If there’s one life lesson Joseph Phua learnt and quickly applied, it’s letting go. In June, he relinquished his role as group CEO at M17 Entertainment Group, the live-streaming platform he’d led for more than seven years.
With a presence across Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and Hong Kong, among other regions, its 17 app was among South-east Asia’s leading revenue spinners last year, according to mobile app analyst Sensor Tower. Backed by a recent Series D funding of US$26.3 million ($36.2 million), M17 is poised to consolidate its growth in Japan, as well as expand to new markets such as the US and Middle East.
Phua says he started contemplating stepping down during a holiday last December with his wife and two sons. “It was the first time we’d gone on a holiday together since my elder son was born more than four years ago, and I realised it made me feel good. That day he was delivered, I was by my wife’s hospital bed trying to raise funds for the company. One-and-a-half years ago, I did the same — this time in the bathroom — when my younger son arrived,” he shares.
After returning to Taipei, where he’s been based since 2018, and realising that “everything was okay, the company didn’t burn down”, he decided to push to see “how far I could get away with”. He adds: “So we went away again to Sydney, Turkey, Singapore, then the UK. I was practically planning my holidays for the rest of 2020!”
By the time Covid-19 struck, he’d convinced his Japan CEO Hirofumi Ono to step up. “I’d taken the company as far as I could. But now that I wanted to focus on my family, I felt he would be the best person to take us through to the next 10 years,” says Phua. “Eventually I had to spend a month calling all the shareholders and explaining to them why I no longer wanted to be group CEO.”
In his current role as non-executive chairman, Phua focuses on shareholder interests and doesn’t interfere with the company’s daily operations. While he used to “push things to the extreme and want to do everything myself”, he now wants to be content with being “a shareholder and do stuff for fun”.
Phua faced his fair share of challenges during his time at the top. Even over a Zoom interview, his sprightly demeanour betrays a slight wince when we mention the botched IPO in June 2018. M17 cancelled its listing on the same day it was supposed to begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange, citing “issues related to the settlement of shares”.
He pauses so very often at this point of the interview as he tries to describe how painful those 108 hours were for him. “Basically, we were inexperienced. We wanted to do it in record time; we didn’t notice the red flags until it was too late. Everything that could go wrong went wrong… My family was there with me in Chicago and we were supposed to go on a city tour but I was in no mood. I had to make that decision simply because I had no other choice… I didn’t want to destroy the company. I deleted my social media and turned off all notifications to prevent myself from feeling even more upset. I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I thought I could pretend it was just a nightmare! And I procrastinated going home. I couldn’t face my team.”
Mistakes like this, he says, have made him more effective as a leader. M17 not only managed to bounce back from the “sh**** situation”, but it even became the top live-streaming platform in Japan with a growth of 40 percent that same year. By May 2019, revenue had jumped by 70 percent from the year before for the company.
“To be able to pull the company out of it, and prove to everyone that it was right to keep believing in us — that’s what made the experience worthwhile for me.”
For now, Phua is relishing the mental challenge of working on multiple projects “in a small capacity”. He says with a laugh: “No way am I going to run another business for seven years!”
This is part of our series on Rising Above Adversity. For the full story, click here.
The story first appeared in the October issue of A Magazine.