There are many things you can describe Darien Mah as – huge Star Wars fan, avid DOTA 2 player, CEO of independent creative agency Forefront International – but the one that rings truest would be that he is one who sees the faintest glint of opportunity in the murkiest of situations and make it work in his favour.
Take the case of when things at the previous company he was attached to as a game programmer didn’t work out -- he left with 3 other artists and, from the living room of his own apartment, led them to start Forefront Studio.
“We didn’t start out as a creative agency,” he tells me from his office where today he oversees his growing team of 70-plus scattered across three floors of an office block. “We started out as a web design agency. We expanded very fast and we now cover almost everything from visualisation and creative design to 3D and app software design. Some of our biggest clients include EcoWorld, SP Setia, Gamuda, CapitaLand and Petron.”
Needless to say, things were never always this rosy.
There was a point when he was almost out of funds and had the Employees Provident Funds (EPF) knocking at his door. Yet he refused to give up and that single decision sees Forefront Studio fresh from a name change to Forefront International today as it opens up its second international location in London (Forefront is already registered in Singapore) while Mah eyes Australia as his next mark on the map.
From RM300, 000…
Starting off with RM200,000 borrowed from his parents and another RM100,000 from an old friend from college, Mah embarked on a journey riddled with lessons learnt through trial and error.
“We grew very fast in our first year, but that was also a downfall,” he admits. “We started to think it would be that easy, and that was when I started being careless with my finances.”
Fresh in the scene with no experience in sales and marketing, he also started Forefront with little focus on what the company’s strength should be. “As a start-up we wanted every client – we were short of funds, we needed the projects. But what we needed was a clear focus,” he reflects.
“We’ve gained and lost clients, we’ve won and lost projects. Every time that happens, we re-strategise. We plan our campaigns better every time we don’t succeed and try and see where we can improve.”
… to RM30 million
Today, Forefront International is worth an estimated RM30 million based on the latest offer for a buy-out by an international creative agency giant, but Mah says they are not for sale.
His reason: the happiness of, to be precise, 77 staff he has with him on the team.
“I didn’t want to sell because we will no longer be independent and a lot of our initiatives now may be scrapped as it is something people may see as too playful,” he tells earnestly.
He is referring to the many programmes he has implemented to keep ‘Forefronteers’, as they call themselves, happy. These efforts and extra perks saw the company spending no less than RM870,000 on them alone in the last fiscal year.
“Getting the manpower and retaining our key people was my biggest challenge; these programmes have helped me successfully retain my best people.”
Happiness = creativity = productivity
Beyond daily perks like lunch on the company or movie nights, Mah has in place his High Achiever’s training programmes where potential candidates are sent on a holiday/training to develop their leadership skills. Promising individuals also get an increased EPF contribution as well as special allowances for personal self-actualisation goals. The company even goes as far as to help its employees purchase their first house with a special assistive payment programme with any client developer.
“It's the people here who make the company,” Mah reasons. “We sell ideas, which is why we need our people to constantly evolve their thinking. The best way to do that is to give them everything they need to grow that area. ”
“We don’t just look at the skillsets that they can give to the company, we also want to develop them as individuals,” he adds. “Let’s face it, if you aren’t happy, it’s very difficult to be productive.”
Forefronteers at heart
Seeing Forefronteers grow and achieve their full potential as a result of his policies with the company is the best reward for Mah.
“Recently I was invited to a wedding of our associate creative director who has been here 7 years,” he shares. “She started off as a junior designer. In one of her photographs of her and her bridesmaids, aside from her two sisters and one very close friend, the rest were Forefronteers. They are colleagues who have become so close that they are part of each other’s life milestones.”
“I like to think it’s because of our work culture here that encourages you to genuinely bond with your colleagues and make friends out of them. My biggest reward is being able to change lives by empowering my teammates and giving them the chance to be the best that they can be.”
(Photos: Forefront International)
Another two Bright Young Things grabbing and making their own opportunities for success: Colin Chung and Kenny Tai of Hooked Hospitality.