This story was originally published in a book written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis, in collaboration with Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB).
“Since I was a young kid, I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur—I was born this way. When I quit my job, I promised myself that I would leave employment behind—I would never get another job again.”
Raymond Tan was on a management consulting project in the American Midwest. It was gritty and industrial. He’d travel and visit different factories across the Rust Belt, in Chicago, and on the outskirts of small towns in Illinois.
Every consulting project was stressful, but Raymond usually had time off on the weekends to recuperate. On this project, he and the team were working seven days a week, 12 hours a day. There was no time to rest—no time to be human again. Raymond’s stress levels built and built.
When Raymond was hit by major depression, he knew that he had to tread a different path, follow his passion for entrepreneurship, and try something new.
A born innovator
Born in 1987 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Raymond started his first business in school at the age of 16. Part of a young enterprise program, he was selected to manage a team of 40 students and build a business from scratch in one year. His market: his school’s students.
He soon realized that the only things that sold in his school were gifts with messages inside of them. It didn’t matter what the product was, if it had a customizable message inside it, it would sell.
So, Raymond started manufacturing test tubes filled with colored liquid or colored sand—all sold with pre-written messages hidden inside of them.
“There was a lot of ‘Hi sweetie’ or ‘I think you’re cute!’” he laughs. “We made a lot of profit—our return on equity was something like 300%. But it was tough operationally—it was a struggle to manage the whole enterprise. It made me think: how do big businesses do it? What do they have that we don’t?”
To find out, Raymond knew he’d have to get more first-hand business experience before taking the leap again to become an entrepreneur.
He moved to the UK for high school, and studied economics at University College London. There, he landed an internship at Deloitte, which led to a full-time consulting job specializing in operations and supply chain. For Raymond, it was a chance to learn how big businesses do what they do.
Back on track
Raymond spent four years working in the high-intensity world of management consulting across 10 different industries, on projects in the US, UK, Dubai, Egypt, and China.
When depression hit, Raymond quit the Rust Belt project and took medical leave from Deloitte. He was diagnosed by doctors in the UK, but the waiting time to see a counselor was three months. By that time, he says, he’d already cured himself.
“My theory is that everyone is born a certain way,” Raymond explains. “When there’s a mismatch between who you are and your environment or your activities, then there’s some friction. You become unhappy, but you don’t really know why.
“When that builds up to a certain level, you have this big crash, which can be major depression. It’s like you’re stuck somewhere and it’s really hard to get out. For me, I think the problem was employment. I’m not meant to be an employee!”
After leaving Deloitte, Raymond decided to fast-track his journey into entrepreneurship. His aim was always to move back to Malaysia—to make an impact in a developing country, and start a business there. But, first, he wanted to learn more about business in China—“the big boy in the neighborhood”—the world’s leading emerging economy.
From his first day at CKGSB, he threw himself into the experience—touring startup incubators, factories, and companies started by CKGSB alumni. He became the vice president of the MBA Startup Club. He joined the entire MBA class on a two-week international trip to New York and California in the US, visiting Intel, Airbnb, and the University of California, Berkeley.
Outside of class, he and his classmates made impromptu visits to some of China’s third and fourth tier cities—Jinzhou, Houma, Linfen, and Pingyao Gucheng.
“Right from the start, I saw my time in China as an adventure,” he says. “I wanted to see what opportunities I might have to do business with China, and build the friendships there that would help me do it.
“Seeing different CKGSB alumni doing things of their own, hearing about their stories, and knowing there’s a community that I can turn to for support if I need it—that really motivated me.”
Invigorated and China-savvy, Raymond moved home to Malaysia after his MBA and started exploring new business opportunities. He considered importing and selling a variety of products—t-shirts, ground nuts, even canned sardines—anything he could make work using his network.
Eventually, he settled on diapers. Living costs in Malaysia are high relative to local incomes, so he’s aiming to lower the cost of living for the middle and lower classes, which form the vast majority of the population. With three friends, one of whom he met during his time in Beijing, Raymond plans to set up his own brand of baby diapers and sell his products more cheaply from a warehouse, rather than on pricey supermarket shelves.
His concept: mid-range quality at low prices. From diapers, he wants to expand into other baby products—clothes, wipes—and then daily household consumer goods, sourcing locally and, in the future, from China as well.
When Raymond was back in high school, he set himself the target of earning US$300 million—that would make him a billionaire in Malaysian currency at the time. But now, looking forward, his motivations have changed.
“People say money can’t buy you happiness, but most people can’t appreciate that saying—they’ve never experienced it,” he says. “When I was on the consulting project in the US, I basically doubled my take-home pay, but I was so unhappy and money couldn’t compensate for that.
“Now, the main motivating factor for me is happiness. What makes me happy is being myself, and expressing that by doing the things I feel I was born to do.”