5 Questions With…Karl Mak, CEO & Co-Founder of SGAG

These days, starting a business when one is still in school appears to be the norm rather than the exception. Many of the world’s top companies including Facebook, Snapchat & Google were all business ideas conceived and developed by their founders while studying.

Closer to home, some Singapore-based startups also began in a similar fashion. One such company that most of us are familiar with is SGAG. SGAG’s founders, Karl Mak and Adrian Ang, were classmates in SMU and formerly classmates at Anglo-Chinese Junior College. In between the time they spent cracking jokes in school, the duo found time to start SGAG. In fact, the first-ever meme created on SGAG was done at the back of an SMU lecture hall in 2012, presumably while the lecture was still ongoing.

Today, SGAG is no longer a company that produces Singapore-specific content only. Under the HEPMIL Media Group that Karl and Adrian have started, SGAG is one of the group’s media properties along with MGAG, PGAG and the HEPMIL Creator Network. Collectively, they reach out to more than 30 million people within the region through Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and others. Both Karl and Adrian were nominated in 2017 for Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia (Media, Marketing & Advertising)

Karl & Adrian filming in their office

In this edition of 5 Questions With…, we chat with Karl Mak, co-founder of SGAG and the CEO of the HEPMIL Media Group.

Timothy Ho (Timothy): Despite SGAG being a light-hearted, humor-driven media brand, we know it’s serious work running a digital media business. At which point in time did you know that SGAG could be more than just a passion project for you and Adrian?

Karl Mark (Karl): SGAG was already a very popular meme page from 2012 but we didn’t work full time on it until late 2014 when we already had a few paying clients. At that point in time, we had a handful of employees and we wanted to take SGAG as a business seriously and to push it as far as we could. We also wanted to be accountable to our early employees and to assure them that they didn’t make a mistake in joining a young startup. So, Adrian and I went full-time in 2014.

SGAG retreat in 2019. Try spotting your favorite SGAG personality

Timothy: Within the HEPMIL Media Group that SGAG is part of, you have almost 100 staff across four countries. With borders currently close and many of us working from home, it has to be challenging to manage your team. How did you structure your daily routine such that you can manage the business, your people as well as ensure quality work-life balance as a father of 2?

Karl: I used to fly often overseas to meet clients and to spend time with my regional team. When COVID-19 hit, we had to change all this. We make sure that the local leaders in their respective countries were empowered to make decisions and could do the things that I used to do. We also started setting aside a regular time to catch up with each local leader virtually. In the past, these meetings were done in quite an ad-hoc manner.

Personally, for me, as I don’t have to travel anymore, that improved my health and allowed me to spend more quality time with my family. I used to find myself travelling monthly, if not bi-weekly, around the region. It was physically exhausting, and I fell sick quite a bit. But now, I haven’t fallen sick in a while and I can spend a lot more time with my two young boys.

I am an early riser and I will exercise and spend time with my kids before heading off to work at about 8:30am to 9:30am. I like to start my day in the office with morning catchups. I also like to have one-on-one lunch catchups with my colleagues. I use each lunch as an opportunity to dive deeper into their lives and to connect with them on a personal level.

After lunch, I like to get out of the office and I enjoy meeting people. I am usually packed with partnership opportunity meetings, internal meetings and brainstorming sessions in the afternoon. After that, I try to leave the office no later than 7pm or 7:30pm every day because I need to be back with my kids. I have two young boys, five years old and seven months old, so I would often get back for dinner and to spend some quality time with them, or to take them out for a fun activity. I place a great deal of emphasis on spending time with my children.

I would put them to bed at about 9.30pm or 10pm and after that, I may continue working. Nights are when I’m most productive in terms of presentation or proposal preparation. Anything that requires quiet time, I try to push it till the end of the day. If I am not doing work, I will try to wind down before I go to bed. This usually involves a bit of gaming and maybe watching videos on YouTube. Sometimes, I do some reading.

I don’t work or meet people for work matters on weekends. I reserve that time for my family and myself. In the first few years, it was very intense. I used to work 60-to-75-hour weeks and I found myself burning out. As I mature into the business as a leader, I found myself a lot more productive in learning to space out my time.

I also have a particular thing that I like to do. I would spend only two days out of the week having dinners with people that could be partners, clients or colleagues. Over dinner, we have some drinks, and we talk about anything that we want to talk about. So, I limit myself to two dinner meetings a week. That is quite strict a rule that I set for myself.

Timothy: Besides spending time at work with your staff and clients, what are three other areas in your life that you will find time for?

Karl: Firstly, my family. I am a big family guy. I spent a lot of time with my family and my children. I play with them, teach them, and bring them out for adventures. I’m big on that. So, usually on weekends or weekday nights, if I can afford the time, I will spend it with them.

The second thing that I always find time for is to rest and relax. It works wonder and makes me a lot more productive and focused, and it really helps get the stress out of my system. I do that in the form of exercise, playing sports, going to the gym or for a run. I am also into gaming.

The third thing that I always try to do is probably my faith. I am a Christian, and I dedicate my Sundays to attending and serving in church, making sure that I am a regular there and contributing where I can in the different ministries that I serve in.

Timothy: Your two favorite business books that you will recommend for any aspiring entrepreneur to read?

Karl: I love reading business books. I have a whole library filled with great business books. But, I would say the two business books that made a deep, deep impact in my life would be the Memoirs of Robert Kwok by Robert Kwok and Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz.

Memoirs of Robert Kwok: The first would be the memoirs of Robert Kwok. It’s not an international bestseller book, but it’s the autobiography of Robert Kwok, one of the billionaires or the magnates of Singapore and Malaysia’s business world. He owns everything from Shangri-La to Palm oil trading and sugar trading companies, and he is a giant and a huge inspiration to local and regional entrepreneurs. I love his story. The book really challenged my perspectives of what it means to leave a legacy through business, and it’s a very emotional and inspiring book for me. It’s also one of the books that I give people the most. I’ve given probably five to 10 copies of this book to close friends who are entrepreneurs.

The Hard Thing about Hard Things: The second book that left a deep impression for me was Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. He has so much wisdom and knowledge when it comes to building a startup, running a startup or investing in a startup, and it’s kind of like a manual. The book spoke to me in a very dark time when I was going through a difficult moment in business, and it gave me so much guidance and instructions on what and how I should think and what I should do.

Timothy: One piece of advice you will give fellow entrepreneurs in Singapore.

Karl: if I were to give one piece of advice to your fellow entrepreneurs in Singapore, I think the advice I would give is based on Angela Duckworth’s book – Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Her book spoke to me on the fact that the most important factors for success, for not just entrepreneurs, but for anybody, it’s actually this term that we call grit. Grit would be defined as the constant persistence and the attitude of never giving up. Entrepreneurship and our journey of building startups is something that requires a ton of grit.

There are so many dark moments, especially in these challenging times, and my advice is you need a whole level of grit to go through this journey and never give up. Persist through. You never know when you might get a big break and you never know when something might change for the better.

Karl Mak

I’ve heard so many inspiring stories of people turning things around because of their sheer persistence and perseverance. The advice has just got me through a lot of difficult moments on my journey and I definitely would encourage fellow entrepreneurs to have a whole deal of grit when they are building their companies.

Image Credit: All photos provided to us by Karl Mak

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