Dr Mazlan Abbas is currently the co-founder and CEO of a startup company, FAVORIOT Sdn Bhd. He has worked in the ICT industry for more than 30 years. He was an academician at University Technology Malaysia for 10 years in the areas of communication and engineering. He then joined Celcom for the next 11 years, working in various positions from R&D, billing operations, network management, technology and technical management. From Celcom, he left to join MIMOS where he was part of the R&D agency, working with Wireless Communications Clusters. He worked in MIMOS for 8 years before leaving to join REDtone to build a subsidiary business called REDtone IOT. There his focus was on the Internet of Things (IoT) and Smart City. After 2 years he left to set up his own startup, FAVORIOT.
What inspired you to enter your field?
I have always been attracted to technology. As a child I enjoyed science fiction themed movies with robots and technology. My ambition at the time was to be a scientist. I am not a scientist but I have been working in the technology area for many years. My career moved from academics to the technology and telecommunication sector. Both telecommunications and R&D are fast moving industries. I love areas in which technological change is fast paced, where I have the opportunity to innovate and create new things. Our company is based on a vision to improve the daily lives of the society. It is from this vision that we came up with Raqib, a remote that monitors the safety and health of senior citizens. This is especially useful to the elderly who live alone. It is one of the first projects and we feel it will be beneficial to senior citizens. I got involved as an entrepreneur knowing that we can make a difference in people’s lives.
Does that mean you are a scientist?
A scientist means different things to different people. Yes, I would say that I have invented patents and developed in my field. That was during the early days of my career when I was more theoretically focused. As of now, I prefer working with more tangible things and much less with theory and algorithms.
How do you balance your personal and professional life?
It is not easy being an entrepreneur because there are a lot of things you need to sacrifice. Some people say that you should not bring work home or not think about anything related to work related at home. As an entrepreneur this can be difficult, there is always something to think about even while you carry out daily tasks like eating and spending time with your family at home. There are always problems in the back of my mind that need solving. Sometimes I have to sacrifice my holiday plans with the children and wife. Even then, I try to make it a point to limit my duties to my working hours. My job scope requires me to interact with customers. So past working hours are usually time spent with the family. I do have time with them especially on the weekends. So that is how you balance your life.
I might not have all the ideas, creativity and technology to build these products so I need younger people who are more creative and optimistic. … We need that spirit and motivation to build something new. Having that combination is important to building up a business.
What would you say to aspiring entrepreneurs and how might they prepare themselves?
There are young and old entrepreneurs, I would consider myself the latter. An old entrepreneur doesn’t mean an experienced entrepreneur. I have been in the industry for many years but when you start your own business it is different because you are on your own. I was fortunate to have the accumulated experience in corporate work which I used to build the business. I have the network, the presence and the brand to put myself in a good position in the market. I might not have all the ideas, creativity and technology to build these products so I need younger people who are more creative and optimistic. People like us who are so experienced tend to be pessimistic. We need younger people who think that anything is possible. We need that spirit and motivation to build something new. Having that combination is important to building up a business. In my organisation we have three people who are experienced in the field and four younger people who I feel are more creative, motivated and have the energy to build new things.
What do you think is a misperception that the general public has about your job or aspects of your job that people are not aware of?
People don’t understand what the Internet of Things can do. People think that this is a new form of technology. It is not new, it has been in the market since 1999. Only 5 years ago we were looking into the Internet of Things in Malaysia. Just last year it became a hot topic in Malaysia. In these early stages of business there is some difficulty in getting customers to understand what the Internet of Things can do. We need to educate them first. They need to understand what it is before they ask what FAVORIOT can offer them. Only then we will be able to attract their attention, getting them to commit and meet their requirements. That is what we are seeing now, more and more people have shown interest in the last few years.
As a co-founder and CEO I have more freedom to build my own vision and help people in my organisation without the hassle of bureaucracy. I think the best part is that you are able to act on passion and vision, seeing them come to life.
How would you explain the difference between IOT and the internet as we know it?
Sometimes people don’t realise that what they have in their hands is an IOT device. So we need to explain the components itself to get people to understand what IOT is. IOT has senses, connectivity and communication, platform and applications. For example, your phone has all the senses, the proximity, the GPS and the camera. It has connectivity, the way it sends your data out using 4G or 3G networks. This data is sent out into a platform. The platform is like a cloud which aggregates all the data and stored it. An application is built from the data collected, Uber and Grab are examples. From these applications you see a tiny car moving about your screen, it is not the movement of the car that is being tracked but the movement of the phone. When you reach a certain destination it sends you signals so that you can be notified accordingly. So an IOT device has the ability to communicate with other devices. Some other examples are being able to control the temperature of a room via connectivity to the air-conditioning or monitoring movements in house and offices, and even monitoring electricity consumption with the use of electrical sensors that allow you to switch it on and off at any time.
What is the most enjoyable thing to do as an entrepreneur?
Freedom, as a co-founder and CEO I have more freedom to build my own vision and help people in my organisation without the hassle of bureaucracy. I think the best part is that you are able to act on passion and vision, seeing them come to life. We are not confined to a set schedule so we can plan our day as we see fit.
One of the biggest challenges is when you have a product out and the market does not accept the product or you have difficulties in selling the product. This is the biggest challenge of any Startup.
How would you describe your teams’ culture and is it better than you envisioned in the start?
I believe that to work well in an organisation you must be happy to come to work, you shouldn’t feel like you are dragging your feet into the office. So we try to ensure that the environment is a fun place to cultivate teamwork. This aids in understanding each others strengths and weaknesses which allows members of a team to leverage their strengths to help others and seek support when needed. We also encourage creativity and try our best to not stifle the creativity of the staff. In our organisation we employ both men and women, as well as younger people and older individuals. We feel that it is essential to build an organisation that is inclusive of a diverse group of people. I think the most important thing is for people to be happy to come to work and to strive to work together to achieve our collective vision.
What are some of the typical challenges that entrepreneurs face?
One of the biggest challenges is when you have a product out and the market does not accept the product or you have difficulties in selling the product. This is the biggest challenge of any Startup. Building the product is one thing but getting market acceptance is another thing. We have learnt this the hard way. So what we are doing is, while we build the product, we work on gaining product acceptance from an early stage. We try to make sure that people are eagerly waiting for our next product. We used this strategy on our latest product, the product is still cooking but people have already signed up, they want to use the product. That is what you want. We have to make sure that the expectation is right, so that the customers that have signed up for a product are well informed about the latest features of our new product. So we are not promising them something that we cannot deliver.
In terms of building a product in a Startup, you have to build it in an agile manner, so you don’t build a product that is 100% complete and launch it after two years. No, you launch Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) quickly and learn from customer feedback and improve on in accordingly. You need to measure the success and rebuild it again or enhance the features of the product. We strive to continuously improve the product. In that way you don’t have to wait for 2 years to get your product in the hands of customers. Our mistake was that we wanted to develop a good product but we also needed the market, an early acceptance, even before the product has matured.
Ideas are one thing, anyone can have ideas but sometimes the most difficult part for young entrepreneurs is the funding… Younger entrepreneurs should work closely with organisations that can provide funding, seeding money.
A lot of young people aspire to be entrepreneurs as their first job, what do you think of this and what advice would you give them?
Ideas are one thing, anyone can have ideas but sometimes the most difficult part for young entrepreneurs is the funding. They have the ideas and energy but they don’t have the funds to start off with. People like us who are already experienced in the job and have savings, start off with our savings. Younger entrepreneurs should work closely with organisations that can provide funding, seeding money. Work closely with organisations like MaGIC or CRADLE who can support you. You must have a prototype to prove that your idea has potential in order to be awarded seeding funds. In Malaysia there are so many different organisations that can support your idea, some support you during the initial stages of building the product while others support you financially once your product is completed. If you are a person focused on the business aspects of an organisation and you don’t have the technical know how but you want to build a technical Startup you must find the right CTO, the right co-founder that can support the technical aspects. This is a good combination to have in building a company, you can’t do it alone or without either aspect. Building a connection and finding the right co-founder is also very important, it is like a marriage.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
A Unicorn, a one billion dollar company, something that every entrepreneur would love to be at that stage when you can make your company an IPO or you can get someone to acquire you. We need to do many things in 5 years because we believe our next product will change our future prospects. This involves the new sector of travel and tourism which is one of the biggest markets.
There has been a lot of controversy about AI replacing jobs, what are your thoughts on this?
Al can be built into a robot or into a computer so it depends where you feel AI is going to be embedded. A lot of people feel that if AI is being embedded into robots, it can replace a lot of jobs. A robot that has more strength than a human will replace the human’s jobs. There are certain jobs that AI and robots can’t replace, jobs that require creativity and emotion, in this sense AI cannot duplicate the emotions of humans. So jobs like designing, engineering and medical practitioners are not at high risk. Any repetitive jobs, where robots can go into dangerous areas are likely to replace humans. Customer service is another likely field to be replaced because AI can answer repetitive questions easily. In order to avoid becoming obsolete, you have to look into jobs which can support AI. Which is why people designing robots now call it co-bots, collaborative robots, the robot’s functions are limited so it needs to be operated by humans.
Would you consider using robots in your company?
Not now but maybe in the future, if you work in the tourism industry you might have a robot that becomes a tourist guide that can help you in identifying and explaining objects or places because it is a very repetitive sort of thing.
Are there currently gaps in the market that you perceive and if so what are they and how do you think they can be filled?
That is a million dollar question because if you can identify gaps, entrepreneurs find those gaps and try to reduce it with their own solutions. Everyone is trying to find that gap. I can’t tell you but there are many gaps in the market. Whether those gaps appeal to a big market is something that a lot of entrepreneurs need to find out by themselves. You can try at an early stage by trying to solve an existing problem but you might not get that sustainable model to maintain the solution or the product for a very long time. It is the same for us, where we identified the gap and thought we could appeal to a certain market but it is still a very small market. It solves a certain problem but the market is not big enough so that is why we need to quickly identify ways to change this, we need to change our strategy.
Learn as much as possible about the new technologies before the start of the fourth industrial revolution. 5 years down the road we will see new jobs which we have not heard of. That fundamental aspect of the new technology will be the foundation of your new job.
Any last words to the readers?
Jobs that exist today did not exist in the last 5 years. I think no one knew that someone could become a social influencer, youtubers, Tik Tok famous or an Instagramer, these are the new jobs that social media has created. Due to current pandemic COVID-19, you will see jobs being created by technologies like blockchain, IOT, robotics and drones. You will see that jobs that never existed, we might have jobs like drone pilots. Our IOT jobs were not in existence in the last 5 years, if you look at LinkedIn there are no jobs called IOT engineer, IOT software developer, IOT architect, there were none but there is now a market for these jobs. My advice to the younger generation is to learn as much as possible about the new technologies before the start of the fourth industrial revolution. 5 years down the road we will see new jobs which we have not heard of. That fundamental aspect of the new technology will be the foundation of your new job. So learn as much as possible while you are in the education system but even while you are working you still need to learn more because things are moving along very fast. Technology drives the future but the steering of this new technology depends on you.