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These M’sian brothers left their jobs in Singapore to start a modern teahouse in KL

What happens when an architect decides to work with his brother who’s an accredited arbourist? They start a modern tea house, apparently.

At least, that was the case with Penang-born brothers Jheeson and Jheeherng.

Jheeson, the elder of the two, is regarded as the creative force of the brand with his background in architecture and design.

Meanwhile, the arbourist is Jheeherng, who has built his interest in greens and plants into a landscaping career.

Interestingly, both had been working in Singapore for years before coming back to Malaysia to pursue their shared passion for creating a modern teahouse.

Launched earlier this year, Cha Inn Tea is the brothers’ contemporary teahouse. Basically, it’s a café, except instead serving coffee-based drinks, it’s spotlighting teas. With Cha being the Chinese word for tea, Cha Inn is essentially a place for people to rest and relax to a good brew.

The concept for this took root approximately three years ago, when the two were still in Singapore.

“During that time, I had the opportunity to participate in ateaceremony organised by seasoned experts with extensiveteabackgrounds,” Jheeherng shared.

He recalled being genuinely amazed by the exquisite taste of high-qualityteaas well as the cultural depth it held. At the same time, he felt that this rich experience wasn’t reaching others in the younger generation, and wanted to do something about that.

As for Jheeson, he shared that it has been a long-standing plan of his to establish a space designed by himself, creating a brand from the ground up.

“A place that not only I but others could also relish,” Jheeson mused.

Given his passion for food, the initial plan leaned toward running a cafe/design atelier. But as the brothers came together, they saw an opportunity to merge their distinct interests.

“Why not make the delightful experience of sipping fineteaand relishing good food more accessible for everyone?” they wondered. And then, “Why not bring this experience to Malaysia, our homeland?”

Cul-tea-vating the required skills

Coming from different backgrounds, each brother brings their own skillsets to the table. Jheeson is in charge of the interior design, branding design, and recipe creation, including plating.

“Transitioning from being an arbourist dealing with living plants to working with non-livingtealeaves might seem a bit off,” Jheeherng said.

“However, my profession continues to guide me in understandingtealeaves, their characteristics, cultivation methods, their impact on flavour profiles, historical findings, culture, and more.”

While they both have their own expertise that has helped in the journey of Cha Inn, neither actually have entrepreneurial experience, much less when it came to F&B.

As such, Jheeherng actually underwent apprenticeship at Purple Cane in Malaysia, learning from teafarmers and teamasters from Fujian.

“There’s so much to learn, and I am really keen to impart what I have learnt to more people,” he expressed.

Finding an opportuni-tea for food pairings

Interestingly, Jheeherng actually has a mild sensitivity to coffee. On the flip side, Jheeson had been more of a coffee person, and brought with him the desire to create a fusion-based coffee recipe.

This inclination led the brothers down the path of mixology, creating what can be seen as tea-based mocktails.

Speaking on where they get their inspiration for new concoctions, the brothers credited their friends, customers, as well as teafarmers, barista friends, and bartenders from all over.

“There are generally two drivers behind our recipe creation,” they elaborated. “Firstly, we aim to create beverages that allow our customers to taste something they’ve never experienced before. Secondly, we craft recipes based on what our customers are fond of.”

For example, the best-selling mocktail, Red Riding Hood, actually originated from a customer’s request for a chilled oolong with a refreshing profile.

Prices of the drinks are around the RM15 mark, while the prices for food are around RM15-RM25.

Aside from that, Cha Inn also rolls out a seasonal menu based on the seasonaltealeaves they’ve sourced to offer something entirely new.

Tea aside, a specialised offering at Cha Inn are their tea pairings.

Much like how a sommelier pairs wines with dishes to elevate both the food as well as the drink, Cha Inn also offers a dining experience to accompany their teas.

“In the experimental phase of introducing newteaand dining experiences, we’ve blended traditionalteapairings (such as hotteawith dim sum) with contemporary pairings (e.g., hanbao withtea champagne, pasta with mocktail),” they explained.

Aside from ensuring the food items go well with the drinks, the brothers described Cha Inn’s approach to food as rooted in contemporary, innovative, and Chinese-fusion principles applied to a common cafe cuisine.

The hanbao (Chinese hamburger) is an example of that, mixing Western-style elements with Chinese ingredients, AKA the steamed mantou, and Chinese flavours like black vinegar and mala.

“We crafted them with the principle to harmonise with our Champagne SodaTea. Just like eating a Big Mac with Coke, but in a whole new experience,” they compared.

The drink of the future?

Lately, we’ve been noticing more and more tea-based establishments. For one, there’s Beca Tea, which is also selling innovative tea-based beverages. Has tea become the “in” thing now, rather than coffee?

“I would say yes, though still far away from being prominent,” they shared.

To begin with, Malaysians have always enjoyed tea drinks. Just think about the common drinks such as chai, teh tarik, Chinese tea, and milk tea.

“What’s particularly intriguing is our market’s growing appetite for more premium yet accessibleteaoptions,” the brothers pointed out. “Serving a good cup ofteais one thing, but the act of servingteahas evolved into an entirely different realm.”

We strongly sense that theteabeverage market has identified the immense potential for freshteaexperiences and business opportunities, especially in catering to a more youthful, premium, and dynamic market.

Perhaps this recognition is the primary driving force behind the modernteamovement we’re currently experiencing.

While a growing interest for tea is a good thing, it’s also worth noting that this also means competition for Cha Inn.

That said, the duo believes their unwavering commitment to Eastern teas and Chinese-inspired cuisine sets their offerings apart.

“Our professionalteaand food pairing recommendations are relatively uncommon in the market, contributing to our competitive edge,” they said.

Looking ahead, the brothers envision making their unique offerings even more accessible to the market. This might mean establishing a grab-and-go concept or offering self-brew teas and products. They also aim to host workshops and collaborate with stores to share their approach totea.

For now, Cha Inn is focusing on navigating the modern tea scene in PJ. As one of the forerunners when it comes to innovative tea offerings, the brothers don’t have many predecessors to learn from.

That said, they have one great resource on their side—their customers.

“As the saying goes, ‘customers are the best advisers,’ and this couldn’t be truer for us,” they said. “Moving forward, we will continue to introduce newteapairings and observe until we find the perfect formula that resonates the best with our customers.”

Learn more about Cha Inn Tea here.Read other articles we’ve written about F&B businesses here.

Also ReadSick of mistakenly buying fake products online? TikTok Shop has a solution for M’sians.

Featured Image Credit: Cha Inn Tea / Vulcan Post

These 9 M'sian startups bagged over RM1 million funding in 2023, here's what they do

Before 2023 comes to an end, we decided to take a look back to see which Malaysian startups have earned the confidence of investors. Specifically, here are those that have raised more than RM1 million in the past year.

Aside from reading our business predictions for 2024, we hope this list of startups can inspire other Malaysian entrepreneurs in the coming year.

So here is a non-exhaustive list that we’ve compiled, arranged alphabetically.

1. Biogenes Technologies Sdn Bhd

Back in January, Biogenes Technologies Sdn Bhd (Biogenes), a local biotech (biotechnology) startup, bagged US$5.7 million during its Series A funding from Pembangunan Ekuiti Sdn Bhd (PESB).

Established in 2015, Biogenes is a biotech company specialising in molecular diagnostics and genomics.

Some examples of its primary technologies include the computer-aided design of synthetic antibodies (referred to as aptamers) and rapid point-of-care diagnostic solutions for infectious diseases and screening cancer biomarkers.

At the time, its press release shared that the funds will go towards expanding Biogenes’ proprietary technology platforms across Southeast Asia. Namely, this includes the Philippines and Indonesia where Biogenes has signed collaboration agreements.

With the invested funds, the company aims to build on its capacity to produce 10 million test kits per year and further develop aptamer-based diagnostic solutions.

2. Ejen2u

In early October, Malaysian agent management platform Ejen2u International Sdn Bhd (Ejen2u) raised RM7 million in its Pre-Series A funding round.

According to its website, Ejen2u is a homegrown cloud-based platform for managing agents. As a tech startup focused on the reseller industry, the brand’s goal is to provide a complete reseller ecosystem for the local micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME) community where they’re able to oversee their reseller networks and businesses.

With the funds raised from Gobi Partners and Artem Ventures, Ejen2u aimed to diversify their customer base and expand into new markets like Indonesia.

At the same time, the brand also plans to expand its product catalogue to different segments of the direct-to-consumer (D2C) industry. Specifically in the pipelines include:

EjenStore, a new online storefront and affiliate platform for agentsEjenCare, an income protection plan that’s similar to Malaysia’s Social Security Organisation (SOCSO)EjenCapital, a solution to assist merchants and agents with inventory financing

As of this year, Ejen2u has supported over 340,000 resellers across the country and are serving more than 500 clients, the press release stated.

3. iMotorbike

iMotorbike, an ecommerce platform for buying and selling pre-loved motorcycles secured RM12 million in its Series A funding round.

The fundraising was led by Gobi Partners and Ondine Capital, and was backed by a slew of investors like Penjana Kapital, The Hive Southeast Asia, 500 Global, Goodwater Capital and Seedstars International Ventures.

One of the few local second hand marketplaces for two-wheelers, the 6-year-old brand told us that the funds would help supercharge their business growth. This is particularly in terms of scaling operations, expanding its team and offerings, and penetrating new regional markets.

At the time of our interview with them, they believed that 2023 is the “Year of the Bike” as it’s more financially efficient to own a bike than a car.

4. Involve Asia

Involve Asia, a Malaysian affiliate marketing platform, raised over US$10 million in a funding round back in February.

It was led by Bintang Capital Partners Berhad, the private equity arm of Affin Hwang Asset Management Berhad. Other investors include notable local and international names like 500 Global, Orbit Capital Malaysia, OSK Technology Ventures, and Cradle Seed Ventures.

As an affiliate marketing platform, Involve Asia enables brands, affiliates, and influencers to expand their earnings through successful online collaborations. Besides that, the brand also allows advertisers to assess, oversee, and scale their marketing partnerships through its solutions.

In the press release, it was shared that Involve Asia will be using the funds to invest in companies that complement its business and leverage its network of clients and partners. In line with that move, the affiliate marketing company is also growing its team to keep up with this.

5. Kiddocare

Malaysian caregiving platform, Kiddocare, closed its Pre-Series A round of funding in late September.

Although the amount was not disclosed, the brand told Vulcan Post that it had raised seven-figure funds from notable investors. This included Gobi Partners, MSW Ventures Asia Fund X, and ScaleUp Malaysia.

Launched in 2019, Kiddocare is a childcare service platform founded by two working mums. “Central to our mission is the professionalisation of caregivers,” Nadira, the CEO, stated in its press release.

“This investment reinforces our resolve to elevate caregiving as a respected and professionalised career of choice.”

Moving forward, the brand seeks to kickstart The Kiddocare Academy to upskill local talents on family-related services, such as children’s enrichment and education, and aged care services. The latter is something which we predict will grow even more in the coming years.

6. MADCash

In early October, fintech startup MADCash raised RM5 million in its Pre-Series A funding round. The investment was led by Artem Ventures and supported by MSW Ventures and Scaleup Founders Fund.

MADCash stands for Multiply, Assist, Donate, which reflects the brand’s goal of supporting unbanked and underbanked women entrepreneurs. The idea stemmed from MADCash’s team who saw women entrepreneurs struggling to restart their micro businesses after the first lockdown.

According to its press release at the time, the funds will be used for a few upgrades in the company. Namely:

to enhance the company’s online platform using AI technologyto cover operational and marketing expensesto explore expansion opportunities in the Southeast Asia regionto launch the MADCash Academy to educate more women entrepreneurs on financial literacy

Tunku Omar Asraf, the principal of Artem Ventures, explained the decision to invest in MADCash by saying, “MADCash recognises the importance of financial inclusion for closing the gap of poverty and gender inequality, which can lead to better economic growth in the SEA region.”

7. PolicyStreet

Less than two years after its Series A funding round, insurtech (insurance technology) startup PolicyStreet obtained US$15.4 million (RM67 million) during its Series B fundraising.

Led by Khazanah Nasional’s Dana Impak mandate, this investment in PolicyStreet complements Khazanah Nasional’s Future Malaysia Programme which aims to support the local startup ecosystem.

For context, the Future Malaysia Programme supports investments into companies with sustainable business models that deliver socioeconomic impact to the local communities.

Yen Ming Lee, PolicyStreet’s CEO and co-founder, explained that the insurtech startup is committed to empowering underinsured businesses and consumers by providing accessible insurance solutions.

This funding round specifically will be used to strengthen its technology and underwriting capabilities. By doing so, the team will be able to better tap into underserved and underinsured audience segments in the country and the region.

8. Qarbotech

Qarbotech, a Malaysian agritech startup, closed US$700,000 (approximately RM3,264,450 at the time) in seed funding and grants earlier in December.  

The seed round was led by 500 Global and included grants from Malaysia’s Khazanah Nasional and Singaporean government-linked Temasek Foundation. Both were won through challenges, specifically the Temasek Foundation’s Climate Impact Innovations Challenge and the Khazanah Impact Innovation Challenge 2023

Launched in 2018, Qarbotech develops a biocompatible solution that increases the photosynthesis rate of leafy plants. This helps in shortening the crop cycle and increasing crop yields by 60%.

According to its press release, the funds will allow the agritech startup to strengthen their R&D efforts. Along with that, they’ll also be able to expand manufacturing facilities to produce up to 50 times its current capacity.

“As the industry’s most accessible photosynthesis enhancer, we are pioneering a new and disruptive solution that will reshape conventional approaches to farming,” said the CEO and co-founder of Qarbotech, Choe Chee Hoe.

9. Soft Space Sdn Bhd

Earlier in the year, B2B fintech company Soft Space Sdn Bhd bagged US$31.5 million in investments after closing its Series B1 funding round. 

It was led by Southern Capital Group (SCG) Pte. Ltd, with participation from investors like Japanese companies transcosmos inc and JCB, and South Korea’s KB Investment.

Founded in 2012, Soft Space aims to streamline financial infrastructures and facilitate seamless payments for customers in a simple and economically efficient manner.

At the time of the news in April, Soft Space was reportedly focusing on expanding into omnichannel payments, including the adoption of artificial intelligence, QR code payments, e-wallet systems, and money lending schemes.

Hence, with that in mind, the funds acquired from this round will be used to expand the brand’s global footprint, accelerate the innovation of its full-stack payments platform, and to expand into next-generation technological solutions.

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While some of the industries listed are quite niche, it helps to take note of what investors are investing in due to its potential to grow further.

This provides insights into which fields will be growing in the near future, so others in the market can better themselves too. For example, you could find ways to leverage the growth of certain industries to your advantage.

Either way, we thought we’d take this opportunity to wish these Malaysian startups a hearty congratulations once again on their funding rounds!

We look forward to seeing more Malaysian startups making such achievements in the next year.

Read articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.Read articles we’ve written about funding here.

Also ReadSick of mistakenly buying fake products online? TikTok Shop has a solution for M’sians.

Featured Image Credit: Nadira Yusoff, founder and CEO of Kiddocare / Jimmy How, CEO of Involve Asia / Sharmeen Looi, co-founder of iMotorbike

Why company culture matters & 4 practical tips on how M’sian startups can build a good one

It’s become somewhat of a buzzword these days, but company culture isn’t something made up by millennials or older zoomers.

And as employers, you shouldn’t disregard the importance of company culture either, because the reality is that the younger generations in the workforce place high importance on this. How a company treats its staff members can play a major role in their decision to join it.

But company culture isn’t just about attracting talents.

Why exactly is company culture, and why does it matter?

To put it simply, company culture is a shared set of workplace beliefs, values, attitudes, standards, and behaviours within an organisation. It reflects both the written and unspoken rules that people in the organisation follow.

The sum of what you and your colleagues think, say, and do while working together is basically your company’s culture. At its core, company culture is about how things get done around the workplace.

It’s easy to have this mixed up with the more superficial factors (or perks) of a company, such as casual dress codes and office amenities like beanbags. But company culture goes beyond surface-level features.

It’s about the values embedded in everyday workplace practices and decision-making processes. Hence, it’s not just the responsibility of the human resource (HR) department to uphold. Instead, it’s something that the whole company should actively be practising.

Which basically means that the people in top and bottom management need to be singing the same song. No matter who you ask in the company, they should have the same ideas on what the company culture is.

As to why it matters, well, without people having the belief in the values and system you put out, and the practice of the values that shape the culture, the company won’t move forward.

So here are four tips we learnt on building a good company culture in Malaysia, from the panellists at an event for Startup Week Malaysia 2023. They are:

Celine Ting, Managing Director at OpenAcademy (a global online learning platform)Khairil Effendy, founder and managing director at Nexagate (a cybersecurity consultant and services provider)Alicia Yeo, Director of People at HealthMetrics (an employee healthcare management platform)

Benjamyn Phua, founder of Culturedation, a company culture consultant agency, moderated the talk.

1. Your core values should reflect your personal values

In its most basic sense, culture is about how a group of people behave on their own without external controlling forces.

Hence, when it comes to building company culture from scratch, it should start from the people who founded the organisation. If not then it should be the team that’s managing the rest of the company.

As Alicia stated, ask yourselves, “What are the values that you want to have in order to scale the company?”

Come together as a team, sit down, and discuss your personal values. From there, you can come up with the values that you want the organisation to have as a whole. Examples of this include honesty, accountability, continuous learning, and teamwork.

Which brings us to our next point…

2. Do not copy-and-paste someone else’s company culture hoping that it will work for you too

It might seem tempting to replicate the culture of certain companies, especially if you’re striving to be as successful as them. But the sad truth is that that’s just not how company culture works.

Speaking candidly, Alicia shared that the founders of HealthMetrics initially copied some of the culture they learnt while attending the Google for Startups Accelerator in the US. But later on, the company realised, “We copied for the sake of copying without practising it.”

So the team had to have a town hall to discuss who they were as an organisation and what they actually wanted to achieve.

Because again, each company values different things, and your company size also plays a role in how the culture is practised. Which is why you might find startups and corporations having different company cultures.

And no, there isn’t a minimum or maximum number of staff when it comes to having company culture, Khairil said. “Culture isn’t about the numbers.”

3. Choose the right leaders in your team because they will impact company culture

Similar to how you look towards founders when initially building a company’s culture, you should also pay attention to who is leading your teams.

Taking a different approach from Celine and Alicia, Khairil shared that at Nexagate, they actually don’t focus on stating core values so much. Because to him, “Core values are not what you want to become but who you already are.”

So he pays closer attention to who he picks as team leads, preferring those whose own culture aligns with what he wants the company to have. Then from there, he will choose the team members for that department based on the team leads’ characteristics.

It might sound unconventional, but he explained that each department will have their own mini culture (subculture). Hence, it makes more sense to find people that fit in from the get-go.

4. Define your company’s core values through action

In other words, you have to walk the talk.

You see, it’s easy to say that your company values this or that behaviour. But when it comes down to it, do you actually understand what those values mean and entail?

“How you practise them is what defines a company’s culture,” Alicia emphasised. Because as Celine summed it up, “If your team aren’t the ones upholding the culture that you have in place, then there is no culture.”

Sharing her experience, Celine said that OpenAcademy values transparency and accountability as a culture. Hence, the company has set processes and systems in place to encourage these.

For example, they practise an open-door policy, team peer-to-peer evaluations, and having financial quarterly meetings so that everyone is in the loop.

By doing so, they foster an encouraging environment for employees to also practise the culture in their own ways, in a phenomenon you might know as the trickle-down effect.

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All in all, company culture isn’t built in a day. It could take months, but the idea is to not rush into it and to also be flexible. As all the panellists have shared, culture is heavily intertwined with people, so there may be times where you need to adapt according to the team at hand.

But the goal is to not compromise on the company’s bigger goal and the core values that will help to achieve them. Being consistent and intentional will help shape a good and lasting company culture.

Read articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Also ReadSick of mistakenly buying fake products online? TikTok Shop has a solution for M’sians.

Featured Image Credit: Culturedation

Venon Tian’s playbook: ZUS Coffee’s COO on managing people & core business philosophies

Before Venon Tian became the face of ZUS Coffee, he was in the business of laundromats. And before that, he was actually a law grad.

These were some of the interesting facts we got at Venon’s recent Dining With CEO event, which you can read more about here.

Aside from those titbits of information, Venon also dived into some of his core philosophies on how he runs ZUS Coffee. Here are some of the advice from his playbook.

Execution eats strategy for lunch

There’s no doubt that ZUS Coffee has had plenty of strong strategies and campaigns that have brought them to where they are today.

But the thing about innovative strategies and cool campaigns is that technically, anyone can execute them.

For example, ZUS Coffee has released a Buttercrème latte, even though a competitor has been well-known for their signature buttercream drink.

But the way Venon sees it, “To us, it’s less of the idea, more of the execution.”

He pointed out that every café does Americanos, lattes, and cappuccinos—it’s not like they’re copying from each other. And some do it better than others, despite it being the same drink.

“We have this very famous internal saying that we use,” Venon said. “Execution eats strategy for lunch.”

You may have heard some variation of this, but it basically means that the actual execution of an idea or a plan beats just having that strategy.

Company culture is most certainly not bullshit

When asked about what some of the biggest challenges Venon has faced at ZUS was, he said: the people.

While day-to-day things such as supply chain issues, procurement, and logistics do crop up, it doesn’t seem to come close to things such as structuring the company and hiring the right people, Venon said.

“Managing business is objective. It’s SOPs, it’s theoretical, it’s execution. For people, you have to handle emotions, which is the hardest thing,” Venon said.

He went on to say, “Some of you may have heard my talks. I used to say culture is bullshit. But I’m wrong. Totally wrong.”

He shared a tale of how hiring a wrong key leader resulted in toxic behaviours all the way down in the HR department, which ended up having domino effects such as issues with late salary payouts and an inability to hire the right people.

Toxic hires can often go undetected, so building a culture that actively weeds these people out is key. Leaders must also be observant and not overlook how one bad apple can topple many business processes, especially when the culture is weak.

Don’t limit yourself with the industry boundaries

At one point of the session, Venon was asked to give some advice to aspiring F&B entrepreneurs.

He jokingly responded, “Don’t run F&B.”

However, as he elaborated, we learnt that there’s some truth to what he said.

Instead of seeing ZUS Coffee as an F&B business, Venon revealed that he sees it as an ecommerce business, and therefore runs it as one.

“Coffee is just one of the products,” he pointed out.

Unlike the more traditional business models in F&B, ZUS looks into things such as UI/UX, customer lifetimes, retention rates, and more metrics that ecommerce businesses look at.

Invest in capex to save on opex

“The question we always ask ourselves is, as we scale, how do I not need to hire more people,” Venon shared. “Not because we don’t want to not hire people, but because of the jobs are very much mundane and boring.”

An example of such jobs he provided was QA—quality assurance. Currently, the ZUS team has 13 auditors conducting QA for 336 stores. That means that if the chain expands to, say, 600 stores, they’d need a department of 26 doing that.

“And these are all young, new team members. You have to train them, then there’s retention rates [to think about],” Venon elaborated. “So, how can I utilise technology instead? Maybe it’s going to cost me more, but over the next five years, it’s going to save on operating expenses.”

As such, he said that the ZUS team are believers in terms of investing in capex and saving in terms of opex down the road. Plus, solutions like these also serve as a workaround to the challenge of managing more people.

Innovating the future

One way ZUS Coffee sets itself apart from other brands is its tech lean, such as through its own app. One cool thing we learnt is that the app actually uses weather information to determine whether an area is raining. If so, the app actually pushes out discounts so more people may consider getting drinks.

In any case, being a tech-savvy company, a key thing for ZUS is innovation. With that in mind, Venon shared that the company is actually establishing a ZUS Innovation Centre. Here, R&D will be conducted, not just for products but also for tech.

On staying abreast on trends with the latest innovations in the industry, Venon shared that he likes to read articles. But not just any articles—Chinese articles.

“My Chinese is bad, but I try very hard,” Venon admitted. The reason for his effortfulness is because he believes Chinese business reports tend to give the latest business and technology insights in a very detailed manner.

Meanwhile, he finds articles from the West to be more “fluffy”. That said, he thinks reading a blend of both Western and Asian media is definitely recommended.

At the end of the day, though, Venon said that a lot of the philosophies he lives by is “not rocket science”. A lot of it is just learning as they go, one step at a time.

“There’s no secret formula,” he shared. “It’s just how much you believe in it.”

Learn more about ZUS Coffee here. Read other articles we’ve written about ZUS Coffee here.

Also ReadSick of mistakenly buying fake products online? TikTok Shop has a solution for M’sians.

Featured Image Credit: Venon Tian

The Philippines' top fries brand is now in M'sia, here are its plans for the local market

A few weeks ago, a popular brand from the Philippines, Potato Corner, opened its first Malaysian store in Sunway Pyramid.

Sporting the brand’s signature green and yellow colours, the outlet located on LG2 sells what the company dubs as “the world’s best flavoured fries”.

Now, flavoured fries aren’t really a new invention as many fast food brands already serve them. For example, McDonald’s seasonally offers their McShaker fries and it’s quite popular in Malaysia.

With 31 years of history and over 1,800 stores across 16 countries though, surely Potato Corner must be doing something right. So I reached out to the brand to find out what it plans to do in the Malaysian market.

But first, what is Potato Corner?

As the name suggests, Potato Corner mainly focuses on potato products, specifically flavoured fries. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the brand’s selection criteria is “extremely rigorous”.

In its grand opening press release, the brand explained that the brand only uses fries of the highest grade from the best producers. Right now, they’re using fries imported from Europe.

Alongside that, Potato Corner also serves their Super Chicken Pop.

Both the fries and chicken bites are customisable, so you can opt for your preferred flavours. Currently, the Malaysian outlet only has four flavours to choose from. They are Cheese, BBQ, Chilli BBQ, and Sour Cream.

There are a total of five sizes available, ranging from Large (RM8.90) to Tera (RM26.90). Between the five, some of them allow for mixed flavour combinations, namely the Mega (RM15.90), Giga (RM22.90), and Tera cups.

According to its opening day press release, Potato Corner also has a “100% Happy Sure policy”. If you’re unsatisfied by its fries for whatever reason, the brand will replace one for you immediately within the same day.

At the time of writing, the brand is still in the process of preparing to apply for JAKIM’s halal certification. But they’ve reassured customers that Potato Corner currently uses halal-certified ingredients.

A simple yet well-loved snack around the globe

Upon connecting to the brand, we were introduced to Chayapatra Thongcharoen (or more fondly known as Pong), the Group CEO of Rocks Group.

For context, Rocks Group owns the local master franchise of Potato Corner in Malaysia and Thailand, which means that the company owns the rights to run and expand Potato Corner here.

But as mentioned, Potato Corner is actually a Filipino brand. Started in 1992 by four friends, Potato Corner has grown from a network of small kiosks to sit-down diners around the Philippines.

And part of that growth came down to its franchising model that was launched in 2001.

During an interview with The Independent Investor earlier this year, one of Potato Corner’s co-founders, Jorge Wieneke confirmed this. He said, “We quickly expanded by giving family and friends franchises of the business.”

At the time, particularly in the Philippines, franchising was mostly done by bigger players in the field. So Potato Corner was “just winging it,” as he put it. And within three years, the brand opened its first 100 outlets.

This growth trajectory continued on, with the brand expanding into neighbouring Southeast Asian countries in 2007. By 2010, Potato Corner had landed in the United States of America.

Expanding internationally but with locals in mind

The popular fries brand was brought into Thailand by Pong in 2016 through franchising, where they now have 110 stores across 35 cities.

“Prior to the pandemic, we (Rocks Group) were just mostly focused on expanding in Thailand as it was still in a hyper-growth stage. But now we believe that we are ready to expand internationally,” Pong stated.

As such, with Thailand’s close proximity to us, opening new Potato Corner outlets in Malaysia seemed like a natural next step. After all, he explained that it would be easier to support the business in its early stages with HQ being nearby.

Pong also said that Rocks Group will be taking a similar approach to the one in Thailand, where products will be localised. This is in terms of offering localised flavours and products, such as choice of protein.

For example, Thailand introduced corn dogs and hotdogs into its menu in September this year. Similar to its fries and chicken bites, customers are able to personalise the flavours to their liking. Alongside that, Thailand’s menu also includes flavour options like Sweet Chili.

“As we come into this market, the most important thing is for us to try to understand and cater to local taste,” Pong stated.

With that in mind, they’ve hired a fully local management team to help better understand and navigate the Malaysian market.

The recipe to success is having good ratios

We learnt from Pong that similar to Bryan Loo’s approach with Tealive, Rocks Group believes that maintaining a healthy ratio of self-owned and franchise stores is key to sustaining a business.

As such, Pong and his team plan to expand Potato Corner through company-owned stores for now. Which basically means that they won’t recruit franchisees yet.

“We have ambitious expansion plans and you’ll see a lot more stores popping up around the Klang Valley next year,” he shared.

It’s possible that beyond that, you’ll probably find a Potato Corner outlet in Johor, Penang, Melaka, and maybe even Kedah down the road.When that happens, Pong hopes the brand will eventually turn into a well-loved snack locally, just as it is in the Philippines and Thailand now.

I’m quite curious to see how the brand will fare in Malaysia though as it has a strong competitor in the form of Sabah’s Happy Potato.

Happy Potato expanded to West Malaysia quite recently too, so there are currently two big brands for flavoured fries in the same space.

Competition aside, this trend implies that there’s a good demand currently for flavoured fries. And you know what, I can’t argue against its tasty and shareable appeal, so I won’t be surprised if Pong’s vision comes to fruition.

Learn more about Potato Corner here. Read articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Also ReadSick of mistakenly buying fake products online? TikTok Shop has a solution for M’sians.

Featured Image Credit: Potato Corner

M’sia is ramping up sports innovation. Here’s what to know about NTIS SportTech Sandbox.

[This is a sponsored article with MRANTI.]

Here at Vulcan Post, we’ve reported on plenty of technological developments in sectors like edutech, healthtech, dronetech, and even artificial intelligence (AI).

But one industry that we rarely see crop up with new and exciting innovations, is sports.

In fact, research in the Journal of International Studies (Issue 8) highlighted that many Malaysian businesses struggle to maximise the opportunities in sports development. This can be attributed to insufficient R&D facilities, networking opportunities, and government support.

Things might soon change though, following the launch of the SportsTech Sandbox at the National Technology and Innovation Sandbox (NTIS) set up by Institut Sukan Negara (ISN) recently.

What is the SportsTech Sandbox?

The SportsTech Sandbox was officially launched on November 28, 2023, following its prior activation in 2021.

It’s a programme under the Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation (MRANTI) as the lead secretariat, and Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI).

The aim is to foster sports innovations and advancements to meet the changing needs of athletes and sports enthusiasts.

Think of the sandbox as a testbed where entrepreneurs and developers can R&D, as well as test their prototype products and services in a controlled regulatory environment before implementing them on a larger scale.

At NTIS, innovators are also provided with access to capacity-building programmes, networking opportunities with local and international stakeholders, funding, and even IP patent and trademark facilitation.

The goal of the SportsTech Sandbox is to encourage local talents to create sports-related innovations and use these technological advancements to build up local athletes.

Why is all this so important for sports?

Ahmad Rizal Azwir, NTIS’s Senior Manager, highlighted two reasons: performance optimisation, and more efficient rehabilitation and recovery processes.

He elaborated that using precise data collection and analysis can enable athletes and coaches to identify strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement. This data-driven approach can help in optimising training routines, techniques, and strategies to maximise performance.

One local startup that’s attempting to aid in this area is Genomas Sdn Bhd (Genomas). It’s a biotech company utilising DNA and genome processing to identify and personalise data-informed recommendations for sports talents.

This would also help athletes when it comes to their rehabilitation and recovery processes. Data analytics can analyse an athlete’s specific injury and recovery patterns to create personalised rehabilitation programmes.

“Genetic-based talent scouting is relatively novel in Malaysia,” said Rizal. “While some Western countries apply it selectively in elite sports, China has implemented it nationwide to detect ‘special talent genes’.” 

Rizal elaborated that genetic data utilisation has yet to be commercialised sufficiently in Malaysia and SEA. “This is due to limited infrastructure, insufficient funding, the absence of commercial incentives, and a general lack of awareness regarding its significance,” he told Vulcan Post.

Furthermore, the development of more sports advancements in Malaysia could benefit the country on an economic scale. This is particularly so in the area of exporting Malaysian-made sports products, as well as hosting global sporting events in the country, such as the Formula One Grand Prix, the Olympics and the World Cup.

Following the SportsTech Sandbox’s launch at NTIS, this test bed can provide the resources to support and advance the local sports industry.

Hence, tech companies that are developing sports-related technologies are encouraged to get directly in touch with NTIS. The agency is looking for practical solutions that could address issues on a national scale.

NTIS’s SportsTech Sandbox is welcoming all types of sports-related developments, including traditional sports from badminton and basketball, to modern ones like esports and even drone racing.

Connect with NTIS here.Read other articles on Malaysian startups here.

Also ReadSick of mistakenly buying fake products online? TikTok Shop has a solution for M’sians.

Featured Image Credit: MRANTI

9 Malaysian business & industry trends we predict will take off in 2024

As we usher in the new year, there’s one familiar ritual awaiting us. It’s that time of the year again to unveil our predictions for the future. Or to be specific, for 2024.

So, here are 9 of our business and industry trend forecasts that we anticipate will happen next year. 

1. Adoption rates of electric vehicles will see a significant jump

If there’s one thing that’s obvious in 2023, it’s the growing interest in electric vehicles (EV) by the automotive industry and the public.Even our homegrown brand Proton Holdings Bhd revealed a draft version of its roadmap for going green that included hybrid, plug-in hybrid EVs, and full battery EVs.

However, according to a report by TNGlobal, the country’s EV sales for the first nine months of 2023 only accounted for 1% of the total industry volume.

But that could change next year. Tesla’s regional headquarters and service facility being set up in Malaysia could potentially boost adoption rates.

The tabled Budget 2024 also introduced a number of measures that are expected to boost the local EV industry, such as allocating RM600 million for Prasarana to acquire 150 electric buses and construct three bus depots.

With those in mind, there will definitely be more EVs cruising down Malaysian roads. And in line with that, more startups will jump on the bandwagon, thereby growing the local EV industry as well.

2. More Malaysian businesses will IPO on Bursa Malaysia than abroad

This past year, we’ve covered a number of funding and acquisition news about local startups. And one thing we’ve repeatedly heard from some of them is the desire to launch an initial public offering (IPO) in the near future.

This includes names like Agroz from the agritech industry, Pet World International Sdn Bhd from the pet food industry, Eatcosys from the foodtech industry, and BIG Pharmacy from the healthcare industry.

While some have expressed interest in launching their IPOs abroad, it’s possible that they might reconsider and list on Bursa Malaysia instead.

This is because based on Budget 2024, it was announced that the government has considered targeted exemptions on Capital Gains Tax (CGT) impositions on activities relating to approved IPOs and Venture Capital.

Simply put, this means that companies who get Bursa Malaysia’s approval to IPO could be relieved from CGT, which is a tax on the profit made from selling assets like shares. This might just be a strong enough incentive to sway those on the fence.

3. More sophisticated elderly care startups will be launched across Malaysia

If you haven’t noticed, over the past decade (2012-2022), Malaysia has witnessed an increase in the elderly population, AKA those aged 65 and above. It’s not surprising as our population is gradually ageing with global life expectancy rates increasing.

And this trend seems to be continuing.

As of last year, the number of elderly citizens is about 2.54 million which makes up about 7.2% of the country’s population. Fast forward to July 2023 and the Department of Statistics Malaysia projected that it will increase to 7.4% this year. 

In that light, the elderly care market is expanding to keep up with the trends. This year alone, some local brands have already taken steps to stay ahead of the game.

For example, Sunway Healthcare Group unveiled its flagship senior living residence called Sunway Sanctuary in June. Prior to that, property developer IGB Bhd and Meaningfull Life Sdn Bhd launched ReU Living, an assisted care facility in KL.

Even local babysitting platform Kiddocare bagged a seven-figure funding to expand its niche in order to include aged care services. So, we expect to see more growth in the elderly care sector next year.

4. International tourism will fuel more unique stays and experiences

If you’ve been keeping up with social media the past year, you’ll have noticed that new theme parks and unique accommodations have been dominating the lifestyle space.

For example, new stays and activities just popped into the scene this year, such as:

Coconest, a floating coconut-shaped stay in Langkawi Bomb Battle, a digital interactive gaming experience that combines the escape room concept and paint “bombs”REXPERIENCE, an immersive digital art gallery in the former cinema hall ofREXKLSamadhi Retreat’s Chef’s Table, a private slow dining experience

It isn’t surprising when you consider that everyone has been holed up at home for quite some time due to the pandemic lockdowns. With it fully lifted and international borders opened, more people are looking to having new experiences and making new memories.

In July this year, Tourism Malaysia’s Director General, Datuk Dr Ammar Abd Ghapar, told The Star that international arrivals reached 80% of pre-pandemic levels.

And this was only in the first quarter of 2023. So we can definitely expect to see more international travellers visiting the country.

Hence, you will find more local businesses tapping into unique stays and experiences to meet the demands of tourists.

5. Social enterprises will get a boost in support & growth

Back in June, it was announced that the Small Medium Enterprise Development Bank Malaysia Berhad (SME Bank) aims to increase the number of registered social enterprises in Malaysia from 414 to 5,000 by 2025.

It’s a huge leap to be accomplished in just two years’ time.

But during Startup Week Malaysia 2023, we found out from the president of the Chamber of Social Entrepreneur Development that the country’s bigger plan is to have 10,000 social enterprises by 2030.

One way of accomplishing that is by introducing a new accreditation level next year called “Aspiring SE”.

For this tier, the business does not need to be SSM-registered. It just needs to earn at least 10% revenue from business transactions, and only needs to channel 10% of their profits to beneficiaries.

Hence, with lowered entry criteria coming into place, more founders might be incentivised to enter the space.

Something that’s also becoming increasingly relevant is the awareness around ESG (environmental, social, and governance). There are no formal guidelines for it yet, but we’re hopeful that 2024 will see a more structured approach to practising ESG.

6. All five of Malaysia’s digital banks will be operational

Recently, Grab launched its digital banking system called GXBank, making it the nation’s first digital bank available for use.

Based on its website, the digital bank will be releasing its physical and virtual debit card in January, where users would be able to get unlimited 1% cashback. So it seems to be a service that’s here to stay for the foreseeable future.

For context, digital banks involve the digitalisation of all traditional banking products and processes. This means that there are no physical brick-and-mortar branches to visit. 

GXBank is one of five consortiums that gained a digital banking licence from Bank Negara Malaysia back in April 2022, and now that it’s kicked off its service, it’s very likely that the others will want to catch up soon.

For better or worse, this will take us one step further toward being a cashless society. Both merchants and customers will need to adapt accordingly for ease of transaction.

7. 5G will be fully available throughout Malaysia

As of September this year, it was reported that the adoption rate is only at 4.2%. This is despite the nation achieving 70.2% coverage in its 5G network rollout at the time.

But 2024 could see an increased rate in both adoption and coverage. 

To help, the Communications and Digital Ministry is offering a 5G Rahmah package, a bundle that comes with a 5G smartphone device along with a data plan. 

Aside from that, local mobile service providers like Unifi, U Mobile and CelcomDigi have also taken the initiative to offer similar 5G packages.

In terms of coverage, Putrajaya is aiming to achieve 80% by the end of this year. Hence, by 2024, it’s not impossible for 5G connectivity to be accessible throughout Malaysia.

And with such packages, more locals would be incentivised to use this latest technology. So if you’re thinking of changing to newer phone models, now might be a good time.

8. More local plant-based food options will crop up with the help of biotech and agritech innovations

Food security became quite a topic of debate during the pandemic years as it spotlighted Malaysia’s dependence on other nations.

For context, Business Today reported in 2022 that 60% of our food is imported from abroad.

But we’ve also increased our R&D efforts in biotechnology and agritech to enhance crop yields and produce our own food, a move seemingly accelerated by the pandemic. 2023 also seemed to be the year of more plant-based food options coming into the market.

For example, we recently covered the stories of Cell Agritech (Malaysia’s first cultivated meat company), WonderMeat (which makes dry mix plant-based meat), and Agroz (an indoor vertical farming company). 

We predict that this trend will continue in 2024, with more startups coming into the market to solve the food security issue that still remains a challenge locally.

9. Malaysian businesses will introduce AI policies

Lastly, who could forget about artificial intelligence (AI) and the disruption it’s caused to creatives everywhere?

It’s no secret that AI can be helpful in your day-to-day work life. But the issue comes when people misuse it without any formal guidelines.

For example, what’s the point of hiring a copywriter if they’re going to use ChatGPT to completely write for you, right?

So as AI continues to be developed and becomes more intertwined in the workspace, we will see more Malaysian companies introducing policies around its use. Some might outright ban it, while others might set boundaries to limit the extent of using AI.

Is it time to let the unicorn fairytale go?

The sad truth is that we still haven’t seen another Malaysian unicorn rear its head in 2023. But maybe it’s time we stopped hoping for one and instead looked at the other animals in the startup ecosystem.

While unicorns are rare and “mystical”, perhaps we should give more recognition to the camel startups and zebra startups.

For context, camel startups refer to companies that do not require a constant stream of investment to sustain themselves. While camels do aim for growth, they keep survival and profitability as their priorities.

Similarly, zebra startups still look into profitability, but also prioritise values such as sustainability, social responsibility, and community.

Seeing as how the business landscape is changing to be more ESG-focused, it might be better to look for camels and zebras because they’re more sustainable.

Read articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Also ReadVPS can be a cost-effective & scalable asset for modern companies, this M’sian biz shows how

Featured Image Credit: Tesla / Agroz / Coconest

"No room for dead wood": The reality of managing a large global team, told by Inmagine’s CEO

If you’ve ever had to look for stock images online, chances are you’ve come across 123RF.

Founded in 2005 by Andy and Stephanie Sitt, 123RF is a site by Inmagine Group, a Hong Kong-registered but Malaysia-based company. Currently, the group is headed by CEO Warren Leow.

During Startup Week Malaysia, Warren gave a talk on how to manage and scale teams. As the group CEO of a company with over 250 staff members worldwide, he certainly knows a thing or two about that.

Here were some of the insights he shared during the session.

Ensure there’s more governance and more discipline, but it will be at the cost of speed.”

When a company is smaller, its vision and culture are much more stable.

But as an organisation scales up, the same can’t be said. There needs to be alignment between the leader and the board, as well as with the people who execute things.

“Sometimes they tend to be a little bit more bureaucratic,” he said about bigger companies. “It’s designed in such a way that the processes and people involved are there to ensure there’s more governance and more discipline, but it will be at the cost of speed.”

While leaders might feel wary about implementing bureaucratic processes because it means the team moves slower, it’s imperative that bigger organisations take time to communicate, make sure things are documented, and ensure proper processes are in place, especially for “BAU” (business as usual) activities.

“Team dynamics is not purely about employee happiness. It’s what makes it easier to achieve business growth.”

After ensuring there is consistency in terms of value, mission, and objectives, Warren said leaders should also know how to use the carrot and a stick approach to get the whole organisation to move in the desired direction.

Carrot refers to incentives, while the stick is how you hold people accountable.

On accountability, in a smaller team, it’s easy to just pull someone aside and talk to them, but as a team grows bigger, there will be HR processes in place to be cognisant of.

These sorts of processes are necessary in upkeeping team dynamics.

He clarified that team dynamics isn’t just about keeping employees happy, but rather, it should be seen as a factor in business growth.

During his talk, an attendee had asked about his stance on remote work. To that, he said that he doesn’t believe in a fully remote work force, as face-to-face interactions are necessary for growth and team dynamics.

“Compromise as a solution is okay, but it should always be to the interest of the company rather than because some employees just want to work from home,” he said. “You as the leader must choose what is good for the organisation, and what is good for team dynamics.”

“Perfect the skill of firing fast.”

Leading such a big team, Warren admitted that he’s made the mistake of taking too long to onboard important people.

Although, he added a counterargument that when you hire expensive people, they should be able to hit the ground running regardless.

He advised balancing between giving these individuals enough context while not swamping them with too much information so that they can form their own perspectives and give fresh takes.

“But instead of focusing too much on onboarding, the key point I want to highlight is perfect the skill of firing fast,” Warren said.

“Everybody thinks that the CEO’s job is fine and dandy, but the reality is it’s quite confrontational,” he continued. “You can inspire people, you can motivate people, you can give them career development paths, but a big part of the job that is understated is school or courses is how to confront people.”

Leaders need to be able to tell people to get their act together—in nicer words but in very clear and firm terms.

“Do not compromise in diversity of values.”

With Inmagine Group having a global workforce, that means there is a diversity of culture and ideas, which can be a great thing in bringing about fresh perspectives.

But how does Warren ensure that these diversity in cultures don’t affect the team dynamics?

To him, the diversity of culture isn’t an issue—but diversity in values is not acceptable.

Leaders being the “custodian of values” must thus identify bad apples in the group and practise the last point of firing fast, so that a negative culture loop doesn’t root itself into the company.

“Sometimes, yes, things can be negotiated, but there are times you need to be firm and it’s not actually a negotiation. It’s a policy that you set. It’s a direction you set,” Warren said. “The reality is, if you’re the senior leader, people will just have to follow suit.”

After all, leaders are held accountable to the business growth of the organisation.

“Growth is not about creating a comfortable environment where you can have work-life balance, work from home—you’re tolerating dead wood. There’s no room for dead wood in any successful organisation.”

“You must know how to behave like a boss when there’s a need to behave like a boss.”

Especially in smaller teams, bosses or leaders often build very strong bonds with their team members.

However, when push comes to shove and the leader must get rid of bad apples or hold people accountable, these actions may negatively affect morale across the team.

In this situations, Warren said leaders need to compartmentalise. “It’s very important to be clear who’s the boss, who’s not the boss.”

In essence, it’s necessary for leaders to maintain a level of distance and keep things professional.

Tough conversations should be objectives-based to minimise the influence of emotions. Desensitising yourself may be a skill to practise.

“If you’re the CEO, you are forced by necessity to see a way through by hook or by crook.”

It’s not always easy for people to see the road ahead clearly. Warren recognises this, but he shared it’s a leader’s duty to see a way through by hook or by crook—otherwise, things won’t go anywhere.

“Your role as a leader, founder, or CEO is to get the company to push the boundaries so things have a sense of momentum,” he said.

Momentum refers to the sense of moving in a positive direction, rather than being stagnant. Generating this momentum is easier with a small team, but as an organisation scales, expect there to be some inertia.

“Reality is, it’s up to you to define your direction,” he concluded. “There are times to hold back on an action rather than disappear down a rabbit hole. But if you play it safe, the organisation won’t go anywhere.”

So, leaders must take stock of the cards they have in their hands, set the right direction, determine whether it’s the right moment to act, and make that call accordingly and decisively.

Learn more about Inmagine Group here.Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Also ReadWant to work in companies like Bursa Malaysia? This programme could be your entry ticket.

He found success selling smoothie bowls in LA, now he’s back in KL making healthy popsicles

The year was 2012 when Desmond Ng and his two university friends (Amy Gong and Bryan Leong) started Amazebowls in Los Angeles, California.

Initially a food truck, the brand specialising in acai bowls and smoothies later grew into two full-fledged stores and a catering division. 11 years later, it’s still serving the people of California, just without Desmond in the picture now.

You see, he felt homesick and decided to head back to Malaysia for good in 2020.

It was a drastic change considering that he’s lived in the US since his university studies. But like any filial child, he wanted to spend time with his ageing parents.

So Desmond moved back to KL. But entrepreneurship called to him again, and he eventually opened up another healthy food business called POPMAN.

This time, converting the humble smoothie bowls into frozen popsicles with the hopes of being people’s go-to treat in place of ice cream.

Nourishing and tasty smoothie pops

At POPMAN, the goal is for consumers to have the option of treating themselves to something that’s both tasty and healthy. Hence, the brand’s three key principles when building its recipes are:

It has to be nourishingIt has to be minimally processedIt has to be undeniably tasty

This is because the brand is somewhat a spin-off of his first F&B venture.

Initially, the idea was to start a similar business to Amazebowls in Malaysia. But upon checking the KL market, he figured that it would be a better idea to start another venture.

Why? Because people here just don’t consume smoothies as religiously as LA locals. “I realised that people like my parents aren’t used to consuming smoothies,” he said.

“That’s when I thought turning my smoothies into popsicles could be a more approachable way for people like my parents to eat a little cleaner and healthier more often.”

So he got started on the R&D aspect shortly after.

Making the most with research and luck

It might seem simple enough, turning smoothie bowls into popsicle sticks. But the R&D process for POPMAN actually started back in early 2021, and the business was only launched about a year later.

As a matter of fact, Desmond told us that the brand’s R&D is still an ongoing process.

In line with POPMAN’s philosophy of being minimally processed, he doesn’t use stabilisers or preservatives. Currently, Desmond is looking into alternative ways to minimise freezer burns and ways to keep the popsicles longer.

Without any formal culinary training, he reported that he’s easily done more than a hundred experiments for the brand.

“It’s a lot of research, trial and error, and luck in meeting the right people who have been kind enough to share their experience and knowledge,” he humbly said.

Though challenging, Desmond is determined to make this full-time career of his work. Especially since he’s moved the home-based business to a central kitchen recently.

Nothing is “im-pop-sicle”

“I’m hoping to make healthy eating fun,” Desmond expressed to us. “I want it to be more accessible and enjoyable. That’s why I’ve spent a lot of time and energy creating unique and tasty flavours from clean and nourishing ingredients.”

Its menu consists of flavours like:

Mango Coco Yum Yum (with a mango and santan flavour profile)Big Bang Berry (with a strawberries and blueberries flavour profile)50 Shades of Earl Grey (with an Earl Grey tea and blueberries flavour profile)Berry Good Matcha (with a matcha and blueberry jam flavour profile)

Each popsicle is about 55ml and costs RM9 per stick. Customers can opt to purchase them online through its Instagram page or in-store at Qra’s four outlets.

They’re all made personally by Desmond, as he’s a one-man brand.

Once focusing on health-conscious teens and young working adults, the brand has since restrategised its business plan.

It turns out that the popsicles are better received by older folks and parents who prefer healthier snack options for their kids. Even so, it still aligns with Desmond’s brand mission.

Popping up in the local scene

One year and eight months into the business, the founder happily shared that the reception for POPMAN has been good so far.

And interestingly, despite my personal preconceptions, most of the brand’s customers are locals. Only a small portion of POPMAN’s consumers are foreigners.

This tallies with the current F&B market trends, where locals are starting to opt for healthier food alternatives like plant-based meat. “I think the health conscious market has been growing in Malaysia,” he concurred.

Noting his observations during pop-ups, Desmond shared that customers would typically purchase multiple popsicles to bring home instead of just the one to be eaten there and then.

As such, he plans to collaborate with other brands to sell POPMAN’s popsicles at more locations. “Hopefully, not on a consignment basis,” he quipped.

For now, though, the brand meets these demands online by offering discounts on orders above 12 popsicles.

Ambitious dreams to be the next Milo?

Making healthy eating more accessible and enjoyable is quite a noble venture, sure. However, I was curious as to what Desmond’s bigger goal is with the brand.

Because the reality is that the frozen desserts market in Malaysia is quite saturated. And some people, like myself, would argue that you don’t need to eat healthier desserts to be healthy.

But Desmond’s hope is that people don’t choose his popsicles just because it’s a healthier option.

“I see POPMAN as a cross between a boba store and an organic juice bar,” he explained. “I want to incite the same kind of excitement people have when they get boba. But instead, with popsicles that have health benefits.”

It’s ambitious and he acknowledged that wholeheartedly. Though he believes that it’s achievable by first focusing his efforts on kids.

“Perhaps the same way Milo infiltrated schools with their Milo trucks and got kids hooked on Milo at a young age. I dream of building a fleet of popsicle trucks in the future going round to schools and neighbourhoods introducing kids to a healthier snacking option.”

There’s still a long way to go, with the brand working on expanding its team and marketing efforts. But for the time being, you’ll find Desmond working hard to make that dream come true, one popsicle at a time.

Learn more about POPMAN here. Read articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Also ReadSick of mistakenly buying fake products online? TikTok Shop has a solution for M’sians.

Featured Image Credit: POPMAN

Wake up entrepreneurs, here are 5 harsh truths that could make or break your business

Organised by MYStartup as part of Startup Week Malaysia 2023, The Failing Forward session at Colony Star Boulevard KLCC was graced with curse words, comedic moments, and somewhat cutting advice for entrepreneurs.

The lineup of panellists was:

Adlin Yusman, Managing Director of EndeavorDamon Grow of Arkade VenturesNadira Yusoff, founder and CEO of KiddocareWai Hong Fong, co-founder and Chieftain of StoreHub

And man, were they dishing out brutal truth after brutal truth that night. Here’s some of what we took away from the casual sharing session, so listen up, entrepreneurs.

1. It doesn’t get easier, you just get more options and alternatives

From the panel of seasoned entrepreneurs, the bad news is that the journey doesn’t get easier. But the good news is that you have many more options and alternatives these days to achieve what you want.

This nugget of wisdom can be applied to many parts of the entrepreneurial journey, but that night, the context was regarding funding opportunities.

Back then, entrepreneurs of early-stage startups were largely limited to seeking funding from venture capitalists (VCs), angel investors, or government grants.

Today, options have widened to include peer-to-peer (P2P) financing, equity crowdfunding (ECF), and more.

Despite more accessible avenues, it’s important to remember that the funds won’t just fall into your lap on demand. From the entrepreneurs’ experience, persistence and tenacity is still key.

This leads into the next point.

2. Stop making excuses in the face of failure

In a probably deserved callout, Wai Hong lightheartedly pointed out that Malaysians somehow have an ability to keep coming up with excuses for why something didn’t work out.

It’s easier to place the blame on external factors and take on a victim mindset than to reframe your thinking to become: This didn’t work out, so what can I do next?

After a certain point, you can’t keep pointing the finger at “systemic bias” and “corruption”, etc., and expect things to change. You have to get out there and do what it takes to get what you need.

In a much earlier venture, Nadira recalled an instance whereby she had hit rock bottom after a large project fell through at the last minute, leaving her company with few funds to continue. She still had a team to pay, and her own family to feed as a single mother.

Instead of feeling pitiful for herself, she made hard decisions. She sold her home and her car, and learnt how to do makeup for people in order to keep her family and business going.

With persistence, she made it out of that ditch and continued on to start better companies.

3. Don’t be too desperate, you can say no to VCs

That fear of becoming tight on money probably never leaves any business owner’s mind. Business is unpredictable, after all.

But something that all the entrepreneurs present that night agreed upon was that raising funds from VCs is a death wish, to put it bluntly.

It’s a sentiment that has echoed through the startup ecosystem for years—VC funds can destroy your company. That’s why many companies that can self-sustain opt to continue reinvesting in themselves.

Kiddocare was one such company, and they only decided to get VC funding recently, for their Pre-Series A round.

The round took over 1.5 years to close, and Nadira shared that a year and three months into the journey, they actually declined the investors.

By that point, they no longer needed the funds, but the moment they declined, Nadira said many investors suddenly showed an interest in them.

This leads to the next example of the panel’s advice to…

4. Raise when you don’t need the money

Raising funds when you don’t need the money means that you get to set the terms with investors. The ball will be in your court, and you can decline an investors’ offer much easier.

Nadira told her investors this round if they couldn’t raise the money in two months, they’re out. This resulted in them managing to raise from three VCs.

5. To build a world-class company, you need to be willing to pay the price

If you want to be the best, there’s a price to pay. As Wai Hong put it, Lebron James didn’t become Lebron James by eating Maggi, Pizza Hut, and KFC three times a day.

As an entrepreneur, you’ll often need to make sacrifices to see results. You have to put your foot down and make difficult decisions for the benefit of your company.

Sometimes this may end up with you being perceived as “the bad guy”, but Wai Hong believes that that’s the price to pay for your business to move forward.

There are nuances to these situations, of course, such as when the management team may sometimes be outright abusive, or the staff may be over-sensitive, but in general, many successful entrepreneurs appear to agree with the sentiment.

You can’t please everyone, no matter how hard you try.

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Of course, these entrepreneurs’ experiences shouldn’t be taken as gospel, and you may disagree with some of their points.

That said, these are perspectives to keep in mind when making a decision on how you want to run your startup. Every startup has its different needs, and as a leader, you should adapt your approach accordingly.

Read more about what happened at Startup Week Malaysia 2023 here.Read Malaysian startup stories here.

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Featured Image Credit: Vulcan Post