Creating a million dollar company when he was only 20 and winning 'The Firm' as the youngest contestant at 23 are only the tip of the iceberg for Joel Neoh.

Key in the name Joel Neoh in your Internet browser searchbar and an endless list  of information regarding the 30-year-old would flood your computer screen. He is perhaps best known for his role as the founder of Groupon Malaysia and, as of today, the head of Groupon Asia Pacific that sees him overseeing operations in a region of 12 countries, but his resume boasts an even more colourful catalog of achievements. He, along with other technopreneurs the likes of Timothy Tiah, are slowly but surely changing the face of entrepreneurship in Malaysia.

If you’re impressed that Neoh came in as the first and youngest winner of the popular corporate reality TV show, ‘The Firm’ in 2007 at the tender age of 23, or that he chairs and organises multiple fundraisers on top of all his existing responsibilities, get ready for more surprises as that is only the tip of one very big iceberg.

From engineer to entrepreneur

It all happened quite by accident for the entrepreneur who today not only mans over 200 employees at Groupon Malaysia but is also a regular spokesperson for youths and business. Curiosity drew the engineering major into a friend’s business class one day and his fascination with the many opportunities the world of business presented has not waned since. 

“I was more curious in business because it was more open-ended, it leverages on more creativity,” shares Neoh. “Things like physics and math have been figured out 200-300 years ago. All the formulas have been come up with and all you can do is apply it in different scenarios. “ 

“What is great about entrepreneurship is that it rewards curiosity,” he says.

Starting his first business venture – an agency that hooked fresh graduates up with prospective future employers and work opportunities -- gave him his first taste of the lucrative rewards of business. He might only have been 20 years old then, but he turned it into a million dollar affair. That success in turn fuelled and fed him more ambition. Soon after, he began to realise that the future of business lies in the sector of Internet companies which spurred him on to start looking at Internet company business models.

Eventually, he came across what would become Groupon Malaysia today and the rest, as they say, is history.

"Go big or go home"

One can perhaps say he arrived at where he is today by taking things one at a time.  The young man who has been dubbed the pioneer of youth entrepreneurship is a firm believer in trying out new things.

“The way I see life is that you go through many phases. Life is really short so you want to try and do as many things as you can,” he offers. 

That never-say-never spirit is illustrated throughout his schooling days and lives on with him to this day. He was an avid basketball, volleyball, and handball player as well as a national representative in squash and rockclimbing. He held a scholarship throughout his tertiery education from which he graduated among the top 3 in his course. He even dabbled in modeling for a short stint just to see what that was like.

His name became one people sat up and paid attention to when he won first place in the corporate reality television show, 'The Firm' based on Donald Trump's 'The Apprentice' in 2007. At 23, he was the youngest contestant on the show.

Straying out of his comfort zone is clearly something that is almost second nature to him. “I did a lot of different things but I always try and do my best in it,” he says.

He was also one to constantly break from convention and do things his own way.

“Back then in the classroom there were people who worked really hard and they study really long hours. I wouldn’t categorise myself within that group. Instead, I was always thinking about how to make things work smarter. Although I don’t do 12 hours, but I spend more time thinking about how to simplify things and create a structure to understand the problem better or answer the right questions faster.”

That combination of always daring to try new things and working smart honed in him a fearlessness that would render him almost invincible when it comes to failure. Go big or go home is a personal mantra he holds on to in running his many business ventures.

“The problem with Internet space is that if you think small and spend the amount of time building something small compared to someone building something big, eventually you’ll get ousted of the competition. Someone bigger will find it easier to buy out the company or to basically compete with you,” he articulates. “A lot of what the successful businesses have in common is that they have a big vision and they’re ambitious and they go for the big win. There’s no place for the in-between or the small fries."

"You never know until you try"

He credits being able to stay ahead of his competition to reading.

“Reading stretches how you think about things,” he shares. “When you read, you go divergent and explore, then you do, which is when you execute and learn while you’re doing. You get the big picture and you also execute on the small steps. 

It helps that he doesn’t see what he does as a job, rather as something he actually derives great pleasure from. “The good thing is that in general I find a lot of pleasure in discovering new ways in doing things. That’s what drives me and gets me really excited. I love finding other options to doing things faster and more efficiently.  I’m always looking for ways to look at the business differently, how we can position it to be more successful”

“Whenever I’m given a task, people would start working on it but for me, I start to map it out how I can do it faster and better instead. That naturally translated into my business and entrepreneurship. As much as it is about putting in the hours, it’s more important to be smart about it and know what the objective is, what you’re trying to solve and answer the right questions instead of just jumping in and doing it for the sake of doing it,” he adds.

At the moment, Neoh, who also is one of the key speakers for the Asian Business Angel Forum, sees a long and exciting journey ahead for himself. He’ll be the first to tell you that he is far from reaching his own version of the pinnacle of success. 

“Success begets success. Especially at this age, there are a lot more opportunities and a lot more things that I can contribute back to a bigger and broader group of people,” he says of the matter.  

At the same time, he is quick to add, “It’s about enjoying the journey and not focusing too much on the destination. You gotta embrace it. If you wake up and you’re passionate about what you do, I think that’s success.”

Entrepreneurship is a maze booby-trapped with many downfalls and monetary snares. It is no secret that out of the thousands of start-ups that get registered daily, only a handful actually make it and live to see profit. But that risk is what exactly makes it so worthwhile.

“What’s most important is not having the fear of failure,” shares Neoh on a last note. “Most people have great ideas but they don’t work on it because of that fear. “

“You never know until you try it. The worst case of failure is that you go back into employment and you’re back to where you started. You only live one life, why not try things out, especially when you’re young. Go all out then when you look back, at least you can say you went for what you want.”


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