It Changed My Life: 11th Hour may just clinch the deal

Graduate hawker turned 'tech guy' defies business setbacks with sheer discipline, determination

Many app developers daydream about the ultimate exit strategy: To be bought over for millions of dollars by a big corporation.

Not Mr Tan Jun Yuan, the earnest 30-year-old behind 11th Hour, a mobile app which clues users in on last-minute food deals.

"You don't run a business with an exit in mind because if you're always thinking about three years down the road, you won't build your foundation properly. I want to build something serious, something which changes lives," says Mr Tan, who hopes his app will help to reduce food wastage.

The lean and lanky man has other dreams, one of which is to be like the entrepreneurs whose lives he has read about so much in books.

"People still remember Henry Ford and Milton Hershey," he says, referring to the founders of the Ford Motor Company and Hershey Chocolate Company respectively. "Sometimes I tell myself: Why must I keep reading about other people? Why can't it be me?"

The youngest of three children of a taxi driver and a housewife grew up in Hougang. He was rambunctious, and had one singular obsession during his formative years: basketball.

"I'd wake up before the sun was out, shoot hoops, hit the gym and play again before sunset until 10pm," says the former student of Charlton Primary and Sengkang Secondary.

In fact, the game so ruled his life that he opted for the polytechnic instead of going to junior college after his A levels. "It was a stupid decision. There was a basketball tournament and because the poly term started six months later than junior college, I decided to enrol in the hospitality course at Temasek Poly. I wanted more time to train for the tournament," he says.

Although he graduated, he did badly. "It was quite tough to get into the course because it was popular but I had no interest in it. I probably would have done a lot better if I had applied myself but I didn't," he says.

The day came when he suffered a burnout from basketball.

"I realised that I was missing out quite a bit on life, I had no other interests. So I cut back. I still play it now but more as a hobby."

National service beckoned.

"Because there was no more basketball, I gave it my all," he says with a laugh. "I was the best trainee in my platoon and made it to Officer Cadet School."

An army buddy then introduced him to a book which he claims turned his life around.

"It was The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People," he says, referring to the bestseller by Stephen R. Covey. "I'd never read self-help books before that." The book, he says, jolted him out of his complacency.

"I realised I could have made better decisions, and exercised more control and taken more responsibility for my life. But my biggest takeaway was that I could choose my response to situations."

A voracious appetite for books of the same genre kicked in; he also devoured volumes chronicling the lives of business icons such as Steve Jobs and Ted Turner.

Doing a business degree after national service was a no-brainer.

He got into Singapore Institute of Management, enrolling in a business degree programme conferred by the University of Manchester.

"I wanted to do really well, so I went all out, and studied and studied and studied," he says with a laugh. He ended up with a first-class honours degree, coming out second in his cohort.

Because his "ego needed affirmation", he also took the test administered by Mensa, the organisation for people with extremely high IQ. He passed, which put him above the 98th percentile, or in the top 2 per cent of the population.

While waiting for his final-year results, he decided to put his entrepreneurial mettle to the test by forming a company just to run an event.

Called the Ultimate Sales Challenge, it was open to students from tertiary institutions. The idea was to get different teams to outdo one another in selling a range of products.

"We gave them a cut of what they sold, and also ranked them," he says.

He wrote to different suppliers, and the first to respond was Mr Henn Tan, head honcho of Trek 2000, the company which invented the thumb drive.

"He said he wanted to meet me, and we had a four-hour meeting," he says, adding that the company eventually supplied him with a range of products for the competition, including thumb drives, disk drives and Wi-Fi cameras.

"We attracted nearly 20 teams from different institutions and, in 11/2 months, sold nearly $50,000 worth of products," he says, adding that the company he formed made about $9,000. "It wasn't much but it gave me a big confidence boost. I realised I was recession-proof."

When he could not decide on a suitable business to start after graduation, he decided to get some working experience.

After a brief stint as a management trainee with security firm Certis Cisco, he joined Trek 2000 as a product manager for nine months.

The itch to start a business did not go away.

Much to the surprise of many of his peers, the first-class honours graduate then decided to become a hawker instead.

"My mother has a very good bak kut teh recipe, so I thought: Why not make a business of it? I wanted to start small; the investment would not be so big. Also, I saw an opportunity. If it worked, I could do a chain in hawker centres," he says.

He invested $14,000 of his savings and took up half a stall in a coffee shop in Toa Payoh with his mother.

The first few days were quiet. On a hunch, he decided to write to KF Seetoh, founder of food guide Makansutra, who visited his stall, intrigued by a bak kut teh hawker with a university degree.

Seetoh wrote about him and, soon, other publications came a-calling.

"Business just roared to life. I was soon selling 150 bowls a day, which was as much as I could handle," he says, adding that he and his mother pulled long hours each day.

One thing stood between him and his plans for expansion: difficulty in hiring workers.

"We raised our rates from $7.50 to $9 an hour, but there were no takers. Some would show up for just one day, some said they didn't like washing dishes, one even stole our money," he says.

In fact, the situation got so dire that he threw in the towel barely half a year later.

"It was a very public failure. But if I had so many problems with just one outlet, can you imagine what it would be like with 20?"

The media attention, however, prompted other entrepreneurs to offer him words of encouragement, such as not to give up his entrepreneurial dreams and to take the failure in his stride.

Two days after he closed down his stall, he landed a job at Incite, a market research consultancy, thanks to his taxi-driver father.

"My dad was my biggest publicist. He would always boast about me to his passengers. and one of them was the managing director of this UK consultancy. He asked to see me and offered me a job," he says.

For more than two years, he buckled down to his job as a treasury and market research consultant. By then, he had also completed his Chartered Financial Analyst exams.

The idea for starting 11th Hour had also started percolating in his head.

"I used to have about 10 or 15 bowls of bak kut teh left over each day. Because of the herbal broth, they could not be stored, and there was no space in my fridge any way.

"It was a waste. The economy-rice business across from my stall was worse; they threw away a lot every day," he says.

The time, he felt, was ripe for an app that allows food and beverage (F&B) merchants to offer last-minute deals and cut down on food wastage.

He says the app will also help cut the risk of cannibalisation that F&B merchants inevitably face if they have daily one-for-one deals at closing time.

"It's a deals by distance. If you like a deal, you go to the merchant. And merchants are free to create any deals they like," he says.

Mr Tan rallied a team together to get the idea off the ground.

Many nights were spent brainstorming the idea, but because all of them held down full-time jobs, progress was slow.

"The commitment level was just not there, we failed to launch."

A second attempt was started with a former colleague from Certis Cisco.

They approached an app developer which said the company would help to build it for equity.

"After four months, we found the work to be really shoddy. So the second time, we failed again."

The third time around, Mr Tan decided to put up $45,000 of his own money to make the business work; his partner put in $5,000 for a 10 per cent share. By then, he had also taught himself programming and tech design.

"I made up my mind to reinvent myself to be a bit of a tech guy," says Mr Tan, who designed the app's interface.

They found another app developer which turned out to be much more competent.

It took one year, including beta testing, to roll out the app in October. He quit his job, roped another partner on board, and got down to marketing 11th Hour.

In just two months, more than 7,000 users have signed up for the service. Mr Tan has also managed to rope in more than 200 merchants, including the Paradise Group, Wine BOS and Julie Bakes.

"I think the market can easily stomach 3,000 merchants. I'm singularly focused on 11th Hour now," he says, adding that he is in deep negotiations with several interested investors.

"We are very optimistic about this. We are already thinking about taking this overseas."

Currently seeing someone, he thinks discipline, more than motivation, is vital for success.

"If I say I will wake up at 7.30 every day to do this, I will. If I say I will meet 20 merchants a day, I will not stop until I knock on the 20th door.

"That is discipline, and discipline will see me through."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline '11th Hour may just clinch the deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe