How Start-up TheSmartLocal Disrupted Lifestyle Publishing in Singapore

An interview with Bryan Choo, the Founder of TheSmartLocal.

Hidden in a corner of Towner Road is the headquarters of TheSmartLocal.

As one of the fastest rising online publications, their growth has been phenomenal since their inception in 2012.

Edutaining us with viral articles such as 16 Secret Things To Do At Changi Airport That Will Make You Want To Visit Early (16k shares) and 15 Spanking New Singapore Attractions That Opened Without You Knowing (34k shares), they’ve helped Singaporeans learn about the easter eggs in their own country.

At the same time, they’ve brought native advertising to Singapore, giving clients enormous marketing value for campaigns. Few will realise that those two articles above were actually advertisements they conceptualised for clients.

Founder & Managing Director Bryan Choo believes a measure of good advertising is when it does not feel like advertising to readers. Bryan bootstrapped his company from $0 to a multi-million annual revenue, in just 4 years.

TheSmartLocal has moved offices every year, starting in a tiny office space the size of 3 toilet cubicles to their latest office, a 7,500 sqft area that takes up the entire floor of the building. This will be their home for the next 6 years.

TheSmartLocal has played a significant part in disrupting the lifestyle publishing scene in Singapore. And paved the way for countless other online lifestyle sites, showing that it’s possible to be a large media company in Singapore – you just have to do it online:

 

1. Please share a bit about what you do

I started TheSmartLocal.com out of my bedroom about 4 years ago.

I used to do a bit of the writing, filming, photographing, tech and business aspects, but now I spend most of my time managing our team. I spearhead the content strategy in our editorial and video teams, working with some of the biggest brands in Singapore. We help them market messages to the over 3 million Singaporeans through a 360 holistic approach – through editorials on our website, social media, influencer marketing and video marketing (YouTube).

TheSmartLocal began as a TripAdvisor inspired site, by Singaporeans for Singaporeans. But along the way I realized it wasn’t working out. Unlike Westerners who like to vocalise their opinions, Singaporeans are more reserved when it comes to writing lifestyle reviews.

So we pivoted and turn into a publication instead. You can think of us as a digital version of what SPH/Mediacorp have in print. I like to describe TSL as a hyper-local travel and lifestyle publication for the social media generation. TheSmartLocal.com is our online portal and TSLTv is our official Youtube channel.

 

2. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was 16, I had dreams of becoming a professional Starcraft player. When I was studying, I was the WCG Singapore national champion 4 times in three different games and flew across the world representing Singapore in “eSports”.

 

3. What were you doing before starting this business?

Before The Smart Local, I started SC2Sea – a community gaming site dedicated to Starcraft. Traffic to the site was great and I hustled to get deals selling exclusive guides and merchandise.

Because Starcraft was popular then, everyday I’ll wake up with a good amount of passive income in EUROs and USD.

I also ran an events company for awhile, specialised in the gaming industry and have run events as head organiser for companies such as Alienware, Electronic Arts and Blizzard.

It was going really well but I realized I wanted to do something more constructive with my life that did not revolve around computer games. A change was needed so TSL was born. I never imagined we’ll grow so big, I thought we’ll be like a small 8 person thing and that was it.

 

4. How did the idea for your business come about?

I love using TripAdvisor but thought it was weird for foreigners to be telling the rest of the world where the best Laksa is.

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Something built from the inside would make more sense as locals know their country the best.

Hence The Smart Local – a hyper-local resource created for locals by locals – which foreigners can use too.

 

5. What sacrifices have you had to make to be a successful entrepreneur?

Things like sleep and various aspects of my personal life. All that went out of the window.

Fortunately, those sacrifices paid off and today, I’ve gained all of these back.

 

6. How did you get funded?

My e-commerce gaming website was doing well so it funded The Smart Local for the initial year.

Soon after, TSL became self sustaining as we started to achieve profitability. The moment we did, I opened a small 3-toilet-cubicle-sized-office and we squeezed 4 people inside it.

 

7. How do you go about marketing your business?

It’s fortunate for us publishers don’t have to market themselves a lot. Because every time an article of ours goes viral, it’s validation of our content creation ability and reach – the primary service we provide clients.

We didn’t even have a sales team till 2015 as clients were writing in to us all the time. In the publication business, ideation is extremely important. This is what separates us from the rest.

We don’t create content for the sake of it.

For example, it would be too easy to do a ‘Best Salted egg yolk guide in Singapore.’

For us, we would go a level further and do a list of 12 Unbelievable Salted Egg Dishes You Can Eat In Singapore, listing down the uncommon pairings you could fuse with salted egg yolk like waffles and lava cakes.

One of our first viral articles was a curated list of 52 Things to do in Singapore before you die.

We took a lot of extra effort to include items not found in any tourist books, that many Singaporeans would not have known about at that time, like stand-up paddling and visiting Farmart. These were based on personal experience and also because I helped co-write a book with a friend for the Korean market.  So I personally went down to a lot of these places to take photographs, etc.

I remember I wrote it through the night as I had to catch an early flight to Krabi the next day and couldn’t sleep. When I was in Krabi, the server kept crashing because the article went viral. So I had to reboot the server through my phone while on a boat island-hopping. I also remember being very awed by technology.

That article ended up getting us over 60,000 Facebook shares and more than a million direct pageviews. It also inspired a ton of copycat articles that ripped of our curation and research. So places that were no longer mainstream, are now kinda mainstream.

 

8. Could you describe your first sale and how it came about?

A PR company wanted us to cover an event and expected free editorial coverage.

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I told them to consider doing a video instead as the event was hard to market as a written piece. This is something I still advise clients today as some messages are expressed better visually.

I told them it took more time to produce so it’ll cost $X amount but they’ll get better coverage. They agreed. I couldn’t create videos as well as editorial stories, but I had time to learn and it was a simple point and shoot type of video.

So I taught myself filmmaking from YouTube and I did all the filming for our first clients. During that period, I always overcompensated by doing way more than I had to. This made me improve faster and clients were always pleased when we delivered more than expected.

6 months later, we set up a video team and it has grown to a size of over 12 people. Today, we have one of the top lifestyle YouTube channels in Singapore.

 

9. Describe/outline your typical work day?

A lot of my time is spent doing ideation for campaigns and replying to emails.

The rest of the time is spent communicating with the heads of our different departments and planning the strategic direction for our companies.

 

10. What has been your proudest moment in the history of your business and why?

I get a lot of satisfaction when readers say they enjoy our content.

I’m also especially happy when we manage to conceptualise clever content that’ll give our clients reach that is not possible with other publishers. And also when clients recognise this.

I’m also very proud of the team we’ve put together, they are extremely skilled in their areas of expertise.

 

11. What was the lowest point for you in this business?

When you have someone in your company turn toxic and you have to let them go. Start-ups are small and a single toxic person can negatively influence the whole company. Morale and production levels drop and it spreads quickly and the effects can last a long time.

While it may be easy to put the blame on the employee, I always feel partly responsible as I don’t think people turn toxic for no reason. I realised I can’t change people but I can learn to be a better manager and with the right management, you can prevent situations like that. And perhaps I can do a better job looking out for these signs during interviews by asking the right questions.

 

12. What’s your revenue numbers over the past year?

We made enough in 2015 to be GST registered ( > 1 mil) and this year we’ve more than doubled that amount.

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We have three main revenue streams:

  • Editorial – sponsored articles
  • Social Media – sponsored social media postings / videos
  • Video – sponsored Youtube content

13. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?

I am a fan of Tim Urban, Oliver Emberton and Devin Graham. They’ve all influenced me in some way. I like the way they make information so accessible and easy to understand for readers.

In terms of actual content creation, Buzzfeed is far and away our biggest influence.

 

14. If you could go back in time to speak to your 20-year-old self, what would you tell him?

I would tell him to do something more constructive with his spare time.

Such as building an online business in his free time instead of spending so much time playing computer games.

 

15. What’s the worst piece of advice you ever got?

It would be to give up equity early for investment.

It didn’t feel the amount was anything near what we were worth so thankfully, I didn’t listen.

 

16. What’s your business focus for this year?

To increase the readership of all our publications and to expand into different verticals.

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I am extremely happy with how Eatbook.sg is doing right now. We gained 15,000 Facebook followers organically just last month alone and I hope we hit 50,000 by the end of the year.

TSL aims to be the the digital version of SPH/Mediacorp for millennials. A new wave of publishers for a new generation.

 

17. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?

To use cloud-based digital post-it notes.

I used to use Evernote Sticky Notes but now I use Google Keep. Because Google. It seamlessly syncs your notes across different devices in the cloud.

 

18. Is there an app or tool you can’t live without?

Streak for email management.

streak

It is essentially a project management tool that organises your emails into different pipelines. You can also assign people to be in charge of certain pipelines, view emails that you’re not CCed in, postpone emails, use templates, etc.


Keen to learn more about Bryan?

Blog: http://www.iambryanchoo.com/

Email: bryan.choo@thesmartlocal.com

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.