"In the first year from May 2019 until the start of Covid, it was tough since I had to juggle school and didn't do well at the beginning. So, I decided to take a leave of absence and go all-in 100%. That first year of difficulties laid the foundation for the company today, in terms of how everything is run. Although it was challenging, looking back, I enjoyed it. I consider myself process-driven rather than outcome-driven, as I enjoy the process more than achieving the outcome." - Evan Heng
“Education is powerful. By providing opportunities for the next generation to receive a good education, we're not just shaping their future, but we're also paving the way for future generations. Without these opportunities, they won't be able to achieve their full potential. For me, the impact of education goes beyond just helping the current generation secure good jobs and create a better future. It has a multiplying effect, and that's why I find it hard to consider any other industry. I've experienced firsthand how impactful education can be, and I want to continue to be a part of that impact.” - Evan Heng
"Don't be afraid to reach out. People are very willing to help, even if they don't get anything in return. It's very important that if you are a founder, you better start networking. You better start talking to as many people as you can because of the sheer amount of knowledge and information that you are able to gain from all these different opportunities." - Evan Heng
In a recent discussion with Evan Heng, founder of the education tech startup Zenith, we learned about his journey to becoming a founder and the challenges he faced along the way. Evan's passion for education led him to start Zenith. One of the most significant challenges Evan faced was building a team with diverse skill sets and aligned values. He overcame this by focusing on recruiting individuals with complementary skill sets and a shared vision for the company. Another challenge was obtaining funding for the startup. Evan managed to secure funding from various sources, including angel investors and grants, by creating a compelling business plan and demonstrating the potential impact of Zenith.
Evan also highlighted the importance of perseverance, adaptability, and continuous learning in building a successful startup. He advised other founders to stay committed to their vision, be open to feedback and criticism, and stay up-to-date with industry trends and best practices. In conclusion, Evan Heng's journey to becoming a founder and building a successful education tech startup is inspiring. By overcoming significant challenges and staying committed to his vision, Evan has shown other founders the importance of building a strong team, securing funding, and embracing perseverance, adaptability, and continuous learning.
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Jeremy Au: (01:43)
Hey, Evan, really excited to have you in the show. I said something tremendous about you over watching you grow and build the company over the past year, and glad to be an angel investor in you. So, would love for you to introduce yourself real quick.
Evan Heng: (01:59)
Yeah. Hi Jeremy. Thanks for having me. Okay. Quick introduction about myself. Hi everyone. My name's Evan. I'm the founder and CEO of Zenith Education. So I started Zenith about three years ago, just as I was to enter university. So it's been a pretty interesting last few years with Covid and having to adapt online. So we've managed to grow incentives to become Singapore's largest university-focused or pre-university-focused education company. We currently serve about 15% of all students in Singapore. In the high school market. And it's been a very interesting journey as a student entrepreneur and I think most importantly had a lot of fun building it. So I'm happy to share today about my entire journey and experience with you today. Yeah. So very, very happy to be with you on the podcast today.
Jeremy Au: (02:41)
So Evan, how did you first get sucked into entrepreneurship?
Evan Heng: (02:46)
Wow. I think that was quite a while back, I think. Okay. I think when I was very, very young, I was a bit of an entrepreneur already, so I think this is quite an interesting story whereby in primary school, right, I realized that a lot of people were like addicted to like, making those like rubber band guns or like, those like boomerangs were like ice cream steaks. So what I used to do was I used to go to the bookshop. Like, I bought every single packet of ice cream sticks. Like literally it was no more. And then like, I'll go home, I'll like to build the boomerangs, I'll build like the rubber band guns, and then I'll go to school and then I'll sell it for like an insanely marked up price. So like one boomerang, which is like four sticks. I used to sell for like $2 and then one rubber band gun would be like $10. So like basically because I bought out the entire bookshop. I had a monopoly, so, made a lot, a lot of money I guess at that time. Didn't really use it well.
I reinvested everything into like, Maple Story, cash had a gaming addiction when I was young. But yeah, I think that was my true taste of entrepreneurship for the first time. But I mean, it didn't work out. Cause I think very soon people realized that why am I paying so much for like, like five ice cream sticks? I can just go to Popular and buy it myself. So I mean, yeah. So I think that only lasted for like about three months before people caught on. Yeah. But I guess after that childhood, right, I guess I was entrepreneurial throughout, tried a lot of different things. But in terms of like professionals, I think right after junior college, I actually worked for a tech startup for about two months. I think that was a very interesting experience, really made me fall in love with the entrepreneurship culture or the startup scene. And I think from that moment onwards, like even though it was a short two months, I realized that entrepreneurship was something that I wanted to try. I didn't necessarily know I would like to devote my life to it, but I knew that one day, like I always wanted to start my own business and I guess I'm quite lucky that it came a lot sooner rather than later.
Jeremy Au: (04:47)
And well, three months is quite a long time. I'll say to the monopoly to be selling those rubber guns, I guess. When you're a child, you're not a sophisticated buyer, so, good for you to provide value and the transaction, but they're too lazy to make their own rubber bad guns. So, obviously, those were important experiences that you had. And what's interesting is that you, became a founder in education pretty much earlier, right? So before you started university. So why did you start, wanting to build this education company?
Evan Heng: (05:21)
Yeah, I guess, very early on, I asked myself like, what kind of industries? Like I was very interested in. I think I settled with climate and education mainly because I felt like these kinds of industries were very impactful. And I guess early on in my life, I realized that I'm someone who's driven by purpose and impact, and I couldn't really do something unless there was a meaning to it. And I didn't know it was education that was going to be my path. It was just a case of I was exploring a lot in terms of different kinds of industries. And I guess very early on in 2017, I actually started teaching mainly just to pass the time.
Like, I mean, the income was good, but I guess, like while I was waiting for a national service to start, I was just a bit bored. So I tried it out and I realized that education actually ticked all the right boxes, right? Because number one is something that I enjoyed doing, which is the most important in my opinion. Number two is something that is impactful, something the world needed. And number three, I think at the end of the day is something I could make money or offer. I think as a young adult, I think that's something very important as well. I had to choose a superior whereby is financially sound.
So I guess it started taking all the right boxes and I realized that you know what, after like one, two years of trying, this could really be a career path or this could really be the industry I wanted to focus in. And yeah, I think I just went through the entire process of two to three years. So, In the industry itself before I realized that, okay, I can actually do this long term. So in a way, you could say that I realized it by accident. Like just because I started teaching right before I went to Army, I realized that I loved it a lot. So yeah, I think it, it was just a case of trying it, fair in love with it, and this is me all the way, I guess.
Jeremy Au: (07:06)
So what were your early days like in terms of building this company?
Evan Heng: (07:12)
Yeah, I think like if I were to go back to 2019, right, it was very tough. So, even though like, I say I'm a founder, right? I actually had a co-founder at the start. So the interesting story was I got accepted into UCL during school. I've been wanting a study in London my entire life. My co-founder got accepted into LSE and I guess it was like April 2019. We agreed, you know what, okay, let's stay in Singapore. Let's try this together. But I think it was May, 2019 when he was like, you know what, I want to go to LSE. I think I can't pass on that kind of opportunity, respected his decision, and understood doing very well for himself right now. Doing investment banking at JPM. So, I guess like, it wasn't a bad pathway he took. But I guess it was very tough cause I was essentially a solo founder whereby I had to figure out everything myself.
And I guess the good thing is like my past internships or like just doing it for the last two and a half years helped me to learn on a very basic level how to run a business in terms of operations, finance, marketing, legal even sourcing for units. It was very overwhelming, I guess I had to learn a lot of things at once and I guess the good thing was the best way to learn is either by making mistakes or by finding mentors. I think early on I didn't really have any mentorship, at least for the first one and a half years. So it was really a time of making as many mistakes as I could and having a win-or-learn mentality whereby best case scenario it goes great. Worst case scenario, it doesn't go well, but I get to learn a lot from it. And then of course, in the future, I'm able to avoid all these mistakes I'm making in the present.
So, yeah, I think the first year 2019 May all the way to like the start of Covid, that was a very tough year, especially because I had to juggle school, and didn't do a very good job juggling at the start. In fact, I still remember I went to University, and after like four weeks of lessons, I was like, you know what? I need to take LOA. Like, I don't really feel that I'm committing a hundred percent to the business if like, I'm spending like 20, 30% of my time on school, right? So I decided, let's just take LOA, go all in, a hundred percent. Really spend the first year setting up the right foundation, setting up the right systems figuring out what works, and what doesn't work. I guess that first year of difficulties really built the foundation of the company today in terms of how everything is run. So, it was tough, but I think looking back, I enjoyed it. I think I really enjoyed it. Like I consider myself a very process-driven person rather than an outcome-driven person. In the sense that I enjoy the process more than I enjoy achieving the outcome.
I think one of my favourite quotes recently is the man who loves walking will go much further than the man who only loves the destination. So I guess it's a good thing as well as the founder that I enjoy the process of building more than just achieving the outcomes. So, it allows me to really like, be able to persevere through all these tough times.
Jeremy Au: (10:06)
You mentioned mistakes that you were okay to make. So what were the mistakes that you made in those early years before you eventually went on to build a 6.7 million revenue startup or during your university years? So lots of success, right? But, what were the early mistakes that you made?
Evan Heng: (10:21)
So, I think two that come to mind immediately will be number one, equity and number two it will be a lot of unnecessary financial costs. So I think I didn't come from a finance background. I mean, now, I'm a business student, so now in a way, I do come from a finance background. But like previously, I didn't really know how to like, manage my budget well. I didn't know how to allocate money. I didn't know how to do forecasting. So I guess it was just a lot of experimentation and spending money on areas where I didn't need it. So for example, when I opened my first outlet at Bonna Vista, right? I was like going through all the renovation costs and then like, I still remember, like I have two classrooms. I was like, you know what? It's a good idea. How about I have like, a wall that can be opened up just in case I want to like make it into a bigger classroom? So generally check a lot. I only went like my one contractor and said, oh, can you quote me on that? And they said $9,000. And I was like, okay, that's a bit x.
Like, you know what? Let's just do it. Till today, I have not used it a single time. It was just $9,000 burnt. I mean, $9,000 today isn't that much, but like back then it was like, I think 10% of like the money I put in cuz like, I, I still remember I saved up a hundred k put it into the business account. That's all the money I had. And I spent $9,000 on like a door that like you can, sorry, on a wall that can like, open so, I guess I could be a lot more financially prudent. Nowadays what we do is like, we'll get like quotes from like four or five different contractors. We have a very, very tedious decision-making process on every decision to avoid all of this. But I guess it's a $9,000 fusion fee that I had to pay in order to learn that. Okay. When it comes to these kinds of things, I need like source off all of the different quotes I need really. Figure out the feasibility of things rather than just spending it because my gut feeling tells me I need to spend it. I mean it was a good decision in the end cause what happened was like each classroom was like 12 students but then end up because of the high demand. Right.
We immediately had much bigger classrooms. So just because I could open up the wall, then we could do bigger classes and yeah, from the get-go, we opened it up. We have never closed it up again. So I guess, I guess that was a painful decision that worked out. Yeah. So yeah, I can go on about all the other costs, right? But I guess it can also be intangible costs in terms of equity. I think I actually saw a report from Qatar just yesterday, right there. They actually show how much companies were giving on average for like your first or second employee. As I saw, the range was like anywhere between like 0.3 to like. 1.2% at the 90th percentile. So for me, I guess I was feeling a bit lonely and didn't really have anyone to talk to or bounce ideas, so brought in people to actually help.
But I guess the people that brought in didn't necessarily have the right business acumen, didn't necessarily bring the right value. And I gave out a lot more equity than I should have, like I was giving out, I think for the first three or four people, like, like five to 10% each. And I very quickly realized that these were the right people and I mean founders or like even early station boys, like your marriage, right? They're like, If you get in a bid with them, it's expensive if you want to ever like, break apart. But I guess very, very fast I realized who was suitable, who or not managed to collate the equity such as till today. I still, I still have a lot of equity in the company, but if I wasn't that lucky in terms of realizing early on that these people want the right people I'll be diluted a lot more than as compared to today. And I guess that's a lesson for a lot of like, founders who are starting out their journey, right? Especially university students or fresh graduates who are trying their hands at entrepreneurship. If it, it feels good to have someone there and then you give them equity and they're like, okay, now they're invested in the business. Now they're my right-hand man.
Now they'll build the entire journey with. But I realized that more often than not, that's not the case. More often than not it's not the case. It actually, takes a while for you to find the right person. And I guess I only really found the right partners two and a half, three years into running the business. I brought them in and gave them very, very good terms, and honestly, I see them contributing as much, if not more to me, to the business to date. So, I guess a lesson learned is to be patient. It's a lot better to wait for the right person rather than trying to rush and find someone just because it feels good. It's kind of like a relationship, I mean, I have no experience with relationships, but I guess it's quite similar in aspect.
Jeremy Au: (14:47)
And what's interesting is that obviously, you made those mistakes as a freshman, right? In renovation and talent choices. So what was it like to be a student and a founder at the same time? Were you, well, what choices did you have to make? What trade-offs did you have to make?
Evan Heng: (15:04)
Yeah, I guess here's the thing, right? I like to sometimes tell my friends who are like trying multiple things at once. If you are only giving like 50%. To each of the things that you're trying, like if they're trying two things or even like, like 33% do everything, then how are you going to compete against someone who's giving a hundred percent, someone who's really smarter than you, a really more hardworking than you and giving it a hundred percent? How are you gonna compete? And I guess for me, I realize that if I don't give a hundred percent. To my company, then I'm not only doing myself an injustice, but I'm also doing all the people who are working with me or like, who are loyal customers or like a big, like, supporter of my injustice. So I realize that you know what I think it was like the middle of 2020 or early 2021 that I had to be like really a hundred percent into the business. Like previously, I think it was like an 80-20 split in terms of 80% of the time on the business, and 20% on school. I think from 2021 onwards, it was like 99.9% business, zero point, like 1% school.
So like, I still remember two and a half years first class honours like maintaining like a 4.7, 4.8, then like, 2001 came, and then it just pew. Like it just went all the way down. I mean, I'm still maintaining a second upper. It is good, but like, as compared to before, it's not as good. So I guess it's really a case. If you want to be a student entrepreneur, you know that you have to give a hundred percent to the startup. If not it won't work out and I guess because it's, it is a startup environment, right? The chances are it won't work out. Like literally 90% of startups are failing within the first year. And I don't want it to be a case whereby it fails. And I say, you know what? It's because I didn't give my hundred percent. That's why it failed, and then I live with that regret. So nowadays, like whenever I do so, I have to like fully commit and really give my hundred percent in order for me to know like, the results. It is because I give a hundred percent. And if I fail, I don't regret it because I know that I gave it my all.
Jeremy Au: (17:07)
Well, you go one level down, obviously in a university is about, hanging out, finding yourself, going to Zouk finding a romantic partner. Those are the things. Right. So would it, can you share any moments where you remember, like you made like you wanted to go somewhere or do something, but you just chose to do the business instead?
Evan Heng: (17:29)
Wow. So, I don't she'll ever see this, so I'm just gonna say it. Okay. So in my first year of university, right, I think there was this girl that I was like mad obsessed about. I was very, very close to her. In fact, like, all of my other friends, like no one knows about this like, particular girl. I kept it very quiet. Yeah. And like, I don't, I think in my entire life, right? I won't say that I've ever found the one, correct? It's just people who like to take all the right boxes. And I think I only think of like, wait, what comes to mind is like three people who take all the right boxes, right? But for one reason or another, it didn't work out. The other two are because they're, they're overseas. They're studying overseas or working overseas right now. But this one, like I, I felt like she's like my dream girl.
Even today, I look at Instagram like, damn, like, yeah. Because remember just now I mentioned like, I'm, I took the LOA like, very early on. Like, I talked to her, like I was like, oh, you want to explore something? I'm really into you and she's like, oh, yeah I wanna try something. But I went, I decided, you know what? I had to take like an LOA, I had to be fully focused on the business. So I actually disappeared from school. I was in the hall, I withdrew from Hall as well. I was literally, I think working 120, 130 hours a week on the business. Like, it was tough. I remember I started every day at 8:00 AM I finished every day at like three, 4:00 AM seven days in a row. Like, I literally did not stop. Every single second was committed to the business. So because of that, like I cut contact with a lot of friends. I cut contact with a lot of people that met at university.
Yeah, I saw that particular girl. I didn't really talk to her anymore and then like when I came back to school, I was like, Hey, like you wanna catch up with how things, then she had a new boyfriend already and yeah, like, I guess that was a missed opportunity that I regret a lot. Like sacrifices for the business, right? Trade-offs have to be made. I guess that is my biggest regret so far. And if you ask me would I go back in time and do things differently? I think the answer is still no, because like what I did in that first year, as I said, was the foundation of who I am today and what the business is today. So who knows? Who knows. Maybe like, I mean, she's attached right now, right? But maybe like down the road. We'll see. We'll see. But yeah, I guess that's one of the sacrifices I made when I chose work over university life.
Jeremy Au: (19:55)
Yeah. Oh, man. Never say never. You have, I met my now wife back during JC days. So long, long, long, long, many, many years down the road. So never say never. I think that's a fair point, right? And I think that's actually, I mean, the truth is, is not just like relationships, right? But also, as you said, it's more like you're really focusing on the business and you had to sacrifice everything, right? Your own social life, your own networks. Also, you took a leave of absence. And so I think there are a lot of founders who are, obviously students, right? Students who wanna be founders and they're like, oh, I have this dream to be a founder, but I'm scared, you know what I have to do. So, what, what's your brutal advice for them, I guess?
Evan Heng: (20:37)
I guess at the end of the day The chances of you failing are exponentially higher than the chances of you succeeding. I, I believe there's a lot of survivor buyers whereby if you look in the media and you see all these like successful, genuine, gentle founders from Singapore, like for example, you are at Carousel, you look at ShopBack, like all these. Like companies whereby, like, oh, these guys like 10 years ago, they were just students and they made it today. Like, I want to be like them. Right? But the thing is, for every one person that made it, there's another 99 that failed. And I guess as much as it's important as a founder to be very optimistic and be very, very confident in yourself, I feel like there must be a bit of pragmatism whereby you need to be realistic with yourself.
You need to do a lot, a lot of validation in terms of what you're trying to build in terms of whether is there even a market. Is the market big enough? Like is there even a chance that you are going to arrive at that product market fit and capture enough? Money or your unit economics make sense for you to be able to scale. Most of the time when I hear a lot of ideas from others, like, potential founders, right? Like, I mean, I don't say I, I'm always like, oh yeah, that's a good idea. As you go try. But in my head, I'm like, will the unit economics really make sense? Really, really go the distance? Like I don't really think so, but like, I don't want, like crash their dreams. I say, you know what? There's no harm in trying. Like what I know is what I know, right? Like I don't know more than what I know. So like maybe there's a market out there. So I guess you need to be really comfortable with failure and I guess when I look at a lot of the different student entrepreneurs or even those like that graduated like one, one generation above me.
In terms of those who are doing well, I think a common trait that I see is that a lot of them are comfortable in discomfort in the sense that you must be okay putting yourself out there. You must be okay with failure. You must be okay with feeling very awkward at times. Correct. It's a necessary trait that you must have in order to succeed, because if you're not willing to put yourself in an uncomfortable position, if you're not willing to make those decisions, that might be the right decision but might not feel the best, I don't think that you'll necessarily do well in this startup environment, especially in this market of all times.
Jeremy Au: (22:55)
It sounds like these are also learnings that you make yourself. Right. And I remember you and in our first conversation, you were having some debate about how big you want that vision to be, right? And, the economics of the business, and we worked through that. So what have been some learnings as you've gone through? I think as you, transitioned from, like you said, teaching towards more of a startup mindset. And that growth mindset, what have been some learnings that you've personally had?
Evan Heng: (23:18)
Yeah. I guess when I, oh, I think the last year of really putting myself into let's just say the fundraising and the VC scene. I probably learned a lot more in the last year than I would say in the previous few years. I think ultimately when I was in my own little pond, like, because technology like what I've built is more traditional in the sense that it's is a business that has been around for the last 20, 30 years we're not particularly innovative in terms of the core business. And I, I guess when I started to think about the startup, or at least the tech site that I'm building right now, like I, I felt that I had a very, very big vision, a lot of different ideas about what will work in the market, but I guess it was only when I went to talk like VCs, when I talked to people on the ground, when I realized that there's a lot of flaws, there's a lot of holes, there's a lot of different perspectives that is very, very invaluable.
In fact, when I look at maybe the top three different pieces of advice since I got over the last year, I'll say that two of them came from like talking to like GPs of like, top-tier VCs. The last one came from a mentor that has been meeting up with me like once every two weeks. So I, I guess am a startup founder, right? I feel like the number one lesson I've forgotten is that it's very, very important to seek advice wherever you can, like literally like under the bridge, like open up a dumpster and look inside, like anywhere you can find advice, anywhere you can get more opinions. It's always good to get more perspectives and opinions on how things should be done, especially from people who have been doing it a lot longer than you. I think ultimately, like, if I did not go to LinkedIn and reach out to people.
If I didn't go for networking events and talk to like, analysts or associates or VPs at VCs, or if I didn't even go for like, like these startup networking events where I talk to other founders, there's a lot of things that I know today that I would not know. And even like, even though like today in this day and age, right? Google has everything like you don't know what you don't know. So it's just a case of the meeting as many people as you can absorb as much information as you can. In fact, I, I'll say that a lot of what I'm building and a lot of the strategy that I'm doing is actually inspired by other founders in the startup space in, in different industries that I realize, hey, like, that works for that particular industry, right? Why don't like, I experiment and think about it in my industry? And yeah, so I, I think the number one lesson I've learned in order to learn, you must really put yourself out there. You must really seek out as many mentors and as many advisors, as many friends and people going down the same path as you can in order to absorb and learn as much as you can. And yeah, I guess it is been very rewarding. I would say that if, if I don't leap my faith and really put myself in that position of discomfort, which I mentioned just now as a necessary trait, right?
I have never grown to become the person I am today. So I guess the number one lesson is really don't be afraid to reach out. I think what I've observed about Singapore, or even the Southeast Asia startup VC ecosystem is that people are very, very willing to help, even though they might not get anything in return. Right? I can create an entire list of people that literally have no benefit from helping me, yet they actively reach out, actively send leads, actively give advice whenever possible just because I reached out to them. They, like what I'm building. They support the vision and yeah, I feel like it's very, very important that if you are a founder, you, you better start networking. You better start talking to as many people as you can because of the sheer amount of knowledge and information that you are able to gain from all these different opportunities.
Jeremy Au: (27:14)
And, what's interesting is that you've obviously started to think through the mission and your principles as you, as you said, build this startup. So what, looking forward, what do you think are the major principles and mission that you wanna kind of like build the next stage for?
Evan Heng: (27:29)
Yep. So I guess originally when I started the company, right? Mission statement, very clear cut. In fact, it was very simple. It was to help students to reach their peak potential. I feel like even in Singapore, there's a lot of students that could benefit a lot from getting a world-class education that is holistic, which is really different from the public education sector. Like I'm not, I'm not saying that the public education sectors are bad, but in fact, I believe that Singapore probably has the best public education sector in the world by far countries. Some countries come close, but I, I do believe that just the fact that if you stay in Singapore you will get a good quality education. But I think originally I felt that I could help students a lot more. Like, I mean, fundamentally we offer test prep services, right? So looking at it from a very simple point of view, these students have the potential to get an A right? But they end up getting a B or even a C just because they don't have the right guidance. And then end up just because of that B or that C, they don't get to go to their dream course or their dream school, or they don't get to get a scholarship.
And I guess that has been the very rewarding part for me when I started early on, right? When like, I had so many parents calling me, oh, my son got an A, for like these two subjects, like they're now on this scholarship. Like, you don't know how much that means financially to my family. Like, like sometimes, cause like the, the job is tough, right? Sometimes I'll go to 2019, or 2020, I'll scroll through those old text messengers and it gives me a lot of motivation to like continue doing what I'm doing because I know that I'm making a material impact, tangible impact on the lives of the people that we work with and work for. But I guess it was late 2021, or early 2022 that I realized that that couldn't be it, that couldn't be just what I wanted because how I like to measure my own success is in terms of the scale of impact. And I feel like it's a very easy formula. It's just how many people you can help multiplied by the extent you help each individual.
And when I look at 2000, the 3000 students that I helped every single year in Singapore, I guess the problem I had with myself was at the end of the day, I'm helping only two to 3000 students. Even as I achieve my Singapore targets, maybe by 2027 I'm helping 25, 30,000 students in Singapore. Let's give or take about 15% of all students across all age levels. I'm helping 30,000 students. How much am I really helping them? Because a lot of them probably would've gotten their a's either way. Correct. A lot of students come to us not just to get an A, but it's more about helping them be a lot more confident, helping them have a lot more convenient because I settle so much of the work for them. I, in a way, don't really like to say this, but we spoon-feed the students a bit in terms of all the resources. Correct., anytime they need help, they can contact us. We help them as much as we can. It's about really being customer-obsessed, and providing as much value as possible. But the thing is a lot of them will still go to university, and will still create better lives for themselves and their families. So I wasn't really satisfied in terms of that being the angle. So I guess the North Star I have today, right?
It's really about taking that world-class education we have in Singapore, and making it affordable and accessible. Do all students in Southeast Asia as a starting point and eventually. Globally. I think like a lot of different companies are trying to democratize education, which I don't see necessarily as competitors, but I see them more of like people with the same mission, just doing it in a different way. But I guess how the mission has evolved is that I realize I have something very, very good here in Singapore, and I really just want to distribute it to the rest of Southeast Asia. I like to believe that education is the most powerful industry in the world, because when I talk about impactful industries, right, healthcare, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, like, and even personal finance, right? These industries are important in helping you to survive. But when we talk about what kind of industries help you to thrive, it's education. So I, I feel like with the position I am in today, there's a lot more that I can do in terms of democratizing it. In fact, like when I was growing up, right? I, I think I've told you this story before. I used to like, like watch the news, like do a lot of Google searches and I see all these like politicians.
Like when there's so many problems like corruption, pollution income inequality, like there's so many problems in the world, yet how many people are really doing anything about it? Correct. Like they're in a position of power, they're in a position of wealth, they can do something about it. And when I was growing up, I used to say, you know what? When I'm 45, when I have the wealth, when I have the network, when I have the experience, I'm gonna do something about it. I'm not going to be like them. But then I realized like in 2022, right, like I'm 23, correct? I have wealth enough to survive. I have the network, I have the experience. I can do something about it. So if I don't at least try not only does that make me a bit of a hypocrite, but I'm also doing society an injustice. So I decided early on last year, you know what? Let's think big. Let's go as ambitious as I can.
Let's figure out how can we democratize education while still being profitable, while still being sustainable. While still being effective. Correct. And yeah, so that has been a very, very big change in terms of my mentality as compared to pre-2022 and 21 in terms of what we are trying to achieve. And yeah, I think I just spent the last year figuring out what idea, like what exactly works, building a team. Yeah, so literally my first official hire for like the tech site was. July 2022. So I got an ex-teacher who was part of the founding team of one of the largest startups in Myanmar in edtech to actually be my first employee. Since then, we have, I think right now the team for the tech site alone is about 55 to 60 people. We have managed to grow very fast. In fact, we have outgrown our office. Yeah, but what I like is that everyone we have, we have, I have personally recruited, is very aligned with this bigger mission of trying to take whatever we have in Singapore and just distributing it to the rest of the world. Yeah. So very, very big difference as compared to like what I originally built.
Jeremy Au: (33:57)
You share the power of education. So why does that mean this to you?
Evan Heng: (34:04)
Yeah, I guess to answer it very simply, right, if, if you trace it backwards, right? If you want to have a decent income, you need to get a good job. If you need to get a good job, you need to have like a degree or a good quality education in order to get to that point. So I guess when I talk about the power of education, really a case it enables people to eventually go down that path. Whereby they can eventually create a better future for themselves. So I always like to say that I'm not trying to change the system, I'm just trying to level the plain view. Like, I mean, if you take a look at Southeast Asia, right, give or take 700 plus million people that is the same amount of people that existed in the late 19th century. And if you go at the late 19th century, like there's so many influential figures or there's so many like deed individuals that basically paved the way for the modern civilization today. Out of that 700 million people, and like if you go today, 700 million people in Southeast Asia, like there's definitely the next Einstein.
There's definitely the next Picasso. There's definitely the next influential figure who's going to pave the way for future generations as well. And the fact is because they don't have these opportunities, they're never really going to have the ability to achieve what they could have achieved if they were given these opportunities. So I guess in a way like I don't only see that my impact in terms of education is that I'm able to help this generation get a good education, hence get a good job, hence create a better future. But I also see it as a very, very big multiply effect whereby every single individual I'm able to help is able to then create a lot of impact on the people after them. So I think that's the reality, the power of education, right? That is a multiplying effect. That it's widespread, that it's significant, and I think that's what just makes me very in love with it. And, I find it very hard for me to ever go into any other industry just because I have a taste of how impactful education can be.
Jeremy Au: (36:09)
When have you personally been brave?
Evan Heng: (36:14)
Yeah, I think when I look back at my entire life, right, what was the one biggest decision I made that was very brave? I go back all the way to like, my second year of junior college, right? Back then I was 17. Something that I don't share, I think even at all right, even only my friends, like all the way back from my secondary school, junior college, know this about me is that when I was growing up, I had a lot of issues with mental health, right? In fact, like, the second year of JC like, I was diagnosed with like, clinical depression and, it was a rough period for me. And then like a lot of people are like, what, what get you to that situation, right? It's actually related to a lot of the things I said today. It was a case of I didn't have a purpose in life. I didn't really find fulfilment.
I didn't know what was my meaning of living. And I think that was a very tough time because I, I didn't know what was the reason to live. So like, even though my first year of junior college straight As and Bs doing very well for myself I think it was like March 2015. Correct. Even though I was doing very well in school, I actually went to my parents and said, you know what? I want to take a gap year. I want to actually choose to retain in order to really take the year to understand myself. And I, I guess it, it was very weird for like my teachers and for like my parents to hear this, right? Because it's like literally like, Literally doing so well. I was a, I was in two CCAs, like doing well, like in all aspects of like junior college. Right. But I told myself, I don't want to just run the right race. I don't want to just go through that motion of that typical Singaporean lifestyle and, and journey. Right? Finish junior college, go to Army, go to a good university course, get a job in finance like I was on that IB, like sales and trading kind of route that I, that I thought of like when I was in JC, right? Because I always enjoyed finance to a certain degree. So I didn't just want to run through that motion without knowing who I was, without realizing who Evan Heng is.
So I took a gap year and it was quite crazy. Like, a lot of people around me didn't really understand why I did it. A lot of rumours, a lot of people saying different stuff had to put up with it. Did I really discover myself in that? Not really. I think I got a better understanding of who I was. I'll say that I only truly discovered myself when I was in Army. I think that two years whereby really had a lot of time to sit there and reflect. I, I tore my hamstring and injure my knee right before I went into Army, so I was passive right? So I had a lot of time to really as an ASA, like admin, support assistant, right? To really figure out what I want to do in life. Yeah. So, I figured out myself a bit later on, but It was that decision in 2015 that really put me on a very, very different path that I would've eventually gone on. Right. If I didn't make that decision right. I would say that right now I'll probably be in finance or be a lawyer, cause that was originally the path I was planning to date, more of my partners, his name is Joel.
He’s one of my product managers. Very talented guy. He has this saying that he likes a lot, which is, two roads diverge, sorry, two roads diverge in the wood and I took the one that's travelled by and that made all the difference in his life. I think I think that's a quote that he likes a lot by Robert Frost if I'm not wrong. Back then my mind was one year, like it seems, I had a lot of time, but it's 1% of your life to make sure that the other 99% of your life goes the way that it should. A lot of people thought that it was a bit dumb. In fact, one thing I like to drop is I'm the first-ever two times JC Honors Row student for the promo exams because no one takes it twice, right? So I'm only first time that I'm the only one with getting an honours role twice. It was a crazy decision, but I realize that the first time I am today, it is just because of that one crazy decision I made as a 17-year-old back in JC. So I think that was the bravest decision I ever made. Yeah,
Jeremy Au: (40:29)
If you could travel back to that time right when you were in J two, right? When you decided to retain yourself an additional year, sorry, at J one actually. So you guess with J three, right? So this J one, again, is your second J one. If you could travel back in time, a time machine, you could step out of the time machine and catch a coffee with your younger self, what advice would you give yourself?
Evan Heng: (40:51)
I think today I'll consider myself an optimist, right? I think any founder must be an optimist in order to grow the business. But when I look back in time, every single part of my life that I will consider dark, correct? Once again push me on the path I am on today. Right. I think beyond just that, that difficulties in junior colleges, like in Army, are correct. I, I was very miserable because I was injured. I had a sleeping disk in my neck. I had a torn hamstring, I had a jaw misalignment, and it was very bad. Spent a lot of money trying to fix it. That was another time in my life. And then if I go in like maybe my first one, two years of Army. Like Covid, having to manage a business and I mean definitely, if you had a lot more time, I can share a lot more stories about the issues I had a building. Okay. Mainly I guess it's, it's really about people, right? Right. There were a lot of times when it was very rough, but I realized that it was because of those times. It, like, once again made me make the decisions that brought me on the right path.
If I were to go back in time to get to the point, if I were to go back to a time in time and talk to that 16, 17-year-old version of me, I would tell myself that life isn't a straight line upwards, right? There's a lot of peaks and trouts like it's going up, it's going down, it's going up, it's going down, and it's, it's is going down sometimes that is necessary in order for you to go much, much higher. It's very important that during all these times it's definitely going to be very difficult, but always approach these kinds of situations or these kinds of circumstances or these, or these kinds of moments in life with optimism and really figure out how can you learn from it? How can you actually take away lessons from it? How can you actually grow as an individual from it rather than just being very emo, more like just very set on all these circumstances? A 16-year-old me probably won't really be able to appreciate this kind of advice. Right.
I think me back then was a lot more, much of a pessimist as compared to today, but I think definitely like, I won't really say advice per se, but it's really just a like, head's up. Like life's gonna hit you hard. Correct. But it's, it's a necessary process and even though it might not be very comfortable. Correct. Enjoy it. Learn from it. And you'll be proud of the person that you eventually become six, seven years later on. Yeah.
Jeremy Au: (43:27)
Wow. Thank you so much. I really appreciated all of that. So I'd love to summarize the three big themes I got from this. First of course thank you so much for sharing. I think the journey of how you got hooked on entrepreneurship at primary school. I love the story of you buying out this primary school bookstore to buy out all the ice cream steaks and sell them at a like you said, ridiculous markup for three months. And that's your starting journey, but also your sea crystal for you later on building a 6.7 million revenue startup during your university years. Right? So I thought it was a very tremendous I think experience where you got the show, I think the arc of how you became an entrepreneur, and I love the quote here that you sit here about. The man who loves walking will get much further than the man who loves the destination. The second I really enjoyed was your sharing about how you'd be 99.9% focused as a student founder.
So I think you shared about how you made expensive mistakes as a freshman for renovations and talent choices during the early days. You talk about how focused lets you compete with everybody else, right? Especially people who are full-time. And to some extent, you shared how that actually played out, right? You sacrifice your friendships, you sacrifice your time in the hall and sacrifice your first love there. So, I think, thank you for sharing because I think, people kind of gloss over the fact that there are trade-offs, right? And obviously, I also appreciate your advice about telling folks to never be embarrassed to seek advice from everyone. And that life isn't a straight line going upwards. Last year. I appreciate you sharing about the power of education. I think the sense of mission and how you've evolved the mission over the years has really changed and evolved, but it still shines true. In the conversation. I thought actually there were some interesting moments along the way, right? Because you shared about your own education as a founder.
You shared about how you've learned from talking to VCs and other folks. How you can get better. You talked about mistakes you've made. You talked about how you overcame teenage clinical depression. You talk about how you decided to repeat a year of junior college and how that would later feed into your decision to teach junior college yourself. So I know there's some really interesting experiences where you know, you even got injured right during army days and how those tough times helped you rebound into a stronger self of yourself. So, thank you so much for coming on.
Evan Heng: (45:42)
Thank you so much for having me.