When HighSpark founder Eugene Cheng was 19, he dressed like he was in his mid-30s.
The habit began after a networking session in 2013, where he was derided by an advertising manager for suggesting a teen could coach executives to deliver high-stakes presentations.
“You are younger than my son. How can I trust you with important projects?” the man asked, spurring the entrepreneur (who remembers the incident “vividly”) to look much older.
It wouldn’t be the last time he received such treatment. In the startup’s early days, Cheng and co-founder Koh Kai Xin – both fresh out of Ngee Ann Polytechnic – often had clients take one look at their young faces and refuse to pay full price for their services.
Cheng scored his first customer entirely by accident, after slides he uploaded on presentation sharing site SlideShare got featured on the homepage, and were spotted by an employee of ad agency Dentsu Singapore.
The firm then hired him to make a presentation for the CEO.
Discussions around remuneration were when Cheng – now 25 – realised the business could be lucrative. He ended up being paid around S$3,200.
He and schoolmate Koh then landed freelance gigs at a design company, making slides for a telco.
It was there they confirmed two things: there was demand for quality presentations, and they possessed the skills to deliver them.
“We assumed organisations had something, or knew something we didn’t: a special process, or some special sauce,” Cheng said. “But when we were part of that process, we realised it’s nothing we couldn’t do.”
But given their rocky start, the young founders agreed to lower prices to build up a client base.
The pair then asked former clients how much they thought their service was worth, and what problems it had helped to solve.
“We got stuck with lower rates at the start because we were selling aesthetic design as a feature more than anything else… eventually we came to the conclusion that clients valued the storytelling aspect of our work,” Cheng said.
“We emailed other companies around the world and asked how much they charged,” he added. “They were charging 10, 20 times more than us… this helped us benchmark ourselves and move up the food chain.”
Today, a group session at HighSpark costs between S$5,000 and S$7,000 a day for presentation, sales, and public speaking coaching.
Its customers – about half of which are C-suite execs – hail from companies including Visa, Nike and Mastercard. HighSpark claims to have helped its clients raise over US$30 million in funding collectively.
The seven-man startup expects to earn close to seven figures in annual revenue by the end of this year: about 600 times more than the initial capital of S$1,500.
It’s also looking at expanding to other South-east Asian countries, and launching a book and online course.
“Don’t fret over your age. Age is not a problem, ” Cheng said when asked for his advice to young entrepreneurs struggling to be taken seriously.
“A lot of intimidation comes from putting other people on a pedestal,” he added. “Confidence is very important. Just be confident and make sure you do your job.”
Added Koh: “At the end of the day, what customers care about is whether you can get the job done well, and whether you’re pleasant to work with.”
Skipping university was “a calculated decision”
While HighSpark’s financials are enviable, Cheng and Koh (now 26) had to sacrifice friendships, romance, and even their degrees to get the business running.
He turned down a spot in a design course at the Singapore Institute of Technology, while she said no to a marketing course at the Singapore Institute of Management.
“I thought about my motivation for wanting a degree. If I was going to get a degree just for the label, I wasn’t going to be mentally present,” said Koh, who admitted her parents objected strongly at the beginning.
“By running a startup, I would get to learn a lot faster, and I would get to learn things that school didn’t teach,” she added. “But with university, I wondered if what I learnt was going to be obsolete by the time I graduated.”
“Even if the business failed, I could always attend next year… (skipping university) was a calculated decision. I weighed the pros and cons,” she said.
Both founders admitted to feeling anxious about missing out when their friends moved on to further studies and they were left working out of Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s canteen, earning S$1,500 a month for two years.
But after reading university textbooks and notes, Cheng realised they already knew what others were paying thousands to learn.
To educate himself, he spent S$100 a month on psychology, entrepreneurship, and presentation skills books by David Ogilvy, Brian Tracy, Niccolò Machiavelli, Friedrich Nietzsche, Seneca, Aristotle and Plato, among others.
He would then summarise the main learning points for Koh.
“Books provide real life case studies and a tangible framework to follow. If you want to solve a problem, find a book that answers that question. You can learn from people’s mistakes and avoid them,” said Cheng.
The founder added that buying books forced him to read them to get his money’s worth, and he liked physical copies as they provided a visual reminder of the lessons learnt.
Their advice for other poly grads? Try harder to find direction in life.
“At 19, most poly kids have no clarity and direction, so collect anecdotes and experiences. Focus on things relevant to the future, not what’s relevant to you now, like playing with friends,” Cheng said.
Added Koh: “Expose yourself to experiences that help you discover interests and strengths. This gives you more clarity on what you want – and don’t want.”
“When the time comes for you to make a career decision, you can make the right decision, rather than just aimlessly follow the herd.”