Unfazed by 3 failures, this 20-year-old is building a new startup, with some big names backing it | Digital Asia
He considered himself an embodiment of failure till a few months ago. However, after what he calls a wild journey started about four years ago, this 20-year-old is now confident enough to kickstart his new project with the support of some big names in Singapore.
Andy Chan began his entrepreneurial journey at the age of 16: after having a short stint as a freelance designer, a confident Chan launched his own fashion label — a sort of casual wear — which sold over 40 pieces within a week. But he had to wind up this project for some reasons. Three years later, at 19, he launched another fashion label that played on design trends, but it failed dramatically.
“Going by the definition, the official ‘startup’ I started was shortly before the second fashion label. E-commerce was all the rage, and I identified a problem that I faced during my journey as a fashion designer — that there were no locally-made streetwear brands. Every other brand out there was huge and backed by big names and bigger funds to go with. I came up with a new brand. I worked on this project with my two friends, but it never saw the light of the day,” Chan tells me.
The fashion label was his first ‘official’ failure, too — no one wanted to buy his brand after the first buy. Indeed, no one cared about the second release, which made Chan realise that as a designer he had to be a brand himself — which means he had to have a brand image to take the business to the next level.
“The second failure,” he reveals, “was totally unexpected. I lost thousands of dollars just on manufacturing and sampling, and I realised that I was way too much of a perfectionist when I was designing my pieces. I was a victim of the survivorship bias: I saw many other local brands succeeding, but I did not know that they, too, were struggling like me and they were only showing the best on their social media.”
The third failure came in the form of a co-founder mismatch, he opens up. “We had non-fashion-oriented co-founders working on a platform that was made for fashionistas, who didn’t mind paying more for unique local products. We also failed to recognise that there was another huge competitor in town, and they had the exact same idea and operation strategy. Even though we had a private funding opportunity, we stopped short of developing the website after speaking to a few partners and realised that nobody wanted us as much as we did.”
Chan confesses that at the age of 16, he was too immature to handle failure — he thought he could simply do better next time. He relied so much on luck that he did not even think about failure. He just thought that he was lucky enough to succeed.
“When I lost thousands of dollars, I had to recoup my losses and stop any more manufacturing and shipping. I had only two sales after six months, and I felt absolutely dejected. Hailing from a humble background, losing thousands of dollars was akin to financial suicide, and I found myself barely scraping by for a few months. I was fortunate enough to be doing my internship back then,” he recalls. “However, I was lucky that my family and my partner stood beside me, giving all the support.”
The new journey
After a short break, at the age of 20, he once again decided to try his luck, along with his buddies Zolven TAN Yang Boon (20) and Joseph PUNG Wei Chong (25) — this time in a totally different domain. Collab, as the startup is called, is an Artificial Intelligence-powered platform that helps entrepreneurs in Singapore to find suitable co-founders for their early-stage startup.
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“Collab actually came up during a conversation over lunch and coffee. Our Co-founder, Yang Boon, thought about the idea while lamenting the fact that he had no established networks to tap on, if he wanted to start a company. So, along the same lines, I thought why not a place where he could find co-founders and other key people easily?” he says.
But it was not an easy start. Adds Chan: “We had to fork out a lot of our own personal savings for cash infusions, legal expenses and other miscellaneous expenses that, to the average humble student, would be a huge cost. We also had our own circumstances that led us to only having small amounts of cash every month. I had to swallow my pride and borrow money from my parents, knowing that this was not the outcome I wanted — though of course, all of those would be returned.”
How Collab works
Collab is using Artificial Intelligence to iterate, enhance and ensure that it makes the most relevant and accurate of matches. The AI ensures that the algorithm constantly upgrades itself. Using data, the algorithm understands the criteria that matter the most and then comes up with the most accurate of matches.
“All the user needs to do is basically answering some of our questions and then hitting ‘Match Me’. Behind that lies an algorithm that will ultimately iterate and improve by itself. Anyone can create a scoring mechanism: you answer a question, we give that a score, then we match it with other scores,” he elaborates.
“We’re going a step further to ensure that the algorithm will be highly accurate. We’re allowing the algorithm to learn from its matches, consume data and tweak its criteria accordingly to benefit the next user. Each iteration will be better than the next,” he notes.
The beta version of the product will be rolled out in the end of Q1 2019. The startup plans to serve all kinds of startups, regardless of the stage and entrepreneur. This can range from zero idea-stage startups (they can be matched to other teams) to ideation-, business plan-, prototype/MVP-, seed-, and growth-stage startups.
“We are looking to gain a foothold in Singapore and establish ourselves as the platform to go to build startup teams. We’re initially targeting potential entrepreneurs and tertiary students. When we’re expanding to Southeast Asia, we’re looking to support and proliferate the startup and entrepreneurship scene in countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand,” Chan share the plans.
In future, Collab will be looking to create a recruitment platform, a media arm, a crowdfunding platform, and even a VC arm dedicated to its startups, in order to earn revenues.
The much-needed support
Collab has already received Founder’s Grant and also got the support of TRIVE Ventures. Additionally, the startup has received a US$30,000 grant and mentorship from Enterprise SG.
“TRIVE Ventures is a VC firm that took on Collab as their startup mentee. I approached them after multiple rejections from other VC firms, accelerators and schools, but they were the one that was willing to bet on our startup. After receiving the grant, they’ve been providing us support non-stop, checking up on us to ensure that we are progressing,” he says.
“As for Temasek Launchpad, I was a student in Temasek Polytechnic, which led me to leveraging their support networks. I met up with their Director and within a few minutes the deal was done, and we’re now fully supported by Temasek Launchpad. That includes a crazy load of perks that you normally would have to pay tens of thousands for,” Chan adds.
Collab is also supported by the Action Community for Entrepreneurship and is also under the AWS Activate and Google Cloud for Startups program.
The company also clinched the first runner-up at the Cryptocurrency Expo (organised by Founder’s Space and BlockOn Group) at a startup pitching competition. Collab is currently looking to raise seed funding of US$600,000.
“My startup journey has been a wild ride and it’s only going to get crazier from now on. Initially, Collab never even went close to AI, and that gave us a whole slew of problems. We had to find a CTO and we needed a mentor. We pitched at small, private events that got us nothing but name cards and ‘your idea seems promising’ comments. Nothing solid. I even spent a whole good one to two months on LinkedIn trying to find an advisor,” he laughs.
According to Chan, whatever you do is most likely to fail. “All you need to do is know that success stories mean nothing: it is just an indication that there is a chance to succeed. Behind that chance is the huge chance of failing, which can be underestimated… Shield yourself against this overestimation and find stories of failure. Find the myths and the warning signs.”
“When you’re presented with yet another success story, visit the graves of dead companies, bankruptcies, massive failures and ‘boring’ statistics. Knowing that the chance of success is considerably smaller than you think certainly goes against your own desire to achieve, but it’s a sad reality that we all have to go through, lest we find ourselves in situations so bad it’s worthy of a news mention,” he advises budding entrepreneurs.
Is Singapore actively promoting startups?
“Ultimately, the pressing issue in Singapore is that entrepreneurship is still not widely encouraged. While this is my personal opinion, I do believe that most students here would realise that it’s not something that’s actively encouraged. The irony is that people believe being entrepreneurs would promise wealth, but having wealth would allow them to become entrepreneurs,” says Chan.
“Being stuck in that self-defeating cycle eventually leads to Singapore playing catch-up on the global startup scene. Though in the recent years, this has been widely mitigated with government press statements, support schemes and visions that trickle down to the relevant organisations, the society still largely has the “graduate from university and find a job” mindset prevalent here, making it difficult for entrepreneurship itself to be supported anyway,” he signs off.