Wai Hong Fong escaped the rigid Singaporean education system to make a fresh start in Australia – and he never could have imagined the path it would lead him down.
‘Smart but lazy’. It’s a label affixed to many a misread teen, seen to be whiling away talent on the basis of pure indolence.
But sometimes, the shoe just doesn’t fit.
In the case of Wai Hong Fong (TCFS 2002), Singapore’s rote learning-based education system did little to inspire a brain that thrived on problem solving and big-picture thinking. It’s hard to learn when everything seems so … boring.
‘I just wasn’t interested in a lot of my subjects so didn’t bother putting in much effort,’ admits Wai Hong as he reflects on his school days. ‘My parents could see I was struggling, and given I had two uncles in Australia, which seemed to have a different education system, they said, “why don’t you go there?”’
So he did go to Australia. Trinity College, to be exact.
Upon arriving down under, Wai Hong’s primary observation was how relaxed things were. ‘The first thing I remember is my teachers saying, “Call me Mike” or “Call me Rosemary”.’ The levelling of authority was palpable and Wai Hong was both shocked and heartened by the fact that his teachers were interested in forming genuine connections with their students. One teacher even led him down the dark path of becoming a Collingwood AFL supporter (*cough*Rosemary Blight*cough*).
Despite his education taking a new tack, Wai Hong still faced academic struggles, particularly once he hit university. A video game addiction consumed his days and nights, relegating study to the backseat. Nevertheless, Wai Hong graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, double majoring in media and communications, and history and philosophy of science.
Once released from the grip of formal education, Wai Hong’s talents – which didn’t mesh particularly well with academia – became the razor-sharp tools of an entrepreneur. The obsessive personality that once prioritised video games over study became the focus needed to solve complex business problems. He would go on to head up a multi-million-dollar ecommerce business, sparked by some tinkering around in his uncle’s garage.
Wai Hong’s uncle had a small gift store and was interested in selling items on eBay. Wai Hong – fresh out of uni with time up his sleeve – agreed to help. ‘That’s where my obsessiveness kicked in as I was figuring out how to grow this business and obsessed over every detail – whether that was writing product descriptions, taking pictures or figuring out how to crack an algorithm to rank at the top of the search engine listings,’ says Wai Hong.
Within a couple of years, the backyard business was annually turning over $5 million worth of revenue. With business thriving, Wai Hong scoured gift shows for new items to sell, however most vendors were less than willing to have their products peddled online (given this was circa 2007 when ecommerce was in its hard-to-imagine-now infancy).
A somewhat random exception was a telescope supplier who was happy to take a chance on the emergent transactional beast known as the internet. With the help of Wai Hong’s optimised website listings, the supplier went on to become one of Australia’s largest telescope retailers, both on and offline. ‘I wasn’t a big astronomer – it’s not like I looked at the stars very often, but I figured out how to get the product in front of the right audience at scale and in a cost-effective way.’
After five years in business with his uncle (during which Wai Hong was named one of Melbourne’s Top 100 most influential people), Wai Hong left Australia to study Mandarin in China. It was during this time that he had a chance encounter with a retailer selling women’s lingerie. The retailer was despairing over his new computer system, so invited Wai Hong to take a look.
Wai Hong was shocked to find a brick-like Windows ‘95 system that firmly affronted the user experience. He contacted the developers to offer feedback, only to be told the solution was better staff training, not a better computer system.
An anger-fuelled investigation uncovered limited sales technology options for small to medium-sized retailers, so, going headlong into problem solving mode, Wai Hong created StoreHub – an online point of sale system with functionality at the fore. By narrowing in on the frustration being experienced by many retailers, he came up with a product now used by 14,000 retailers in more than 15 countries.
Looking back, Wai Hong can trace some of his success back to Trinity’s Foundation Studies program. He sees that pivotal year of his life as not only the fresh start he needed, but a time when he would learn how to tell stories through speech and body language, particularly through drama classes. Combined with his natural inclination to obsess and problem solve, he had something of a secret sauce.
‘I think storytelling is probably the most underrated skill in business and in life. We're constantly telling stories every single day, and whether that's in sales or convincing someone about a claim or sharing a vision, it's all about good storytelling because that's how people connect,’ he says.
Now based in Malaysia, Wai Hong is capitalising on the ‘crazy-fast’ business world in Asia to grow StoreHub further. ‘Australia is a good and really well-managed country, and when things are well managed, there are fewer problems,’ explains Wai Hong. ‘Where there are few problems, there are few opportunities, so as an entrepreneur, Asia is a good place to be because there are lots of problems to solve.’
By so fervently seeking a challenge, Wai Hong has proven to his former teachers that he’s far from lazy. And with a multi-million-dollar business to run, he’s certainly not bored either.