FocusW | Sept 3-9, 20160404
A lot of hard work and several failures,
coupled with a determination to have a
choice in life, are experiences that have
made entrepreneur Andrew Tan who he
NDREW Tan has an impressive
most of his Gen Y peers.
He has worked in a coffee shop
a trader at the night market and as a waiter at
clubs. In his time, he has managed up to five
businesses, including telecommunications,
recycling and property. He has even gone
through two bankruptcies.
Despite his varied experience, as well as his
failures and successes, Tan remains modest
and grounded. He drinks his coffee black and
insists he will never overeat – a trait that traces
back to his humble beginnings and the tough
life he led.
“Most people want to be rich, to drive fast
cars. I have gone through the harsh reality of
not having enough to eat, or always worrying
meal,” he says, standing at almost six feet tall
and looking dapper in a grey suit.
“Hence, I am not committed to be rich. To
me, it is about changing my environment… to
and investing in property under his stage name
Tan, whose rags-to-riches story will inspire
His parents owned a coffee shop.
At age eight (he only started school at
nine) Tan started working at his parents’ shop,
that to be
to get your
be on the
– Andrew Tan
helping to sweep the floor, wash the toilet and
crack large blocks of ice for drinks. He was
“promoted” to dishwasher three months later,
because his parents were initially worried he
would break the cups and plates.
He would walk to his parents’ coffee shop
some 4km away from home every morning
Even at that age, Tan was already displaying
an entrepreneurial spirit. On his own initiative,
he started approaching some of the houses in
Taman Pantai to sell newspapers to make an
While some families agreed to take on
his services, most declined. From there, Tan
learnt his first lesson in entrepreneurship: the
meaning of supply and demand.
“We can only sell something to people who
need it. There are some people who just don’t
to convince them, you just can’t sell it to them,”
His business, however, didn’t last long, and
he eventually moved onto other odd jobs, such
as working at fun fairs and a car wash during
his teenage years.
After he completed his Form Five examina-
tions, he moved to Kuala Lumpur and enrolled
in a private college.
“Due to my family’s financial constraints, I
had to work to pay my tuition fees as well as my
living expenses. So I worked as a waiter at night
clubs and even sold stuff at night markets, just
to survive for the two years until I completed
my studies,” he says.
After obtaining his diploma in computer
science, Tan went to the United Kingdom to
further his studies in Middlesex University,
majoring in Business Information System.
Life in the UK
Tan says his life in UK was a real test. He had to
scrounge and save to get by.
“I only brought £1,000 with me to last as
long as I could. For the first few months, I was
in the first month,” he recalls.
“And travelling to a foreign country alone,
not knowing anybody… that was tough. So I
know people). Eventually, I became the alumni
leader and the go-to person for students who
needed anything, from trading textbooks to
his degree, he worked with Tesco and eventu-
ally got an internship with eBay. Nine months
later, in 2002, he returned to Malaysia and set
up his first company with a few friends to sell
telecommunications services such as ringtone
“Within a year, our company got listed and
we were riding high. I thought we had made
it big and naturally, ego got in the way. There
was so much deficit spending and we lost so
bankrupt,” he says.
ing shares. That was our major downfall.”
So he packed his bags and returned to the
UK to do his masters in international trading
Taking big risks
When Tan returned to Malaysia in 2007, he
bumped into a few businessmen friends
from China who were going into the recycling
“They approached me with a deal to supply
defective electronics material for recycling. I
saw that as a chance to get into business as I
already had the contacts in the telecommuni-
cations field,” he says.
“I would help telecommunications compa-
nies to clear their electronics waste and supply
them to the China bosses. The whole business
went well and I was earning quite a big cut.”
His business grew fast and within a year, he
had a processing warehouse and four outlets
nationwide. He had also expanded overseas to
Dubai, Singapore, Germany and Spain.
But just as fast as he grew, his momentum
stalled. By the end of 2008, Tan again hit rock
bottom, when in October that year, he couldn’t
A seven-year-old Tan with his younger sister
by RITA JONG
Sept 3-9, 2016 | FocusW 0505
One of the
properties in Tan’s
is also listed on
a book entitled
Die with Massive
secure enough waste material to process and
to extract the precious metal to supply to his
China counterparts. His company again went
“The whole process took a while and we
were officially declared bankrupt in mid-2009.
This time, however, we were prepared as we
secured all the stock and let the company go
bust,” he says.
“However, I had always believed that there
was an untapped market in South Africa. I
knew there was a lot of waste there that no one
was managing. So I bought a one-way ticket to
Johannesburg with US$30,000 (RM120,000), to
either make or break.”
Tan was there for six months. He went from
staying at three-star hotels to sleeping on bunk
beds but he did not quit. As he began looking
for ways to find contacts, he picked up a phone
book and randomly called logistics companies
asking them to help him find companies with
an abundance of waste materials.
to others or bring business to people. That is
my main intention. So, I liaised with logistics
companies to help me locate these places and
if I managed to strike a deal with them, I would
appoint the logistics company.
me to a place on the outskirts of town. But I was
not allowed in the premises despite a week of
buying coffee and cigarettes at the front door.
with a rock. That was how he was allowed
into the premises. Fortunately, Tan was not
assaulted because he offered to pay for the
“That was how I struck my first deal. We
were shipping more than 80 containers every
month from South Africa. We also became one
of the major trading houses in Southeast Asia.
turned around. We expanded to Europe and
managed to earn enough to pay off the debts
within eight months.
“That year, I was overseas a lot just securing
deals and selling papers (contracts) as this time
want any more overheads. I would secure the
Tan eventually cashed out of the business
and told himself he didn’t want to have any-
thing to do with setting up any businesses
With cash in hand, he began investing in
Going into real estate
Tan invested in real estate in his personal
“I would buy distressed and secondary
properties in prime locations, refurbish them
and rent them out to expatriates,” he says.
have cash flow every month. So between 2009
and 2010, I managed to acquire 32 properties.”
In 2013, when the ringgit started depreci-
ating and the expatriates were leaving, most of
Tan’s properties were left vacant.
That was when he came across the Airbnb
business model and put his properties up for
“Four months later, I realised that I could
make 30% to 40% more on rentals because I
was letting out space on a daily basis. But this
required more management effort,” he says.
“This became my main business and
I’m happy to deal with tourists,” he says. His
now manages the Airbnb listings here.
He also became Airbnb’s super
from about 90% of the guests.
But it was all hard work. At the
start, he did everything – from key
exchange to room service. “I always
believe that to be successful you need to
get your hands dirty and to be on the ground
to understand the business flow,” he says.
Tapping into venture capital
Last year, Tan moved into venture capital
and set up AppShack, a company dedicated
to investing in tech start-ups. “A few of my
friends and I raised US$1 mil (RM4.04 mil) and
invested it in the enterprise,” he says.
Through AppShack, they invested in 16
companies, cashed out from three companies
and managed to exit with three to five times
more than they had invested. Recently they
sold the business idea to a government-linked
business call TinkBig Venture Sdn Bhd, a man-
ager of equity crowd funding, which is licensed
by the Securities Commission.
He says he now focuses on companies that
BESIDES being an entrepreneur, Andrew Tan is
also a technical diver who does exploration with
National Geographic and Discovery Channel.
Tan, who picked up recreational diving at age
17, realised his limitations (if there are strong
currents or bad weather) and decided to get past
it by going into speciality diving.
As a member of a non-governmental
organisation, International Diving Research
and Exploration Organisation (IDREO),
Tan contributes to Mother Earth by doing
He has explored shipwrecks and underwater
caves, and has seen manta rays and thresher
“When I am underwater, I find that I am
focused. There is a clear objective and it teaches
me about teamwork.
“The best part is when you are underwater, it
is so tranquil. All you hear is your heartbeat,” he
by showcasing them to a bigger market like
Despite his many business successes, Tan says
his proudest moment was when he saw a spe-
“This ‘boy’ is 32 years old but has
the maturity of an eight-year-old. I
first met him at a home for special
needs children on Jalan Gasing
two years ago. He could not really
“I would visit him as often as I
could. I’m so happy to see that today, he
can help around at the home, like sweeping
the floor or do filing work on his own,” he
says with a smile. He points out that those
in the mentally disabled group are the most
neglected in society.
One other pursuit Tan has is to co-author a
book entitled Die with Massive Debt, in which
he and his friends share the tricks of investing
in real estate. All proceeds from the sale of the
book, which was published this year, go to
They managed to sell 2,000 copies in four
months. In the book is a note asking readers
who have benefited from reading the book to
also donate to the cause.
“I’m not here to be rich. My main aim is
to have that option in life and to change my
environment as well as never having to think
whether I have enough to eat.
“My success is not measured by the money
I have, but the positive impact (I have on) the
people around me,” he says.
Tan is now also looking at investing in
social enterprises with business model aimed
at creating a better environment.
Despite all the turbulence and tribulations,
he has taken it all in his stride and has never
“My whole life has been a roller coaster. But
I have always believed that when God closes a
door somewhere he opens a window,” he adds.