Hariman Kwok who, after raising two boys set up a children’s entertainment business, The Polliwogs and has now franchised and grown the business throughout Asia.
What’s your story?
My story is about making an impact. Born into a family of entrepreneurs in Jakarta in 1974, my parents always made an impression on me. Although I didn’t realise this until now, the time they spent with me, the values they imparted, the sacrifices they made and the lifestyle they gave me has made me realise that your childhood days are the most defining times of your life. I grew up confident and the virtues of fighting on (and never giving up) in the face of adversities is something that spurred me, preparing me for my career in the banking sector and the challenges of entrepreneurship.
While I had always aspired to be an entrepreneur, like my dad, my real journey into entrepreneurship started in 2009. Having worked in the banking industry for 12 years, with 2 young kids, I finally found the industry that I was passionate about. Raising two young boys, I realised that I wanted to be in an industry that creates happiness and joy and most importantly makes an impact on children and families. I wanted a “happy” business. The Polliwogs is an embodiment of my belief that every child should grow up happy and have fun. Our company vision is “To be a part of every child’s life” with a mission to “Reach out, inject fun and engage children.”
The Polliwogs is now Singapore’s largest private operator of family and children entertainment centres. As brand and IP owner, we are now a combination of company owned and franchise centres.
What excites you most about your industry?
My industry is about shaping lives and making an impact on young minds. With so much focus on academic achievements and de-socialisation through the rapid advent of technology, children no longer have the skills to socialise and have fun. Either stuck on their i-Pad or phones, they hardly socialise and have a hard time connecting with other humans.
We are in the business of fun and impact and that is exciting. We reach out, inject fun and engage children so when they grow up, they will remember how The Polliwogs have impacted their life through fun and play.
Another thing that excites me is that this industry has endless possibilities. Using technology, we are able to leverage technologies like VR/AR. The brand and The Polliwogs characters that have entertained thousands of children in our retail centres can now be animated and distributed widely and in several languages.
Exciting new programmes focussing on fun learning, life skills and values like teamwork, leadership, confidence, perseverance and many more will be introduced in the near future. More importantly, through CRM technology and life stage intelligence, we also hope to be part of these young lives as they grow up and have appropriate services for their younger years.
What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1974. I was schooled in Singapore when I was 10 in the now non-existent neighbourhood school Farrer Primary School, barely speaking any English.
As a child, I learnt the art of reciprocal dealings that is so important for doing business in Asia. Whenever I returned to Jakarta for school holidays, I would bring presents back for my teachers. They got to know me very well and they would spend extra time with me on lessons where I was falling behind. I spent most of my high school years in Singapore at an anglo Chinese secondary school until 1997 before going to join my family who had then migrated to Perth, Australia. I spent 7 years in Australia, graduating with an honours degree in commerce, with marketing and information management as majors. I am now an Australian Citizen.
I married my Malaysian wife and since 1999 I have lived in Singapore. Conversant in English, Indonesian, Malay, some basic Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien. In summary – Indonesian born, Singaporean-ized Australian with a strong Malaysian influence.
Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore for the start up stages because of its transparency and a platform to scale regionally.
Jakarta would be my pick as it is the best place to enter into a huge market because of it’s growing middle class and untapped opportunities. We can use the best practices from developed markets to apply in Jakarta and expand throughout Indonesia. Jakarta is also a hotbed for technology startups and no lack of talent. Moreover, cultural familiarity would make it easier to do business in Jakarta and Indonesia.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
My dad had always been a strong motivator and mentor for me. “Take care of the big picture” is his advice. “Work on the business and don’t get stuck in the business for too long,” otherwise you get bogged down with operational details that can be delegated to good staff members leaving you time to work on the focus and direction of the business.
We have to remember that as a leader, you are the pilot of the plane not the mechanic or engineer.
Another good piece of advice would be, to know how to use the strengths of your people and recognise and develop them. Don’t stinge on good people. That way you can focus on the big picture and they are aligned with you.
Who inspires you?
My father is my greatest inspiration. He is a great entrepreneur who started with nothing as a young boy in a simple family and built something significant. I aspire to be like him. His stories and the sacrifices that he had to make in his younger days as a businessman taught me a lot of wisdom and is truly an inspiration.
Bill Gates is also my idol. He is a Broad Vision guy and his vision of having 1 PC in every household was BOLD and gutsy at that time. His work truly made an Impact in today’s world. By far, I find him to be a true visionary – subtle, simple but Impactful… Now through gatesnotes.com he is giving back to the world and still making an impact in other ways.
What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The future is very exciting and at the same time scary. I recently attended a VR/ AR Masterclass and was exposed to these cutting edge technologies. While we have not seen the widespread use of these technologies today, it is not difficult to imagine the impact it will have on the way we live, work, play, interact and socialise in the future. Combine this with 3D printing/ fabrication, IOTs, and AI – the world will be a very different place in the next 5 years. I think the change will be much more drastic than when mobile phones and smart phones were introduced 8 years ago.
Imagine that you can actually be transported to multiple different places at the same time virtually and it would feel very real when combined with IOT technologies. You can be “present” virtually with your friends having a drink, while each of us will actually be physically at home and it would feel very real as if you are there in person and chit chatting with them as if you are all there at the same place and time. The idea of virtual holidays, virtual relationships that actually feel real and human blows me away. Very exciting and very scary at the same time. Looking Forward to it! Bring it On!
If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would JUMP into business much earlier rather than when I am 35 yo. I would have so much more energy, and much more leeway and time to make mistakes and bounce right back up.
Do things faster and be more efficient – develop a good habit of waking up earlier, have a routine for exercise and a schedule.
Build Technology platforms right from the start
Solid Funding and partners.
Invest in GOOD people.
How do you unwind?
Good Music, Wine/ Whisky and Good Company
Party sometimes to good music
I would love to travel and take a road trip with the wife and kids and have some “down time” sporadically to recharge.
Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand is great!
· You want a city buzz with simple nice people and everything in it – Bangkok
· Beaches – Phuket/ Koh Samui
· Great Food
· Great Culture
· Easily accessible
· Everything for everyone in the family
Bali is also great. Beaches and relaxing atmosphere.
Indonesia – a lot of potential but not yet truly developed and managed for tourism
Everyone in business should read this book:
“Double Double” by Cameron Harold
It’s about creating a Vivid Vision for your business. How it would look like a few years ahead as if leaning into the future and getting your team behind you.
Shameless plug for your business:
Making the best use of social media has only been the focus recently as we didn’t have the expertise to really make use of this channel. We engaged specialist help now for us to really leverage on this.
Late into E-Commerce development. It is only coming online now. But technology development and e-commerce development would be fast and furious from now on and would be our ticket to the next stage.
How can people connect with you?
E-mail: [email protected]
This interview was part of the Callum Connect’s column found on The Asian Entrepreneur:
Callum Laing invests and buys small businesses in a range of industries around Asia. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is the founder & owner of Fitness-Buffet a company delivering employee wellness solutions in 12 countries. He is a Director of, amongst others, Key Person of Influence. A 40 week training program for business owners and executives.
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