At 43 years old, Izak Jenie is still talking about new business ideas and starting projects. He just can’t stop. This is a man who has started more than ten companies in Indonesia, beginning at age nineteen. Most of them failed, but those that survived are renowned companies in Indonesia today and are generating tens of millions of dollars in yearly revenue. Some very successful companies Izak started include Jatis Group, Jatis Mobile, and Metrotech Makmur Sejahtera (MMS).
Coming from an average income family, Izak was hungry for success. His first startup was a computer graphics company launched in 1989 during his university days. Computers were not widely available then and there was no internet. Izak was lucky enough to get a PC at home and he subsequently taught himself digital graphic design. Being one of the first few guys in Indonesia with this skill, he got lucrative projects from advertising firms. He was able to pay his tuition fees with some cash left over to treat friends for meals. However, competition grew and his margins thinned. He got out of the business in its fourth year.
The early web
After graduation, his friends were able to get high-paying corporate jobs quickly, but it took Izak nine months to get a job as a graphic designer because most companies hired based on academic results. He worked for one year but realized that he didn’t like the routine corporate job. While at the office, Izak would often work on other tech projects that interest him. One was called the Free World Dial-Up service, it would allow people to call overseas using the internet and save on overseas call charges. It’s basically exactly what Skype does today, but Izak was working on that concept in 1995.
That same year, he read a book titled Going Digital by Nicholas Negroponte and it made him realize the world was going to change. He quit his job and started an online bookstore. Concurrently, he also started a few other companies with different partners. These startups all failed. Poor timing and partnership disputes were the causes of their demise; for example, the online bookstore flopped because there weren’t many people online in the mid-nineties and almost no one did their shopping there.
One of his early employees there said:
Before joining Jatis, I asked Izak why this (Jatis) will be a success? Izak answered nonchalantly that he had failed in so many previous companies and in each failure, he learnt something from it. As such, he had already learnt how to fail. Jatis will not be a failure.
And indeed, Jatis became a hugely successful company. It provides IT solutions to banks, telcos, payment companies and other corporations. Its products include internet banking, mobile banking, and tax systems. At one point, more than 80 percent of Indonesia’s mutual funds traders were using Jatis’s trading platform. The company started with ten employees and eventually grew to over 500 by the end of the third year. In the same year, it also received $10 million from 3i, a well established VC firm from the UK, for it to expand regionally to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.
In 2002, together with Erik Ridzal, Izak started Jatis Mobile, a subsidiary company under Jatis Group. Jatis Mobile deals with ringtones, location-based services and mobile content. As he already had good partnerships with local telcos through their work with Jatis Group, Jatis Mobile was able to make lucrative partnerships with telcos and was profitable from day one. Jatis’ group revenue had already hit $40 million.
In 2010, Izak started Metrotech Makmur Sejahtera (MMS). MMS’s core business is to build a messaging application on Nexian mobile devices, which are hugely popular in Indonesia. Izak brought in Nexian’s owner as a partner and together they launched Nexian Messaging. The platform attracted five million users in eight months, half of which were active users. Now, it is recording more than three billion messages sent per month and is still growing twenty percent month-on-month. In 2011, Singapore’s Si2i acquired a majority share of Nexian Group for $175 million.
Advice for young entrepreneurs
Izak says his failures are the cornerstone of the success of his latest three companies. Some key things he learned from those failures:
Getting good partners for startup is crucial. I like Warren Buffet’s investment theory for this. If you know from the outside that there may be trouble, then don’t get involved. Because once you get in, it’s difficult to get out. Similarly, in finding partners, if you foresee potential problems in working with them, then don’t get started.
I wish I had mentors in my early days. That way, I could have avoided some failures and attained success earlier. After going through so much, I can now easily think through the whole business cycle and identify potential pitfalls and opportunities. That comes from experience and it is what young entrepreneurs lack.
Managing expectations and cash-flow is important. You should always discuss with the team about the business outlook. Whether it will reach profitability in six months, one year or three years, we need to discuss it upfront. With expectations set, people are then able to plan their finances and focus on the actual work. If not, financial problems can be brought back to the family and cause tension among the team and their families. If you cannot meet your expectations and you make families suffer, then you should stop and go back to a corporate job.
When starting on something, I always like to think and work on something new. It’s a bit risky but that is what entrepreneurship is all about. If you do it right and if you are focused enough, you will get somewhere. Nobody is stupid enough to start a business to fail, if you fail you are not focused enough. Many entrepreneurs already know the plan to succeed, but along the way, they fall for distractions to make quick money. In my twenty-plus years of experience as an entrepreneur, I met all kinds of entrepreneurs: the very calm ones, the very aggressive ones, all kinds of them. Regardless of the style, those who got somewhere are those who are highly focused.
Izak is currently still the main man at MMS. Despite the success, he just doesn’t seem to stop; he co-founded a new startup, M-saku, a mobile payment system for Visa cardholders in Indonesia. The kind of resilience he has shown when times are hard, and the passion he has exhibited through his 25 years of entrepreneurship, are exemplary. This is what young entrepreneurs in Asia should learn from: to see entrepreneurship as a long-term journey rather than gunning for a quick exit. To help younger entrepreneurs, Izak dedicates some of his time to be a mentor at Founders Institute Jakarta.