This post was written by J. Andrew Davison.
I never expected when I first started my own business in Malaysia that we would create an organization of some 40 people who are totally focused on providing information and support to the resident and non-resident international community. It’s surprising how, over the years, we have developed so many channels to reach them while simultaneously promoting Malaysia.
When I first left American Express and teamed up with a former New Straits Times journalist, Nora Marzuki, I decided that a newsletter for resident expats seemed like a good idea. We could combine my extensive business experience and knowledge of being an expat with her writing and publishing skills. The result was a bi-monthly, 26-page, black and white newsletter.
Simultaneously I worked on trying to satisfy five European companies who had retained me to represent them in Asia and benefit from my 25 years working out here. One of my earliest decisions was to avoid anything labour intensive so I did not have the headache of people management. That rule was to go the same way as many of my other plans.
1997 Asian Financial Crisis
The Asian Financial Crises in 1997 resulted in me losing four of the five companies that I was meant to represent. They all decided to place their plans for Asia “on hold’. By that time, I had quickly learned that being a small time entrepreneur was very different to being a senior executive with a major multinational. Although I intuitively knew it would be different, I found myself doing menial tasks, which I had not done in many years. It was an inevitable consequence of not having anyone to whom I could delegate tasks.
It was a time of exploration and learning for me. The freedom of being a real entrepreneur allowed me to start any new business which occurred to me and to believe that each failed endeavour was a powerful learning experience.
In Bangsar - A Local Newspaper for Bangsar
Based on the limited success of The Expat newsletter, we launched a local newspaper for the Bangsar area called In Bangsar, which followed an established concept in many other countries – a newspaper for the local community.
We printed some 36,000 copies once a month and delivered it free of charge to every residence in the area. It was well received by the community (it was free) but less so by the fairly deep pocketed businesses in the area. We kept it going for a couple of years and then had to shut it down.
Jobs Hotline Business
My Jobs Hotline business tried to help people find jobs close to their homes after I observed how many commuters passed each other going from KL to PJ each day and vice versa. The concept was simple: approach all the companies in our part of the city with the tantalizing prospect of employees who could not blame traffic for their late arrival, and then drop some 70,000 flyers into the homes in the same area, offering jobs close to home. The companies paid to list and the job seekers got it for free.
It started off very well but within six months Malaysia got hit by the economic downturn and there were few jobs but masses of job seekers. The business model no longer worked and there were few jobs available, so another business hit the dust.
Becoming a Restaurateur
Getting into the restaurant business seemed a no brainer to someone who loves food and drink and like many other British expats, I had once foolishly dreamed of returning home to run a pub. It was just before the explosion of more upmarket restaurants outside of the hotels’ outlets. A vacant shop lot below my office in Bangsar seemed ideal.
I was a great admirer of the British adventurer, James Brooke (who became known as “The White Rajah of Sarawak”) and decided to call it “Brookes”. My fellow investors thought “The White Rajah” was more appropriate despite my concerns that people would start calling me the White Rajah with my conspicuous white hair. “Don’t be so conceited” was their reply. It was only a matter of weeks before people started referring to me by that name!
Like many of my “brilliant” ideas, it started well but ongoing staffing problems, missing products and cash, compounded by too many demanding customers, proved too much for me. On top of that I became tied to the place and lost my “freedom”.
The never-ending supply of new air-conditioned restaurants meant people who had travelled from the other side of KL to sample our dishes and ambiance now found them available much closer to home. I was left with a strong admiration of all those people who have succeeded in this business and the firm decision to stay away from anything involving owning a place that serves food or drinks to people. The decline of Bangsar Baru as an upmarket food and beverage destination has proven me correct on the last point. Only a few brave and talented souls remain.
Refocusing the Publishing Business and Expanding into a Niche Media-Communications Company
Meanwhile, our publishing side was doing OK and our black and white newsletter slowly evolved into a full colour monthly magazine with 100 pages or more. The fact we have always offered a free subscription has ensured we reach more expats than any competitor. From the demographic data we collect, we found out we were reaching 25 different nationalities, and today that number has increased to over 100.
We also created several other magazines, including an annual guide for newly arrived expats called The Expat Welcome Guide, a guide book for visitors to Kuala Lumpur called the KL Welcome Guide, and various other speciality publications. We even had a regular column about expats in The Malay Mail until that newspaper was sold. Then we added a membership card that provides special offers for expats called the Expat Card. We have also added the Wine Club, which offers low prices for wine loving expats. More recently, we tied up with MasterCard to give expats a credit card, which does not require them to place a Fixed Deposit.
I soon realised that websites would become an essential source of information. So ten years ago, we started our first website www.InBangsar.com that failed badly – we could not even get local businesses to give us their basic company details to load onto the website free of charge! It has taken Malaysian companies a very long time to see the value of promoting their products and services on the internet. Our subsequent sites focusing on the international community have done much better.
Our first expat website, www.ExpatKL.com, continues to be our major source of new subscriptions to The Expat magazine. Since then we have added websites on property, Malaysia My Second Home, tourism and dining among others. The digital side of the business has received a boost by my son joining the business and pushing me for more investment in that area. It was also helped by a recently concluded sponsorship deal with MasterCard for our dining website, www.DineMalaysia.com, which should also see the website get a lot more publicity. The Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) programme caught my eye in 2002, and I became increasingly involved in that government initiative, including marketing it internationally. I was asked to sit on various government panels tasked with recommending improvement and shared feedback from the hundreds of people interested in the programme.
For a while, we had a regular column about it in the NST Property Times. We even set up an approved agency to help people get visas. Eventually my frustrations with the never-ending changes to the programme and frequent complaints from clients caused me to lower my profile and involvement.
We also started to hold regular sit down Wine Dinners which have proved very popular and a great way to try new restaurants at very attractive, introductory prices. This was followed by our monthly networking evening, Expat Mingle, which has drawn even bigger crowds.
We became even more ambitious in 2007 with our first Expat Expo, so resident expats and overseas visitors could discover more about Malaysia and the products and services available here. Held at Kuala Lumpur convention centre, this exhibition attracted several thousand visitors. The year 2010 saw our Senses of Malaysia magazine receiving an award as the best tourism publication in the country at the Malaysia Tourism Awards, and Malaysian Airlines asking for copies for all their flights – a double bonus. A key aspect of everything we do is looking for opportunities to market Malaysia as a place to live, work or invest. We have travelled overseas to do that, and I have been asked to talk both in Malaysia and internationally, with the aim of promoting the country. On top of this, various international media and organisations have approached me for comments about the country or for help in reaching expats from their respective countries. Researching the resident expat community was a logical outcome of collecting their contact details. Our various surveys over the last ten years have helped everyone understand the lives and needs of the resident expat community. The research has been used by many companies and organisations, including the Malaysian government. We now have clients asking us to conduct research for them. At various stages, the Malaysian government has sought our advice and input. Recently, we have been working closely with several government departments as part of the Government Transformation Programme.
This is a valuable opportunity to shape things in the future and represent the views and needs of resident expats. The considerable feedback we have received from expats together with the many surveys we have conducted over the years has proven very useful in these discussions.
After 15 years, we are now in the position when most savvy companies looking to reach or understand foreigners (resident, visiting or just interested in Malaysia), know we are the market leaders.
It wasn’t the original plan, but we are happy how things have worked out. It is equally satisfying that we now do a lot to promote Malaysia internationally, especially since we now choose to call the country home. We look forward to the next 15 years.
This article appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Expat magazine
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This article has been edited for ExpatGoMalaysia.com