Theodore Khng: Youthful Ambitions
President of the Young Entrepreneurs Association of Singapore and founder of his own line of natural products Theodore Khng shares with Melissa Gail Sing how his journey as an entrepreneur has shaped him and offers his top tips for aspiring young entrepreneurs.
Other 26-year-olds may have dreams of seeing the world or owning a supercar before they hit 30, but Theodore Khng has even bolder dreams. The young entrepreneur is on a mission to get more young people to take the leap forward and dive into what he calls the deep end: entrepreneurship. It’s something he does as president of the newly formed Young Entrepreneurs Association of Singapore. A young entrepreneur himself who at the age of 23 started the Theo10 line of natural products that now retail in several countries including Thailand and Australia, he can personally vouch for the challenges of starting a business—but also the immense joy and satisfaction of watching a business grow from a single vision.
He shares with Melissa Gail Sing how his journey as an entrepreneur has shaped him and offers his top tips for aspiring young entrepreneurs.
How have you grown from the Theo10 experience?
When I first started, it was all very exciting. There’s the secrecy of coming up with a new product, and you’re dealing with patents, trademarks and so on. I’d wake up at 2am, close all the curtains, lock all the doors in my house, go downstairs, take out my apparatus, and start mixing and matching various oils and raw materials. By 5am, I’d clean up and lock up my formulation in my safe.
I’ve been really lucky because there was advancement in my business. First, there was the home factory, then I went on to have proper retailers. Recently, Singapore sent me to Thailand for their first Asean Entrepreneurial Forum where I presented my company to about 700 people, mostly Thais, including representatives from various ministries. Having the opportunity to present Theo10 to company shareholders, agencies like SPRING Singapore and even to people overseas, and receiving awards are all experiences that have moulded me. Not only have they given me great exposure, they have put me in a better position to take the next step.
I’ve really grown in terms of adaptability. Having met different people from various walks of life has granted me the opportunity to interact with different people while having my own style. The amount of information learnt and exchanged from running a business, meeting people and being mentored by so many inspirational people not only moulds a person but inspires them to pay it forward. My international business partners have also been very kind and patient with me, and this allows me to learn things more expeditiously and helps to build my confidence.
Along the way, I’ve met many other young entrepreneurs and we share our similar tatler_tatler_stories. Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely journey because no one really understands how you feel, think and operate. But when you hear someone doing or going through something similar, you get the assurance that you’re, hopefully, doing something right.
What are some of the challenges of being a young entrepreneur?
People naturally judge you and because I look young, it can be challenging marketing my products to mums for their kids’ use. So there is that kind of on-site challenge but it’s easily overcome when they try the product and see how it really works.
Secondly, because I’m dealing with the healthcare industry, there are many technicalities involved in terms of document submission and so on. In the beginning it was really tough. There were 100-page technical documents that had to be submitted and they would be riddled with many big words that the average person would struggle to pronounce. I also had to call many government agencies, but I was really lucky because the staff were very kind and patient with me, and they answered all my questions. Also, from the beginning, we were already working on the global front and that naturally presented some challenges. But thankfully, I have business partners overseas who have been in the industry for many years and were very patient with me. So, that was the second challenge: diving into the unknown, an area that neither you nor your family or friends have background knowledge of. Yet in the end, it’s all very fulfilling because you come into this with zero knowledge and now I hopefully have enough to move to the next level.
Theo10 products are 100 per cent natural. Would you consider yourself a “greenie”?
I haven’t always been a “greenie” but recent influences and exposure due to my business have made me more aware of the harm done to the environment and society. Harsh chemicals are being used by big-name brands but the end-consumers may not always be well informed about what they consume or apply on themselves. By the time they notice unfavourable changes, it may be too late.
In the course of my work, I visit farms and factories, and inspect the processing plants. Along the way, I’ve met people who have shared their secret family treatments for various ailments. When I was in a village in India, for instance, I met a lady who told me that the very grass she was standing on was unique and that her family had always kept that particular species of grass alive so they could use it as a remedy for coughing and wheezing. Whenever anyone fell ill, they’d pick up a patch of the grass, grind and boil it with water to drink.
It got me thinking that while advancements in medical technology is good, sometimes you don’t need something so advanced where you may not even fully know what it is you are consuming or applying. You just need a solution to a problem.
It struck me that such raw forms of nature are effective in treatment, so I tried them out myself and have always been surprised at their efficacy. That’s how I began to appreciate nature and its hidden benefits that many of us do not immediately see. Theo10 embraces that philosophy of simple, back-to-basics solutions that are 100% natural products.
What's your wildest dream for the brand and for the green movement in Singapore?
My big dream is to see Theo10 in every household and to really go global on a larger scale. Ultimately, it’s for people to, through products like Theo10’s nature-based range, be more informed about natural alternatives.
The green movement plays a very big part in our philosophy in very much the same way it does for many other products today—either they’re organic, they’re manufactured under environmentally-friendly conditions, or recycling is constantly encouraged. When people use products that contain too many chemicals, you can see signs of it. So they are always on the search for alternative medication, alternative food and an alternative lifestyle. That’s what drives us. We offer alternatives that are 100% natural. In just two years, we launched two products, we set up retail operations overseas and now we have our own factory here. In the next three to five years, we want to expand our product range beyond just skincare but even to food and beverage. Recently, a friend told me about breath mints that are so advanced that they get rid of bad breath and also keep the intestinal tract healthy. It’s a brilliant idea as current offerings merely mask the smell! I give myself two years to come up with something.
Do you ever wake up thinking that there could be an easier way to make money than being an entrepreneur running around doing pretty much everything himself?
I do wake up doubting myself or the decision I made two years ago. With a corporate job, there is the assurance of having a stable income, but then you’d also miss the excitement and variety that come with the lifestyle of an entrepreneur. You can’t put a price on the satisfaction you get from watching your own efforts grow, and more than that, you get a sense of fulfillment when people share words of affirmation about your work or products. That’s really what keeps me going.
What were your earliest ambitions?
Like many other teenagers, I did not really have any firm ambitions when growing up. I certainly did not think I’d become an entrepreneur. After my O- levels, I went to Canada to finish high school there. That was a big lesson in independence as I was alone and had no family or friends there. I also learnt to be sociable and to look after myself. When I got back here, at the age of 17 years and one week, I was enlisted into the army. From then on, it was fast-track all the way.
From the time I was 16, I’d accompany my father (who’s in the construction business and on the advisory panel for various government bodies) on overseas trade missions. I always saw those trips as holidays, but looking back, they were an early introduction to international business dealings. Shortly after I returned from Canada, my dad called me from India where he was and since I wasn’t doing much, he asked me to join him there. The very next day after I flew in, he flew out, leaving me there for a month with his friends, people from the tourism board, whom I didn’t know. So, for a whole month, I followed them to trade shows. I was the office boy, coffee boy, secretary, PA and so on. It was an unconventional, informal internship, but that was the kind of “training” I got during my teenage years.
Studying and receiving informal training in various countries greatly exposed me to people of people from different countries. It also taught me to adapt, evolve and be more humble.
Any tips for young entrepreneurs or potential young entrepreneurs who're considering making that leap?
Youths today must be realistic and have the courage and actions to follow through with their words and ideas. Ever so often, I hear of youths who have great ideas and even greater execution plans. Becoming an entrepreneur is a lifestyle. I believe that when an entrepreneur is starting out, he or she must always be prudent, adaptable and sociable. Prudence to ensure that assets are stretched beyond their perceived value and have sufficient resources to tide through the crucial beginning stage. Adaptability to ensure that relevant and important changes are made quickly to adjust to the best formulation. Sociable to increase likeability and immediate affinity with people, to break down barriers to facilitate rapid and forthcoming exchanges of information.
Who or what are your biggest influences in life?
Definitely my parents. They’ve supported my decision to start my own business, and they’ve been patient with me even when I made mistakes. When I needed advice or help with crucial decisions, they gave it willingly. Family and friends are like a safety net. They may not know exactly what you are going through but they’ll offer advice and encouragement.
My fellow entrepreneurs also influence me. There are many young entrepreneurs in the world today who are very successful. Just watching them and hearing about their success tatler_tatler_stories gives me the confidence to do what I want to do. Surrounding yourself with many different entrepreneurs from different industries gets you motivated. And when you are hit with a roadblock along the way, you realise that there are definitely many more options than you previously thought.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. What are some of your involvements outside of work?
Every Monday, I volunteer at a Meet the People Session in Nee Soon. I live in Pasir Ris but I go all the way there because there’s a really good Member of Parliament there, Dr Lee Bee Wah. She’s also a role model to many. An entrepreneur herself she started a very successful consultancy firm in engineering consultancy that was bought over for millions of dollars by another big international engineering company. She started from zero, climbed up slowly, achieved many awards in the process and gained tremendous recognition. Today, she gives back wholeheartedly to society.
All I need to do is write a simple letter for people who need help and ask Dr Lee to sign it. It’s a very simple gesture that requires minimal effort but it can potentially transform someone’s life. Some of them share their most intimate and very grave troubles. It makes me even more grateful that I have a good family and a business that is surviving. But for some people, the world is full of troubles that they cannot find solutions to. I am reminded that while I enjoy some successes in my businesses and what I do, I must never stray too far from the real world. It reminds me to be down to earth because who knows? One day, it might just all go away.
Growing up, I used to love the outdoors. I used to sail. My sister Griselda is a world champion in sailing. Apart from that, I enjoyed camping, mountain climbing and other outdoor activities. When I was a scout, I used to build campfires in our home garden using branches I picked up from the roadside. With my lifestyle change however, I can’t find the energy to do all that. I do enjoy walking our family dog, a beagle. What I’ll need soon is a holiday!
Photography: Lionel Lai/Acepix
Grooming: Sha Shamsi
Location courtesy of OTTO Ristorante