By age 30, Ryan Lee was CEO of burgeoning Singaporean tech company XMI, producing the hottest portable speakers on the market, the x-mini.
Here the RMIT alumnus shares what he has learned about leadership and why he calls himself The Dreamer.
How did you bring x-mini to life?
It started with $30,000 loaned from my brother. I had worked in the technology industry for about six years, so I got together with some friends from industry to start the business.
Our first office was a fake office – we had an office you could rent for the day with no signs, so when someone comes along you shake hands and they think you’re Mr Big.
We started with very limited resources. We got another $50,000 investment, so the total investment was $80,000 in the first year. And it went on from there.
You call yourself The Dreamer – if you are The Dreamer, what was the dream?
On my business card my title is The Dreamer, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the vision – how do we want to grow our business in future.
We didn’t know what the product would be when we wanted to start a tech company – we launched a few different products at first. But the portable speaker took off, so we decided to focus our resources on that.
We’re still working on the dream – I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where we feel we’ve reached it. So we are conscious the success doesn’t go to our heads, and we stay down to earth.
I keep telling myself to keep it real while things are growing at this fast pace. We’re always thinking about competition, how to build this business and how to keep it growing.
There’s a big difference to having a dream and having your products in over 80 countries. What were some of the fears and risks you faced when starting out?
Finding the right people has always been important. We’ve always tried to maintain a meritocracy in the business itself. The people we hire, they were not just in it for the money.
We try and make sure that most people are here because they want to do well, whether they are a designer or in marketing or an engineer. We try to create an environment that when you do better for the business, you do better for yourself.
You have a young team – what were your experiences of taking on leadership at a young age?
It’s hard to get people to take you seriously sometimes. Sometimes the people you meet in other businesses have years of experience and you worry that you’re not up to the mark.
Sometimes you have to excuse yourself – just say, "I’m young and I didn’t know that". The benefit of being young is that if you fall you can pick yourself back up.
This is the first time I’m starting a business so if I fail, that’s life, and I know that I was meant to learn these things.
Maybe if I started a business at 50 years of age, I may be more afraid, and so I would reduce risk. When I’m young, if I fall, I can pick myself up again.
The fear of failure is interesting. Failure is a key learning experience – where are some of those key learning experiences where you’ve learned from failure?
To be honest we’ve had a multitude of failures. It looks very sweet on the outside, but you fail multiple times on the inside. You might have chosen the wrong things for the business; we’ve had staff who have been dishonest.
We had a lot of fakes come onto the market six months after we started. Initially we started suing a lot of people, but after we sued a few people we realised the only person you’re really paying is your lawyer.
China is a very difficult market to work with. Sometimes you’ve got to take things with a pinch of salt over there.
After a while we realised we were doing it the wrong way – we were throwing so much money on the legal side.
What we should have done was pay our engineers more and get them to innovate even faster. And that’s what we learned: the way to work against counterfeits is to innovate even faster.
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