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Building Spaces that make Business Sense

A quick glance at Jason Chow’s profile on the website of White Space Sdn Bhd will reveal that this young man has previously climbed the corporate ladder in the financial and property development industries before getting to where he is now.

The 35-year-old Chow spent nine years in the corporate sector working for companies such as Bina Puri Holdings Berhad, Citigroup and Darul Seroja Sdn Bhd.

It is the background that served as a motivation for Chow to set up White Space, a boutique business center.

“I have a passion for this. It is something that I love doing. It is a trend we want to create; it is a brand that we want to create. We want people to recognize White Space. In time to come, we want people to feel smart business sense with White Space branding,” he explained.

Chow, founder and executive director of White Space, was in love with what he was doing because “it was a new baby” that he had created. At 18-months-old, the boutique business center was still a baby but he already had ambitious plans to grow ‘his baby’ to 15 branches throughout Malaysia.

The first branch opened in Mont Kiara, with 1,800 sq ft of space comprising meeting and training rooms. Close to RM600,000 was invested to open this branch, which became operational in April 2009. It broke even after 14 to 15 months.

By next month, a second branch will be up and running at IOI Boulevard in Puchong. With a space of 3,300 sq ft, the new business center in Puchong will be almost twice the size of that in Mont Kiara. Chow said the company was also working with investors to open up to three branches next year, possibly in Penang, Johor and Malacca.

“We are growing quite aggressively and we realize the market is accepting the trend that we have created – smart business sense. Today, having a laptop and mobile phone is very useful. It is good enough to communicate and conduct most business, especially service oriented.”

“We believe boutique business centers and virtual offices would help a lot of young entrepreneurs to build their own companies at a very low overhead. It is pay-per-use concept. For example, you do not need a meeting room 24/7 so there is no reason to rent a fix office to handle your business operations,” he explained.

As a business center, White Space provides a range of services that include basic address, dedicated phone number, fax services, document services, courier services, dispatch services, meeting room, training room, business administrators, access card, company listings and sms alerts. It is quite thorough to support any business requirements of White Space’s clients, and they only pay for what they use. Client’s enquiries are attended to by staff known as business administrators. A basic package costs only RM99 per month and clients are entitled to more than ten services.

Chow likened White Space to a leasing business, for example, a tenant who rents a space in a shopping mall or office block.

“If the tenant makes money and they do well in their business, they will continue to rent from you. Over time, you will have a very sustainable income stream. At White Space, we want our clients to do well. To achieve this, customer satisfaction is our number one priority,” he said, adding that weighted average of clients spending habit was between RM300 and RM500 per month to run their business. Conventionally, to rent an office space of 1,000 sq ft in a decent location would require RM1,500 to RM2,500 per month, which does not include renovation, utility bills and other amenities.

White Space would not have been known by its current name if it was not for the suggestion of Chow’s business partner and executive director, Leslie Jeyam.

“When I first started writing my business plan, I called it Black Box. Then I met my old friend Leslie Jeyam and I told him about the business I had in mind. He told me, ‘why not call it instead of black box’. This led to a brainstorming session between the both of us on the business. I think Leslie fell in love with the business as well, that is why he is appointed as executive business director and co-founder. We work together hand-in-hand to build the brand.”

“The word space came about because we provided space. White reflects all different colours whereas black absorbs. White space makes a lot of sense for us because we do not own your business, but we are an infrastructure provider to support any business requirement; that is why it is called White Space,” he explained.

White Space is also designed as a one-stop solution, especially for its expatriate clients and to a certain extent, the locals. Quality company secretarial services, panel of legal firms, real estate, banking, tax and accounting services are bundled in for its clients. This is especially useful for expatriates who conduct business in Malaysia but are not very familiar with the way the system operates.

When asked if Chow considered his business as successful yet, he said it would only be the case when the market accepted the concept of using a boutique business center. He felt that the locals were not quite ready and needed more time to digest. Local clients make up to 70% of the company’s clientele, which is its core target and the remainder are expatriates mainly from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.

Chow viewed himself as someone who is impatient and wanted things to be done quickly. One of his challenges when he first established White Space was communicating his idea to someone new such as his associates, interior design consultant, contractor and employees.

“It takes time for people to digest. Creating a vision that is equally understood by others is the greatest challenge. I am very glad that I have a very good team. They are dedicated and responsible; all came from different backgrounds and expertise. We run the company in a very transparent manner,’ he said.
“We believe boutique business centers would help a lot of young entrepreneurs to build their own companies at a very low overhead. It is a pay-per-use concept.”

Chow added that delivering a product such as White Space for the locals to digest took a long time. Marketing via the Internet helped a lot as opposed to conventional marketing, which generated very slow results. “For instance, leveraging on Facebook presence and Google search enhanced our numbers very quickly,” he remarked.

If companies can easily hire to use the facilities provided by White Space, how can one trust that these companies were genuine? This was yet another challenge face by Chow. He was certainly aware of such concerns but White Space was very careful in handling companies that the public deemed as intangible or syndicated and made sure these companies were made legal.

“We follow strictly on Registrar of Companies’ (ROC) policies to recruit our clients. They must be properly registered with the ROC. The credentials (of a company) do not rely on the office set up but it relies on the balance sheets, and profit and loss statements, which is audited,” he said, adding that the credibility of a company should be based on their audited account.

A rose, by any other name is still a rose. Whether the service is known as virtual offices or services offices, Chow estimated there were about 28 players that provided such services based on a quarterly marketing research. But how does White Space fare against other competitors?

“There are conventional business centers that pay attention to the central business district (CBD) of Kuala Lumpur. We do not believe in CBD because it is congested and parking fees are high. We believe in setting up in a strategic location with proximity to dense residential areas. It also has to be vibrant. For instance, Mont Kiara is a very vibrant place and the neighborhood is made up of middle-income groups.

“We want to create a new trend and we want to add value to our services throughout prudent pricing and generated social networking among members. The staff behind White Space gives us the competitive edge and makes us unique,” he added.

If given a chance to improve on his business or to do it differently, Chow would have liked to expand the number of White Space branches faster than the current rate.

“This (our expansion) relies on the funds that we have raised and how it will grow organically. If we have raised huge funds, we can immediately start 15 branches. This will help a lot in bringing awareness and reliability to the general market. At the moment, we are raising funds on a much more selected investors’ basis, which is why we are growing organically, one branch at a time.

“If I were to do it differently, it depends on the funds that I raised. If the funds are substantial, we can open more branches immediately around Malaysia,” he pointed out.

White Space is run in a very flat manner and all the staff are graduates and highly qualified, speak well and are knowledgeable. Chow’s staff is very close to him and communication remains very important to him.

“I will make sure that my employees know my vision and evolve together with the market to achieve this (Chow’s vision). That is what we believe in and that is how I run the company,” he said.

In terms of his leadership, Chow believes in striking a balance between the Western and Asian style of leadership. This comes as a result of his upbringing in a Chinese family and early education in a vernacular school, combined with his tertiary education in the UK and Australia.

“I do not have a specified religion but I do believe in God; I am spiritual. The spiritual side allows me to handle human beings, understanding them is very important. A balance of benchmarking the result is also very important.

“Leadership cannot be very rigid; it evolves according to the market but it must be firm and persistent to go through the challenges. The best appraisal for any individual is always their colleagues. For me, a leadership is like watering a plant; you need to be very consistent in watering the plant and have good knowledge to understand what the plant needs. You have to do it consistently and persistently, and the flowers will blossom over time,” he said.

In the next five years, besides expanding up to 15 branches, there is a plan to list White Space in Singapore. The proceeds raised from the listing would be used to set up a headquarters in Singapore and then to expand the business abroad to include Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong and China. Chow believes the listing would allow the company to be more competitive, thus enabling it to compete in other countries.

On the reason for choosing to list in Singapore over Malaysia, Chow said the republic was well-known for its service industry.

“The liquidity and appetite of capital market is heavier in Singapore and will attract more foreign investors there as compared to Malaysia. We also want to gauge our momentum of fund-raising in Singapore. I would prefer to raise a huge fund rather than a small fund to grow organically,” he explained.

Having made the transition from working in large corporations to establishing his own company, climbing the corporate ladder was no longer Chow’s cup of tea. As an entrepreneur, he enjoyed taking risk.

“I am building a corporate ladder at the moment; climbing and building is different,” he quipped.

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