Born in a small mining town south of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Kengyew Tham traveled all the way to the United States to attend Michigan State University. After college, he spent five years in Silicon Valley working at startups – a fantasy for some of his fellow countrymen.
“People here speak of Silicon Valley like it’s some sort of utopia,” he explained – like “if I go there, I can work for Google and I can do amazing things.”
That vision was true, but he found out the other side of the story. “Whatever your dreams are for working for Google, so do 100 million other people [have those dreams], which means that it is extremely competitive,” says Tham. “It was a very good chance for me to measure myself against the best in the world.”
Tham realized that intelligence was not enough; in fact, intelligence was commonplace. What fueled the icons of Silicon Valley was character, personality, and passion.
“All the way throughout college, I pretty much thought I was a hotshot. All the way until I got to the Bay Area. Everyone else was a hotshot,” he recalls.
So when Tham contemplated starting his own company – inspired by his grandfather, who sold weapons to the British during WWII – he decided to take the easier path and move back to Malaysia, where he would have less competition and a better shot at government grants.
His startup, SocialWalk, started in 2009 as a networking platform around events and has since evolved into a specialized matching service for buyers and sellers at industry trade shows. (“We’re getting into boring stuff here,” Tham joked during our interview.) He attends events in China, India, and Southeast Asia, and he’s learned to lead a business – that is, after “running around like a headless chicken” for the first year.
He has also learned the realities of startup life. “What they don’t teach you is how you’re responsible for other people,” says Tham, who now has 20 employees. “My moves, my decisions impact them.”
Now, SocialWalk is considering expanding to the US market. It will be very competitive, but it’s a chance to quickly see if your product will sink or swim. And if it ever comes down to it, Tham would be more confident working in Silicon Valley now. “I’m not a nobody anymore,” he says.