Esquire Malaysia, October 2011
Khailee Ng: The Crazy Young Mind
Most people hop on Internet bandwagons. This guy creates them.
Words by Sophia Goh
When we meet for the first time, Khailee Ng is wearing a black t-shirt, grey jeans, and black square spectacles. He looks like any other guy in the cafe and no one notices him. But three minutes into the interview, he’s already telling me about my industry and how I should brand myself. He gives me tips on how to differentiate my work and offers on presenting my portfolio. He’s polite, unassuming, but he talks fast and he looks me right in the eye. If I look back just as intensely, I imagine I can see the cogs in his brain going at a thousand kilometres an hour. He punctuates his stream of insights with loud, hearty laughs. “I laugh as often as I can, in everything I do,” he says.
I quickly discover the rarity of this young man. At nineteen, a conversation with his barber led to a new business model for hair salons. He crunched the numbers, figuring he would need RM100,000 to finance the start-up, and worked out a three-year plan to pay it back. Then he scrapped the idea. “Three years? I could be dead.” That’s why he likes the Internet. “You know if you’re going to succeed in three months. But you can’t wank around for three years and then say, ‘Hey, actually, you can’t succeed.’ That’s not cool.” And this is what he does – he sees business opportunities. “Wherever I go, if I see a chance to disrupt an industry or to redesign a business model, I get excited. I see chances for anarchy.” He says this with a laugh, and then I notice that his sandwich is gone. In taking in everything he’s saying, I didn’t even see him eat. It’s quite an effect.
Or maybe he’s just hungry. He was late for brunch today because he was up until three in the morning. He was busy e-mailing his team about his feelings and then he overslept. He shows me the e-mail. It’s passionate, fiery stuff, full of uppercase letters, and the odd expletive. He signs off with the words ‘full power’. “It’s about developing the habit of killing the beast of the impossible,” he tells me. “You kill the beast and it becomes a habit to achieve the impossible. It’s like a monster you have to shoot three times before it dies. This is the quest I’m on right now.” It’s a brilliant pep talk e-mail, I tell him. “I call it a rant,” he says. “I do it once in a while. It’s like, this is what’s needed right now. We have to do it. There’s no other way. I’m on this journey for a reason. For me to feel a specific way, to create and contribute in a certain way, I’m not willing to accept anything else. My philosophy in life is. ‘Cool people doing cool shit’. The buzz, the energy, it’s unstoppable. It’s like some X-Men shit going on.”
Khailee calls this life, not work. Work is running errands or looking for his car keys. He lists the things he’s bad at: punctuality, directions, putting things where they belong. His life, on the other hand, is Says.my, a three-hundred-and-sixty thousand strong community of social media users who assist NGOs and over seventy leading brands to engage the Facebook and Twitter generation. At twenty-seven, he’s one of Malaysia’s most successful social technology entrepreneurs, thanks in part to Groupsmore, the company he cofounded with his partner Joel Neoh, which was later acquired by Groupon. “The guiding principle is social technology, so the concept is bringing people together to do things. That’s the part I’m excited about.”
Not everything he does is a hit, but he doesn’t speak about his misses. All he’ll say is, “You have to be one hundred percent in. Magic will happen and I got lucky. Somehow, it came together.” It’s instinctual then, I suggest. “It’s a weird combination of logic and instinct,” he shoots back. “The rational part is where I know a lot of shit that I don’t want to get involved in. I know what will and won’t work. The gut feeling is the when and how. The outcome is very firm in my mind.” So for that matter, he’s also launched Says.com in the US. “That’s the next big thing for me, but my focus right now is on growing Malaysia and enjoying the journey.”
I ask him if he finds time outside of life and work for other things – love, for instance. He says he’s heard that before. “This is what I believe: if it’s aligned with your natural path, the energy you put in gives you energy back. People do things against their natural path and it takes their energy away. The goal for entrepreneurs is to focus on what they enjoy doing and what they’re damned good at. People tell me, you must have balance in your life. I’m like, f*** your balance. I’m in perfect balance. In fact, I’m abnormally balanced. I’m not balanced in work and play because work is a negative. I’m über balanced with play and play. If I wake up and I don’t have time or energy, then I know I’m not doing what I’m supposed to. If you find yourself consistently without energy, it’s because of your life. Fix that and your health will be back.”
With our time over, Khailee gets up to go for his photo shoot. Just before he leaves, he reaches into a brown paper bag. “We didn’t even need this,” he says, pulling out a thick sheaf of paper and some coloured markers. But since he’s taken it out anyway, he begins to draw. “Let me teach you something about mind maps,” he starts to explain. “Don’t use boxes. Use branches. With boxes, you’re limited in how your map can expand. With branches, you can go into these elaborate flowers. And use different colours. Here, go on, try it.”