callously, more so in this century where the “self-made” are literally made by themselves with a computer and an internet connection. But once in a while we find a modern day man who just so happens to fit the age-old definition of a self-made man.
Andrew Tan is a multi-lingual and multi-talented man. The founder of Luxury Boutique Accommodation, a company that manages Airbnb listings and co-founder of AppShack Asia is however not self-aggrandising. Having experienced all the highs and lows (including two bankruptcies) of entrepreneurship, Andrew prefers to be an open book of knowledge, sharing the secrets to his success, and the lessons from his failures.
Change your environment
Born to parents who owned a coffee shop in Batu Pahat, Johor, the middle child of three found himself working by the age of 8.
“Basically, I lived in the coffee shop,” he says, with a reminiscent smile. “I used to sweep the floor and refill the ice. Then I got promoted to a dish washer,” he laughs.
Andrew’s parents couldn’t afford to send all their children to school all the time but Andrew doesn’t reflect on his difficult childhood with any kind of sadness, because he believes it planted the seeds for his ambition.
“I never thought about becoming rich so I could buy myself a Ferrari or something like that. I only thought about making a difference to my environment. That environment was really bad; I hated it and so I used that as a motivation to get out of that situation.”
From the age of 13 to his late teens, Andrew ventured into different enterprises while going to school and working at the coffee shop. He began as a newspaper delivery boy, before running a car wash with his friends. But just as he had planned, his future lay elsewhere.
Don't be a victim to success
Andrew did complete his schooling before moving to Kuala Lumpur to continue his education at college. Eventually, he travelled to the UK, scrounging and saving while working odd jobs to fund his way through his Bachelor’s Degree in Business Information System and IT, and his Master’s Degree in E-Commerce.
“I didn’t see it as a tough life; at the time my only focus was on the next thing. I didn’t think about what I had to go through now, but what I’m going to create after this,” he says.
“When you’re young, you are so full of ego, you think you’re somebody and greed becomes an addiction.”
Returning home, Andrew became involved in a telecommunications business relating to on-demand ringtones and SMS marketing. The company became astoundingly successful, so much so that Andrew and his partners were able to list the company publicly. But they learned the hard way that staying successful is just as hard as becoming successful.
“We had been doing a lot of deficit spending, investing in technology that wasn’t workable, so we went bankrupt. I started that company, in the 26th month we got listed and the whole thing wiped out in 8 months.”
Andrew blames the episode on his youthful arrogance:
“The problem was once we had listed, nobody was working; everyone was talking about spending and speculating the share prices. When you’re young, you are so full of ego, you think you’re somebody and greed becomes an addiction.”
Get your hands dirty
Picking himself up, Andrew found work with an acquaintance who was looking to purchase electronic waste material. He approached companies who were paying to remove their old electronics, and offered to do it for free before selling the waste for profit. The small business expanded into a multi-country operation, except this time, he invested his money more prudently.
“I purchased a lot of properties in those years. Most of them were very small units in prime locations. My strategy was to buy the properties and rent them out to expatriates. But the market situation was bad and I was unable to rent them.”
But a chance meeting with the CEO of Airbnb in Singapore, at a friend's wedding provided Andrew with the solution. Just as the company was moving into Malaysia, Andrew listed 10 of his properties and saw exceptional returns within a few months. He expanded by reaching out to friends and offering to manage their vacant properties and this became the model for Luxury Boutique Accommodation.
“If I didn’t get my hands dirty, I wouldn’t know.”
Today, the company manages 58 properties - 32 of which are owned by them - but this didn’t come easy.
“In the first few months I was a chamber maid,” he jokes. “I did the cleaning, handover the keys, everything, I did myself. But then I hired a cleaning company; I replaced all the locks with electronic keypads so I could just give the code; and I developed a guide for the surrounding area.”
“The reason I could come up with all of this was because I was in the business myself. If I didn’t get my hands dirty, I wouldn’t know.”
Leave a legacy
With Luxury Boutique Accommodation sailing along smoothly, Andrew’s latest venture looks to be more than just a revenue source. AppShack Asia is a venture capitalist organisation dedicated to investing in tech startups.
“Primarily, I’m investing in a business’ execution ability. I’m looking at what problems the business can solve and who will want that solution. Then, put the business aside, I look at the person; who are you? What is your background? How can you make the business a success?”
Although AppShack is still a business, Andrew sees a secondary benefit in being able to help others turn their ideas into reality.
“We do not identify trends, we identify possibilities. We see beyond the present and try to identify what you’re trying to create. If your idea is unique enough I don’t mind going in, even at a loss. That’s the nature of venture capitalism. We endure many failures, because all we need is one home run.”
“Being an entrepreneur isn’t something no one can achieve, but it takes a lot of hard work and failure.”
With several home runs and strikeouts of his own, Andrew doesn't believe his success should be measured by his wealth, but instead, by the positive impact he has on the people around him.
“It’s not about making more money,” says Andrew with a sobering honesty. “Rather than just looking at how much money I can make, I want to enrich other people. I hope that once I reach another breakthrough, I will be able to speak to more universities, colleges and schools to share my experiences as an entrepreneur.”
“Being an entrepreneur isn’t something no one can achieve, but it takes a lot of hard work and failure. And I want to share this so that people will be prepared and know what they’re going to face.”
Make full use of your life
With a gentle reminder as to why he shares his story so openly, Andrew makes it clear his aim to have people take resposibility for their lives.
“I want to inspire people to stop the practice of ‘the victim story.’ I am sad to listen to people feeling sad for themselves. You can always blame someone else, blame the government or whoever; but all you do is attract more of that negativity into your life.”
“The rich man and the poor man, both have 24 hours a day, but what makes them different is what they do with those 24 hours. I believe, you don’t live once, but you will only die once. You are living everyday, so make full use of your life.”
Another inspiring young entrepreneur: Darien Mah of Forefront International