Conversations with Kenneth Tan

By Darryl Goh and Pang Ler Yng

Note: The interviewee has since left the company he was at to enter another industry. This interview was conducted while he was at his former company.

Kenneth Tan is a Marketing Category Manager in DBS Bank, where he leads the marketing procurement team in liaising with advertisers, publishers and event-organisers. He is also the co-founder of two very successful small businesses, PramShare and PramWash, which are the first premium stroller rental and washing companies respectively in the ASEAN region. Prior to this, he has over 10 years of experience in the marketing and procurement sector in Schlumberger and PropNex. In this article, Kenneth shares about his experience working in these various roles.

I typically work with two parties in the bank – the first is our marketing team, where they focus on the design and branding messages of our products and services going out to our customers. The other party that I work closely with is our marketing suppliers – advertisers, publishers and event-organising companies.

I meet the media marketing team daily to see their upcoming marketing procurements. Then, we follow a structured process where we want to make sure the bank gets the best deal. For example, when we have something to buy, say pre-movie advertisements, we will think about who can shoot the video and who can help us to publish it with the cinema. At the end of the day, it is about how much advertisements cost and how much exposure we can get. So this is the day in, day out – meeting the requirements with the existing suppliers that we have. If not, we have to go out to find other suppliers in the market.

It came as a surprise – for the first two years when I joined DBS, I was taking care of IT sourcing. When the previous Marketing Procurement Lead resigned, we had a vacancy for the position. So the Head of Procurement reached out to me and asked me if I was interested in the role. She told me that I was able to think out of the box, whenever we are doing procurement during my IT sourcing days, and felt that my creative approach will suit the marketing procurement role well.

I had very big shoes to fill back then, because the previous Marketing Procurement Lead was in the role for about 5 years. When I first took over, I had zero experience in marketing procurement, so it was a steep learning curve, especially for the first year. I felt like a student, trying to learn everything and meet as many vendors as possible to understand their jargon.

Being humble helps. To say “I am new to the role and I will be listening for the first few sessions, so please bear with me” helped to create a good first impression, which led to very good relationships.

I had mixed feelings because back then, I was doing well in IT sourcing and I was also working on side projects for the bank. Even though I liked what I was doing, I felt that shifting to marketing was a good opportunity – if I did not take it, there might not be another chance.

I had about two to three hours to think about making the switch. During that time, a lot of bad scenarios played in my head because I lacked experience, but in the end, I banked on the opportunity side. I chose to broaden my experiences and to be exposed to some areas that I had never tried before.

DBS is a very big company and my experience is only coming from the procurement team. I think it is a very pro-family environment based on the way the benefits are structured. We have a very good leave system where we have quite a number of leave days for family and childcare. For myself, taking care of the marketing procurement segment is on a project basis. At any one time we have about four to five projects on hand, so we plan our time around them like scheduling meetings day-to-day.

Another good thing about this system is the flexibility. Here in the procurement team, we do not have a culture where the manager expects you to be at your desk by 8:30 AM and stay at your desk until 6 PM. We are more results-oriented. As long as we meet our daily and monthly requirements on running the projects, the managers I know do not micromanage.

I look forward to every new vendor pitch. For example, if I am organising a customer appreciation event where we invite 50 clients down for dinner, we will go out to 3 different vendors and ask them to show us their ideas on how to make the appreciation dinner meaningful. The most satisfying moment is when we get to see the vendor pitch. A lot of times the ideas are fantastic – they put in a lot of effort, and there are new ideas even though this pitch happens yearly. All these are very fascinating because it keeps me up to date with the latest market trends.

Two years ago, appreciation dinners were very simple, but with COVID-19, they have become very technology-based. Suddenly there is a hybrid structure, it becomes a WebEx video conference with hologram and light displays. This is very satisfying as I get to see a lot of new ideas, new technology, and new ways to do marketing for the bank.

In five years, I think I will probably be taking care of another category. Another option is to be a people manager, perhaps to lead a small team, taking care of other categories in the bank like software. Now that technology is a hot topic, with the metaverse, if I have the chance to move, that would be another one of the choices I would consider.

Being convincing is an important interpersonal skill. For instance, how do you deliver a message and convince the other party to push across that energy? Another very important skill is actually relationship building. If one can establish a good relationship, not just between internal stakeholders or suppliers, but also external parties, it will really help you in your job and save you a lot of time.

Yes, actually. I participated in an exchange that was a real eye opener. I did an overseas student exchange whereby I went to Denmark and saw a totally different world, different culture, and different school environment. I managed to see how diverse people coming together can result in a very good outcome. I grew up here in Singapore, where it is always very competitive. Everyone here is always on the ball. So going overseas made me realise that everyone is maybe a bit different. But in the end, that level of diversity always results in a good outcome.

Coming to the corporate world, the diversity element is also extremely important, given that we are not of the same age when in the working environment. There will be older folks, there will be people that are younger, and the diversity there will help everyone to create a good outcome.

Your qualification can be quite generic, for instance an engineering degree or a business degree. But I feel the most important part when applying for a job would be how the person elaborates on their non-academic success. It could be their CCA or other activities outside school, such as charity work. These are some of the elements that employers are looking out for when they are hiring.

It came about when I knew my wife was expecting. As we were preparing for the child to come, we had to purchase strollers, but we realised that strollers were extremely difficult to clean. Washing alone takes about four hours, and drying it thoroughly takes another two hours, which is time that a lot of working parents do not have. We received similar comments from our families and friends, and we began to think about how to solve this issue. My wife and I then began talking about converting this solution into a business to help more people. So we started two companies, a stroller rental and a stroller washing company respectively.

We started to do some very small market surveys, and we asked our friends and family in a Facebook group if they would patronise this business, how much they would pay, and so on. Surprisingly, we managed to get quite a lot of rental orders and washing orders within the first three months. We even had so many strollers in our own house that we had to find a warehouse to store everything, if not we would have had no space for the incoming baby!

During that particular period, there was no work-life balance. I was juggling a lot of things, so some things just have to be sacrificed, such as sleeping less and going out less. I was rejecting a lot of friends’ requests to go out for dinner and catch up. I learnt to prioritise some of the more important things, like my own family and also my business.

I think I did experience burnout. Back then I was still studying and balancing the job in the startup, with a crying one-year-old at home. It is actually quite stressful. My wife and I regularly scheduled a day off for us to just go out and relax. This gave us a lot of airtime to breathe, before we went home to fight the battle.

Now that the company is more established, my work-life balance is better now. I am now better able to relax with six full-timers taking care of the company, so I do not have to be there, but back then I had to be there almost every day.

But I think the “entrepreneur spirit” is quite addictive! Right now, I am looking at another business idea to keep myself busy again, and perhaps work life balance will be gone again and the cycle repeats itself! I like to see something being created from nothing, and just creating a startup again would give me a massive sense of achievement.

As an aspiring entrepreneur, one of the biggest things I learnt from the first three years is to be prepared to fail. And you probably will fail, every two or three weeks, every time you try something new, and you will feel disappointed. But you have to get up again, try to find a solution, comfort yourself, and keep on going. There were many times that we wanted to give up, but I look back at everything that we pushed through, and now I want to try again.

So keep trying and trying and one day, you will enter a stage where you know that it has become a sustainable business. That is when your startup enters the next phase of maturity.

If you have a side hustle, grow it and make it sustainable before you graduate. When you graduate, you will then have a choice to make your side hustle your full-time job and focus on it entirely. Alternatively, you can continue the business on the side, while concurrently developing some skills in the corporate world.