How a bad back led Joey to fight both plastic and poverty

By Emily McAuliffe

Joey Azman is one of the brains behind Klean – a reverse vending machine that makes recycling easy and profitable. Here Joey explains the story behind Klean, as well as his other startup ventures, and offers his top tips for becoming an entrepreneur.

Joey Azman headshot

‘Dr Nick’ spotted a reverse vending machine – one that lets you put your recycling in then spits money out – at the back of a shop while running a marathon in Berlin. Good idea, he thought, but why isn’t it at the front of the store where people can see it? And could it be, a bit cooler perhaps, to make people want to use it?

Dr Nick, a chiropractor, was telling this to Joey Azman (TC 1999) as he worked on Joey’s back, trying to undo some of the damage that came from playing a lot of golf. Over 10 chiro sessions, the two had started chatting business, and the reverse vending machine concept caught Joey’s attention.

Nick’s interest in the vending machine model had led him to conduct research and development in his garage, trying to find a way to recycle better and smarter. Joey, who had the smarts as a numbers and marketing guy, saw what Nick was doing and thought he could help commercialise it.

So, the two became business partners (along with three others) and Klean was officially born in 2019, focusing on the South East Asian market.

Klean essentially takes the concept of a container deposit scheme to the people. By putting machines in areas with high foot traffic, the team makes being rewarded for recycling easy. However, given Malaysia does not have an established deposit return scheme, Klean gets clever by offering a digital container deposit scheme that issues ‘Klean points’ via its app, which consumers can redeem for rewards such as discounts on groceries, fuel, e-wallet credits, streaming services and phone plans.

Joey Azman putting an empty bottle into a vending machine
Joey with one of Klean's reverse vending machines

‘It's just great creating that behavioural change,’ says Joey. ‘I have to dangle the carrot to get Malaysians excited about recycling, but we are seeing that behavioural change, and we're getting pretty decent traction, post pandemic.’

Then, as an incentive for brands to join the program, Klean provides detailed data about who’s recycling what and when, plus the opportunity to reach a new audience.

The business has grown in Malaysia, with almost 60 machines planned to be placed in the city’s urban areas by the end of 2022, and has also spread into other parts of Asia, plus Fiji. Klean has also secured a large partnership deal with DHL and Grab, a popular Uber-style service in South East Asia.

Joey Azman with three men in front of Grab sign
Joey Azman (second from left) and the Klean team secured a deal with Grab, South East Asia's Uber-style service

Choosing the right path

Though he always wanted to become a chartered accountant and got his start in the corporate world, Joey also had a passing interest in running his own show, after watching his mother build a catering business. ‘Seeing what my mum did, I felt like there was this side of me that wasn't quite utilised, and I was always curious about it. Then, the emotional connection to what I was doing, I found that slightly lacking in the bigger corporate world.’

His wife at the time had then quit her corporate role to follow her passion, and Joey’s involvement in helping her build her own business sparked his interest further. ‘I just saw how much she loved what she was doing. And I was, like, wow, I wish I woke up every day feeling like I'm working through something and making an impact.’

But Joey admits that it took him some time to work out what got him excited, which he believes is key to the success of an entrepreneur.

In the end, it was the reverse vending machine being developed by his chiropractor and the idea of helping both the planet and those living in poverty (who could use the machines to earn money and tokens) that eventually felt right.

Joey didn’t forget his corporate accountancy background, however, and went on to also build a virtual company called vCFOur, which helps make the services of the ‘big four’ accounting firms more accessible to startups. This can involve helping small enterprises with their digital transformation, cloud-based accounting and fundraising, for example. Joey’s edge is being able to switch between ‘corporate speak’ and ‘startup speak’, and he dived into the venture when he could see the need for small businesses to be able to access good financial processes and advice during the pandemic.

Setting the foundations for success

Joey grew up in Malaysia, boarded at Geelong Grammar during high school, and lived at Trinity while studying a Bachelor of Commerce, chasing his dream of becoming a chartered accountant. Joey fulfilled that dream, and worked in Australia and Bermuda before returning to Malaysia. 

Looking back, Joey says that moving around and attending Trinity College helped him build many valuable skills that have helped him in business.

‘Moving away from home at such a young age and then going to college exposed me to the Western ways of doing things,’ he says. ‘In Asian cultures we tend to not want to speak up too much. But, for me, that came more naturally when I started working back in Malaysia, because I was never afraid to ask a question or speak my mind about something.’

‘I also think having that exposure and being quite independent early on, from a boarding school to college life, built a bit of the resilience that you also need to have when running your own business,’ he says. ‘Also, being in a college community and interacting with people gives you those basic networking skills that are super important in growing your business.’


Joey’s top tips for those who want to become an entrepreneur:

Know your purpose

Be clear about your why and your purpose. Since a young age, I’ve always found myself being able to hustle and sell something. I like to take something, make it unique, then market it. So, for me, it was about knowing what it is that drives me.

Have a financial plan

Know what your financial plan is, in terms of whether you’ve created (or need) a safety net or not. You need to know what your monthly burn rate is and how you’ll survive. If you can’t afford to quit your job immediately, you can do things gradually, where you keep your day job, but hustle at night or in your free time. That’s a good way to validate your leanings about what you're trying to do – use that time to see if your idea is going to work.

Understand your risk tolerance

Make sure you know what your risk tolerance is before making the leap into the startup world. If you’re like me and start out doing audit work for a big four company, it can teach you to be very risk averse because you look at so many companies and assess risk all the time. But the key is understanding that risk is always going to be there, you just need to know how to mitigate it.

Surround yourself with the right people

It’s good to be surrounded by a network of founders or people that you trust who will call a spade, a spade. But at the same time, you don't want to be around those ‘Debbie downers’ who are negative, because you need a positive outlook.

Have a positive mindset

On that, I can't stress enough how important a positive mindset is, because you can never accomplish much if you're negative. Despite all the positivity that’s shared when entrepreneurs give interviews or send press releases, nine times out of 10 you are facing a lot of challenges in your own business, from managing finances to managing people. That's why having a positive mindset is super important.

Don’t be afraid of failure

You can't be afraid of failure. In many Asian cultures, failure is seen as taboo – in corporate cultures no one wants to fail. As a result, no one really wants to take a chance. So, if you can change your mindset, failing is just another way of validating your learnings.

Be realistic

Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, and a startup isn’t the only way to be entrepreneurial. For instance, a lot of corporate companies want to be more agile or want to go through their own version of digital transformation these days. So, sometimes, within these big corporates, there are big opportunities to get involved in something quite novel. That way, you get the feeling of building something new, but with a built-in safety net.


29 Jun 2022
Category: People