Entrepreneurship: The price of integrity, the value of kindness

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 14, 2020 - September 20, 2020.
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Failure is part and parcel of the entrepreneurial game, but not many entrepreneurs are able to bounce back after they have experienced their first defeat, a case of “once bitten, twice shy”.

Jimmy Lee, co-founder and CEO of Foodie Box Group and an angel investor, is not one of those people. He had to shut down his first passion project — a video production company called Motion Effects Studio — but he was able to pick himself up, dust himself off and move on to better things.

Also, he says, Motion Effects Studio was years ahead of its time. Motion graphics technology was just beginning to gain ground in Malaysia because the internet was just taking off.

It was 2003 and Lee was only 25 when he started the business. He had just graduated from law school but decided he was not cut out for a legal career. “I read law because I thought I could fight for the rights of the people and uphold social justice, but I realised I had been way too idealistic. Immediately after graduation, a friend of mine asked me to join him in his video production company.

“I loved what I was doing in video production and expanded into animation. So, I started my own video production company with a friend from law school. We barely had any experience, but we gave it our all and learnt the ropes,” he says.

Within months, the partners were handling content production of government-linked companies and institutions.

The business, built out of a bedroom, experienced a meteoric rise. In just four years, the partners were running the business out of sprawling office space and had secured two high-profile multimillion-ringgit projects in collaboration with two other companies.

Furthermore, Lee had achieved his dream of becoming a millionaire before he turned 30 — on paper, at least.

But, just as the company was about to start on the projects, Lee was sabotaged. His two “partner” companies had colluded to remove his company from the projects so they could secure a larger piece of the pie.

“When we were bidding for the projects, we hadn’t faced any problems. It happened a year later. I was called to a secret meeting with the partner who had hatched the plan. The agenda was to boot out the third company. I didn’t want to be a party to such a thing, as it was unethical, and I said firmly that we embarked on the journey with three and we should finish the project with three.

“I thought that was it and the plan had been scrapped, only to find out that the other two had come to an agreement to kick me out of the consortium we had formed to win the bid,” he says.

At that point, Lee had invested more than RM400,000 in the equipment and manpower to see the projects through within the deadline. “They were national projects and had to be launched on a specific date. But because we had spent so much … we couldn’t make our payments on time and our debts piled up,” he says.

Over the next few years, the company made barely enough to survive. Lee had to resolve four writs of distress over his office property and one winding-up order against the company.

Just as he was at his wit’s ends to raise RM28,000 to stop the Shah Alam High Court from seizing and auctioning off his office property, Lee had a chance encounter with a friend of a friend. He had been initially reluctant to meet the person but later conceded that he could be a prospective client.

“I remember being so stressed because I had little time to get the money I needed to keep my office. But I met him at Starbucks and we got acquainted. He asked me how things were going and I wondered whether I should tell a prospective client how things really were. I mean, honesty was what got me into this mess in the first place,” he says.

But before he knew it, Lee found himself telling this new acquaintance about all that had happened and how his business was in a shambles. As he was about to leave, resigned to the fact that his business was about to tank, his new acquaintance wrote down his home address and asked Lee to visit him that night.

“I consulted my business partner and she thought he could be a loan shark. But I thought, why would a loan shark want to give me money knowing I have none? So I went to meet him.

“When I got there, he asked how much I needed to pay for the legal issues and everything else. I told him I needed about RM29,000. He just said, ‘I am not going to give you RM29,000; I am going to give you RM40,000.’ It wasn’t a loan but he wanted me to solve a riddle first — that was the only condition,” says Lee.

The riddle was: What do Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr and Yasmin Ahmad have in common?

Lee had two weeks to pay the High Court and he had to figure out the answer before that or risk losing everything he had worked for.

While he felt that the whole thing had become rather surreal, he could not help but trust that his acquaintance was sincere.

But right up to two days before he had to make payment to the court, Lee still had not figured out the answer. “I was really stressed out. I was looking for deep, thoughtful answers but it was a simple one: They were talented people who changed the world. He didn’t reply for a long time, and then asked to meet me in Mont’Kiara.

“I was so anxious, I had to get it right because I had only a day to make the payment. He turned up with a cheque book and wrote me a cheque for RM40,000. I was so lucky to have caught him because he was leaving for Singapore that night.

“I asked whether it was a loan, but he said, ‘Just use the money and don’t give up on entrepreneurship.’ He told me to keep moving forward, to sort out my legal issues and use the remaining RM11,000 as seed money for my next business idea,” says Lee.

He paid the court and used the remainder to pay off some debts. There was not enough to resuscitate the business and he even lost his apartment.

However, the confidence he had gained from that strange encounter stayed with him. It was the reason that Lee and former business partner, Adlin Sarim, managed to get back on their feet so soon after to start YummyLicious, a burger joint that specialises in Asian burgers, in 2012 with a meagre capital of RM200.

“It was all Adlin’s idea. She suggested that we start a food business, but we didn’t even have enough money to last us through the week, what more to rent a kitchen or shop. She suggested that we cook at home and handle the delivery ourselves. That was how YummyLicious was formed.

“My mum gave me her gold ring and I pawned it for RM200. I went to Ikea and bought some pots and pans. We started selling pies, coneys and burgers.

“The answer to the riddle gave me the focus, determination and patience to see things through. If I could get RM40,000 in two weeks, nothing was impossible,” he says.

But it was not easy, as there were times when he had to go without meals for days or stick to a meal a day because of a shortage of funds.

“I was determined because my failure was a result of sabotage, not because I wasn’t running my business properly. But a lot of people, even my mother, had asked me to give up entrepreneurship because it wasn’t putting food on the table,” he says.

He believed that the concept of delivering home-cooked food had massive growth potential, provided they got the pricing and mechanism right. He adds that he was validated when companies such as FoodPanda and Grab ventured into the market to provide a similar service years later.

YummyLicious, which was still being run out of a home kitchen, was beginning to get a lot of attention for its take on healthy and clean fusion food. At its peak, British chef and restaurateur, Jamie Oliver, even followed it on Twitter, says Lee.

Then, Lee and Adlin were engaged to manage a café, The KopiShop, in Damansara Heights. “We were hired to be consultants to run the business and eventually to run the café. We did that for a year and managed to turn things around. The café was bleeding about RM4,000 a month,” he says.

It was challenging because the café was located in the basement of an office building. But after six months, they were making close to RM2,000 a day.

“In running YummyLicious and the café, I realised that most office workers were always rushing to finish their meals. There was another group of people who preferred healthier meals, but were spending a lot of money on that,” he says.

That sparked the idea for Foodie Box — an alternative on-the-go meal option that is both affordable and healthy — in 2016.

Lee discussed this concept and brainstormed with an Oman-based acquaintance whom he had met on LinkedIn.

“He flew to Kuala Lumpur two weeks later, rang me up and asked me to meet him at the café. There, he told me he wanted to invest in Foodie Box and proceeded to give me US$50,000 to do my research on the best ways to get the meals prepared and sold,” says Lee.

Two weeks later, Lee flew to India to explore the ready-to-eat meals market and learn how to extract water from natural ingredients so that they last longer, also known as food dehydration.

Through his research, he was able to come up with a unique product that uses natural ingredients but has a shelf life of at least two years. “One of the things that I learnt about staying at home and caring for my mum, who has early onset dementia, is that it can be very challenging to get groceries and, sometimes, we just lack the time to prepare meals.

“I also found it quite frustrating that fresh ingredients couldn’t be kept for long. Foodie Box has a technology that ensures food can last between one and two years.

“The concept isn’t new; dehydrating food goes back to ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians used to dehydrate and store food so it would last in their difficult climate. With our products, all you have to do is add hot water. It just cooks on its own and, in eight minutes, you have a warm meal,” he says.

Lee does not deny that the instant meal market has been cornered by some of the world’s largest food manufacturers, but he is not interested in competing with these companies. His market, rather, is the segment interested in getting healthy food in a jiffy.

“These products are made from completely natural ingredients. There are no chemicals whatsoever. That was why I went to India. I tried the curries and biryani that were dehydrated. I was blown away. People can’t tell that the biryani was an eight-minute meal.”

Lee also engaged NanoMalaysia Bhd to use nanotechnology in ensuring that his food is safe and long-lasting.

Although the products are ready and proof of concept was successful, Foodie Box has not taken off, as the partners are still trying to figure out the best way to commercialise their innovation.

“We still need capital to set up a warehouse. Second, we need to develop the e-commerce platform with payment gateways and we need to hire people for marketing, sales and business operations, manage deliveries and more,” Lee says.

In addition, he is no longer focused on just profits; he has started a social enterprise called Watan to help refugees. He was inspired by Abraham George, an Indian-American businessman who started the Shanti Bhavan Residential School in Tamil Nadu, India, in 1997. The school offers education and care to children in the untouchable communities to help elevate them from the dredges of poverty.

“The documentary on the school, Daughters of Destiny, really inspired me. The thought of giving up so much in return for just providing education to the children made me want to go down this path. I realised that the secret of living is giving.

“And, it is something that I have experienced before. The guy in Starbucks just gave me RM40,000 without expecting anything in return and that friend from Oman invested US$50,000 in the blink of an eye,” says Lee.

Realising he could do more, he started sharing his entrepreneurial journey and began mentoring those who wanted to get their start-ups off the ground and who had approached him on platforms such as LinkedIn.

“So far, I have mentored about 12 start-ups. And under Watan, we do a lot of fundraising projects for the education and welfare of refugees to help them gain employment. We also dedicate some of the profits from our other businesses [YummyLicious and the café] to Watan,” he says.

One of the most successful of the start-ups that Lee has invested in is Lapar Esports, founded by Russian national Kravchuk Ilya Vyacheslavovich. “I got a message from Ilya out of the blue on LinkedIn and he asked to meet up. He told me about what he wanted to do with Esports and I agreed to be his mentor.”

Lapar Esport is one of the emerging companies in the local competitive mobile gaming scene.

Lee believes that the secret to his success is doing the work without expectation and with willingness to give back. “I have chosen to live my life without any form of expectations. I just do my best. My aim is to become debt-free by the end of this year. If I succeed, great! If I don’t, I will just keep moving towards that goal.

“I am always grateful for everything. When I wake up every morning, I think of three things I am grateful for. Most of the time, it is always family, my health and the business I am building.

“Sometimes, I am just grateful for the fact that I am 42,” he laughs.