I recently met Douglas Gan (pictured above), someone who I would certainly call a gutsy entrepreneur. Some of you might not know Douglas, but perhaps you might recall ShowNearby which was acquired by Yellow Pages in 2010. ShowNearby was founded by Douglas and his friend Lee Chang Jin in March 2008. But this is just a portion of Douglas’s story. His journey as an entrepreneur started at age four back when he was still in kindergarten, when he was playing with toy cars and sold one to a classmate for $2. Throughout his school years, he would sell marbles, bubble gum, chewing gum, stamps, sticker albums, Dragonball and magic cards amassing a tidy sum of SGD$20,000 (about US$16,400) by 16.
Douglas recalls being inspired by the dot-com boom in 1996. His first venture onto the internet was in the world of mIRC, a popular chat client back then. He was messing with mIRC bots and scripts, which performed instructed functions. For example, setting someone as a moderator in a chat channel or providing MP3 files to users when they ask for them. But while enjoying the world of mIRC, Douglas realized it couldn’t bring in money. And that realization eventually led him to found PureHostings, a web hosting company. His server business spanned over six countries with 3,500 paying customers before it was sold to Skydio.
PureHostings wasn’t an entirely smooth ride for Douglas though. While business was great during the dot-com boom, Douglas had to find ways to scrap and survive during the bust. While he previously did sales over email, he was forced to go door to door for sales in the industrial park in Singapore to ask if people required his hosting services.
He faced many rejections but learned a lot along the way, improving his pitch with each rejection. Finally, there was one customer who told him that if he could fixed his computer, he would buy whatever services he was providing. The problem turned out to be an easy fix for Douglas, and was enough to impress the client who kept his promise. He didn’t know what Douglas had to offer, but was willing to pay for it regardless. The company had problems with its slow fax machines, file sharing, and internet connection. So Douglas helped to set up broadband internet, FTP folders for file sharing, and also provided an email service to replace faxes.
From then on Douglas was in hot demand as other companies looked to leverage on similar technologies to improve business processes. From this incident, Douglas said he learned to understand that fulfilling client’s needs makes good money.
During the dot com bust, there were few clients using his servers. So instead Douglas used the extra space to host OhGenki.com, a community forum website he founded. The site was ranked among the top 2,000 sites on Alexa back in 2003 and was acquired by StreetDirectory.com in 2005.
Douglas said that he leveraged his mIRC channels and bots to amass an initial group of community users. Knowing that most guys on the net are attracted by pictures of beautiful women (it’s the same now, isn’t it?), Douglas smartly persuaded some of the mIRC admin ladies (who were fortunately easy on the eyes) to post pictures of themselves on OhGenki. The guys enjoyed the pictures and the ladies enjoyed the compliments. The forum also had other general topics for discussion as well, and just before OhGenki was acquired, the site had generated over three million posts with over 20 million pageviews.
By 2006, Douglas was already a young millionaire. He could have retired. Bored with an aimless life, he went into stock trading and was partying frequently. Just one week before he turned 23, Douglas said he lost all the money he had ever made. He was on serious leverage across three different investment institutions with a peak of $50 million in equity trading exposure. He was supposedly bankrupt, but was saved by his father’s life savings. Douglas described that period of his life as a turning point, one which sternly reminded him not to be wasting his life. He vowed to improve people’s lives through technology.
Broke and back at square one, Douglas didn’t give up. Determined, he started ShowNearby in 2007 and also two other web design and development firms in Indonesia and Singapore in subsequent years. All companies were later acquired by Yellow Pages but the comeback wasn’t easy either.
Today, Douglas angel invests and mentors budding startups from his Alma Mater Ngee Ann Polytechnic. He has also moved on to co-found VanityTrove with his lead architect from ShowNearby, Peng Kong Choy.
VanityTrove is a beauty service focusing on becoming a platform for women in Southeast Asia to discover beauty. He is 29 this year, but has gone through more than his share of ups and downs in his life as an entrepreneur. It will certainly be interesting to watch and see what the future has in store for him as well.
(This is part of our founders series – uncovering and sharing the entrepreneurial stories of startups across Asia)