Ng Kian Chuan: “Pricing is not everything”

Pricing is not everything. Do not give in to the temptation of undercutting your competitors! Competition on the sole basis of price tends to end up in a price war which nobody wins. When marketing your talents to customers, factor in other considerations such as art direction, experience, niche, and service quality. As a part of […]

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Pricing is not everything. Do not give in to the temptation of undercutting your competitors! Competition on the sole basis of price tends to end up in a price war which nobody wins. When marketing your talents to customers, factor in other considerations such as art direction, experience, niche, and service quality.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ng Kian Chuan, better known as KC. KC is the General Manager of Collateral Damage Studios (CDS). CDS started out as an informal artist circle in Singapore that participated in the artist alleys of worldwide pop culture conventions. Over time, the circle became more well known, and KC saw an opportunity to develop the circle professionally. In 2013, KC and his illustrator friends took the chance to take the informal circle to the next stage. CDS was registered as a professional illustration studio and is now a leading art agency that provides opportunities for Singaporean artists. While his friends handle the creative side of the work, KC’s role is to keep the studio running smoothly for everyone within and outside of the team.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Well, I wanted to be a zoologist when I was much younger. However, as I entered my teens, I got involved in the anime subculture in Singapore. As an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS), I joined the NUS Comics and Animation Society and eventually became the chairperson. From there, I was exposed to the larger anime fan community in Singapore, meeting artists and making friends. Later, I joined CDS in an informal managerial capacity to help the artists manage their projects and market to their followers online. It was fun and enlightening to manage the artists’ work on the side of my day job. That got me interested in how I could be an art studio manager on a more professional basis and bring the circle to the next level so that the illustrators are able to make a proper living through their art.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

Professionalizing the team was something that we have considered before and I am fortunate that a number of artists within the circle were interested in the idea as well.

Rather than an ‘ah ha’ moment, the circle’s growth in popularity was closer to a gradual evolution as businesses started approaching us to draw for them. At some point, it became more than a hobby and a side hustle for me. I actually took a Diploma in Creative Entrepreneurship so that I could better understand the challenges ahead for the studio.

The big moment came for us when an attempt to go viral did better than we expected. Microsoft Singapore contacted us regarding the Internet Explorer character, Aizawa Inori, we designed and offered us the opportunity to take it to the next level. However, a requirement to working with such an MNC was that we had to be a registered company. It was too good an opportunity for us, so I left my day job to register the circle as a professional studio.

The rest is history. We have stuck around for the last five years and managed to establish ourselves as one of the leading art studios internationally.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

Singapore’s society is not known to be the most supportive of the creative and arts industry. So we understood right from the start that we will not be relying on local businesses as clients for the bulk of our revenue. Instead, we looked outwards almost immediately.

The Internet and globalization provides both opportunities and risks to our business of art. We are competing internationally with all the other artists who are equally talented and passionate about their work. To put ourselves ahead, we cannot afford to be hesitant about marketing and putting ourselves forward to our audience. We are always looking out for new opportunities and pursuing new leads aggressively to maintain our revenue stream.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

I think that there is no shame in keeping your hobby or pastime as such. Many talented artists have stuck to their day job or kept professional illustration as a side hustle.

But if you do feel the temptation to take that leap of faith and become a full time professional illustration (or run an art studio), then it’s better to do it when you are still young and full of energy! Even if you might not succeed in the end, at least you have given your best.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

I think that work-life balance is really important. If your life consists of work without leisure, you will eventually hit burnout point which will impact your creative thought process.

A fellow manager from another art studio once told me about how he burnt out after working 24/7 for so long. His words of advice to me (and now, mine to others) were that even though the illustration industry can be very demanding, it is important to take a break regularly and indulge in something else. That is something that I try to insist on for my colleagues as well. Weekends are weekends and unless there is some emergency, they should be resting or doing their own passion projects. Especially since that is when I won’t be looking over their shoulders!

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

There are some perks to being your own boss! Flexible working hours, meeting so many people in the pop culture community in Singapore and internationally, and getting to work on projects once in a while that are so exciting because you are essentially getting a sneak peek into what is going to come up in your favorite fandom.

I thought I hated sales until I ended up having to do it myself. It turned out to be a business activity that I quite like. I still get a thrill when I manage to connect with international brands and secure that new exciting project for my colleagues to work on.

All that said, there is a constant pressure on you since it is on you to deliver the livelihood for your colleagues. If there is ever a lull period that lasts too long and affects your cash flow, sometimes you will have to be the one to bite the bullet.

At the same time, if you are the only person handling administration, marketing, and sales, there is usually not enough time for everything. At some point, it makes sense to train someone who can act as your second-in-command. I’m still hoping to find the right person in the near future.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I certainly never expected ‘sweeping the office floor’ as part of my job description but it is something I have to do regularly.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One of the more meaningful projects we’ve worked on came about after we connected over Twitter with a client. .

Mr Huib Cornielje is the founder of Enablement, a nonprofit that helps disabled persons around the world through community-based rehabilitation and disability-inclusive development. He was looking for illustrators to work on artworks for an app his nonprofit is developing to educate users about disabilities.

It took a long while to convince them that we are the right studio to work with but we are grateful that they gave us the opportunity to work with them. Although the assignment was really different from what we’ve done so far, it was something new and meaningful.

I also managed to personally meet Huib himself when he did a brief stopover in Singapore!

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

They might be competitors but I really look up to the art studios within the region around us. Studios such as Gunship Revolution, LiK Studios, Caravan Studios, and Loka Made have a wealth of creative talent and an incredible portfolio of work. I respect them for being able to bring their studios to such great heights and I aspire for CDS to be as good as (or better than!) them in the future.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Although CDS is more of a professional art studio now, we still keep in touch with our roots within the fan artist community. In my position as a veteran in the scene, I try to organize the occasional workshop so that more veteran artists can share their knowledge and experience with younger, aspiring artists.

I also keep in touch with NUS Comics and Animation Society and continue to advise the students on matters related to the industry such as tips on running art competitions, and I connect them with potential art judges and sponsors.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Take the first step. Be proactive in establishing contact with potential clients and promoting your creative team. This helps to close deals and build relationships..
  2. Pricing is not everything. Do not give in to the temptation of undercutting your competitors! Competition on the sole basis of price tends to end up in a price war which nobody wins. When marketing your talents to customers, factor in other considerations such as art direction, experience, niche, and service quality.
  3. Know when to say ‘no’. Sometimes, you just have to accept your limits and learn to reject others. While it is tempting to accept everything that comes your way, over-stretching your own capabilities might end up compromising your own standards and result in something that no one likes. It is better to respectfully reject the opportunity and even refer them to others you trust.
  4. Get the right team. Your company is not about you but about your team. It is on you to put together the right team who can get the job done for the company. Do not rush to just hire everyone that comes your way. Instead, use interviews as opportunities to better understand your candidate and learn if they might be a fit for your team. For me, I like to put my potential hires through a couple of freelance projects first to get a better sense of their working attitudes and standards. Once I’m confident that they are right for the team, then I’ll consider the possibility of them joining the team on a more permanent basis.
  5. Always have fun. You must remember that your career is built upon the premises of your own passion. If what you do becomes like a chore, it’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate what you are doing. Also, nothing kills passion more than burn-out. So always be willing to take a break for yourself and for your company.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I just know that I am going to be so starstruck throughout but I would love to have lunch with Stephen Colbert. I was first introduced to Colbert Nation back in university when my political science tutor showed us the concept of “truthiness” through Colbert’s videos. I continued to follow him through The Colbert Report and now, The Late Show for his witty and humanistic take on the stories happening around us.

Mr Colbert, if you are reading this and if you ever visit Japan or Singapore for a Late Show special segment, commission us to draw an anime of yourself!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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