Waking up at 5am, 14-year-old Thomas Yip had to catch a bus to the old Tanjung Rambutan bus station in Ipoh town from his home in Taman Cempaka. Alighting from the bus, it would then be a long 2km walk to his workplace in Jalan Kampar. Work as a coffee shop waiter would begin at seven sharp and only ended at five in the evening. This was Yip’s ritual for seven weeks during the school holidays that year.
Yip recalled, “I came from a humble family and we struggled financially. My father worked as a carpenter while my mother stayed at home to look after my younger sister and I. When I was in Form 2, I wanted to buy a book titled “Write Better, Speak Better” by Reader’s Digest. It carried a hefty price tag of RM53. My mother told me that we could not afford it.
“When I asked her if I could get a job to earn that sum, she arranged for me to work at a coffee shop near our old place of residence at Jalan Kampar. For my entire duration of work, I earned a princely sum of RM50. I still had to scrape up RM3. I am 48 years old now and the book is still with me. I would say it is one of my prized possessions.”
After that first experience of earning his own money, the following year, Yip went to work as a gardener in an orchid farm for two months. Thereafter, every school holidays would see Yip toiling hard for extra pocket money, whether it was as a door-to-door salesman touting English language improvement cassettes or selling windscreen wipers at petrol stations. No job was too lowly for Yip. He said, “After Form 6, I stuffed cotton pillows and laid carpets for offices. Shortly after that, an opportunity arose for me to work in Singapore as a factory operator and I grabbed it. Those four months there saw me working shifts to check the quality of television screens.”
After that stint in Singapore, Yip returned to Ipoh and joined a construction company, working his way up from show house sales personnel to site supervisor. The pay was not great but Yip recalled, “It was during this period that my friend and I moonlighted as sub-contractors renovating new houses and installing marble floorings. Surprisingly, the side income regularly exceeded our monthly salary of RM350.”
For all the money that he earned, Yip saved it up to last him two years to pursue an education in Singapore. Not only did he manage to obtain a placement at the French Singapore Institute (FSI), he was also granted a scholarship of SGD300 a month for the entire duration of his studies.
Compared to his peers, Yip may have taken a longer route but graduate he did, at 23, with a Diploma in Electrical and Electronics Engineering. He shared, “I remember working very hard and graduated as the second top student of my batch. Because of that, I was selected to represent two hundred students from all four batches to deliver a graduation speech.
“Thinking back, I was only a mediocre student while at school. My uncle enrolled me into one of the best schools in Ipoh and I was placed in a class full of high achievers. During my primary years, I was always at the bottom of the class even though my grades were respectable. In secondary school, my results improved but I was still not good enough compared with my classmates. I was always in the middle position, never the top, academically. My best achievement was number seven one year and that greatly boosted my confidence.”
When Yip graduated from FSI, he was the only one from his batch to be retained by the institute as a research assistant and was offered to pursue a master’s degree equivalent in France. Much as Yip wanted to accept the offer, he declined because of financial constraints. Plus, he would be bonded as a lecturer for eight years.
So, armed with his diploma, Yip joined the workforce in Singapore, taking on 12-hour shift work. Despite the long hours, he and some friends involved themselves in industrial automation projects.
Soon, Yip relocated to Kuala Lumpur to set up an industrial automation company with friends. One day, his company wanted to bid for a mega project but due to lack of time to prepare, Yip wrote a software, Electra, that sped up the process of preparing the proposal. Yip’s company failed to secure the project but the silver lining was that he realised that he had a solid software in his hands.
The electrical computer-aided design software allows electrical engineers to design circuits up to five times faster compared to conventional software, mostly by automating tedious tasks, so that engineers can focus on safety and design rather than drafting.
Long story short, Yip began to market the software under his company, Radica Software, and today, the software is used by thousands of engineers from more than 48 countries worldwide. With its success, Yip finally realised his dream of being an entrepreneur; a dream that he has harboured since he was 17.
Knowing first hand the struggles that budding entrepreneurs have to face, Yip is a coach at Cradle Malaysia’s Coach and Grow Programme (CGP) where he helps early-stage companies grow and be successful. He also gets invited regularly to local startup programmes where he “shares our experiences to encourage local entrepreneurs to dream big.”
“At the same time, our company runs various programmes for staff to encourage personal growth within our team members. It is only when they grow that the company continues to scale greater heights. Being selected to go to Silicon Valley last year for the e@Stanford Program by MaGIC (Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre) provided us with an opportunity to learn from the best companies in the world and from Stanford University. I hope to apply this new knowledge not only on myself but also share them with everyone I come in contact with,” he said.
Currently, Radica, which is now based in Ipoh, is in the final process of releasing a cloud diagramming tool called Vecta, which will allow everyday users to create beautiful diagrams, accurately and just as easily. Even as Yip continues to create products for global use, this Ipoh boy intends to stay local. He aims to make Radica the best place to work and play in Ipoh while creating an impact at the international level.
Note: An edited version of this article [Long road to success] was published on 13th August, 2016 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.