It may sound counterintuitive, but a particularly slow-moving lecture during his polytechnic days ironically turned out to be of most value to Mr Eugene Cheng.
Everything about it was wrong: the message was unclear, the slides were disorganised, and the delivery was less than inspiring.
Nonetheless, it turned out to be the catalyst for his money-spinning start-up idea — to create presentations that engage audiences.
Together with co-founder Ms Koh Kai Xin, he set up HighSpark (highspark.co) in 2013, which aims to create high-impact, persuasive presentations that come with captivating stories.
Slides overcrowded with uninspiring visuals and convoluted messages are just some of the challenges that the company tackles.
Getting off the ground
Even during his stint at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Mr Cheng, 25, had been uploading his PowerPoint presentations to slide-hosting service SlideShare, but did not expect anything to come out of it.
But in his final year, Mr Cheng opened his laptop one day and found a message from a Japanese advertising agency. After seeing one of his presentations, the company wanted to him to help craft a business presentation for its chief executive.
“That was when I was first exposed to the potential value of this service,” says Mr Cheng.
He did not take long to convince Ms Koh, 25, to be his business partner. Having worked together in the polytechnic on various projects for three years, they complemented each other’s skills and aptitudes — he with the razor-sharp design sense, and she, with the gift of the gab.
Together, the pair founded SlideComet, which would later become HighSpark: a creative agency aimed at helping business leaders deliver better presentations by improving their visual designs and sharpening their key messages.
But a starting capital of $1,500 — even with a clear idea of their business proposition — left them with a hard time finding a service office with reasonable rental rates.
So the duo ended up holding most of their meetings around cafeteria tables, scrounging for power outlets to charge their phones and laptops, and borrowing student accounts of the people around them for precious Wi-Fi access.
Worse yet, some of their first clients refused to pay them competitive rates compared to other creative agencies, since they were fresh out of polytechnic.
“Most of our early clients weren’t willing to pay a premium for our services at the time because of our age,” says Mr Cheng. “They didn’t have full confidence in our abilities because we looked young and inexperienced.”
To get in any business at all, they had to undercharge their clients for the sake of building their reputation and portfolio.
During the first few years, the duo sometimes had to go for months without pay. In the event that they did, they would take no more than $1,500 each.
Then came the friction. Tension between Mr Cheng and Ms Koh built up as he enlisted full-time into national service, leaving her no choice but to shoulder most of the work.
But they refused to lose heart. After all, neither was a stranger to hard work.
Ms Koh had been taking on odd jobs like surveying and waitressing since she was 12, while Mr Cheng had freelanced as a graphic, apparel and web designer during his student days.
To grow the business, they continued to live frugally — purchasing travel concession passes to maximise their savings, spending little on meals, and most radically — foregoing their university education.
Ngee Ann Polytechnic threw its support behind them by giving them a seed funding of $3,000, along with a space to serve as a temporary base of operations.
Enjoying the rewards
Slowly but surely, their fortunes began to turn.
Positive word of mouth about HighSpark, including glowing testimonials from a number of company chief executives began to spread, and the trickle of clients soon became a deluge.
Today, HighSpark has facilitated workshops and created presentations for the likes of Visa, Panasonic, Nike and Mastercard. Currently, they are putting the finishing touches on a book about storytelling methodology.
Their business made almost $500,000 in revenue last year. To date, HighSpark has also developed close to 300 presentations for its myriad clients. Recently, both Mr Cheng and Ms Koh were even invited to train and advise speakers at the TEDxSingapore conference.
But these achievements are not the most satisfying part of the business. Rather, it is the feeling of having come full circle.
Five years after the seed of their idea took root in a crowded lecture hall, Mr Cheng and Ms Koh are back where they started — in the lecture halls of Ngee Ann Polytechnic — but this time, conducting training sessions for their former lecturers.
“It’s nothing short of surreal,” says Mr Cheng with a laugh.
“We’re really thankful to them for their confidence in us, and their dedicated support of our journey.”