The future of work
JustCo chief commercial officer Kong Wan Long sees opportunities worldwide for the company's innovative approach to working space.
Co-working was a little-known concept when JustCo began developing innovative office spaces nine years ago in Singapore. But now it's here to stay, says Kong Wan Long, who is on a mission to make his company a global player in the field alongside the likes of IWC and WeWork.
With more than 40 co-working centres in seven countries in Asia Pacific, JustCo has attracted clients of all sizes, from multinational corporations and Fortune 500 names to small and medium enterprises and startups.
In early March, the company unveiled a new centre that occupies six out of 31 floors of Mitrtown Office Tower on Rama IV Road in Bangkok. The centre boasted 50% occupancy even before the grand opening. Later this year, another centre is scheduled to open on the fifth floor of Amarin Plaza.
On the occasion of the Mitrtown grand opening, Mr Kong, the 36-year-old entrepreneur sat down with Asia Focus to discuss his mission and motivation.
The affable and easygoing co-founder and chief commercial officer of JustCo was wearing a casual outfit in the tradition of Silicon Valley executives: company T-shirt and jeans, which reflects the essence the JustCo brand.
A low-profile and reserved man, Mr Kong admits it's hard for him to answer questions that are not business-related -- not out of any desire for secrecy, but simply that he never really has "the time to think about them".
If anyone tries to get a glimpse of his personal life online, he says, they will find endless articles about his wife -- high-profile fashion designer and bridal boutique owner Jessicacindy Hartono -- but not much on him. "I guess it's just that I'm always busy thinking about business," he says. This personal assessment rings true because he's never at a loss for words when discussing his business life. Mr Kong has always had a love for business, attributing his passion to his entrepreneurial parents, who instilled the work and business ethics that still guide him today.
Most people think of him as a Singaporean although his roots are in Malaysia, where his father ran a textile business supplying the likes of Adidas, Nike and Reebok. The family sent young Wan Long to Singapore for secondary education to improve his English. He went on to pursue a degree in accountancy at the University of Southern California.
The JustCo founding braintrust is in fact a family affair, with Mr Kong's brother Wan Sing serving as CEO, while Wan Sing's wife Lu Liu -- the couple met at New York University's Stern School of Business -- is chief operating officer.
But the company also has solid financial backing from some heavy hitters including the Singapore investment fund GIC and Frasers Property, controlled by Thai billionaire Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi. The Thai developer Sansiri Plc also invested S$12 million in 2017.
The trio's business journey began when the Kong brothers' father sold his textile business in Malaysia and invested the cash in property. He wanted help developing and managing the property and enlisted Wan Sing, who was happy to quit his accounting job and try something new.
Wan Sing subsequently joined Mapletree Investments, the property arm of the Singapore sovereign fund Temasek. One property niche that interested him was business centres operated by companies such as Regus. He felt that flexible workplaces had great potential but needed more of a "human touch". With $5 million in seed financing from his family, he got together with his wife and brother to start JustCo.
Mr Kong at the time was working in private equity in Singapore and was keen to pursue something different. He attributes his adaptability and sense of adventure to the experience of living abroad, which he says provided invaluable experience that shaped his mindset.
Without that experience, he reflects, he might not have become the type of person who dares to create things.
"Living in one country creates a comfort zone, but a new environment enables you step out of your comfort zone and become adaptable and adventurous," he says. Learning to adapt is critical, he adds, "because there is always a chance that you will not do well in the new environment".
The experience of living in California, coupled with an Asian upbringing, generated a push and pull of western and eastern values which influenced his way of thinking. This has made Mr Kong a person who likes to take calculated risks, an approach that has played a crucial role in the success of JustCo.
"It's about striking a good balance," he says, while stressing that "winning has to always outweigh the losing".
Mr Kong was heavily influenced by his father, who once told him: "If you want to make money, become a doctor or a civil servant. But if it's the big money you're after, start your own business." He knew early on that he wanted to be his own boss, but he had to wait for the right timing.
"Sometimes you have the passion, but it doesn't mean you can just start something right away. It's good to learn from someone," he says.
That's why, when he first returned to Singapore after spending five years in California, he joined a German private equity company, which has since closed, to get real-world experience. But one thing was missing.
"Because I was working for others, I didn't have the ownership and self-satisfaction that I receive from running my own business."
Consequently, when he and his brother started their company, they made it their mission to give their employees ownership in any roles they are in.
"Without ownership, no one can do good work," he says. "Therefore, the staff have to feel that they have ownership; otherwise the company will not grow."
These days, says Mr Kong, embracing innovation and technology is the key to success for every organisation. JustCo is shaping the "future of work" by creating smart digital workplaces to enhance experiences and encourage collaboration among its members.
Three tools -- smart space planning, the JustCo App and a digital payment gateway -- allow the company to continually redefine and enhance the workspace experience, he told a digital transformation forum in Bangkok last year.
When it comes to space planning, data analysis can be used to track and evaluate how often and how effectively spaces are being used. This allows the JustCo team to design better spaces to enhance productivity and collaboration.
The JustCo app, meanwhile, is a virtual passport that gives members seamless access to any regional centres, allowing them to book resources, sign up for exclusive events, enjoy members-only perks, receive community news, submit and track service requests. They can also build their presence in the JustCo regional network with personalised business profiles and match themselves with potential customers.
The digital payment gateway allows for payments to be made through an online system without going through the hassle of phone calls, sending emails, or personally visiting JustCo centres.
In addition to ownership and innovation, localisation is ingrained deeply in the DNA of JustCo. For Mr Kong, the co-working business today is about collaboration, community and developing relationships within the community, and that starts internally.
To effectively manage its 40 centres across big cities in Asia Pacific, JustCo needs talented people who deeply understand the community in each market.
The local general manager acts as the chief operator in each country and is entrusted with authority and trust from the senior executive team in Singapore.
This trust, Mr Kong, says, is at the heart of the success of JustCo's expansion. He hand-picks every one of the general managers, not because he likes to micromanage, but to make sure that the person is right for the job.
During the recruitment process, he spends a lot of time trying to make sure that the person he is hiring will be able to improve the business by incorporating their understanding of the cultural and social nuances of their home country.
For example, he spent nine months persuading Wimolnit Lertpitakkit, a former Thailand director for the serviced office operator Regus (now renamed IWC), to join JustCo. He saw her as a visionary who recognised that co-working is the future of work, but more importantly, she had the right chemistry that resonates with what JustCo is all about.
"So far, Our GM turnover has been zero since we started our expansion," he says. "It takes a lot of trust. But we trust their judgement."
Once he is sure that he has made the right choice, he places his trust in the GM to localise and grow the business based on the local market perspective.
"Everything has to be local. We don't want to cookie-cut," he says. "For example, in Thailand, I encourage the GM to be bold -- to create things, to make mistakes. If you don't make mistakes, you don't get to learn. Therefore, it's okay to make mistakes."
While the experience is localised, it must still be up to JustCo's standards.
"When we go overseas, we have a strategy called 'same same but different'," says Mr Kong. "Same in the sense that our services and some aspects of the design are consistent, while the difference is the 20 or 30% that needs to be localised."
Mr Kong, who is described by his peers as an "easygoing and open" executive, will then work hand-in-hand with the GM in a way that he describes as "professional casual". This implies a healthy professional relationship while also acknowledging the personal side of each employee, bearing in mind that their human needs and well-being need to be fulfilled as well.
"[We need to] open up to each other and be proactive in the way we communicate," he says. "We have to understand each other's life. I have to understand the personal aspects of my GM's life as well.
"At times I may ask them to sacrifice a bit of work for their personal life, or vice versa. This is a long-term relationship and we need to make sure that we are human at the heart."
Therefore, it's all about striking the right balance between personal and professional life to make the contribution to work meaningful and mutually beneficial for both employer and employee.
Constantly looking for ideas to improve his business, Mr Kong loves to travel by foot when he visits a country. That way, he is better able to pick up on social and cultural nuances and come up with new insights or inspirations that could be used to improve his business.
"You never experience a country unless you set your foot on the walkway," he says. "When I visit a city, I never use public transport. I need to walk around and observe people and understand the culture -- to smell, see and touch."
Another thing that he is passionate about is making sure that he can change the image of co-working, making the public realise that it is in fact a sustainable business. "I want to ensure that co-working is here to stay and that it will enable people to work better."
Now that JustCo has become one of Asia Pacific's leading premium flexible workspace providers, it is setting its sights on the wider world.
Financially, it is well equipped for a global push once the economy recovers from the savage impact of the current Covid-19 pandemic.
With the backing of GIC and others, the company is now present in seven markets across Asia Pacific. A new strategic partnership with the Japanese real estate company Daito Trust calls for US$74 million to be invested in Japan, its eighth market. JustCo plans to open seven to nine centres in Tokyo in the next two years.
In short, there will be lots of new challenges to keep Mr Kong busy, which is the way he likes it. He prefers to look forward and is not the sort to think very much about things he regrets.
Pressed to come up with one mistake in life, he takes a while before responding: not starting the company earlier. "The earlier you start something, the more failures you are okay with," he says.
"I'm going to tell my children, 'If you want to start a small venture on the side, it's okay.' You make mistakes; you gain all the experiences."
Mr Kong is a person who believes that each person should only have two focuses at a certain stage of life. Family will always be at the forefront, and one should focus on only one other thing and do it well.
"You should be focusing on the one thing that you do and be the best," he says. "Now the other focus of mine is business. Maybe when I'm 45 years old, I may focus on a hobby."
For now, he remains relentless in the pursuit of business excellence. Asked to identify a short-term goal he wishes to achieve, he talks about just wanting to be better all the time.
"I'm still young and I believe that at every stage there's always room for improvement," he says. "I haven't reached my goal. When I reach a certain stage, I will always think there's still room for improvement."
After a long contemplation, he finally adds: "In 15 years' time when I look back, I want to be able to see that I have done something great."