OSF 1: Lessons on Scalability and Distribution

Ming Yong of SocialwokMing Yong and I got to know each other back in 2008 while he was fund-raising for Voiceroute.  He’s a smart, sharp guy who’s open to ideas and is quick to adapt to changes. I was really glad to see a fellow savvy Singaporean come home to build his start-up, so I try to help him out in any way that I can.  In the meantime, he has gone from building Voiceroute to Socialwok.  From the start, we two sort of just clicked – I guess it helps that both of us are Singaporeans, are of the same generation, and have spent enough time in the United States to be able to tune in to each other’s wavelengths pretty quick.

This is the first in my Opensourcing Failure series – I interview Ming and learn that scalability and distribution has been his two largest bug-bears since embarking on the long and hard journey of venture creation.

Ming, tell us a little about yourself and what got you into doing your own start-up?

I have always wanted to make a big impact on the world. I took a hard look at my options vis-a-viz my personal profile, abilities and the how the world is progressing, and felt that coming out on my own doing a tech start-up offers a pretty good ROI on my life at this point.  Higher risk appetite, lower burden (of life on me) and obligations, and with the social media web progressing very quickly…you get the drift.

So far, what has been your greatest challenge and/or failure?

It’s a mixed bag. We started in ’06 where we came out with Druid, a user interface built on top of Asterisk, a very popular open source IP-PBX project.  We had decent success early on but failed to jump on the open source bandwagon early enough; i.e. we did not open source Druid and build a project around it until April ’08. In retrospect, we were hesitant about the implications of open sourcing on our business model, which was selling proprietary software for an open source project.

The next issue we did not recognize early on was the implications of business models on the capital required and whether this open source software IP telephony space was really a suitable one for startups.  It took us being in the industry to recognize the intimate relationship between hardware and our software.  Although open source IP telephony software could run on off-the-shelf PCs + PCI based telephony cards, it was actually still very important for us to be able to ship a complete system out the door in order to scale.  We were unable to do that given the reseller networks and capital needed.  We finally recognized it and took some steps to alleviate the situation but it affected our scaling ability.

What have you learnt in the process?

I don’t know if I could have done it better the second time round, given that it was our first time starting up.  We had decent success.  We built worldwide awareness of our software project with 400+ customers ranging from small enterprises to governments.  We had decent publicity and got to network with influential people in the IP telephony space.  I suppose if I were to do it again, I would have open sourced our software early and just focused purely on the software model using open source.

Alternatively, I would have just done Socialwok, an enterprise social SaaS-based service, much earlier on in 2007 :-).

Entrepreneurs face a seemingly never-ending path of walls that they have to break down in order to attain nirvana.  What’s your most recent obstacle?

I am currently focused on Socialwok, an enterprise SaaS service for microblogging and private social networks.  Our biggest obstacle is distribution, distribution, distribution.  We are working on that and big announcements will be forthcoming in that area.  We need to know whom Socialwok is most applicable to, find them, make them happy, make them recommend it and this is how we think we can get widespread adoption of the service.

There is a certain opinion that we Asians tend to celebrate successes less readily than the Western world do, because Asians don’t like each other becoming more successful than themselves.  What are your thoughts on that?

I think this perception comes from the fact that Asians tend not to like to market or make a big fuss of things in general. We tend to be low key in both failures and successes.  This is somewhat related to the Chinese culture of being humble and of minding your own business.  There is a slight misconception that if I market to everyone my success, I will be perceived as being boastful and not humble.  Western counterparts tend to be more marketing-savvy and like to market both successes and failures.  Of course, our Western counterparts sometimes tend to over-advertise and misrepresent things more often than the norm.  The key is to market your success as much as you can and as accurately as possible in an appropriate fashion.

I am more of the opinion that Asians tend not to handle failure well.  Our cultural perspective shies away from risk-taking because of the possible cultural stigma of failure.  That is something we should proactively change, although I do observe that this characteristic is becoming much less common among younger Asians.  They kind of just do whatever they want, as much as possible, which isn’t a bad thing.

Thanks for sharing, Ming.  All the best with Socialwok.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.