It’s sometimes said that Singapore, with its emphasis on rules and regulations, has created a nation of exceptionally capable followers but no free-thinking entrepreneurs. The story of Paddy Tan Lek Han suggests otherwise.
In 2005 Tan started a software company called BAK2u.com, basically a lost-and-found service. “BAK2u was started partly from the carelessness of misplacing items on a plane or when travelling,” Tan, 38, explains. “The idea was to find a simpler way to return [the items] to the owner, using a sticker on the items.”
Tan developed that concept further. Instead of passively waiting for the items to be returned, he developed anti-theft software for the platforms of the time Symbian, Sony Ericsson, Pocket PC, BlackBerry and iOS.
An example was a system that would produce a video of anyone who had stolen a laptop, using the internet address to work out where they were.
The [Singapore] government provides a lot of avenues for anyone who is keen to start a business to get advice and even some financial support. Paddy Tan Lek Han
In 2011, Tan who has been frequently listed among South-East Asia’s top young entrepreneurs sold the company and started another venture, B-Secure Technologies. It has two businesses: mobile app development and mobile security.
“Riding on the personal branding that I already have, I created this company to look deeper into mobile security, where it’s not just about mobile phones anymore but the owners themselves,” he says. For example, there’s a mobile security locator targeted at the elderly and children, sending the location to parents or carers. Today the company employs 15 people.
While both ideas met a clear need, starting a new business is never easy. “Singapore is a very small market, so if you target only this country it will be very difficult to survive as a start-up,” Tan says. There’s also a limited pool of developer talent, he says, as well as a high cost of hiring, prompting the need to go regional.
The Singapore Government increasingly supports start-ups, but that was not so much the case in 2005. “Many Singapore companies themselves do not believe too much in products that are made in Singapore,” Tan says.
“We had our challenges [locally] when trying to sell our anti-theft software to protect their devices.”
From a paperwork perspective, however, Singapore is one of the world’s easiest places to start a company one simply registers on a website and makes a payment. “The government also provides a lot of avenues for anyone who is keen to start a business to get advice and even some financial support. There’s a better ecosystem for people keen to step out of their comfort zone and run their own business.”
Tan had an exit strategy for BAK2u, which he intended to sell earlier, but the global financial crisis got in the way. With B-Secure, such thoughts are still a long way off: “We have no intention to sell it off, as we are still in the very baby steps of developing products.” Indeed, Tan’s serial entrepreneur motivation began in childhood. His parents worked in hawker centres and watching their hard work galvanised him.
“When you see your parents waking up in the wee hours and spending almost the entire day selling and preparing food, with such little margins and the majority going to the landlord, it doesn’t make sense to toil your entire life,” he says. “Instead of being your own boss but at the mercy of others, there should be a better way to make some money to feed the family.” Tan sought to escape this cycle and looked to business cultures in the US, Europe and Asia for examples. He has a degree in engineering management from the University of Western Sydney, a diploma in business management from the University of Oklahoma and a diploma in materials engineering from Singapore Polytechnic.
Tan’s ambition hasn’t just created start-ups, but has also made him money “money that can provide a better environment for my parents, and now my wife and son,” he says proudly.