Malaysian startup YouthsToday leverages corporate sponsorship to give students a better future
Every once in a while, you come across a startup that catches your attention. It can be their technology, the team, or the vision, but something about their story makes them stick out in your mind.
Meeting Jazz Tan, the founder and CEO of YouthsToday on a recent trip to Korea was just one of those times. Small in stature but big in personality and vitality, Tan comes to the startup field from a place of pain, bringing with her a desire to leave the world a little better than how she found it.
Growing up in Malaysia, Tan faced many difficulties, the least of which was that her father was involved in gang life. At the age of 14, the violence of the street caught up to him, and he was killed in the night by a rival group.
In grieving her father, Tan looked to understand what led him down his path, and how she could change it for herself and others in her situation. Her soul searching brought her to the realization that what was needed to keep young people away from a life of crime was the promise of a better future, where they could support themselves with well paying jobs.
According to recent reports, Malaysia’s unemployment numbers have hovered around 3.5% in recent years. This puts them on the low end of the spectrum globally, but has still hit students looking for full-time work fairly hard, Tan tells Geektime, saying that some half million young people are without proper employment.
While government-supported startups are a growing force in the economy, corporate brands are still a main driver of employment. Tan — like anyone who has been to university — believes that students are woefully unprepared for the job market after they graduate, and need a leg up if they want to get a position at big brands like Coca-Cola or others.
At the same time, she saw that brands were having a tough time reaching students on campuses, due in part to restrictions but also to a lack of authenticity. So even as they have the advertising dollars in hand for their regular kinds of campaigns, they know that they are falling short of where they could and should be.
Realizing that there were needs on both sides, in 2008 Tan decided to step up and take on the role of a social entrepreneur, and along the way, appears to have built up an impressive startup to boot.
During her time as a student, Tan identified a significant need on the part of her peers where brands could come in and play a positive role. Like campuses around the world, Malaysian students like to throw events on campus. Whether related to a specific club or cause, these events have an important place in student life. Unfortunately, funding for these events can be hard to come by, even after taking ticket sales into account.
Sensing the potential here, Tan’s solution to this problem was to offer the brands the opportunity to sponsor the event, giving them the chance to help out while getting their brand front and center in front of a hard to reach audience. These brands include companies spanning industries like food and beverage, electronics, telecom, banks, apps, and other services that are looking for university-age customers.
What started out as a localized initiative moved online in 2012, with Tan and her team rolling out their platform where students can connect with brands, manage their campaigns, and sell tickets.
Students who want to get their event sponsored can go to the platform to get matched with an appropriate brand. As a part of the application, they will check the requirements to see what they have to do to get sponsorship (ie. what kind of brand visibility like student brand ambassadors, banners or a sales booth), choose the brand that they want sponsorship from, state how much they want to receive for the event and then make the request.
Once approved and the funds are received, the campaign is run in part through the platform. This not only provides the students with a free and easy way to manage many of the logistics for their event, similar to Eventbrite, but also gives the brands a way to keep an eye on how their sponsorship is going.
Since the ticket sales to events are run on the platform and then scanned live at the event, the brands can know exactly how many people were in attendance, giving them a better sense of the amount of exposure that they received for their spend. At the end they receive an organized report from the platform, along with deliverables like Facebook data and pictures from the gathering.
This is important for the organizers as it allows them to build up a reputation on the platform and be more attractive to sponsors.
Tan adds that sometimes the sponsors can get even more concrete signs that the event was a smart move. She tells of a university event that was sponsored by Huawei, wherein the company reported to have sold 300 phones to attendees.
She makes the argument that sponsorship arrangements like her’s offer the brands a much better ROI on their marketing spend, bringing them more solid results with impressive targeting than say an internet banner or billboard campaign could achieve. This is due in part to the fact that it makes use of the students themselves to represent the brands. They act as authentic sounding voices for the brands, and actually carry out all the tasks associated with running the campaign.
It is in turning to the students that Tan’s real mission is served. By running the campaigns and interacting with the brands, the young people pick up valuable skills like marketing, communication, leadership, finance, and budget management that will make them increasingly marketable after they finish their degrees. Much like an internship, it gives them a proven track record of experience at getting things done that they show to future employers.
“Running these events and clubs in cooperation with the corporate sponsors helps to give them a sense of whether they want to go for a corporate job, or maybe even start their own thing,” Tan tells Geektime.
Tackling challenges along the way
Despite her drive to see these students succeed, Tan is well aware of the many challenges that both she and they face on this road ahead.
First and foremost for many of these students, she says, is their low levels of English. Speaking a good amount of English is required for working with a multinational corporation. Even as China becomes a bigger influence around the globe as well as in the region, English is still the language of business, and therefore something students need to focus more on, Tan says.
However her current barrier, like that of many startups, has to do with scaling. She explains that she is trying to balance her attention between her different divisions, working on how to get all of them to go at the same speed.
With a lean team of 12, five of which are her developers, expanding their workload while maintaining standards has been tricky. Add to this the fact that they are working with students, who at times can be less than dependable, and the obstacles to growth come quickly into focus.
A recent problem that she had was her sales department was selling too fast for the operations to keep up. Seemingly a rich woman’s problem, it had to be dealt with all the same. She says that she chose to slow down the sales and focused on creating standard operating procedures.
“We’re setting up structures to handle more sales in a more organized fashion,” says Tan, detailing their learning process.
Part of this effort is focusing on improving the product by working on automating the communication with a milestones feature that requires the students to update on their progress, and sends a message to the admin if they miss it. They are working at diversifying the risk to brands in case a student does not follow through on their tasks. If the student falls through, then the platform will search for other events on campus. This features which should be out in two months she says will help reduce 50% of their workload.
Tan is hopeful that by reducing their time spent on logistics, they can bring their services to more young people throughout the world.
Coming to Korea for growth
As a participant in the K-Startup Challenge that brought 40 companies to South Korea this past year, Tan hopes to grow her own personal network so that she can establish her company throughout the region.
As a trend setter both in brands and culture, the small South Korea has an outsized influence on the rest of Asia. K-pop music, movies and star-promoted cosmetics are major exports for the country alongside big electronic labels like Samsung and LG.
For a youth-centered startup like Tan’s that is capable of delivering a very desirable audience, becoming known in South Korea would appear as a no brainer.
But she is also here to learn. She says that coming from Malaysia, she hopes to learn from her time in South Korea, which she calls a developed country, how to become a global company.
Tan sees Southeast Asia as only the beginning. Thankfully, she is not alone. Having been bootstrapped, running as a profitable business over most of their history, Tan tells Geektime that this past April she took a $250,000 investment from Gobi Partners, an investor arm of Alibaba. While not a large sum of cash, she believes that it will help them reach their initial goals for expansion.
Upon first hearing about the YouthsToday concept, I experienced a variety of different initial reactions.
At first glance, I was less than thrilled that Tan’s choice of salvation was teaming up with brands. I understand that brands need to reach their audiences, and I don’t mind a bit of sponsorship. But for once in my life, I don’t mind having a “safe space” on campus, one where brands are left at the gate. It makes me happy that there is a system in place where the students have to make the requests to the school administration that the brand be allowed onto campus.
However, I understand that this is far from realistic, since ads follow us everywhere on our devices. Moreover, I see how the pros of having corporate sponsorship for otherwise under-funded clubs and basically on-the-job training that will give students an edge later in life.
Tan’s startup is as much a social venture as it is a business one. She tells Geektime that, “We make money to build better products,” wherein her product is the next generation. In a field where the drive is often just to churn out better reports to investors and raise the next round, YouthsToday is refreshing. But then maybe I’m just a sucker for a good social impact story. Both could be true.
However the organization and milestones that Tan and her team have reached hold a closer resemblance to a growing business. Whether or not they grow to a global scale is hard to tell, seeing as how their goals are running on a different set of metrics than your standard IT-related startup.
Does world domination for her mean that she has an office running in every region? Is it the number of futures made better by having been a part of her program? Is it the number of campaigns run or corporates that return to her for repeat business? I’m not quite sure.
Like any good teacher or NGO fighting poverty, she will always have more people that she could have helped. However that is not a matter of failure, and she will need to judge herself based on how she is able to manage the resources available to her.
Having spent an hour chatting with her at the K-Startup Challenge offices in Pangyo, a tech hub located on the outskirts of Seoul, I was left with little doubt that Tan saw no room for failure, and that her only course was towards success, leaving her mark so that others would know that it was indeed possible.