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by Chan Wai

A story of the struggles of a small business that nearly bellied-up due to Covid-19 pandemic and how its staff turned the tide and saved the boss and the business.

You just cannot don’t give it a hoot. Not for Robin Gan when it involved failing those still by his side at his lowest when everything was failing.

That’s what this rookie in business found most difficult when after a dreamy two years, his HootSquare Productions just headed south, tossed in a tailspin by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A sharp contrast to the heady start of blue skies and everything nice, Robin found his business up against unexpected headwind of job cuts by clients, reduced and disrupted flow of income, and tight cash flow.

This unexpected turn of events plunged the young businessman, who had never experienced such circumstances, into the depths of depression that even required him to undergo therapy.

The smaller HootSquare team in 2020 that made boss Robin Gan (extreme left) sob.

From the start, as a new kid on the block in business, he had it good in living out his dream. It could be said he was foolhardy to give up a secure job in an advertising company, but for one chasing a dream, striking out on his own was an attractive compelling option.

With not too much money and the one overarching idea to make a business for businesses to better communicate their ideas, he incorporated HootSquare Production. It was a venture into a niche video production of combining content with animation, a skill he honed in his sojourn in his previous employ.

HootSquare’s proposition is leveraging on the combination of content, shapes, colour, movement and a little spark to make ideas look great.

“We don’t make them look great. We also make them resonate with emotion, momentum, purpose… We incite to excite so people will look and never forgot what they saw… Together we bring ideas to the next level because your ideas matter.” This, in the video to introduce what HootSquare does, best encapsulates what it is good in.

The stars were aligned for the debutante in business. Like angels, a few individual investors just appeared to provide seed money for his venture. So too were seasoned businessmen drawn to the affable mild mannered, soft spoken young man with a trustworthy and likeable demeanour. His eagerness and passion to learn made everyone he met just want to share essential tips for the lad to traverse the complex world of business.

In happier times… The team in 2019 with Robin Gan last in line as the pillar of HootSquare

With job wins that steadily built up its client portfolio, it was smooth sailing for HootSquare. And just when Robin thought he had already squared up and flattened the learning curve, Movement Control Order of March 18, 2020 started to change the tide of good tidings for HootSquare.

“The first thing that we did was to reassure clients that we could fully function. Working from home, be fully online… these were no issues at all. As a small company, we could easily pivot and adapt. But, while we could cope, our clients could not,” Robin recalled the situation as Malaysia went into lockdown.

“New business inquiries started to dissipate and not too long after, everything came to a loud screeching halt. We went into crisis mode with expenses outstripping income. I quickly called a crisis meeting and announced some cost cutting measures to trim the fat in operations and also possibly of salary cuts in the horizon to stop the bleeding.

“This would give us a buffer of enough cash to keep us going. But what transpired in the few months that followed were nerve-wracking.”

Robin saw no end of desperate times in sight. Without inflow of revenue and continued depletion of cash reserves, HootSquare considered changing its business model to tap opportunities in a new market segment – small companies that needed new measures just to survive.

A scribe by Chan Wai of HootSquare’s journey in the turbulence of Covid-19 pandemic

“We reckoned that small companies may be open to video as a marketing tool if it was affordable. So the main thing that we did was to pivot our services and reduce our cost by 90% by offering video templates for SMEs.

“We tested this idea by sending out questionnaires to potential clients. It seemed to garner interest and they were a few inquiries. But, it stopped at inquiries. Our mistake was that we couldn't understand the clients properly because we were transitioning from servicing to retail and we had no experience with retail clients.

“At the end of the day, we couldn't secure a single sale.” Poof! That went a great survival idea. And with the heightened expectation coming to nought, so did Robin’s mental state go into a free fall.

“Because I was too concerned with everyone's wellbeing, I neglected my own. I had developed a lot of anxiety to the point where I just didn't want to continue the business anymore. There was also no interest in doing video production… I was in the pits!

“That was the lowest point of 2020 and my life. Somehow, I didn’t know how I was guided to seek help. The therapist that I saw turned things around for me. She posed these questions: Do you know what is HootSquare? Is the company you?”

Those questions were his woke. It made him realise “business involves people’s lives, people’s money and trust; but at the end of the day, HootSquare is only a business entity, but not an identity of me. Only after choosing to pick myself up first, can I focus on picking the business up again”.

With that pick-me-up, he had renewed vigour to see to HootSquare’s survival and his message to his already reduced team was: “Time is not on our side. Our cash reserves can last us only two months. Let’s take a step at a time to do everything that we can.”

Two weeks before D-Day of Sept 30, there was still no revenue. At a loss on what to do, Robin prompted his staff to start looking for alternative employment. Into the last week, his team pulled a surprise – they offered to continue working without salary until the end of December!

A shocked Robin thanked them. His team had bought the company a few extra months. He retreated into his room and sobbed uncontrollably.

“It was a major pivoting point for me. I didn't have the motivation nor the strength to go on. I was throwing in the towel but my team believed in their company, in me even when I didn't believe in myself.”

Good things, it is said, come in pairs. Not long after, a major client called and dropped HootSquare a project.

“That was our New Hope. Covid-19 didn’t kill us. Its fallout nearly did. But, on the flip-side, it taught me life’s most important lesson – Good begets good. Treat your team with dignity and respect and they will be by your side to weather the storm,” said a happy and grateful Robin.

“One other vital takeaway from the challenges of 2020 is cash is very, very important. I had thought that cash reserves of six months for business would be very safe. Apparently not!”

Having hit bottom and now with cash reserves of two years, Robin is much relieved that MCO 3.0 will not knock the wind out of him.

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