How a lazy student who caught and sold spiders transformed himself into a successful founder

Eugene Cheng, along with Kai Xin, runs a visual story telling startup, which counts among its clients the likes of Mastercard, Nike and Oracle

HighSpark Founder Eugene Cheng

When most of his classmates were glued to their books during their free time in primary school, Eugene Cheng would catch spiders for fun. He would later sell the catch to his friends for a dollar or fifty cents apiece. By the time he reached middle school, he had learned to jailbreak iPhones and “un-brick” handsets, and offered the service for about US$80.

When he moved to Ngee Ann Polytechnic to pursue a Diploma in Business Studies, Cheng had already mastered the art of money making. He drop-shipped apparels online for extra pocket money and managed to save up a tidy 5-figure sum.

“I always had that entrepreneurial spirit in me,” Cheng, who is now Founder and CEO of HighSpark, a strategic presentation consultancy and presentation training company, tells me. “I’ve always been interested in starting a venture of my own, but it took some years and understanding to launch a proper startup.”

Poor grades in school

Cheng’s lacklustre performance was a cause of worry for his parents as well as teachers. The “ghost” followed him to the college, too. Consequently, the falling grades forced him to sit down with his course advisor for counselling sessions on a number of occasions.

“It was easy to feel it like a failure; I couldn’t find a way to boost my grades in the short term and it left me with very few choices,” Cheng, 22, recounts. “I tried hard to improve the grades but all my efforts fell flat. Because of this, I had very little extra curricular activities available for me. Worse, I was not even eligible to apply for a longer-term internship.”

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However, a determined Cheng decided to rewrite his own destiny through self study. Self education and consistent practice in various areas helped him overcome the challenges he faced as a student. Learning outside of the school curriculum, reading self-help books with actionable takeaways, and learning new books boosted his confidence.

The entrepreneur bug bites

It was a business competition at the polytechnic college that got the best out of him. During a marketing lecture, the college announced a business competition, called the Ngee Ann Adelaide eChallenge, for students. Cheng, along with his classmate Kai Xin, decided to give it a shot as they had nothing to lose.

The duo couldn’t win the competition, but they emerged finalists. A few days later, during a term break, instead of relaxing and playing, Cheng went to participate in another competition organised by NUS — Startup@SG, where his team came second runner-up.

Eugene Cheng and Kai Xin

This boosted his confidence. From there, he went to immerse himself into the studies. He studied communications and entrepreneurship, specifically presentation design and delivery. He also set aside S$100 a month to spend on psychology books such as Robert Cialdini’s epic The Science Of Influence, and presentation books like Presentation Zen.

This was transformational. Upon his return to the college after the term break, he leverage his presentation skills in class projects. The grades went up exponentially and Cheng became the top scorer in a marketing communications module.

“Our clearer and more persuasive approach to presentation visuals and storytelling helped us stand out from the rest,” he smiles. “As advised by a lecturer, I decided to capitalise on my presentation talent. I began to put my work on SlideShare. I realised there were some areas in the presentation that need to be fixed. I worked on this and uploaded it into the SlideShare. This work bagged the ‘top SlideShare of the day’ beating hundreds of thousands of daily submissions. This work stood unbeaten for several years.

Starting HighSpark

Founded in 2015, Singapore-based HighSpark is a strategic consultancy and training startup that helps corporate leaders ace their presentations. Formerly known as SlideComet, the startup aims to empowers thought leaders to connect, inspire and influence through visual stories.

Cheng claims HighSpark is able to transform complex messages into memorable stories, and develop visual presentations that align with the clients’ end goal(s).

“Most executives lack the time and communication expertise to present their thoughts and ideas in a clear, simple and persuasive way. This is where HighSpark comes into the picture. We offer presentation consulting, visual presentation and storytelling training, sales training and public speech training. Additionally, HighSpark offers mentorship for startup accelerators on pitch design,” he shares the details.

HighSpark’s clients include Mastercard, Nike, Oracle, Singapore Management University, FWD, Startup Bootcamp, JFDI, Finlab, and Ace’s BACECAMP. Cheng claims so far, HighSpark has collectively helped its clients raise close to US$20 million in their fundraising efforts.

The initial months

As a teenage entrepreneur, Cheng faced a lot of challenges in the initial months. The difficulty in convincing clients about the HighSpark’s offerings and the pushback from their respective families, all were dispiriting. “The decision to forgo university did not go well with our parents in the first couple of years. However, after the business turned profitable and a few press coverage, our parents gradually began to accept us and the nagging began to cease,” he quips.

Cheng’s National Service also came as a hurdle in their way. This put additional pressure on Xin to carry all the burden herself for two years. After Cheng’s return from the National Service, the business slowly began to pick up.

“Like most Singaporeans, we (Xin and I) lived with our parents. This way we could save on rental etc. In the first two years, we took a basic salary of S$1,500 each. We kept the business expenses only to essentials, like hosting and developing our website using a free CMS, designing own collateral, buying basic equipment and software,” he tells me. “We hung around Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s cafeteria as a makeshift working space for the initial months. No fancy business cards nor office space. Only no-frills spending.”

Once his bête noire, Ngee Ann Polytechnic came to his rescue when he turned entrepreneur — in the form of Sandbox and funding. HighSpark received approximately $3,000 and expert mentorship from its past alumni entrepreneurs. “Although I felt neglected as a student at the college, it really offered the best access to time and expertise for me as an entrepreneur,” he says. “Since I already had a good following on SlideShare at that time, we got quite a bit of business without really having to hunt in the early days.”

First customer

For HighSpark, the first client came through referral from someone Cheng had never met. Cheng was just 19 then.

“A representative from a Japanese ad agency was referred by someone, who saw my work online. He called to ask if I could do some work for their CEO for a conference keynote presentation and asked for a quote,” Cheng discloses. “In a state of panic, I hung up the phone, called my lecturer for advice, and excitedly called back the agency with an indicative quote of about US$50 per hour of work. I spent close to a week on the genre’s site with the liaison as well as the CEO and made a grand total of about $1,200.”

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“It was a great feeling, but in the hindsight, I feel I could probably have charged much more. This experience helped us realise the potential of content marketing with presentations and how clients could make a purchasing decision just based on the perception of our online persona and expertise,” he continues.

In Cheng’s view, the communication training space has been around for a long time in Singapore, but little has changed over the years. “In our specific niche of presentation visuals and storytelling, the market is still largely unsophisticated compared with the western markets like the US. We find the need to do a lot of education to prospective clients,” he opines. “There is still room to expand our training business into more horizontals and deliver more value via education. We’re putting together our training methodologies on storytelling into a book that we’re hoping to release next year.”

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