Conversations with Nicholas Quek

Nicholas Quek—a former self-proclaimed computer geek who studied Computer Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS)—is today an entrepreneur who specialises in the unique niche field of acoustics and soundproofing. Nicholas founded his own company, Acoustic Integration, which focuses on services to consumers of the audio-visual design market, such as acoustic treatment and absorption for windows, doors, rooms, homes and home theatres. He finds it his personal calling to pursue his passion for music, which started off with music recording and sound engineering before finally blossoming into acoustic design.

Hi Nick. Thanks for making time for us today. We noticed that you have quite a unique job title – Can you tell us more about your work?

N: I’m an entrepreneur. My company, Acoustic Integration, specialises in acoustics and soundproofing. As a full scope company, we do acoustic treatment and absorption for windows, doors, conference rooms, music schools, meeting rooms, homes and home theatres. While we’ve done commercial sound system installations, we’re usually engaged for residential projects. Instead of competing in the product market, we focus on the services that we can provide in the audio-visual design market.

How would you describe a typical work day?

N: I oversee the deployment of manpower for major projects. Our work day revolves around the client’s timing for site work and sales meetings. The paperwork, including proposals, design, and administration, have to be completed between client requests. This is how we juggle between housekeeping and business.

What kinds of clients do you have?

N: Since the majority of my work is residential, my clients are usually homeowners. We commonly build home theatres, and we’ve worked with a wide range of house sizes. Our projects range from small scale – such as the installation of a bedroom sound system – to large scale – such as an entertainment room in a bungalow. Overseas projects tend to be more interesting, since the larger land space allows for more glamorous outcomes.

How do these overseas clients get to know about your company?

N: These homeowners from Brunei, Sabah and Malaysia find out about us during their visits to Singapore.

How does the work that you do locally differ from overseas?

N: In Singapore, we tend to do more hands on, labour-intensive work.

Comparatively, our overseas projects are larger scale, and so we engage others for the manual work, while we focus more on the high value-added services. There are many companies that we work alongside, including contractors and material suppliers.

How did you come to enter acoustic design?

N: In 2011, I was studying Computer Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Although I was doing well, I felt called by God to leave my studies and prioritise my family, providing for them through this line of work. I chose to entrust my career to Christ.

My passion for music led me to acoustic design. I was really into music recording, music and sound engineering at that time. Then an opportunity arose for a small project – we were asked to build a small studio on a very low budget. We had no choice but to DIY (Do It Yourself). We researched on design and did everything from scratch. When our close friends started getting interested and asked how we achieved it, we realised that there was a need for this industry.

Looking back, I realise how much I have grown. I used to be just a computer geek. The most handiwork I could achieve was to change a lightbulb. Now, I can do almost everything from scratch.

When you entered acoustic design, was it really a step out of your comfort zone?

N: Because of the learning curve, it was a challenging decision. In fact, the challenge remains in my work today. Despite that, a sense of purpose keeps me going. Because of this unique line of work, the people I work alongside are almost never Singaporean. My partners and workers are Malaysians who have come to Singapore to work. One of them even mentioned that, in his 10 years in Singapore, I’m the first Singaporean he’s seen getting willing to get his hands dirty with manual labour.

What was one of the problems you faced when you first started out?

N: I had no experience in the business, and I didn’t know anyone who had. I’ve now come to learn that knowing your market is very important. Even if you think that people around you have a need, you must realise that they might be a minority; just within your small circle of friends. We very quickly faced market saturation.

Do you still face this problem?

N: Not really. Although it was painful, it was a lesson learnt. Since then, we have changed our direction. It’s all about learning to react quickly and resisting the temptation to think that I know more than I actually do. Even when I had built up the academic knowledge, I realised that in reality, your clients aren’t equipped to appreciate academic quality. They may welcome technical content that looks nice and seems professional, but they’re just happy to have the final products. So I had to be ready to throw out what I thought I knew and start from scratch.

I was fortunate because my first few customers were really helpful and they invited me into their community. People in the community really helped me to learn the ropes and gave me the opportunity to pick up new knowledge. I learnt to roll with the new circumstances.

What makes your work exciting?

N: A sense of purpose and passion, even in low level work.

Even if what I’m helming doesn’t work out, I’m open to pursuing other sorts of manual labour. Few in our nation can say the same. We prioritise “value-added” services, but when any crisis hits, the first to go are the high value-added careers.

Take for example large AV sound system installation companies. With a poor economy, the big guys get hit the hardest and have to downsize. People start looking for cheaper alternatives, and that’s when the smaller companies come into the picture.

What is it about the line of work that makes it challenging?

N: Well, for someone who’s out of shape, the physical fitness required for manual labour can be challenging! But I’d say that the unique path that I’m on brings up the most challenges. Normally, people in this line receive training or an apprenticeship under a larger company, but I didn’t have that luxury. I’m doing it from scratch, and every time I attempt a new project, it’s a new experience, in a new style. It is rare that we get a request for something we’ve done before, or something that allows us to follow a tried-and-tested plan. The bar is always rising with each project and it is a challenge to grow myself as well as my workers.

I may have the capability to visualise, but without guidance, I also have to solve all the problems that come my way, and learn quickly. It becomes stressful, because in a new environment, you’re struggling to not incur big losses and not get cheated. This was an expensive but necessary lesson. It was also difficult to overcome my personality and character in order to succeed.

Do you have aims and aspirations regarding your career in the future?

N: In 5 years (maybe less!), I aim to be a global firm.

According to Harvard University’s list of 42 competencies, do you think there are any that would be particularly apt for your line of profession?

N: As a company that is labour intensive and physically demanding, having to deal with clients that come from a variety of backgrounds, and also having to build teamwork on our end… when coupled with many conventional duties of a company, I must say that all of the 42 professional competencies are very important to us.

Thank you for your time Nick! Before we end this interview, can we ask what advice you might have for someone who’s interested in pursuing acoustic design?

N: Just do it.

I realised that we are very lucky to be in this country. Here, if you’re willing to work hard, you can make it – even without much luck, education, or talent. It’s about working hard. If only you’re willing to work hard, you can make it. But if you listen to public sentiment, they’ve forgotten what it’s like – the element of working hard. I hear people demanding certain lifestyles or working hours, and coming up with so many reasons for which they don’t have it. They blame luck or chance.

Many end up joining the gig economy. It provides good returns in the short term, but has poor career development and opportunities. People feel that small companies don’t give opportunities, and so they drop out, and the death of company results in the growth of the gig economy. It’s really a vicious cycle.  People want to drop out, so companies don’t see value in training people. And when people don’t get trained, they drop out. So many focus on higher skilled jobs, and forget about the Plan B alternatives.

Take my line of work for example – it’s construction-based, but it pays quite well. Even if you’re new on the scene, if you’re Singaporean, you can bargain for a $3-$3.5k starting pay. Especially since hiring a local worker will add to a company’s foreign worker quota, you have bargaining power of being value-added to the company.

Getting into this line of work allows you to hone the skill level of a master craftsman. Something that can’t be learnt, but is gained through experience, is something that is of high value.

You must remember that success is not just about having an idea. A lot of blood, sweat and tears go into realising something. Don’t just gig. Don’t wait for an angel to drop a package on you. Fight hard for what you want.