It is dinner time at businessman Sunder Mani’s handsome home, a condominium unit filled with sturdy wooden furniture, paintings, and exquisitely carved sculptures of sleeping Buddha and the Hindu gods.
After a long wait, the maid brings out the plates and the food: Salsa sauce, tortilla, ham, and cream; ingredients for Burrito, a quintessentially Mexican dish.
Dining with his family is a daily affair.
Joining Sunder (read our interview from one year back), 47, at the dinner table is his wife Soina, his daughter Aashila, 16, and son Ashwal, 14. As they eat, sauce dripping from Burrito to plate, they chat about the day’s proceedings. The family joins in this same ritual everyday.
Sunder, a permanent resident from India, is the founder and chief executive of I-Flapp Technologies. His main product is the I-Mapp, a piece of software that allows users to work on any computer – as if it is theirs. His business is starting to take off; he is in the midst of finalising sales in over twenty countries, which keeps him very busy.
“Just yesterday, I worked throughout the whole night, going to bed at 7am,” he says. Despite putting in 15 to 16 hours of work a day, like all overworked entrepreneurs do, he commits frequently to spending quality time with his family.
At the dining table, his phone rings. He stands up and takes a call from a client, heading out to the balcony and out of sight.
For them, having daddy start a business at age 41 was daunting. He had to give up a five-figure salary job in the IT industry which paid the bills. “I was very nervous, and very scared,” says wife Soina, when her husband sought her permission to start the new venture.
He would never have to face this dilemma if he wanted to start a business fresh out of university or early in his career.
This painting of wine bottles is a gift from daughter Aashila to Sunder.
Taking home minimum pay, his family had to make sacrifices. They took the public transport more often, and organised less social events. The kids did not have sophisticated birthday parties. Instead, they had simple family dinners.
Sometimes, living a more frugal lifestyle wasn’t easy on daughter Aashila. “My friends had so many toys, but not me. I was rebellious then, so I was upset,” she says, talking like an adult. Despite the minor grouses, his wife and kids rallied behind him.
More at stake, but well-equipped for success
Family is just one of many considerations that second-life entrepreneurs wrestle with. Above 40 years of age, some of them leave their jobs to start a business, which is always risky. Others come out of retirement, investing their savings into fulfilling a lifelong dream.
While being an old entrepreneur is certainly not sexy – it can lead to greater success: A series of studies by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor and the Kauffman Foundation discovered that although young people start more businesses, older people contribute a larger percentage of entrepreneurial activity in the US – an indication that their enterprises are more sustainable.
It is not difficult to see why: With their deep pool of knowledge, industry experience, and extensive network, they are poised to survive in an unpredictable business environment.
Sunder at his office in International Business Park.
Back to his office desk on a Wednesday afternoon, Sunder brims with confidence, gamely calling himself “the coolest CEO you’ve got.”
But instead of occupying a posh, sky-high office, he shares space with two other companies in a building at the far end of the International Business Park in Jurong.
Stacked up next to a wall near his desk are boxes of computer hardware. Scribblings dominate the opposite wall, which doubles as a white board. Outside, near to where his two office staff sits, spare computers and keyboards fill up empty cubicles.
Sunder had always wanted to start a business, but he felt it was important to spend several years working in the IT industry first. Indeed, his stints in the semiconductor and digital storage businesses have proved useful.
He adopts an arms-around-your-shoulders relationship with his staff, seeking to befriend them rather than point a stick all the time.
Religion plays an important role in Sunder and family’s life. His family visits the temple every week, and while his wife prays for the home, he prays for the business.
But he was not always like that. As a young manager working in India, he was looked upon as a hard-to-approach tyrant.
“I used to get pissed off very easily and my temper was very bad. I thought I knew everything and that I was always right,” he says. But after receiving feedback that he was not well-liked, he slowly changed.
Also, when appealing for funds, people trust him more because of his track record. New potential customers were introduced to him through his relationships with top-level management he met in a previous job. He has even enlisted the help of his ex-CEO, who understands the distribution model in India well.
On a personal level, being older means that he tends to make decisions more rationally. “I have seen several young entrepreneurs work through emotions when they start a business,” he adds.
Finally, he knows exactly who he wants to hire to run the business, a trait honed from his work experience in India where he had to interview and select over 100 skilled and semi-skilled job-seekers for his company.
Sunder admits though that starting a business late does have drawbacks. While a young entrepreneur can fail and move on in life, things are more complicated for an older businessman.
“If you’re young, there’s nothing much to lose. If you’re 40, there’s no way of going back. Since your back is against the wall, what happens if you fail? You have to compete for jobs with fresh graduates, and older people tend to lose out. Graduates can take the same position at lower salaries,” he says.
He conducts regular staff meetings in his office, where he scribbles notes on the wall which doubles as a white board.
Getting young people on their side
Adapting to changing times is another challenge he has to grapple with. Older people have the tendency of sticking to a fixed way of doing things, and it is hard for them to change. Which is why he hires younger staff to handle much of his business.
“I’m already molded like a sculpture, but I’m open to current trends,” he says.
Working with young people is something that Dr Lee Se Heon, a Singapore citizen from Korea, is also familiar with. The 57-year-old is the founder of Korean restaurant Sarang, whose business concept revolves around young people. To ensure that he attracts the young crowd, he has hired a young team to help him brainstorm for ideas and run the restaurant.
“I believe in listening to young people. As we get older, we become more stubborn, so we have to open up.”
Located on the seventh floor of Orchard Central, the establishment offers a bird’s eye view of the downtown area. A large projector screen dominates the alfresco bar and dining area, playing Korean music videos. Next to it is a DJ console, shaped like a gigantic Korean beer bottle.
The restaurant’s decor fuses contemporary design with traditional Korean elements: A replica of a traditional Korean arched roof stands guard at the restaurant entrance. Underneath it is a gong and cymbal which the waitresses sound to prompt the entire staff to greet the customers in unison.
A small heart-shaped metal grille, pasted with customers’ love declarations written in Post-It notes, sits next to the gong. It pays homage to a famous tradition in Mount Namsam, Seoul, where lovers would fix decorated padlocks onto fences and throw away the keys.
Sarang is ‘love’ in Korean.
“My customers are mostly young people who are into Korean drama and pop music,” says the businessman, sitting at the air-conditioned interior of the eatery, which doubles as his workspace.
He does not really listen to the pop songs that many Singaporean youths dig nowadays. In fact, when asked who his favourite artiste is, he throws up the name “Patti Kim”, a popular Korean pop singer – in the 60s and 70s. It is no surprise that he finds relating to the next generation a challenge.
Manufacturing maestro turned entrepreneur
Se Heon had never set out to be an entrepreneur in his earlier years. After earning a PhD in Business Administration, he became a globetrotting executive. He was a high-flying manager in a glass manufacturing company, overseeing operations in China.
“I was too busy with work to think about setting up my own business,” he says. He moved to Singapore in 2001 and retired five years later. However, he could never sit still. Se Heon wanted to indulge in his passion for food. During his jetsetting days, he would try out the local dishes of the city he visits.
That moved him into action: Two years ago, he brought Gusttimo Di Roma, a Gelato (an Italian variant of ice-cream) brand, into Singapore and became its master franchisee for the whole of Asia. Early last year, he started Sarang in International Science Park, later moving it to the heart of Orchard.
Se Heon at his restaurant Sarang in Orchard Central.
He is well aware of the challenges. “This industry is highly competitive in Singapore,” he says. Here, more players are fighting for a smaller pie than in South Korea. “But if you can succeed here, you can succeed anywhere else.”
To ensure he gets a sufficient piece of that pie, he banks on his deep manufacturing expertise, gathered from years of experience.
Holding up a teaspoon from the empty teacup in front of him, he explains: “People have different ideas as to how much of sugar a teaspoon should contain, but we’ve managed to standardized all the recipes.”
His central kitchen measures very precisely the amount of ingredients needed in a certain dish, then prepares each serving the exact same way.
Even down to how thinly sliced a piece of beef is.
He also keeps an eye out for the supply chain and inventory control of his restaurants, making sure they are in order.
True to his manufacturing roots, he hopes to build a good foundation in Singapore and replicate the model throughout the rest of Asia. While the method may change slightly while overseas, the basics would stay the same.
Se Heon, unlike Sunder, has children that are all grown up: His two sons are working, while his daughter is in university. Their independence plus his deep savings from a fruitful career enable him to focus on his business. It also helps that he is restless by nature.
His venture is certainly no mum-and-pop store; in fact, it keeps him very busy. He usually wakes up at 3am to 4am to check his email, and works from 7am to 8.30pm each day. Due to the nature of the restaurant business, he toils away on weekends too.
Not that he minds though. “Working together with young people certainly gives me more energy,” he says.
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