“Making jokes for a living” is seldom quoted as a career aspiration. Yet that was the very focus which motivated Karl Mak and Adrian Ang, SMU alumni from the School of Economics (2013) and Lee Kong Chian School of Business (2013) respectively. They co-founded SGAG in 2014, a content distribution platform which today reaches 2 million young Singaporeans every month. Their success has achieved recognition on a local and global scale, with Forbes recently featuring both Karl and Adrian in its “30 Under 30 Asia” 2017 list.
The Forbes “30 Under 30 Asia” list recognises leaders, all under 30 years old, who are challenging conventions and making an impact in today’s world. Selected by judges who are some of the most accomplished and acclaimed in their respective fields, the 30 honorees comprise entrepreneurs and innovators who have defied stereotypes, harnessed technology to disrupt their industries and overcome cultural barriers.
With this inspiring accolade, Karl and Adrian join the ranks of game changers who have demonstrated leadership and disruption in their field. Yet striking out on an unconventional career path with SGAG has not been a walk in the park for both. SMU caught up with them to find out firsthand how they achieved the success enjoyed today and their advice for budding young entrepreneurs.
Q: Congratulations! How do you feel being awarded the “30 Under 30 Asia” by Forbes this year?
Karl: It was an absolute honour and privilege to have had the opportunity to be nominated. Attending the “30 under 30” conference in Boston allowed us to meet some of the most successful movers and shakers globally and it was an extremely inspiring experience. Hopefully we’ll be able to translate this experience to bring our company to greater heights.
Adrian: It was an honour and a truly humbling experience to be recognised as one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30 Asia”, and definitely one that that wouldn’t have been possible without the fantastic family at work that I have. Having met other list makers and game changers at the Forbes conferences in Manila and Boston, it served to inspire me to strive even harder to make more people’s day a better one through the content that we create.
Q: What inspired SGAG?
Karl: Adrian and I have been cracking jokes together since we were classmates in junior college and when we entered SMU together, we pretty much continued to do the same. During a particular class in SMU, we had the sudden inspiration for a joke and wanted to share it with our friends, so we created a page to upload this joke that we had and the rest was history.
Q: What three words would you use to describe yourselves?
Karl: Optimistic, driven, compassionate
Adrian: Rebel, passionate, resilient
Q: How do you think your experiences at SMU contributed towards your success today?
Karl: My experience at SMU allowed me to develop a set of skills and business acumen that proved to be extremely valuable. My experience as a BSM [Business Study Mission] Teaching Assistant for the Middle East programme also taught me a whole lot about the business world and more importantly how to interact with business leaders. One particular professor that really inspired and impacted our journey was Prof Soon Loo. It was through the 13 weeks that we had in his class that really gave us the courage and inspiration to pursue SGAG to the next level.
Adrian: What many people might not know is that Karl and I actually used SGAG as our group projects for several of our entrepreneurship modules and those experiences helped us refine our business model in the early years. If there’s one person I could name who played an important part in our journey, it has to be Prof Soon Loo. Having graduated the top of his class in Harvard and being a successful entrepreneur himself, Soon imparted valuable knowledge and advice, but more importantly, he almost served as a personal coach and gave us that extra push to take the leap of faith when we needed it.
Q: It’s said that life as an entrepreneur is not easy. Yet with SGAG’s nonstop content, you make it look like effortless fun. Please tell us about your experiences as entrepreneurs and co-founders of SGAG.
Karl: Starting up post graduation is really tough. While the rest of our peers were earning handsome salaries, going to work at nice offices in the CBD with fancy perks, we had to really slog it out. We only took a small allowance to feed ourselves and rented a tiny room in an industrial estate to run our operations. Many people couldn’t see what future there was for us by trying to make jokes for a living, but we were hyper focused on our mission to create jokes that resonated with Singaporeans and make as many people smile and laugh daily.
Adrian: The two things that I valued the most about being an entrepreneur is the freedom to think and freedom to act. Working at SGAG early on allowed me to go crazy with the thoughts in my head and then act upon them by translating them into content for Singaporeans to enjoy. Even though my role has changed drastically since the early days, being able to chart where the business is heading next is still an exciting journey. If there’s one thing I learnt about being an entrepreneur is that no man is an island and it takes a dedicated and passionate team to achieve big teams. Along the way, we had to make the decision to part ways with people who weren’t aligned with our mission and values. Those sacrifices and decisions were tough, but absolutely necessary.
Q: If you had not co-founded SGAG, where and what do you think you’ll be working on right now?
Karl: I would probably be doing another tech start up or working in one.
Adrian: Entrepreneurship is in my blood so if I hadn’t co-founded SGAG, I would probably have started another business.
Q: How big is the team and what are your goals for SGAG?
Karl and Adrian: Currently we have 32 people in Singapore at SGAG and 6 over in our Malaysia office that runs MGAG. Our goal is to be able to bring what we do as many countries as we can in the Southeast Asia region.
Q: What’s keeping you busy these days?
Karl: I split my time between hiring, business development and international expansion. Besides my time in the company, I also have a 14-month-old son so a large part of my time outside of work is spent with my family.
Adran: In my role as Chief Creative Officer, I’ve been busy charting the next steps for the business as we look to push more creative boundaries for SGAG with a rapidly growing team, nurture our MGAG “baby” who is causing a wave in Malaysia, and explore opportunities to enter a third market.
Q: What’s your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Karl: Never allow the fear of failure to hold you back and meet as many people as you possibly can.
[Featured photo: Karl Mak & Adrian Ang, SMU alumni and co-founders of SGAG, have been elected as awardees of the Forbes 2017 “30 Under 30 Asia” which recognises promising young leaders and gamechangers.]
Last updated on 22 Dec 2017 .