Here’s a tricky question for Patrick Grove: how long can he survive without access to the Internet? “I guess the litmus test is how quickly you turn your phone on after a flight once your plane lands,” says the Co-Founder and Group CEO of Catcha Group, raising an eyebrow at the prospect of not being tethered to a Wi-Fi or data connection. “Someone like me – I’m already turning it on as the plane’s descending or when we hit the runway! Before people stand up and grab their luggage, I’ll have caught up with everything and cleared all my messages.”
If anything, ploughing through traffic between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur on his way to this interview has reinforced his belief in how vital it is to stay connected. “I was stuck in a car for two hours more than I wanted to be, but I was still making calls and keeping busy. There was no downtime and things were constantly on the go. The velocity of information and its ability to flow so quickly is just incredible.” It’s a belief that stretches back to 1999, when the Singapore-born Australian entrepreneur formed the online search engine and portal network, Catcha.com. Now, however, coupled with the immense popularity of smartphones in the South-East Asian region, it’s created a business environment rich in tantalising opportunities that Grove has wasted no time diving into.
PUSH THE TEMPO
“My mission from the start has been to create a great company that goes global and disrupts the entire industry,” explains Grove, who operates from Catcha Group’s headquarters in Mid Valley City, while also making frequent stops around the wider region. And disrupt he has, right from the days of Catcha.com when he arrived on the dot-com scene as a driven, energetic newcomer with co-founders Ken Tsurumaru, Nic Lim and John Wong, ready to ride the Internet wave towards becoming the Yahoo.com of South-East Asia.
Even the subsequent puncturing of the dot-com bubble in 2000, which scuppered Catcha Group’s plans to list its business on the Singapore Exchange Limited, leaving it deep in debt with its operations in disarray, failed to deter Grove completely. Catcha Group dug its heels in, diversified into magazine publishing and, eventually, picked up the pieces within three years, repaying its debts and charting a course back into online media.
“As someone who’s always wanted to be an entrepreneur, I’ve also learnt that everything happens for a reason, and that reason leads you to another destiny. Accepting the fact that things happen is important, but turning them into lessons that will help you grow is crucial,” he affirms. “It took eight years of stumbles and pivots before Catcha Group nally found some measure of success. We tried everything – a free SMS service and even a dating service. There’s a list of things we tried, failed and completely messed up, but we learned so much. That’s key – learning from your mistakes and not letting it bring you down.”
Swiftly but steadily from 2006 onwards, the company began building up its stable of online companies, making considerable investments in its own ideas and those of like-minded entrepreneurs. A particular focus on online classifieds business saw the acquisition of the digital real estate network iProperty Group Limited, iCar Asia Limited – an ASEAN network of automotive portals encompassing car classifieds and content – and Ensogo Ltd, an Asian network of ash sales websites.
“You have to be fast,” insists Grove, who describes Catcha Group as ‘young, hungry, and disruptive’. “As we primarily focus on emerging markets, we tend to look for problems that are local to the market – a problem that is faced by citizens of that country. From there, we look at how we can address it by making it faster, cheaper and more efficient. That’s how we disrupt.” For him, time is clearly of the essence. “Hire fast, launch fast, start your market fast, decide on your brand fast. You cannot spend a lot of time pondering. You have to execute rapidly, make mistakes, learn and just keep iterating.
“When building a disruptive business, you should also be able to identify the problem that you are trying to solve. But disruption, in truth, means nothing if there is no execution. Many people suffer from what I call ‘paralysis of analysis’, where they spend too much time thinking about whether to go left or right. If you’re someone who makes decisions a lot, you have to get used to trusting your gut.”
Is that what it takes to become not just a dot-com survivor, but a succeeder – gut instinct? “And perseverance,” Grove adds firmly. “That innate ability to keep going when the end seems near, to never give up, to never stop, and to keep trying and trying until something finally works. Building and scaling a successful startup is a long and tumultuous journey, but it’s important to have fun and enjoy it. I love the journey and the struggle. I love hearing ‘no’ and sharing with people. You may fail at first, but keeping pushing, pivoting and trying to solve that problem.”
CATCH THE MOMENT
The most well-known feather in Catcha Group’s cap, iflix – an Internet TV service launched in 2015 – is currently available to over one billion consumers across 24 territories throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa, providing subscribers with unlimited access to a comprehensive variety of television series and movies. While the best of Hollywood’s offerings are only a click away, iflix’s strength lies in its diverse non-English language content from the Asian region (Korean dramas have proved particularly popular) and locally produced shows and films, which viewers can easily grasp and relate to.
Coupled with its low price point – RM10 per month in Malaysia versus Netflix’s RM33 subscription fee – iflix’s wide-reaching appeal now seems obvious but, according to Grove, raising an initial USD30 million of funding to get it o the ground was a valuable exercise in itself. “iflix had 115 rejections before somebody said yes, just as iProperty got 74 ‘nos’ before someone agreed to invest in it,” he recalls. “All you need is one person to say ‘yes’. Imagine if we had stopped after meeting 74 – that 75th meeting was essentially worth RM2.25 billion. So accept that people are going to say ‘no’, and keep pushing.”
The fruits of Grove’s determination are hardly limited to iflix. One of his most notable achievements over the past 14 years has been the fact that he’s taken five of the companies he founded from start-up to IPO, a feat he attributes to his strategy of the five Ps: pivot, problem, passion, people and perseverance. “Every successful digital company today is very different from when they first started out,” he says. “With the mindset that you should always be changing, growing and adapting, your business will evolve into a big, beautiful company.
“Pivot means having the courage to experiment, the audacity to test and try again if it doesn’t work, the courage to take a chance, and the ability to step out of your comfort zone and do things differently from everyone else. Keep pivoting and growing into different corners of the digital world.” An excellent example of this strategy has been iProperty Group Limited, which was publicly listed on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2007 before being acquired in 2015 by REA Group – part of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian conglomerate, News Corp – in a transaction valued in excess of USD534 million.
As one of the largest Internet exits in ASEAN history, the sale must have been particularly sweet for Grove. “Having grown iProperty from nothing to USD30.2 million revenue in seven years, selling it to REA Group was certainly not an easy decision,” he muses. “But, at the end of the day, it’s not about the buyouts – it’s the satisfaction of building a business that is focused on solving a problem by providing an effective solution.” Against a continued sense of urgency to gain as much dominance as possible in key emerging Asian markets, does Grove not feel he thrives on the excitement that comes from risk and unpredictability?
“Of course, being an entrepreneur means taking risks. You stake your reputation on an unproven idea and you could also sacrifice your paycheck for the first couple of months – maybe even a year. Taking risks is scary, no matter what the situation, but there’s also a great sense of fulfilment in doing something that people say you can’t do. It’s all about proving them wrong.”
PUMPED UP CLICKS
Fresh from the RM105 million sale of media startup Rev Asia to Media Prima in May last year, as well as a highly encouraging round of fundraising for iflix in August, which gathered an additional USD133 million from investors such as Hearst media group and EDBI (the corporate investment arm of the Singapore Economic Development Board), it looks like there’s more than enough fuel to fire Catcha Group and Grove’s engines through 2018. Besides, he can’t help but be excited about the possibilities waiting to be unleashed from one particular feature of the South-East Asian region.
“It’s people’s obsessions with their mobile phones!” he exclaims. “Previously, this part of the world was always considered a secondary, by-the-way market. We were at the bottom of any list of countries behind America, China, Japan, Korea and Russia. I think what’s interesting is that now, in South-East Asia, there are more smartphone users than in all of America or Europe. If you think about building an app like, say, Uber or Grab, we’re now one of the biggest regions in the world, as a block. We’ve gone from being at the bottom of the to-do list to quite high up in terms of where to allocate time, money, people and resources, and that’s one thing that really stands out.”
Ever one for increased connectivity, Grove was also instrumental in the launch of the Malaysian government’s Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ) in March 2017 – an interlocking system of virtual and physical zones developed with the aim of propelling the country’s digital economy and e-commerce industry. “The government asked me to share some ideas with Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Razak on how to grow an Internet economy, which the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation really liked as well. Everyone charged 100 miles an hour to make it happen, and I remember people in the government saying, ‘Wow, we’ve never seen the administration move so fast on a decision!’ It took me by complete surprise.”
With Catcha Group taking on the role of a strategic partner, it’s now responsible for developing Kuala Lumpur Internet City (KLIC) – the DFTZ’s first satellite services hub. “In relation to the digital economy, the Malaysian government is probably the most forward-thinking government in South-East Asia,” Grove remarks. “Silicon Valley, China, Dubai and Berlin are technology hubs, but in South-East Asia, no one was really putting a hand up and saying, ‘We want to be the technological centre of excellence for the digital generation.’ So, here’s a great opportunity for the Malaysian people and this economy to become the centre of innovation and digital technology in South-East Asia.”
Does it mean – with all this to keep him occupied – that Grove’s party days are over? (Catcha Group’s motto, incidentally, is ‘work hard, play hard’, which goes some way to explaining why it has a punchbag, pool table and bar in its office.) “By playing hard, it means whatever it is that you’re into, you should give 100 per cent,” he clarifies. “I don’t really party at all – for me, it’s very much a work hard, keep fi hard thing, so I’ll go jogging, meditate and play tennis four times a week. You should never be in a scenario where you have to tone down something you love because work is busy. I believe you can do both.”
To underline his point, he mentions that he’s just finished watching Medici: Masters of Florence on iflix (“I like being entertained and learning about history at the same time”), and even ended up purchasing a 700-page book on the Medici family. Really, it’s amazing that he’s got any time to read at all. “I think so too!” he laughs. And with that, he’s off to his next meeting – no doubt to stir up a little more disruption.
TEXT RENYI LIM
ART DIRECTION PENNY CHEW
PHOTOGRAPHY GERALD GOH / IMAGE ROM PHOTOGRAPHY
ASSISTANTS SAIFUL AZWAN & GEORGE CHONG
PRODUCTION SUPPORT METAL BEES
MAKEUP & HAIR ANGELINE LOW