Published on 31 Mar 2024

Watching his businesses grow a passion for serial entrepreneur

People are the most important asset when it comes to investing in businesses, as serial entrepreneur Max Lee has learnt.

"I really enjoy watching a business grow," he said.

His ventures have included a photo printing company, a craft beer bar and an interior design company, and there is also a wine and ice cream place in the pipeline.

Mr Lee, 33, said hard work is important when it comes to learning about a new industry quickly. That is just one part of the equation, though, as doing things alone will get one only so far.

"When I run a business, I really trust my shareholders, because you'll never be able to be good at everything. I get the help of others for certain things, like marketing or human resources, if I'm not strong in those areas, and focus on the things that I'm good at," he added.

Half of his personal investment portfolio is in businesses, with the rest going to savings and a small selection of blue-chip stocks.

"I really enjoy watching a business grow, and I have some cash with me as a safeguard in case of economic downturns," said Mr Lee, who studied business at Nanyang Technological University.

He knows the challenges of being an entrepreneur all too well. He started out by selling instant cameras while he was still in school, but market developments soon cut out resellers like him from the industry.

So he pivoted to printing photos for free, with advertisements printed on the back of these images. "But it's a chicken-and-egg problem - if you don't have (enough users), you can't get advertisers on board and that's going to be an issue."

Disagreements between him and his business partners also complicated things, so they sold the business, Spark Asia, to two local entrepreneurs in 2017.

"I still believe in having shareholders as partners. I don't like to do business alone because to me, it means I will never put my mind at ease even when I'm sick or go on holiday," said Mr Lee, whose wife works in a fintech company. They have a five-year-old son.

"Now, when I look for a business partner, having a common vision is very important (in terms of) what we see of the company's future and what we want out of the company. The moment it's not aligned, I'd rather not work for the business."

After selling Spark Asia, Mr Lee spent four years tutoring junior college students in mathematics while figuring out his next move as an entrepreneur.

He started Almost Famous Craft Beer Bar with three others, tapping his love for the drink. The bar at Chijmes has been up and running for over five years.

Most of his time is now spent running SG Interior KJ, which he started in 2020 together with three others, including content creator Kelvin Tan, who is better known as Mayiduo online. The partners each pumped start-up capital of about $30,000 to $40,000 into the business. After selling Spark Asia in 2017, Mr Lee spent four years tutoring junior college students in mathematics while figuring out his next move as an entrepreneur.

The company's revenue surpassed $1 million in 2021, before hitting $5 million in 2022 and nearly $10 million in 2023, said Mr Lee. This comes on the back of a larger team, with the number of interior designers growing from 27 to 40 in the past year.

Asked why he first decided to dabble in running his own venture - the instant camera business - years ago, he said: "After A levels, I tried doing an office hours kind of job, but it was terrible.

"I hated myself for waking up early and squeezing in the MRT. I told myself that this was not the way to go, and I decided I was going to be an entrepreneur. So, I tried to start the company." Q: What is in your personal portfolio?

A: I prefer to invest in businesses and am currently in talks to invest in more food and beverage companies. I've committed to a wine and ice cream bar as a shareholder. It's starting in late April as a kid-friendly wine place, and I'm in charge of the renovation.

The team that drives a business is very important. If the concept is fantastic, but I don't believe in the founders and I don't see eye to eye with them, I will never invest in the business. If the business is very mediocre, but I believe in the founders, then generally, I will invest in it.

They must really be responsible, with no fluffing involved, and they should know their numbers. The first question I ask is, what is the expected revenue? If you can present something very clear, with the expected costs and everything, that's a huge plus point.

Besides business investments and blue chips, I have basic insurance coverage, some term plans in place and a savings plan for my son. I'm a bad saver, so a savings plan forces me to set aside some cash for his education in the future.Q: What was your biggest investing mistake? Which was your best investment?

A: For Spark Asia, we were in a bubble and we trusted the model so much, although the numbers were proving otherwise. We lost about $50,000 each, but we could have also put the time we spent on the company towards a better business model instead.

My best investment is probably SG Interior KJ because of its growth. Q: Describe your lifestyle, and how your growing-up years shaped your perspective on money.

A: I live in a four-room Build-To-Order flat in Ang Mo Kio, and I drive a green Mercedes-Benz GLA45. My work hours are not fixed, but I try to block out time to spend with my son and wife. Weekends are usually reserved for them, as long as I don't have appointments and meetings.

I don't have an age for retirement in mind. I can't see myself enjoying life at the age of 45, for example, without doing much work or growing something. But if I have to put a number to it, I foresee myself needing $7,000 monthly to fund my retirement lifestyle. With the current inflation rate, I probably need more than $10,000 monthly by the time I retire.

My mum is a technician and my dad is a taxi driver. I don't come from a well-to-do family, but my parents always tried to fulfil the needs of both me and my younger sister, even though they had to scrimp and save. This also makes me want to give my son everything and the best experiences he can get.Mr Lee's top investing tipsRead up and do your own due diligence as much as you can.Trust your gut - if you have a bad feeling about it, don't go into it.Invest within your means, and don't use leverage if possible. If you need to, make sure you can pay it off without much struggle.

Source: The Straits Times