Putting Purpose Above Profit
Ms Charmain Tan (Science ’12) founded her first company while in Sweden on an NUS Overseas College stint. Today, she is a young entrepreneur who believes in making a positive social impact while also sticking to her principles.
WHO SHE IS
Ms Charmain Tan is the Founder and CEO of Pear Comms, whose product QuickDesk provides one-stop digital sales and marketing solutions — as well as training — for SMEs and business professionals. She made Forbes Asia’s 30 Under 30 list for Enterprise Technology in 2019, and Singapore’s inaugural top 100 Women in Tech List in 2020.
When she was 14, Ms Charmain Tan wanted to start a business that involved selling some manner of product to her friends. She finally decided on cheesecake, but her businessman father forbade it, citing potential risks. “I think in his mind he knew that running a business is hard work,” she says. “But fortunately or unfortunately, this kid got his genes. My father thinks I’m a workaholic; my parents would prefer it if I had an easier life.”
While it has not been an easy journey so far, one cannot deny that Ms Tan has had an exciting life. Making it to Forbes Asia’s prestigious 30 Under 30 (2019) list — which highlights 30 of the most noteworthy young entrepreneurs across Asia — for Enterprise Technology is no small feat. She has had two businesses under her belt, and only just turned 31 at the time of this interview. Genetics aside, she says that her savvy business acumen was developed and nurtured during her time at NUS. A Statistics major, Ms Tan minored in Technopreneurship, a course which shaped her career in the years to come. Among the lecturers who proved inspiring was the late Associate Professor Lee Khai Sheang, who taught a cross-faculty SME marketing course at NUS Business School that referenced Sun Tzu’s Art Of War. Another key NUS experience was her time as a resident of Sheares Hall. Among her hostel mates were undergrads who were running businesses or who would become entrepreneurs, such as the founders of ShopBack and the key marketer of Pirate 3D. “There were so many entrepreneurial people, making so much money even while still in school. But it wasn’t a case of all work and no play. At the hostel, we didn’t just chat about work; we would have casual chats about things we were doing,” she adds.
As a participant of the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme, she spent her third year in Sweden interning at a listed medical tech company called Episurf. Ms Tan explains that she eschewed “hot favourite” Silicon Valley for Stockholm because she was attracted to the hardware focus in Sweden, as she herself did not have a software development background. It was here that she met her boss who would become her role model: Ms Nina Bake, the CEO of Episurf, who was just 29 at the time. The team was very small, just four people, including Ms Tan. “Episurf customises implants for cartilage defects, so that instead of going for a total knee replacement, a patient can have their defect measured and have a customised implant. It provides a real-life solution to the real-life problem of osteoporosis; you could see that it had potential to impact lives.” What made it even more inspiring was that Ms Bake did not have a medical background; she was trained in industrial systems engineering. “Working with Episurf allowed me to understand what it means to make the impossible possible,” explains Ms Tan. “My boss was what I desired to be: she had passion to do something of impact and value, and was also fun-loving.”
I asked myself: what is a problem that I feel for and I want to solve that can help a lot of other people as well? It was the ability to do sales. There are many other things you learn in school, but nobody teaches sales strategies.
If The Glove Fits…
The year she turned 21, Ms Tan decided to kickstart her first company — in Sweden, no less. “I figured I was far away so my parents couldn’t stop me!” She had learned from all her years at NUS that a business needs to solve a problem. “My problem was I needed to use my iPad and iPhone [in chilly Sweden] without taking off my gloves. So I bought some gloves from Taobao that had conductive tips — these could be used but they were not warm enough. I couldn’t find a solution so I decided to make one.”
She entered ISGloves into a European business plan competition and it was shortlisted. Together with fellow entrepreneurs from NOC Stockholm, Ms Tan launched the business after receiving a grant from SPRING Singapore and was later backed by Red Dot investments. But being new to the industry — and without any background in manufacturing — Ms Tan found her learning curve was steeper, and her competitors faster, than she hoped. ISGloves’ eventual failure taught her an important lesson: mastering sales is paramount in a business like hers and it is what every entrepreneur needs. “I asked myself: what is a problem that I feel for and I want to solve that can help a lot of other people as well? It was the ability to do sales. There are many other things you learn in school, like marketing and product development, but nobody teaches sales strategies,” Ms Tan explains.
Being Quick on The Mark
Bouncing back from her early failure, and armed with invaluable lessons from that experience, Ms Tan started Pear Comms in 2014 with the aim of helping small enterprises handle sales by providing them with QuickDesk, a one-stop online sales platform and sales education resource. Her true passion is in the training end of QuickDesk’s services. But in 2014, the market was not yet ready for such a training programme. Instead, that was when the Do-Not-Call Registry was set up, and many companies found themselves limited in their sales reach. Ms Tan grabbed that opportunity to launch the first Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software with an integrated Do Not Call list screening agent.
QuickDesk equips sales teams with digital tools and solutions to help them close sales more effectively. It enables the automation of sales and marketing processes so the human effort can be directed to looking after the customer experience instead of back-end work. Where there used to be a need for a large sales team, QuickDesk enables a lean team to do more. As more firms embrace such possibilities, Ms Tan has found a new demand for training — more entrepreneurs and their sales teams want to know how to maximise their sales leads and successful transactions. “One of the greatest things about education is seeing lives transformed,” shares Ms Tan. “Our training is supported by the government, while SGTech (previously SiTF) and NUS are our partners. We talk to everyone — from students without sales and marketing backgrounds, to companies like Pico and Salt Media and those in other industries.”
UPPING THEIR GAME
To date, QuickDesk has empowered over 800 SMEs with digital tools and skills for maximum revenue growth through its CRM software and integrated services which include sales appointment generation.
Understanding the Greater Good
Though she seems to live a charmed life, Ms Tan faced a major setback at the start of 2018, when a case of fraud in the company was detected, and her team left. “The business started with five people. Now I was alone, and I had to make sure our many clients were covered. It was an overwhelming experience,” she admits. She was at the “lowest of lows” at that point, and being a Christian, turned to her faith in that time of crisis. “I was in Israel, looking down on the Promised Land, when the fraud was cleared,” Ms Tan recalls. The lesson she learned from that experience was never to go back on her principles. “Make money with the right values and it will last and grow,” she affirms.
Ms Tan’s purpose and vision now is to impact nations with whatever she does. She is a volunteer with SongKids, a non-profit organisation that “helps kids find their inner song”. Working with orphanages across Asia, SongKids holds an annual festival where these children are invited to engage in creative arts of all kinds. Ms Tan felt that the festival alone was not enough to change the lives of these young people, and so she launched a digital education programme for them, which began in the third quarter of 2020. “We have 20 students now, and we aim to have 300 this year,” she says. Hers has been a journey of ups and downs, but now, to Ms Tan, “the pursuit of excellence is being a good steward of what you have been given.”
Text by Theresa Tan. Main photo by Kelvin Chia