Lee (Right) with his business partner, Chiam Wei Kiat.

IN this country, we have many businessmen who are very conservative and run their businesses the well-worn, traditional way. Hey, if it ain’t broke, why fix it, right? But we also have a handful who try to do things a little bit differently. Very few are truly out-of-the-box thinkers though.

But Lee Earn Pin is one of them. He started doing business even before he graduated with a degree in engineering. In his second year at university, he founded a web design company and upon graduation, started a web-hosting business.

“This might sound strange but I have never worked for anyone in my life before nor have I ever attended a job interview,” Lee said. “It wasn’t so much that I aspired to be an entrepreneur. It was just that it came down to two choices: work for someone or work for yourself. It was pretty normal for graduates to work for someone in order to gain some experience but I was influenced by my dad, who drilled into me the notion that starting your own business is the way to go.”

Lee talks to Savvy about his unorthodox approach to doing business and his unique outlook on life, in general.

YOU HAVE A FEW DIFFERENT VENTURES GOING ON. WHAT’S YOUR MAIN BUSINESS TODAY?

It’s Evisa Asia, an online visa application service. Many people don’t know what they need to do in order to successfully apply for a visa to visit another country. Each country has its own requirements regarding the issuance of visa. That’s where Evisa Asia comes in. Whether you’re uncertain or unfamiliar with applying for the first time, you can sit back, relax and let us do all the work. We know the tips and tricks required, the actual time for your visa to be ready and we keep track of any changes made to the requirement.

HOW DID THIS IDEA COME TO YOU?

It all started in 2006 when one of my companies won the project to build Cambodia’s electronic visa system. The project made us aware of the complications involved in applying for visas. Five years later, we were able to provide solutions to 11 neighbouring countries. By last year, we managed to expand our e-visa service to 60 Asian countries.

WHAT WERE THE MAIN CHALLENGES OF BUILDING THIS BUSINESS?

Our tagline is “Apply for a travel visa like you have done it a hundred times before”. Well, we have literally done it hundreds of times before so we are familiar with all the different requirements and processes involved in getting visas for the 60 different Asian countries we cover. We have done it hundreds of times so you don’t have to.

YOU RUN YOUR BUSINESS IN AN UNORTHODOX WAY. CAN YOU SHARE SOME EXAMPLES?

I believe that someone becomes your customer not because of how beautiful your name card is but because of the value you can deliver through your service or product. So, I don’t bother with fancy name cards. Mine is very simple. It’s the same with my company logo, invoice, etc. I choose to focus on giving good value to my customer.

Another principle I observe is to not micro-manage or over-monitor my staff. If you’ve hired good people, trust them to do their jobs. Don’t waste your time sweating over how much sick leave they take, etc. If they need time off trust that there is a good reason for it. If you can’t trust your staff, you shouldn’t have hired them in the first place.

WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR OUT-OF-THE-BOX WORK IDEAS FROM?

I observe a lot and then I ask the “why” questions. Why are things done this way? Is there a better way to do it? If you try to find answers to these questions, you will end up with a box full of new ideas.

WHAT WERE YOUR THREE BEST IDEAS FOR THE WORKPLACE THAT WORKED OUT BEAUTIFULLY?

Firstly, the decision to limit the work week to just four days. Secondly, to allow everyone to work remotely — from home, at coffee shops, wherever. And lastly, to stop tracking the leave taken by staff. Like I said, if they need time off, it must be for a good reason.

WHAT ABOUT IDEAS THAT DIDN’T WORK OUT SO WELL?

I can’t think of any really big mistakes but those things that didn’t work out well serve as lessons that I can learn from.

STEVE JOBS OR BILL GATES?

Steve Jobs. I am a Mac man.

WHICH ENTREPRENEUR DO YOU DRAW INSPIRATION FROM THE MOST?

There are two of them. Eve Van Dyck from Zangra.com (an online store selling old and new home accessories) and Michael Preysman from Everlane.com (an online clothing retailer).

BOTH ARE E-COMMERCE ENTREPRENEURS. IS THAT SOMETHING YOU’RE LOOKING INTO?

We are working on a new project to create a new buy and sell platform that covers products, as well as services. There’s nothing quite like it in the country right now. There are online platforms for selling products and online platforms for selling services but none that cover both products and services.

ANY BLUE SKY IDEAS THAT YOU HAVE IN THE BACK OF YOUR MIND?

I hope someday to become a property developer so I can build and sell new concept homes to people. I know this is ambitious and perhaps it’s a long shot but we all have to have dreams.

WHAT’S THE COMMON THREAD IN ALL YOUR BUSINESSES, IF THERE IS ONE?

The ideas that I like to venture into are things that help make life simpler.

WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO SOMEONE WHO’S EMBARKing ON ENTREPRENEURSHIP?

Be prepared to change your lifestyle to something simpler so that you have more flexibility.

If you have a lot of overheads and commitments, it’s hard for you to be entrepreneurial because you have to worry about money all the time. It starts with you. You have to be willing to make that change in lifestyle.

WHAT’S YOUR DEFINITION OF SUCCESS?

For many people, money is a good measurement of success and I must admit that it is a pretty good measurement.

It’s hard to say someone is not successful if he makes a lot of money. But to me, the real meaning of success is being able to do what I really like. If I can do that, I consider myself a success.

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