“If you asked me back then (2007) if mobile phones would be so prevalent, the way we use it today, I wouldn’t have predicted,” says Timothy Tiah, now the creator of Colony Co-Working, previously the co-founder of blog advertising company Nuffnang. “I would to portray that I am some visionary who predicted the future but I didn’t.”
Yet, Timothy is one of the few who were quick to tap into the digital world, receiving numerous entrepreneurial accolades over the past decade, including Emerging Entrepreneur at the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in 2015.
“I would like to portray that I am some visionary who predicted the future but I didn’t,” he says in a matter of fact manner. At the time he just thought it sounded pretty cool. His thinking was that if he could earn RM2k a month, which was what people were earning at the time, he would already be in a good position.
“I just did it and one thing led to another.” Nuffnang eventually became a global player with offices in Beijing, London and Melbourne. At its most simplistic, Nuffnang simply involved connecting bloggers and collectively approaching clients to pitch content.
“That’s the unsophisticated version,” he explains. “The sophisticated answer is that they were all content creators or journalists of the future and there was an opportunity to monetise them. That is literally the way I saw it.”
Ten years ago, he says, there was very limited blogging and online content. Setting yourself apart, was not difficult. Thus, it was quite easy to build oneself. The space, however, soon got pretty crowded. The emergence of social media added to this with channels like Facebook and Twitter providing a form of distribution for online content. The negative aspect of the emergence of online content is that it resulted in content becoming a commodity that consumers weren’t willing to pay for.
Now, he says, people have an aversion to paying for content because it is freely available. Timothy began the decade believing that “disruption” would take place and that traditional media would eventually be replaced: “I believed that more people would read news online and more journalists would actually come out and create their own whether it the form of blogs or other things. It did happen to some extent but not in the way I expected. I was sort of right, sort of wrong.”
Ironically while Timothy was at the forefront of all things digital, a decade later he has become somewhat skeptical about its influence. In the early days, he like many others went by adage, “content is king,” but today, it seems like that is not true. For example, he was accurate about the growth of digital online advertising but as it turned out, the budgets didn’t go to the content creators, instead it went to the distributors, the likes of Facebook and Google, leading him to conclude that “distribution is king.”: “There is so much more money in the market right now but so much harder to earn it.”
Timothy now finds himself in an industry that is polar opposites from Nuffnang. Last year, he ventured into the co-working arena, opening Colony, which recently unveiled its second location.
“The good thing about advertising is that it is intangible,” he explains. “Nobody can really say that your advertising product is better than mine because beyond numbers and reach, I can always spin something. But in a brick and mortar business, you can’t, what you are is what you are. People walk in, they see how they are treated, that’s what it is. You can’t fluff it to win.”
After being in the industry for ten years, Timothy suffered a sort of crisis of conscience, questioning the value of what he was doing. “What does a middleman in advertising do?” he asks. “You don’t really change anyone’s life. I wanted to create a product and my mission was to change the experience of the office and work.”
He has also developed a different perspective about technology. Now he finds himself constantly bombarded with information, resulting in him feeling like he has attention deficit disorder.
“I used to be able to read books and get very involved in a book that I lose track of time. I can’t remember the last time I had that feeling,” he says. “I watch shows set in the 1960s and 1970s and I think their life was pretty cool. If you set out to meet friends for a movie, if they were late you go ahead without them because you couldn’t contact them. Life was just simpler because development and technology have actually made humans sadder.”
But without technology, Timothy Tiah would have been just another wage-earner. “What’s wrong with that?” he quips. “Technology has made us feel pressure that we all need to be rich and successful. But the thing that makes people happy is the people they have in their lives. People make other people happy. As long as we have people around us, we will be happy.”
Photography by Kahmun Ho
Styling by Ibnu Aswan
Grooming by Joey Yap, Mavis Ow + Wanning