How Jan Wong Started OpenMinds with Zero Capital


Today Entrepreneur Campfire invites Jan Wong from OpenMinds, a digital consultancy startup specialising in social media strategising and start-up incubation. Along with two friends, Jan started OpenMinds with zero capital in 2009.

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OpenMinds started as a tech start-up. After being unsuccessful at securing funding or grants for their tech product, Jan and his friends decided to pivot OpenMinds into digital consultancy after noticing a higher demand instead for their marketing strategy.

They decided that if no one would fund them, they could fund and support the development of their own tech ideas through providing digital consultancy services.

In the digital consultancy service industry, however, OpenMinds started off in a crowded space. There were already many companies providing similar services. The only way Jan and his team felt they could differentiate themselves was by being passionate about their vision and focused on solving their client’s’ problems.

Their efforts and perseverance have paid off.

Today OpenMinds has grown to a team of 23 professionals and boasts clients across Asia and Europe. Their 2015 revenues tripled compared to 2014. With their resources, experience and technical capabilities, OpenMinds has also become stronger in the area of start-up incubation.

Most recently, one of the start-ups that OpenMinds incubated, an all natural skin care line called Dirty Benefits, managed to break-even within one month of launching and have made their way to Malaysia’s neighbouring countries as well as the Middle-East.

In spite of the growth and expansion of OpenMinds, CEO Jan Wong says he’s most thankful for “the relentless passion for what we do, the amazing minds we have on the team, the hunger to solve problems, the culture, and the fact we have yet to raise a single cent of funds or a loan of any kind.”

How did Jan Wong build a sustainable business with zero capital in under two years?

Lu Wee talks to Jan about:

– How OpenMinds differentiates itself from companies providing similar services
– What Jan thinks are the most critical factors in helping him to continue to grow his business on the long term
– What challenges lie ahead in the digital industry and what OpenMinds is doing about it
– What beliefs the OpenMinds team adhere to to push them through challenges that cripple others
– The habits that can predict success in an entrepreneur
– Advice for people who want to start their own digital consultancy firm

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Enter Lu Wee and Jan Wong


OpenMinds: Why Brands Choose Us

What are the primary values that OpenMinds can provide its customers that other digital agencies or consultants cannot?

At OpenMinds, we take away the fluff and hype in digital media. We tell brands that the next ‘Facebook’ or ‘Pinterest’ does not necessarily mean it is a must have for them (even when there are a lot of users on them).

Instead, we focus on what truly matters to a business and help tailor roadmaps to what we feel is best for the brand.

OpenMinds is a relatively young digital consultancy compared to established consultancies out there. There are many companies in the same space as OpenMinds which have been around longer.

How is OpenMinds positioning itself so that brands choose you over other digital agencies or consultants out there?

Our team may not have tens of years of experience in the digital industry, but we are highly passionate in what we do. We are actively experimenting, learning and failing.

This allows us to grow even within a short amount of time. Our ‘real’ experience and the mandate to solve business problems has always been our winning charm.

The last I dropped by OpenMinds’ office Randy strongly told me that OpenMinds is a consultant company, not a digital agency.

In Malaysia people do not have a firm grasp on the difference. Have you had to turn down clients who insisted on your position as an agency?

There is a vast difference a consultancy-driven and an agency approach. An agency, in general, takes the position of an ‘enabler’. In short, they are a team that meets and execute strategies well.

What we do at OpenMinds is we focus on solving business problems. We take time to understand our clients’ needs, their customers’ expectations, current industry trends and the sustainability of things even before going into ideas.

As such, we have indeed turned away many clients over the years mostly due to misalignment of expectations.

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OpenMinds’ Secret Ingredients for a Sustainable Business

I would say that OpenMinds has been successful so far. Which three areas do you feel are critical for OpenMinds’ long-term success?

People, people and people.

OpenMinds’ revenue has tripled in and the team has grown 30% in one year. What are the keystone beliefs in OpenMinds that you feel makes it grow at such a rate and achieve such goals?

The team at OpenMinds thrives on the culture that we have collectively built (eight of them!) and stand for. These are the reasons of how we made it this far, and will continue to bring us forward.

They are:

1) To always start with ‘why’; 2) Choosing to be positive; 3) Default to transparency; 4) Focus on learning; 5) Focus on creating value for the team; 6) Be biased towards clarity; 7) Be accountable, and 8) To always make an impact.

What do you think will be the challenges in the digital industry in the next five years? What is OpenMinds’ strategy to overcome those challenges?

The digital industry will continue to evolve with unprecedented growth. With technology becoming so accessible, diverse, and with an upcoming generation of early adopters, it is clear that there is an increasing need to be fluid and relevant in all that we do. At OpenMinds, experimenting and learning is key.

You and your team bootstrapped OpenMinds and hustled your way to what OpenMinds is today. Given a chance, what would you do differently?

Nothing, really. But if there has to be something, it would be going at it even harder then what we have done in all aspects.

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The Business of Incubation: Helping Ideas Become Profitable Businesses

OpenMinds is also in the business of incubation. Which new business that OpenMinds’ has incubated excites you most?

We are extremely excited for every business and startup we have incubated and partnered through our journey; be it successful or not.

We recently spent a lot of time with Dirty Benefits, an all-natural skincare product for the skin loving, bold and adventurous women and men.

dirty-benefits-logo-1434098675They are currently in their fourth month and have broken even within the first month, making big progress and crossing borders into neighbouring countries and even the middle east.

This venture is OpenMinds’ first foray into trading of physical goods which is very unlike the other startups we ventured with.

In which area can OpenMinds provide the most value to a start-up which OpenMinds has decided to work with?

OpenMinds has been helping startups in 3 areas: advise in business & operations, advise in marketing, and technology development.

These areas are tied closely to our experience as a startup, and through the services offered to our clients. Startups will then be working alongside real teams that has been killing it everyday.

If need be, there were instances where OpenMinds also micro-funded startups to get them going.

How does OpenMinds make a decision on the start-ups that they want to incubate? Does OpenMinds have a set of criteria or is it a more intuitive process for the team?

To be honest, there is no written guide telling what we’d prefer. However, the synergy between the us and the startup has to be there.

This includes the people, the idea, the objective and the feasibility aspects of the startup. We make it a point to be genuinely passionate about a startup as that too, is an important factor as we work with them.

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Entrepreneur Mindset: How to Succeed as an Entrepreneur

What do you think are the three key characteristics or habits that make someone successful in their business?

Passion, focus and tenacity.

Passion. You will need to live your passion in all that you do. This will become the reason why people are drawn to your business; your drive when you are hitting the lows; your source of motivation when the world is against you and the only thing you need to represent your business.

Focus. Starting and running a business is extremely exciting and in that excitement, you tend to want to do and accomplish many things within a short amount of time. Having a strong focus keeps you on track on what you truly want to achieve and helps in decision-making.

Tenacity. Tenacity is key in every state of your business. Be it when you are starting up or scaling, make it a point to hang in there in spite of failures. Backing down from challenges or temporal struggles will not do justice to your business, especially if it is something that you are passionate about.

There are many people who have started and failed in making their digital agencies sustainable. What, in your opinion, could be the main reasons why they failed?

There is a common misconception that the digital business is easy. The thought of social media in general is that it is something simple, with low overheads, is easy to manage and is the way forward.

It won’t be long until you find all of those assumptions untrue and things become challenging. This is especially if you are looking to scale. Having another ‘me too’ digital firm will not work either.

The industry is filled with similar setups that is choking up, and sometimes even tarnishing the perception towards digital media too.

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OpenMinds is a digital consultancy startup specialising in social media strategising and start-up incubation. Find out more about OpenMinds at www.openmindsresources.com. Jan’s website is www.janwong.my.

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Lu Wee is the Founder of The Entrepreneur Campfire. The Entrepreneur Campfire (TEC) is where smart entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia gather. You can find practical articles on how to grow, market and scale your business on TEC.

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