Tag Archive | Sembawang Corp

Insider tale of Sembawang Media’s demise

Like most people, I’m all ears (and eyes) when it comes to insider accounts about famous people and corporations.

So it was with some lip-licking glee that I read a 7-part account of an American Internet pioneer’s ups and downs while working at a start-up of Sembawang Media (subsidiary of Sembawang Corp) some 13 years ago.

It was a serendipitous stumble upon on the web this afternoon, when one link led to another and voila, I was reading a ringside story of what happened to SembMedia’s attempt to develop Games on Line.

The writer, William Moss (now based in Beijing), named names, including Philip Yeo, Jek Kian Jin (son of former Cabinet Minister Jek Yoon Tong), EDB, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Institute of System Science, Pacific Internet and nearly every big name, or small, connected with Singapore’s short Internet history.

While there was rancour and self indulgence,  Moss also made a real attempt to be fair and honest. Worthwhile reading for anyone interested in how Singapore developed its web tentacles and how those ambitions often out-ran capabilities available in the country, whether home-grown or foreign hired.

For the full blow-by-blow account, go here

Below is an extract from Part 7.

This may have a ring of “I told you so” pettiness about it, but, in truth, neither Joe nor I was surprised by Sembawang Media’s turn of bad fortune. Joe and I had been scholars of the Internet business back in the States long before we moved to Singapore, and we’d seen the cycle of flush growth and shakeout that had claimed so many companies in the US.

Now we got to see that same cycle repeat itself in Singapore, and we got to watch Sembawang Corp make many of the mistakes that destroyed companies in the States.

Sembawang Corporation bet large on the emergence of the Internet as a source of revenue before the true value of the Net as a commercial commodity was established. Sembawang Media was to be the tool of SembCorp’s emergence as a regional information technology power.

But the company spent money like success was assured before they’d even started, renting extremely expensive office space at Boat Quay for the headquarters, and equally pricey digs for Contact at Suntec City.

A great deal was riding on the creation of Web content, and Multimedia Studios was a very slick operation with talented people and good equipment. But it started large, and it was high overhead operation in low margin business.

Personally I have always felt that talented kids working out of their parents’ basement do best web design. Give me one good HTML/Shockwave page design person, one good Java/Database programmer, and a Photoshop wiz, and I’ll cough up whatever content and functionality you want.

We also worried about Contact, well before problems began. The Singapore market was small, and, to our way of thinking, Singapore Telecom was holding all of the infrastructure cards in a regulated market.

Contact should have worked its way up, rather than starting large and banking on success. Even the creation of Games Online was a questionable business decision. Game development is a long-term, expensive proposition, and there is a good deal of risk involved.

I don’t want to argue against our own creation, but SembMedia should have started as a stripped down company and run that way for two years while the realities of the market were established. But in image-conscious Singapore it was built from the beginning to be a showpiece. Now, as it comes apart, it is a highly visible catastrophe.


Delifrance: past its used-by date?

I go to Novena Square a lot: partly becuase it’s near my home; partly because the parking there is cheaper than many other places and lastly, especially in recent weeks, because the old mother is unwell and we are frequent visitors to TTSH quite against our inclinations. And for the uninitiated, TTSH is across the road from Novena Square and Square 2.

When getting out of the carpark in Novena Sq, one can easily get into Velocity (which is the rather droll name for the N Sq extension), if one took the office tower lift.It takes one to the 2nd floor — which is actually the 1st or street level floor, if one took the lift that goes directly into the shopping mall in NSq itself.

Such are the mysteries of how Uniquely Singapore’s floor levels are numbered that from one door it may be considered street or 1st floor and from another door, it’s actually the 2nd floor. Furthermore, this isn’t unique to this complex.

TTSH itself isn’t any better. The A&E department is on the street level but within the hospital complex it is actually B1. And where the Phamarcy is, it is considered B2 from the inside but it’s also on the street level from the outside.

Don’t ask me why. Probably everything on both sides of the street are built into a hill that has long since disappeared.

As usual, I digress. I began by planning to write about Delifrance in Velocity. It’s a Bistro, quite large and, being an open-concept, one can see at a glance how crowded or quiet it is.

The sad fact is that I’ve passed it often over the past two years since its opening, at various times throughout the week, except Friday or Saturday nites: it has invariably been what the Chinese call “hitting at flies”.

It can’t be the prices since competing cafes in and around Velocity are more or less charging similar level prices or even more: Spinelli downstairs and Cedele in Novena Sq, also downstairs; both less than two minutes walk away. Then there’s Mingles right next door. I’ve seen them all more packed than Delifrance.

It doesn’t seem to be the quality of the food either. Mingles serves food that leaves much to be desired with service that’s erratic, tho I say this from only one experience more than a year ago. It was so trying that I’ve never been there to eat again, not even when one of its supes is scrumptous to look at. Well, I can’t eat him, can I? 

I think back to the time when I discovered the first Delifrance cafe in Clifford Centre, o heck, some 30 years ago. I was so thrilled to bite into a real butter croissant and crusty crunch French bread, tuna melt, egg mayonnaise and so on. Then there was the coffee: freshly brewed. Why there was even cappuccino. I thought I had found paradise.

(Ciabatta and foccacia breads were to arrive later, when Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf cafes hit this island but that’s another story for another time)

I was so over the moon about Delifrance that I positvely became its evangelist, without even realising it. I even persuaded a friend who was PA to the then chairman of OCBC bank, Tan Chin Tuan, to suggest to her boss to have Delifrance fare for lunch on the days when they lunched in, instead of buying take-away from his usual hawker joints at Mosque Street or Market Street.

He took up her suggestion but from what I gathered it was thumb’s down for those hard sandwiches. The old man didn’t see any merit in eating dry as dust bread that demanded much teeth and jaw work but didn’t yield any returns for his taste buds.

For a while, mayb even years, it looked as tho more people thought like me than the old man. Delifrance prospered and grew till Sembawang Corp bought it over, tho what for I don’t know, other than perhaps it’s a homegrown brand, it has franchise and it is/was in the lifestyle business.

It wasn’t an unqualified success as a investment for Sembcorp. In the meantime, the market/demand created by Delifrance soon saw the foreign likes of Starbucks, Spinelli, Coffee Bean et al coming to these shores, providing the coffe, sandwich and cakes fraternity here with more, even better, choices.

Then there are the home-grown competitors like Cedele and Marmalade Pantry which in many ways bettered everything that Delifrance or its foreign competitors did. Both incorporate the tastiest of the foreign with a twist of the local.

So much for first movers’ advantage. In Delifrance’s case, it was more like the Chinese adage in which, “the pioneer plants the trees, the late-comers harvest the fruits”. 

Now every time I pass a location where there once was a Delifrance and where there is no longer one or at best a shrunken version, I wonder whether every business, especially food business, has a sell-by date? And simply re-inventing or remaining relevant will tickle taste buds as much as cotton buds in the mouth of a gourmet.