iPay88 was founded in 2007 when Lim Kok Hing and his friends at Mobile88 were asked time and again by their customers to provide an online payment solution, which was not available in the region at the time.
Despite having no experience in building a payment gateway at the time, Lim and his friends forged ahead, acting on strong demands by their customers.
Based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, iPay88 is now also present in Singapore, Philippines and Thailand. iPay88 Malaysia was recently acquired by the Japanese IT company NTT Data to help it build its payment gateway in Asia.
About Lim Kok Hing
Never fall in love at first sight. Examine and test your assumptions. Move forward cautiously. – Lim Kok Hing, co-founder, iPay88
Lim last worked with ESSO before starting his journey as an entrepreneur on the 31st August, 1997.
1997 was also the year the Asian Fianancial crisis hit and the currencies of some South East Asian countries plunged by as much as 80%.
That crisis and the subsequent economic , however, did not deter Lim from pursuing his entrepreneurial dream.
His plan was simple then: stay in business for 6 months. He kept enough money to sustain himself for six months and began his search for opportunities in the telecommunications and Internet-related industries.
In his first year, Lim started a company supplying building materials. For a short period of time he supplied building materials to his friends. Six months later, however, Lim found an opportunity in his dream industry: telecommunications.
He developed the business aggressively and was the top distributor of prepaid cards for a few major Malaysian mobile telcos and one Singapore fixed line telco.
This was at a time when prepaid mobile phones had just started to connect millions of people in this region.
Lim, together with his long-term business partners, then ventured into e-commerce through Mobile88 in 2000 and eventually, iPay88 in 2007.
iPay88 is one of the pioneer payment gateway solutions in South East Asia and was recently acquired for an undisclosed amount by the Japanese IT giant NTT Data Coporation.
Coincidentally, it was completed on the same date – 31st August 2015 – 18 years after he started as an entrepreneur.
In this interview, find out:
– How he was able to transition from civil engineering to IT
– Why he decided to give up his comfortable job at ESSO to pursue entrepreneurship
– The challenges he faced in the beginning of Mobile88
– The darkest days in business and how he pulled himself out of it
– The mindset he feels will make an entrepreneur more successful than others
– How he picks his investors and iPay88’s direction post acquisition
Find out more. Read the whole interview.
Early beginnings: From Engineer to Entrepreneur
Lu Wee: Before starting Mobile88, you were a civil engineer. You did not have much experience in IT. How did it feel to start doing something you were not familiar with?
Lim KH: Mobile88 was not the first venture. The first venture was a trading company that supply building materials to my building contractor friends in year 1997, the year when the Asian financial crisis happened.
The first venture then was meant to kick start my venture in telecommunication and Internet related business.
The second venture I had was in prepaid card distribution for a few major telcos in Malaysia in 1998.
Mobile88 was the third venture, started alongside the second one in year 2000. Mobile88 was positioned as a company by selling prepaid cards to the end users via e-commerce, a business we felt would complement the distribution business.
The funding to mobile88 was then wholly provided from the profit earned from the distribution business.
I was never in fear of starting any business. In fact, it was exciting to learn something new, and I am still thrilled if I were to try something new and unfamiliar again today.
The feeling is simply unsettled and exciting!
Lu Wee: You had a stable job before starting Mobile88, what compelled you to give up this comfort?
Lim KH: Being an entrepreneur was always my dream since I was in university. It was quite rare, especially for engineers, back then to start their own business.
As an engineer I was trained to ensure all calculations were done and checked so that buildings can be stable for the next 100 years.
But everything was so stable. I never liked being in a stable condition, and therefore chose to take risk and continue to do so today.
Lu Wee: What assumptions did you have before starting your own business that were proven wrong when you finally did it?
Lim KH: I made many mistakes, and the most significant once were and still is being too optimistic with new ideas and jumping straight into it. It is like being in love at first sight! It costs the company quite a lot of damage.
So never fall in love at first sight. Examine and test your assumptions. Move forward cautiously ( I guess this may not well received by many people at this Internet age).
Lu Wee: Describe one of the darkest moments in your career and how did you pull yourself out of it?
Lim KH: In the distribution business, the company took too much loan from the banks, and paid too much of interest. Bulk of the loan were short term based. Serving the bank repayment every week was the pain. And the pain was no ending!
That was the darkest period. The end to all of these pains is to end the business.
We started to plan for the termination of the distribution business in the year 2006. That was the year when iPay88 was being conceptualised and being incorporated the next year.
Starting Mobile88 and iPay88 In a Time Before Mobile Internet
Lu Wee: iPay88 is one of the pioneers of payment gateways in Malaysia. How did it feel like to do something that not a lot of people were doing?
Lim KH: That is exciting of course. Because you can try out some new ideas. There is always something new to learn and to test out every day.
Lu Wee: What were the immediate challenges you faced in the first year of Mobile88?
Lim KH: Internet was not a common thing then. Not many providers accept a limited major service provider at a very snail slow speed, say 55.6kpbs (can you imagine that?).
Mobile phones were not used for internet, only voice call and sms. So imagine a very small internet penetration was the main challenge to realize any commercialization.
Lu Wee: Given a chance to change how you would have executed iPay88, what would you have done differently?
Lim KH: What was done back then was suitable to the business at that time. Starting the same business totally new at this juncture of time, would require a different approach. So the formula will be adjusted for the changes of time.
For example, back in the year 2000, it was not common to access Internet when you are outside the office or home. Now, you can access the Internet anywhere, anytime. So the old formula needs to be re-evaluate.
Back to my earlier point: always check your assumptions. Since time has changed, it is likely that there will be a different plan and execution.
Entrepreneur Mindset: Why People Fail and How to Succeed
Lu Wee: What are the top three characteristics of a successful entrepreneur? Do you think you have embodied them?
- Don’t settle with any market condition. Always find out a better way to serve the market efficiently. This is the way to create new businesses.
- Be able to manage the business with a great team. Entrepreneurs cannot succeed by being alone.
- Not to be defeated by failure. Failure is a norm in entrepreneurship. The ability to withstand failure is a must in order to succeed.
Lu Wee: What do you think are the three most critical areas an entrepreneur must pay attention to make sure that they won’t fail?
Lim KH: Do not fall in love at first sight with any new idea that occurs, give yourself some short cooling period. Do some calculations before jumping in.
In short, Do Your Homework!
Second, pay attention to cash flow. Do not use up all the cash before new funding arrives.
Third, the unwelcoming one: pay attention to details. Any plan can be exciting but without being executed well, it will likely fail.
Even you have the management team, some critical details are only instinct to entrepreneurs, so you need to involve yourself in it.
This is not to be underestimated, particularly when signing an agreement. Take time to go through with your team over those major commercial terms at least.
You will regret it if you were to enter a wrong agreement.
Lu Wee: In your own opinion, what do you think are the mindset that can set an entrepreneur on a path of failure?
Lim KH: Entrepreneurs are by nature intuitive, risk taking and optimistic. I am one of them.
When a new business idea occurs to me, I will do some quick research and list out all assumptions that will affect that idea being successful or failure.
Then calculate the cost of being wrong in any of those assumptions. So if anything were to happen, the company will not collapse; though some damage would occur but it is already accounted for.
The danger to many overly optimistic entrepreneurs is to jump straight into it. That sets in for a high chance of failure. It is worth doing some homework.
Lu Wee: What is your business philosophy?
From the look at how iPay88 was operating, it seems to be a highly conservative business philosophy with careful and measured strategies especially when it comes to expansion strategies.
How do you describe your business philosophy?
Lim KH: We are in the financial services industry. It is regulated. Expansion has to come with observing the relevant regulations and that consumes time.
Honesty is the best policy. Do what you have agreed. And don’t promise if you are not prepared to honour it.
Advice for Getting Investors and Post Acquisiton Plans
Lu Wee: Congratulations on the news of your recent acquisition by NTT.
I believe this has been the moment all of you have been looking for. How does it feels? Will things be changed from now on?
The corporate exercise is a mean to faster expansion. We need more strength in a bigger playing field. So this is a strategic move. Being part of one of the biggest company in the world is exciting, of course.
We can reach out the greatest heights that we could never have before. There is no major change, but help is being extended to bring in more business.
Lu Wee: What is the company’s direction now, moving forward, post acquisition?
We are still at the early stage of post acquisition, everything runs as usual. There are work on plans for expansion.
Lu Wee: iPay88 has always resisted getting investors on board, especially when there are many who wanted to invest in iPay88 and what iPay88 has done was to grow organically and yet still able to penetrate the South East Asian market.
Please tell us are investors important in every businesses? What was the rationale of not taking other people’s money? Why now with NTT?
Lim KH: We did not resist investors. We had the first discussion 4 years ago with a European investor. We saw the synergy with them and went ahead with discussion. It was the love at first sight!
We were disappointed later that they changed the agreed terms of deal at a very advanced stage. So we decided to call off the discussion even they have known our company rather thoroughly. We learnt our first lesson of being careful in choosing the investors.
I think it is important to have investors that have synergy and a long term view in the company. This way both can continue to create value to the company.
On top of that, it is important to ensure that investors are not in conflict with any of the company’s customer base. And most important of all, the investor should honour what is said!
Since that failed discussion, we were more careful in scrutinising the 10 subsequent invitations from investors from all major continents before making a final selection.
Our first encounter with our current investor started as early as 3 years ago. We dated each other occasionally for a long time, and when we knew each other good enough after 2 years, we made our decision to escalate it to a higher level.
Finally we formed a marriage. It was indeed a rather long journey. It was not a love at first sight!
Lim’s Advice For Entrepreneurs
Lu Wee: Lastly, from your experience, entrepreneurship is not easy and the journey is long. What is your advice to entrepreneurs who are struggling to find success in what they do?
Lim KH: Entrepreneurship is a hard journey, but it is exciting and potentially rewarding. My advice is to have a buddy support system. It can be co-founders, mentors or partners of the company.
Without them, it is hard to go through the darkest time of business. I am grateful to make it through together with my co-founding partners.
Secondly, build a strong management team. Entrepreneurs are never good at everything besides continuously testing out new ideas.
So a strong team helps to make sure an entrepreneur’s vision is implemented. Assemble the team fast.
Last but not least, continue to build partnership especially in marketing, as partnership shorten the time to success.
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