•  | Nov 07, 2013 09:27 AM

    Inspired by Silicon Valley

    TRENDS: Online marketplaces like eBay and Amazon took off in a big way in the US and around the world, tapping on the power of the Internet to make buying and selling as easy as clicking a mouse. A stint at California's innovation hub led Elisha Tan to set up hobby marketplace Learnemy.

    Elisha Tan is brutally frank about the realities of running a start-up. "I don't intend to get married soon because I can't afford it," she says.

    It is not a conventional life decision, but Ms Tan does not see herself as a conventional tech entrepreneur either.

    The 25-year-old has been single-handedly running Learnemy, a website that matches prospective hobbyists with skilled tutors in Singapore. Unlike most technopreneurs, however, she has a degree in psychology and only recently learnt to code.

    She says with a gutsy appraisal of her reality: "I'm a young female in a male-dominated field; so, if I'm discriminated against, I won't be able to tell if it's because I'm young, or because I'm female."

    Ms Tan: Cuts down on overheads by working out of her bedroom in her parents’ flat, and using the free meeting rooms on the rooftop of *SCAPE. PHOTO: ARTHUR LEE

    She started Learnemy – which combines the words "Learn" and "Academy" – in 2011, just a year after graduating from her three-year course at the National University of Singapore. She had worked on and off in small local social media consultancies, but was always uneasy over not being her own boss. "I couldn't live on someone else's dream," she says.

    Her decision to take the entrepreneur route was solidified after a five-month stint in 2010 at Silicon Valley start-up accelerator Founder Institute.

    Says Ms Tan: "I was the first female from Singapore to ever graduate from the programme."

    As part of the course, she was asked to come up with a viable concept for a start-up. That was when she first had the idea of an online community where people could find like-minded folks to teach them anything from baking to tennis.

    Ms Tan incorporated the business in late 2010, and charges tutors a 20 per cent commission. "I want a system that will let people make a living doing what they like," she said.

    The biggest barrier, she says, was her lack of experience. Her time at Founder Institute helped, as did learning programming languages like HTML, CSS, and Ruby on Rails from Singapore's programmer community. But, even then, the road to Learnemy's official launch last April was long and beset with errors.

    When Ms Tan quit her job in July 2011 to make Learnemy a full-time project, the website's homepage was "very bare-bones" and only contained a webform to collect the particulars of interested students. She quickly received about 60 enquiries, which reassured her that there was enough demand for Learnemy.

    However, Ms Tan failed to engage her site's subscribers with relevant marketing updates, so by the time the site was launched a year later, "people basically forgot about Learnemy".

    She says other rookie mistakes she made included overloading her website with unnecessary features.

    For example, she redirected foreign Web traffic to another web page, and only later realised that she could have saved the money by simply stating more prominently that Learnemy services are only for students currently residing in Singapore.

    When outsourcing the building of her website, Ms Tan also spent extensive amounts of money cleaning up the code running in the background – arguably, an unnecessary task that did not improve how the site functions.

    "I blew about $10,000 on these type of mistakes," Ms Tan says candidly.

    In the first three months after she launched Learnemy, Ms Tan saw a grand total of four students sign up. Feeling as though she ought to do something drastic, and wanting to "learn from the best", she returned to Silicon Valley, where she met start-up celebrities such as dating site Match.com's co-founder Will Bunker.

    "Silicon Valley people dream big," Ms Tan enthuses, when asked to share what she learnt from her visit. "They dream really, really big."

    She came back to Singapore in August 2012 with new ideas for her website. More importantly, she developed a greater willingness to play with and test out multiple ideas, rather than stick to a single strategy.

    Government and family support helped, Ms Tan says. SPRING Singapore's now-defunct Young Entrepreneur Scheme for Startups used to hand out $4 for every $1 of capital raised, up to a maximum of $50,000. Ms Tan's successful grant application was made possible by a $12,500 loan from her mother.

    She also cut down on overheads by working out of her bedroom in her parents' flat, and uses the free meeting rooms on the rooftop of *SCAPE if she needs office space.

    "The thing about working at home and being a sole founder is accountability," Ms Tan concedes with a laugh. "Self-discipline is a big problem for me." After having some trouble settling into a routine, she now sticks to a schedule of working from noon to 10pm.

    Now, she has 1,800 users and has accomplished more than 450 match-ups with tutors. Her users tend to be working adults aged 25 to 35.

    The money is trickling in only now, and Ms Tan makes quick bucks on the side by teaching classes about her entrepreneur experience through her own site. She says she's had to make sacrifices in her personal life – less dining out, less overseas travel, and, of course, the moratorium on wedding plans.

    Nonetheless, she remains confident. She argues that start-ups that are famous now took at least three years to make good. Learnemy, at one and a half years, is only at the midway point on the roadmap to the bank.

    Says a serious Ms Tan: "I would give up on Learnemy only if I were convinced it wouldn't work."

    Ms Tan says there are no expansion plans in the works, though she has some basic ideas. Learnemy could grow beyond the Singapore market by introducing online classes or by offering offline classes in neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia. And after having flown solo for two years, she is on the hunt for a co-founder with whom she can discuss ideas.

    Mistakes and sacrifices aside, Ms Tan holds firm that "it's a blessing to be able to have my own start-up". She says she values her independence, and is motivated by an intense fear of dying before achieving something original.

    "My fear motivates me to think about life and the kind of life I want to live," she says, before asking rhetorically: "Where else would I spend my youth?"

    The Business Times


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