SINGAPORE — Just a mere six years back, entrepreneur Juliana Chan would have "laughed out loud" if someone had asked her about her professional brand on LinkedIn.
Now, the 40-year-old founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)-focused media communications company Wildtype Media Group is in hot demand as a LinkedIn coach. As a coach, she helps executives build their professional brand on the networking platform.
While work on the social media platform was already a part of her company's services, Chan said that the "watershed moment" came when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. LinkedIn became more important than ever for her business as many companies lacked a digital branding strategy. She focused on creating more content on the platform in 2020, and her proficiency in utilising the platform earned her a LinkedIn Top Voice badge in 2020.
Before becoming a coach, the MIT-trained scientist had conducted corporate trainings and ran LinkedIn Live virtual events for pharmaceutical companies and MNC clients, ranging from fireside chats to press conferences and industry panels. She now receives five to 10 enquiries weekly for her coaching services, though she said she can take on only two to three clients a month.
Chan said she could not have predicted how her career would turn out the way it did. "Six years ago, you would have found me rushing through the corridors of my university, with any one of these thoughts flowing through my head: 'Have I pumped enough breastmilk for the baby? Has my elder daughter's dental appointment been scheduled? Did I remember to upload the slides for my lecture?'," Chan told Yahoo Finance Singapore.
From scientist to entrepreneur
Though Chan has successfully carved out a niche for herself in the digital content space, she said that she never had aspirations to be an entrepreneur.
"Since the time I was a college student, I had imagined that I would end up a tenured professor, retiring at 65 from the same job I began at 30," said Chan.
"There was no indication in my career journey, not even as late as 2017, that I would leave the safe harbours of academia for entrepreneurship. Academia provided me with an iron-rice-bowl career should I later receive tenure. I had not planned to leave a stable job for the unpredictability of running an SME in a difficult economy," Chan explained.
Sometimes we forget to smell the roses and take a moment to pause and feel grateful for how far we've come. We may get so narrowly focused on our start-up's viability that we forget to look after ourselves, make new friends, learn new hobbies, and spend quality time with our loved ones.Juliana Chan
Her foray into entrepreneurship began with an online science blog she started on the side in 2011, the Asian Scientist Magazine, which Chan said she started because she couldn't find an equivalent science magazine that focused on Asia and Asian researchers. At the time, however, Chan was still a research scientist. She would later be hired as an assistant professor at a local medical school in 2013, where she worked in her own laboratory, gave lectures and published research papers.
What started as an online blog then blossomed into a full publication with a "high six-figure sum" in seed funding from investors in 2013. In the following years – until 2018 – Chan continued to run her research lab and became a mother of two. Her investors managed and operated the business out of their offices while she took on the role of the magazine's editor-in-chief with a small team of three.
However, her constant juggling of multiple roles soon left her feeling burnt out.
"In 2018, I unexpectedly decided to resign as I was not holding up very well. I had a toddler and an infant at home. I had a packed research and lecturing schedule. I was also running a blossoming science magazine. I was barely getting enough rest. I did not exercise," Chan recalled.
Becoming a CEO
Despite the exhaustion, Chan was determined to venture into new realms. After resigning, she founded Wildtype Media Group in the same year and built the company around her flourishing magazine with a specialisation in science, technology and healthcare communication for government, academic and MNC clients.
"I felt that my passion could keep me going through the darkest hour, despite the huge risk I would be taking by leaving my academic job behind and launching an entrepreneurial career without a safety net," who said that her calling was to help make Asian scientists household names.
According to Chan, the first two years of her fledgling company weren't as bad as she thought it would be. Print products and in-person events were still bringing in revenue and readership. The biggest challenge for her at the time was learning how to run a business, balancing the company accounts, and finding talent.
In 2020, however, things took a turn when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. As the world came to a standstill, all in-person events were cancelled while print became irrelevant, badly affecting the company's bottom line.
Forced to take her entire team remote, Chan shared that she had to "suppress my fears as a new CEO" and "focus on providing steady leadership and emotional support" to them while managing her own mental health and "imposter syndrome". At the same time, Chan had to homeschool her two young kids due to the nationwide lockdown and quarantines.
"My toughest entrepreneurship moments occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Chan.
All things considered, I don't think entrepreneurship is suitable for everyone.Juliana Chan
Nonetheless, Chan adapted to the situation and decided to make remote work a permanent fixture. The strategy worked well, despite initial worries, and Chan calculated that she saved an entire month of administrative and commute time each year working remotely.
Future savings from office rental were consolidated into annual, fully-sponsored company retreats for her staff, which consists of a 20-member core team based across Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and India.
Lessons in entrepreneurship
With about five years of being a business owner under her belt, Chan feels the key to surviving as an entrepreneur is to pace for a marathon, not a sprint.
"New entrepreneurs may find it hard to know the difference, and they may grow when they should slow down, accelerate when they should be resting," said Chan.
Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs would be to get a strong sponsor or champion – an industry veteran who is willing to stake their reputation and social capital to recommend you and your business for opportunities that you would otherwise not be aware of.
Chan also reminded aspiring entrepreneurs to "have fun".
"Who says a CEO cannot have fun? Sometimes we forget to smell the roses and take a moment to pause and feel grateful for how far we've come. We may get so narrowly focused on our start-up's viability that we forget to look after ourselves, make new friends, learn new hobbies, and spend quality time with our loved ones," said Chan.
"All things considered, I don't think entrepreneurship is suitable for everyone. And I say this with a great deal of empathy. It is a 24-7 job."