He knows a thing or two about law and she’s got the hands of Picasso, and together they run 4Thirteen Group - a branding and design agency that’s the first of its kind in Malaysia. Danny Gnaniah (DG) felt called to establish a design firm, and with the help of his fiancée and business partner Doreen Chew (DC), the two of them began on what was the start of a whirlwind adventure. But no success story is ever smooth sailing - after a partnership with fellow colleagues turned sour, it led them to a resounding loss and a debt of RM60,000.
For most of us this would be our cue to throw in the towel, but that wasn't the case for them. They worked hard to get out of debt and restarted on a clean slate. We sat down with Danny and Doreen in their crisp coloured office space now buzzing with creative young adults as they share with us snippets of their life before 4Thirteen, their customised work culture, and the lessons learned along the way.
Share with us a little bit about your background.
DG: Growing up, I wanted to become an engineer or a lawyer. But because we did not have the funds to afford an engineering degree, I took up law instead. I was fairly happy but by the time my second year in law school ended, I knew I did not want to be a lawyer. However, I felt a pull towards the creative industry. Being the youngest of 8 children, my siblings were a lot older than me and a couple of them are in the advertising industry. I was exposed to graphics and design from a very young age and that fed my interest to create new ideas and turn them into reality. After my final exam at law school, I broke the news to my family that I would no longer be pursuing law, but that I'd be starting my own design company instead. Coincidentally one of my brothers opened a business and asked me to look after it, and that allowed me to learn how a company operated. About a year and a half later, I took a small loan from my brother and bought myself a desktop. I made a setup in my bedroom and that’s how I got started. It’s tough having to handle everything on your own but it was a steep learning curve that taught me how to work independently.
DC: I've always wanted to be an artist and I’m very fortunate to have a family who supports what I want to do. I decided to take up illustration while I was still trying to find my identity as an artist. Upon graduating, I was a freelancer for a short period and soon got a job as a colourist for the Hong Kong comic 'Storm Riders'. After awhile, I felt that I could not really explore and experiment with my painting so I decided to quit the company and focus on my art. But of course being a painter, I couldn’t pay the bills so I took on some freelancing jobs and that's how I got to know Danny and the opportunity to explore design. There were things that I needed to learn about design, and my experience with illustration really helped. There have been times where I’ve struggled with understanding design as a whole - the visuals, pleasing clients - that was a massive leap for me as an artist.
You both decided to go into business together but found yourselves partnered with people who left you in a big debt. What happened there and what did you do?
DG: Being a young entrepreneur, you tend to make mistakes; one of the key mistakes I made was not reading enough and not having a mentor to look up to. A mentor doesn’t need to be someone who is physically present, it could be someone whose books you read and from whom you can learn. I wish I did more of that but instead I was too busy looking for the next big thing. As a young adult you tend to think you know a certain way of doing things and as a result of that, I made heaps of bad decisions and things went south from there. We were involved with a group that had a pitch for an animated series and even got the funds to begin production, but I had a feeling that something was not right so I called off the project and returned the money to Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC). Long story short, we were left with a debt of RM60,000 and we had no jobs coming in, absolutely nothing. The lowest point of it all was when we were sitting in our car with the last RM3 in our hands and wondering what we should eat. We had to close the business until we sorted things out. That lasted for about 6 months.
"The lowest point of it all was when we were sitting in our car with the last RM3 in our hands and wondering what we should eat."
How did you come out of this experience without any bitterness?
DC: I was in a bookshop one day and I found this book called 'Delivering Happiness'. I was so engrossed in that book that I had to buy it. I spent the whole day reading it and I remember texting Danny what I’ve learned from it with a whole new enthusiasm. I realised that we had to establish our company culture as one of the key things in starting from scratch again. We needed to set up a proper foundation before even thinking about reviving this business, so we sat down and built a list of how we want to establish this company. When we were ready to hire again, we referred to the culture that we have set and we had to be prepared to say no to skilled applicants if their culture did not fit ours. Setting a company culture is one thing, but actually keeping to it is another.
That's true. I think many companies struggle with that. What are some examples of this culture you've established?
DC: By implementing this office culture, we want to build a strong family environment. When you work a full week, you see more of your colleagues than you do your own family so we need to establish that trust and relationship. Yes there is still a hierarchy but at the same time we want to have really close relationships with our staff that even our interns and juniors can feel free to come up to us when they’re experiencing issues. We’ve also introduced a four day work week as part of our efforts to disprove stereotypes about the advertising industry, and it’s helped us to become even more discipline with our time and assignments.
DG: Ethics play another major role in our workplace culture. Our past colleagues did not have that - there was a point where they were even rolling weed in the office! We decided that we will not do business that compromises our values and beliefs even if it meant that we will miss out on a big deal or project. Particularly in the advertising industry where you work long hours with zero work/life balance - we know what can be improved and we want to change how things work. Our conscience is that we do things right and treat people with kindness and respect and here we are today with a team of fourteen.
You both have definitely come a long way from where you once were. What have you learned from this experience and what can you advise other up-and-coming entrepreneurs?
DG: Never underestimate the power of learning. Equip yourselves with the right tools and learn everything you can about the industry you want to go into. Never stop learning; the day you stop learning should be the day you stop breathing. Don’t be afraid to ask people who have more knowledge in the field - there are those who are more than willing to help! You have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. It can’t just be a job to pay the bills where you clock in and out everyday until you finally die - that’s meaningless. There has to be a higher purpose. If money is your motivation, you’re going to be left hopelessly disappointed.
DC: Be persistent. When we were going through our “dark days”, there was this glimmer of hope where we blindly pushed forward not knowing what might happen. It’s so easy to fall into this space where you start questioning the point of all this. I started a business journal and I would encourage everyone to do that - write down every challenge you encounter and reflect back. You’ll be surprise at how you can pinpoint the why and how you got to be where you are today.
"We decided that we will not do business that compromises our values and beliefs even if it meant that we missed out on a big deal or project."
You've heard the saying, "if at first you fail, try and try again". As easy as this may sound, it takes conscience effort to rebuild from the ground up. 4Thirteen Group is the perfect example of where your persistence can take you. Even after the tribulations, there's no stopping Danny and Doreen from being grateful at how far they've come and how much further they can go.
"You have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing [...] There has to be a higher purpose."