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Building a billion dollar business from scratch—in Singapore

Zafar Anjum | June 9, 2015
This is the story of Derek Goh, Executive Chairman and CEO, Serial System—a poor Singaporean boy from a street hawker family who built a billion dollar company

"I told myself that I had to work hard to get promoted and to learn all the skills," he continues. "But after being in the navy for eight years, aside from acquiring the relevant knowledge and skills, I did not find it a suitable career for me."

Since he was only an 'O' Levels graduate, becoming an officer was very tough for him. He took a diploma course and could have proceeded to the officer course, but he needed to obtain formal recommendations. It was too much of a hassle for him.  

"When I was young, my ambition was to be a doctor - to save people's lives," he recalls. "My grades were quite good back then, up until when I had to help out my father at the stall as I had to work till nightfall, and I often fell asleep doing my homework."

"I was brought up in Old Airport Road where gang clashes were common. So my ambition changed: I wanted to be a policeman. But then I realized that being a policeman also meant being an employee and having to "apple polish" your employer, so I decided against it." ("Apple polish" is slang for toadying up to people.)

"In the end I became a businessman. I contemplated setting up my own stall with the skills I'd acquired at my father's stall. But the challenges were the long working hours - at minimum, I had to commit twelve hours. If you want to go big, then you have to deploy automation. But the question is: do you have the money? So I put this plan on hold."

While in the navy, Derek moonlighted as a part-time hawker and sold gift sets such as pens, watches and lighters to supplement his income. "On a good day, I could earn a couple of hundred dollars after just a few hours. I also helped my friend to sell drinks at East Coast Park - this earned me $30 to $50 for a few hours. I also sold ingots during CNY, as well as musical cards and roses during Valentine's Day. My wife is a florist so she introduced me to a wholesaler." (Derek previously bought from markets.)

"She suggested that I set up a flower shop. All it took was a van, shop and $30,000 capital to get the business started. We registered for a shop."

Soon after, he commenced operations of Serial System, which at that time was called Serial System Marketing, to deal with one or two customers who would give him a $20,000-$40,000 profit.

The flower shop was generally profitable - his monthly earnings ranged from $7,000 to $11,000. He used to go door-to-door to build contacts. He also delved into artificial flowers and learnt flower arrangement from his wife.


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