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Published 07 March 2012 14:48, Updated 08 March 2012 08:29
Gary Ng remembers when he had just $3000 in his bank account, a packet of instant noodles and a dream to become an entrepreneur.
Ng came to Australia from Hong Kong in 1988 when he was 11 years old. His parents sent him here to study and Ng decided to stay in the country with his grandparents after he graduated from university.
“I had no family connections to leverage as my parents were overseas when I started my business,” says the founder and chief executive of BRW Fast 100 company E-Web Marketing. “I worked from my bedroom, surviving on instant noodles and SPAM sandwiches.”
To raise funds, Ng took a job with a small internet service provider posting advertisements around universities and bus stops. He then set up a 24-hour hotline for people interested in signing up to one of the internet plans on offer.
“My hotline regularly got calls between 3am and 5am from people who had just seen my poster while waiting for the bus,” he says. “But those late-night chats were worth it, because it worked.”
The money from this job boosted his cash flow and allowed Ng to get things rolling. He set up E-Web Marketing, a search engine marketing business in 1999 and turned it into one of Australia’s fastest-growing companies, with current turnover of more than $10 million. And these days, he says it’s king crab on the menu.
Ng is just one of thousands of migrant success stories across Australia – people who arrived here with minimal English and virtually no money but worked hard and built up enviable business empires.
Father and son team Satinder and Arjun Singh are an example of this new breed with entrepreneurial flair. Satinder, an engineer, moved to Australia 23 years ago, initially working for BHP.
He later took over Medirite Australia – a company that makes and imports consumables including workwear and latex gloves that are used in healthcare, industrial safety and hygiene sectors – and together with his son, helped build it into one of Australia’s fastest growing companies.
“Being a migrant there was a certain feeling that he couldn’t go further by working for others,” Arjun says. “Dad was very talented and very experienced . . . but decided to work for himself. He invested his family savings and borrowed money from friends to move into this business. It was a big risk.”
Arjun, who meanwhile studied a business degree and started working at Accenture as a management consultant, says watching his dad work endlessly had a real impact. Arjun worked for a few other small consulting companies before joining his father’s business in 2006, helping lift its online presence and sales.
“It was a massive struggle to get it where it had to be,” he says. “My biggest challenge was to cope with the stress of being responsible for the livelihood of my family. I was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, when I was 32. It was shock.”
Arjun made a decision to focus on his health (he’s now recovered from cancer) and by this time had achieved his business mission – positive cash flow and revenue of $6.2 million. They sold the company last year but Arjun is staying on for two years to help during the transition to the new owners.
He says the past few years have been emotionally tough but a focus on family has helped, both from a personal and business sense.
“Being a migrant, the main thing that’s really important to you is your family,” he says. “Making sure they are taken care of drives what we do.”
It’s a view shared by Ruslan Kogan, founder and chief executive of Kogan Technologies. Kogan was born in Belarus came to Australia with his family when he was six years old. He’s now Australia’s richest person under the age of 30, with a personal wealth valued at $62 million in the 2011 BRW Young Rich list.
He says that while it was relatively easy for him to move into the business world (he jokes about how “the main challenge is spelling my name out for everyone”) he watched his parents struggle and work multiple jobs to survive and knew he didn’t want to do the same. “Migrants don’t take things for granted,” he says. “They come to Australia because they recognise there’s more freedom and opportunities. Often they from countries ruled by tyrants and dictators. We came from communist Russia where it was a crime to even run a business.”
Ethnic Business Awards chairman Joseph Assaf says success is largely tied to the migrant struggle. “It’s the ambition, the determination, the dream,” he says. “Even refugees who come with an empty suitcase, come full of dreams. They work hard. They start with nothing, sometimes in a garage, but all the members of the family work together.”
Despite some migrants having higher communication and cultural barriers to overcome in business, most see their background as an opportunity rather than a challenge.
Natalie Archer and Anthony Mitchell came to Australia from New Zealand in 2001. They set up business consultancy Bendelta in 2003, another company on the BRW Fast 100.
“The number one requirement for any new business is differentiation,” Archer says. “Being a migrant, gave us a topic of conversation and often a great source of humour being Kiwis. The idea that Australians are not open to conducting business with foreigners is a myth . . . [immigrants] tend to have high levels of initiative, resourcefulness and resilience. We come for the economic opportunities and have the imperative to survive, often without a safety net. This sharpens the focus and fosters ingenuity.”
Dorry Kordahi, who runs marketing and merchandise business DKM Blue, agrees that migrants have a strong work ethic but says it’s neither an advantage or disadvantage to be ethnic. It all just comes down to the person.
Kordahi, who made the BRW Young Rich list again last year with a personal worth of $21 million, was only nine months old when he came to Australia with his family. “It was 1976. A civil war had broken out in Lebanon and my parents wanted a better life for the family,” he says.
His father, a hairdresser by trade, opened a salon in Punchbowl in Sydney’s west where Kordahi spent some time working after university. But he knew he wanted to do something bigger and after working with his cousin in the marketing and merchandise business for a few years, he set up DKM when he was 26 (which merged with his brother Danny’s company in 2009 to form DKM Blue).
When Kordahi started, he didn’t have a single client but now has hundreds and turnover of about $10 million. “I started my business in my parents’ backyard shed in Croydon,” Kordahi says.
“All I had was a computer and a table and just started calling businesses selling my services.”
Kordahi’s advice to other migrants starting out is to “not isolate yourself as a demographic”. “In the ’60s and ’70s was it hard for migrants? Yes. Is it hard now? No. The challenge is within yourself. You can use nationality as an excuse to not succeed in business. But this country is made up of people from so many different backgrounds. We shouldn’t hold ourselves back or make excuses.”