Becoming a One Stop Digital Agency: Sabarudin Hashim, CEO of iPrima Media, Singapore (EI #7)
iPrima Media is an online marketing company that offers internet marketing as a service for small and medium enterprises. It was founded by Shaun Ling and his co-founders Jasmine Tan, Moon Cheong and Elvin Cheo in 2013. iPrima Media started off as a company offering rapid website developments as well as SEO services after realising that many SMEs were facing stiff competition and were not getting the traction they wanted through traditional marketing practices.
They soon expanded their services to include content and social media marketing and recently began consulting for clients to rebrand their flagship products and/or services. Saba’s vision for iPrima Media is to become a one-stop, end-to-end digital marketing and branding agency. Saba joined as CEO in 2016 to continue to move iPrima Media towards its vision and mission.
About Sabarudin Hashim (Saba)
Having talent with the right attitude, knowledge and the audacity to challenge conventions is critical.
Saba started his career as a trainer and facilitator in various organisations. It was his last job as a residential life coordinator and facilitator at National University of Singapore (NUS) that awakened the entrepreneurial spirit in him. The six years he spent there made him realise that he was a more practical person and preferred spending his time practising rather than dwelling on theories. Saba joined iPrima Media as CEO in 2016 to continue growing the company in the online marketing space in Singapore.
In this interview, find out:
– what differentiates iPrima Media from other online marketing companies in Singapore?
– the challenges Saba and his team experienced during his first few years of running iPrima Media
– what are the qualities of clients that Saba and his team avoid
– why Saba decided to transition into entrepreneurship from his previous role as a trainer/facilitator at NUS
– advice for people who want to start an online marketing company
– the mistakes people make when entering the online marketing space
Find out more. Read the whole interview.
Why Businesses Choose iPrima Media
Lu Wee: What differentiates iPrima Media from other online marketing firms in Singapore?
Saba: As cliche as it sounds, we believe in teamwork. Likewise, we work with clients who see the value of teamwork and can benefit from having us as an extension to their marketing team – without having to hire additional headcount.
We make online marketing as painless as possible, and even provide training to their in-house staff. Why? Because, there is synergy when the client and us have a common goal to attack. And we cannot have a shared vision, if the client is completely clueless about online marketing strategies.
Lu Wee: Digital marketing training is part of your service offerings. Not all internet marketing companies offer training. What is the benefit of integrating training services as part of your service offerings?
Saba: We want to be able to provide value other than the transactional tasks that are expected of us. The value that we provide ideally must be able to transform the client’s organisation’s capabilities at some levels. They can outsource tasks BUT there are things that the client should not outsource completely. Training enables the client to make informed decisions on what they should focus on and in what areas they can partner with us to grow their company or enhance their results.
Early Challenges, Pivoting and Long Term Vision
Lu Wee: What were the challenges you experienced in the early days of starting iPrima Media?
Saba: One of the early challenges was to get the right hires who could see beyond transactional KPIs such as sales KPIs. For instance, though our version 1.0 sales force were good at securing sales appointments, they struggled at selling the right services to the right clients.
They failed to identify opportunities during face-to-face appointments which could have meant mining deeper value and relationship with the clients. Interestingly, that led me to reshape the company’s business model.
Lu Wee: What is your vision with iPrima Media and what is your strategy to get there?
Saba: My vision is for iPrima Media to transition from a nuts-and-bolts marketing agency to a one-stop, end-to-end digital marketing and branding agency. Having talent with the right attitude, knowledge and the audacity to challenge conventions is critical to meeting this vision. We will embark on this by having a distributed workforce in Asia able to provide consultancy in the SEA countries without the need to have a physical office space in each of them.
Offices with open-space layout and water coolers points are so yesterday. Even as we speak, we have embarked on this transition, identifying talents that are adept at collaborating and working online. In fact, most of the time when we hire, we don’t even bother scrutinising at candidates’ CVs and resumes until we are very sure they are the right fit.
They are thrusted into realistic work scenarios we created for them, and they don’t even realise that they are in an audition (instead of interviews) until they are more than half-way through. It is working out very well for us so far.
Choosing Clients, Growing iPrima Media
Lu Wee: There are certainly businesses which are quite resistant to investing in internet marketing. They might see it as throwing money into the drains. Would you normally try to convince these businesses to invest or do you just avoid them?
Saba: I don’t. Instead, my team would give them enough information and ask them for some information in exchange, in order for them to convince themselves. Internet marketing agencies that hard-sell to clients like a long-form sales letter – i.e. one-way monologue, attempting to change the client’s mind only during the sales process – is usually interested in just that.
We, on the other hand, have a proprietary system to qualify prospects. So, the issue of whether a prospect is the right fit or not is no longer a nagging issue for us.
Lu Wee: It sounds like you are quite picky over the clients you work with. What are some of the red flags that you notice about a client that you would prefer not to work with?
Saba: I wouldn’t say picky. More accurately, every business has a group of people that they are meant to serve, and another that are best serve by others.
We would generally avoid clients who: 1) have questionable value systems in the current ways they market their products or attract prospects; 2) shows a disproportionate lack interest in long-term branding as compared to sales or 3) A client whose staff or owners have little passion for their own products or staff, which hints at deeper issues within the company.
These usually indicate a high-churn client that loses just as many old clients as the ones they gained. For these clients, they don’t need medicine (an effective marketing blueprint), they need surgery (overhaul their mission, vision, and core values)!
Lu Wee: Your vision is to make iPrima Media an all-in marketing agency. What do you see as the three biggest challenges in getting there?
Saba: The three biggest challenges are:
1. The need to innovate at a faster rate, and at the same time;
2. Being able to constantly monitor market developments and to tell the difference between signals and noise. We operate in an industry where both consumers and investors fall for shiny objects at some point. Just look at the inflated evaluations of startup software companies that recently hit the headlines. While we look to deploy best practices as well as the best combinations of people, tools and processes; we need to be wary of false prophets in the market.
3. Striking a balance between hiring the right talent and getting the existing team to focus on doing the right things. And the right things these days tend to change very quickly as defined by the market. Examples are changes to Google’s search algorithms and the ever-changing feature sets of Facebook for business.
Industry and Market Outlook
Lu Wee: What, in your opinion, will we see happen in the internet marketing space in South East Asia in the next five years?
Saba: We will see more savvy marketing agencies taking on a more seamless integrated role when it comes to partnering with clients. They will recognise that Facebook campaign managers, Adword managers, SEO campaigns, social media management and website building are overly-commoditised product offerings. Instead they will move up higher in the value chain, taking on more ambitious roles of branding consultants.
With more efforts and resources being allocated to content marketing, we will see internet marketing companies mature in such a way that they start entering the outskirts of the turf of larger branding/advertising agencies that are known to charge six figures per contract. It would be interesting to see either (i) the pushback from the “big olè” agencies, or (ii) the collaboration between the two vastly different sets of players. There is still a sea of opportunities out there.
The Move Into Entrepreneurship
Lu Wee: You were a trainer/facilitator tasked to develop leaderships camps and workshops for student leaders for the National University of Singapore before becoming the CEO of iPrima Media. What made you want to make the transition to iPrima Media?
Saba: Simple really. I believe in having ‘the rubber meets the road’. I have seen my fair share of theories in Universities that does not stand-up to real-world tests. That’s what too much ‘head-knowledge’ does to you. With all due respect to the educators at the university, I don’t see myself expounding theories till I have white hair or lose all of them. I’m the kind that roll-up my sleeves and test everything out.
Lu Wee: Have you always known that you wanted to start your own business?
Saba: No. But I do know I have an inquisitive mind. My wife calls me McGuyver, a character from 90s TV show of the same title, who had a knack for saving people or averting disasters using a combination of wits and gadgets he created out of common household parts! So that nickname kind of fits the bill.
Lu Wee: What are the qualities that you look for in a business partner?
Saba: Someone who is resolute in his goals but flexible in his approach, and has a complementary style to me and my team. Too many potential partners I have come across have many fixed assumptions about people and the way things work; so much so that they missed valuable opportunities to either bring something new to the market or attack old problems with a new approach. That frustrates me the most.
Advice for Entrepreneurs
Lu Wee: What is your advice for people who want to start their own internet marketing firm?
Saba: Never work alone. Right from the onset scout for talent that compliment yours and make an offer they can’t refuse, Value exchange need not be in the form of money. So be creative!
Lu Wee: If you could turn back time, what would you do differently?
Saba: I would focus on building frameworks that would strengthen my unique value propositions and even add new ones. Some examples outside of internet marketing industry are Kiyosaki’s EBSI quadrant and Stephen Covey’s 7-Habits.
Lu Wee: What do you think are the key factors that would make a person successful in a competitive industry as internet marketing?
Saba: They are:
1. Don’t be a “me-too” product. No one likes a knock-off product.
2. The ability to have an independent mind that can challenge existing conventions and practices in the business.
3. The ability to quickly zoom-in on an under-served target market. The faster you identify your unique value propositions, the faster you see results.
Lu Wee: What are the mistakes people make when entering the internet marketing space?
Saba: Oh man. Too many to list here. But I’ll focus on two:
1. Many beginners in the industry start on an incestuous path and slippery slope. They create and market marketing products for “marketers”. Like a snake eating its own tail. They then join inner circles of marketers and band together cross promoting product to each other so often that they forgot who their real target market is.
The guru-industry is partially responsible for this. It has perpetuated a lot of half-truths about online marketing and flavour-of-the-month tactics that does not hold water for long. What the new entrants need to ask themselves is this: Do I want to be in a room full of hungry buyers or starving competitors? It is important to pick the right position and don’t turn back.
2. The internet marketing industry buzzes with every new technology, apps or software. The new entrants sometimes fall for the myth that internet marketing allows them to have this sit-by-the-beach-sipping-on-pina-colada lifestyle. Nothing can be further from the truth. They will no doubt see many examples of these on their Facebook newsfeed everyday.
With many claiming success just because they have more time to sit around in Starbucks the whole day and take selfies while they are at it. For those who are serious about the online marketing business, they will recognise the serious problems that their target markets needed fixing yesterday and jump at it. Many companies have serious problems with their marketing practices and need serious solution providers – and they are the ones not likely to turn up at the get-rich-quick-internet-marketing seminars. So be smart about this.
Find out more about iPrima Media
iPrima Media’s websites:
www.primamedia.com.sg / www.primamedia.com.my