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'Don't get married': Creative's Sim Wong Hoo advises budding entrepreneurs

Janet Ong
Finance Editor
Sim Wong Hoo, CEO of Creative Technology. (PHOTO: Joseph Nair for Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Creative Technology founder and one of Singapore’s greatest entrepreneurs, Sim Wong Hoo, has some advice for budding entrepreneurs.

“Don’t get married”.

The 63-year-old grinned at this writer’s shocked expression and explained that entrepreneurs need to be focused and committed, and having mortgages and the like will be a distraction.

“Once you have family and commitment, you can’t afford to take the risks. I can take risks because I have no family. In the early days, I survived on $200 a month,” he told Yahoo Finance Singapore in a recent interview at the company’s headquarters in Jurong.

Wearing one of his favourite T-shirts, he added he lived a simple life and ate whatever food his mother put in front of him. “My advice is always to stay lean so that if you fall down, you can pick yourself up,” he said.

He is living proof of his own adage. His steely determination and single-mindedness let him bounce back from the tough times the company has faced in the past 38 years.

Creative Technology, which was a household name in the 1990s, sank into obscurity after the failure of its MP3 players business in the mid-2000s because of unsold inventory and increased competition from rivals, including Apple’s iPod.

His legal tussle with Apple eventually led to a US$100 million settlement in Creative’s favour, while Apple also went on to take 80 per cent of the market for music players.

Through it all, the bachelor has remained enthusiastic about work. His passion now revolves around his latest innovation – the Super X-Fi (SXFI) – technology that recreates a holographic sound experience on headphones. It bagged 14 awards at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in the US.

Taking risks

Sim said entrepreneurs need to take risks or “nothing happens”.

“You need to face the consequences of your mistakes and learn from your mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, you won’t learn anything, and you won’t grow up,” he said.

Sim is also against rote learning, which was a feature of the Singapore education system during his time.

In his first book “Chaotic Thoughts From The Old Millennium” published in December 1999, he coined and popularised the term “No U-turn Syndrome (NUTS)” which is used to describe the stereotypical Singaporean mindset where people won’t take action unless they get permission from a higher authority.

Sim observed that in Singapore drivers only do a U-turn if a sign allowing it is present, whereas in other countries drivers don’t do a U-turn only if there is a sign that prohibits them from doing so. The “no rule = no do” phenomenon paralyses people and inhibits creativity and initiative, he said.

Mentoring

“If you need mentoring, don’t be an entrepreneur,” Sim said.

The bachelor added that he is open to sharing his stories and experiences, but he draws the line at telling people what to do.

“Entrepreneurs need to make mistakes and figure out things themselves. Yes, they need information. I can give you the light, but I am not telling you how to go, which direction to go,” Sim said.

He also noted that it doesn’t help entrepreneurs if the government is overprotective and makes the place too safe and “finely” managed.

The government needs to give entrepreneurs, who are competing with the big foreign companies and government-linked companies, more opportunities and not just grants, Sim said.

In his 1999 book, Sim wrote, “Innovate means to create things out of nothing, it means moving into unchartered territories where there are no rules.

“How can you innovate when you have to get approval of somebody who looks at a rule-book first?”

Humble beginnings

Born in Singapore in 1955 as the 10th child in a family of twelve, Sim grew up in a kampung in Bukit Panjang. He attended Ngee Ann Technical College, now known as Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where he got a diploma in electrical and engineering diploma in 1975.

He started working after finishing mandatory military service before he struck out on his own and founded the company with schoolmate Ng Kai Wa in 1981.

In 1992, Creative became the first Singapore company to list on Nasdaq, and two years later it applied for a secondary listing on the Singapore Stock Exchange and raised S$230 million. By 2000, Sim was the Republic’s youngest billionaire at 45 on paper.

Sim draws an annual salary of $1, just like the late Steve Jobs did, and owns a third of the company, which has since delisted from Nasdaq.  He  lives a simple life and drives a small car – a Camry – and lives in a small house in Bukit Timah.

His “work uniform” comprises a T-shirt and pants. He says he has enough T-shirts to last him for the rest of his life, and he hasn’t gone shopping for clothes for over 20 years. He scoffed at any suggestion of a Crazy Rich Asians lifestyle, saying that it is not for him.

“Living the Crazy Rich Asian lifestyle is a sin. I never had any inclination for that,” he said.

Even his hobbies are simple, ranging from playing the harmonica to writing Chinese novels. He has written six books, one per year, about “two cute kids – a boy and a girl” and the shenanigans they get up to. He stopped writing in 2005 to focus on the MP3 business.

Sim picked up  a new hobby when he was 52 – he decided to run marathons. Since 2007, he has participated in six to seven marathons a year. It keeps him young, alert and helps to clear his mind, and he gets lots of ideas while running, Sim said.

“I am not a stubborn person. It is taking on the challenge. I am just determined,” he explained. “If there is something I want to do and people say it’s impossible, I want to make it happen.”

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