Interview with Richard Tan

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Photo courtesy of Success Resources

richard2Success Resources is one of the biggest personal development event companies in the world. Since 1992, it has expanded from a Singapore based event organising company to one which organises conferences in over 35 countries, impacting hundreds of thousands of people. Each year, this company brings in some of the biggest names in the world to Asia, with speakers such as Tony Robbins, Sir Richard Branson, Donald Trump and Former US President Bill Clinton, to name a few.

We had the privilege of chatting with the founder and CEO of Success Resources, Mr Richard Tan from Singapore. Back in the 80s Richard spent a few years working as an engineer for an oil and gas contractor in Kuala Belait. We asked him about his business philosophy, the change in the landscape of the personal development business, his humble beginnings and how world class speakers have changed his life.

We instantly connected when Richard shared with us his account of how he started a magazine called Women at Work earlier on in his career, it lasted for 3 years and he told us that he had great admiration for people in the magazine business and shared with us a few of the valuable lessons he learnt from publishing. From his experience, a magazine can only survive if the editor lives the values of the magazine. That was also a key reason why he discontinued the magazine because he realised that he didn’t embark on this project for the right reason – he did it because he thought that he could sell a lot of advertisements to this lucrative women’s market, but he did not have enough passion for the real issues that related to women.

Throughout the interview, Richard was candid, humble and generous as he shared some of his life stories. We hope that you will gain a few valuable insights from one of the world’s top event organisers.

I read that in the old days, you went to Hong Kong and knocked on every door, from the top floor to the bottom to sell your events even when you were sick.
It was a stupid thing to do (laughs). I wouldn’t recommend anyone to do that when they are sick. If you are sick, stay at home.

What we appreciate and admire about your work is your vision. Success Resources is the pioneer in creating personal development conferences in Asia. 23 years ago, you saw the potential in this industry long before self help books were mainstream, before many of the self-help gurus were established.

How did you get into this business?
I got into this business by accident, actually. I was an engineer by training. In those days, I was working for a company that serviced the offshore industry. During good times they paid you well, but in the bad times, they got rid of you very fast. When the oil prices went down, I was retrenched. So I had no job and a friend of mine who was the chairman of an NGO volunteered me to help manage his business conference. After the event, someone came to me and said that I was a good event organiser and encouraged me to do this full time. As I had not found a job, I started organising conferences on a full time basis and I am still doing it today.

Who was your call to fame? Was there any particular speaker that put you on the map?
At that time, I didn’t have any prior experience of running an event. This can be good or bad. Today, you can go and attend classes in Singapore Polytechnic or SMU that teach you how to organise a conference. If I had any formal training in event management, I would have known what to do and what not to do. As such, I did not know what could not be done. My first instinct about organising a conference was that it takes almost the same amount of energy, resources and effort to run a small event as it does to run a big one (just more chairs). So, my questions was; if it takes the same amount of effort – why don’t I run a big one? On that premise, I organised my first conference in the Indoor Stadium for 12,000 people in 1994. I didn’t know then that the biggest conference held in Singapore at that time was only for 600 people.

People thought you were crazy?
Yes, my partner was asking me: “Are you Crazy or Stupid? Or are you Crazy and Stupid?”

What gave you the idea to run your event at the Indoor Stadium?
It was not very costly to rent the indoor stadium, so I did it there.

Who did you invite to speak at that conference to attract 12,000 people?
Our keynote speaker then was Tom Hopkins. Tom was the top sales trainer in the world at that time. Anybody who wants to be in sales industry must read his book. He had a book called the Art of Selling. Back then, I had never met him, I never spoke to him – and somebody told me he was the best in the world. So I got him in.

What did you learn from this experience?
I learned that: you actually do not need to know everything to start something. You just need to start doing and learn along the way. Today, on the streets of Brunei or Singapore, there are probably many young professionals who are trying to find out everything before they start to do something. If you do that, you may be too discouraged or it may be too late.

Was your first event profitable?
Yes, it was profitable. I was also not a very smart guy. But I was street smart. We realised that if this works, we could duplicate it with the same formula in Malaysia and other places and that was exactly what we did.

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Richard Tan and Robert Kiyosaki at a Success Resources event.

Do you still look at business with the same kind of purity and simplicity as you did two decades ago? As you know, the world has changed tremendously since then.
I think Steve Jobs was the one who said something like “the hardest thing to do is to be simple”. Business has so many dimensions. You can even fill this whole room with books all about business. But when it comes down to it, there’s only two things about business – increase sales and reduce cost. Any business you do, you just have to make sure that your cash that is coming in is a lot more than the cash going out. With every business venture that I endeavour, I would ask what’s your sales? What’s your cost? If the cost is very high and sales very low – then can’t do. Vice versa, if the cost is very low and sales very high – can do. Very simple.

Event management can be a very stressful business. But you seem to be extremely “Zen” about it.
We run 500 events per year, and it is impossible for me to handle all the conferences by myself. We have events all over the world, in Germany, United Kingdom, Australia, Taiwan and even in South Africa. Every country has its own country manager and they’d run the events themselves. I don’t manage them. I manage them by their KPIs. At the beginning of the year, we sit together and set goals. The country manager will be rewarded based on the profitability of the business. The sales manager will be rewarded based on sales. Every country has a clear goal of what they are to achieve. And so is it for every team member, they know what they need to achieve at the end of the year. Each person signs these (their KPIs) off by the beginning of the year. I believe that everybody can figure out how to do things. As a leader you just need to provide a clear objective and “incentify” the behaviour you encourage.

What do you mean by “incentifying” the behaviour…?
Often, when we go to a restaurant, we often tip the staff at the end of the transaction depending on their service? Try tipping them first, and you’ll see a whole different level of service.

Today, when you step into a bookshop, you see endless self-improvement books. There is every kind of self-help guru on Youtube and on the internet. How has the exponential growth of the personal development movement shifted your business?
I believe that the fundamentals of the personal development industry doesn’t change. People need to be motivated and they need to be inspired. Wisdom of the past like Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the basic life principles are still applicable. The only changes are the methods of delivery. The message doesn’t change.

Is the accessibility of content online a threat to your business?
We must all move with the times. People who do not move with times are in self-denial. The human needs of being present and the ability to talk to a real person has never been more important than in this digital age. You can have digital classroom learning from a teacher on the screen, however if a teacher is standing in front to you it seems that you learn more. Just like you can’t learn to drive or swim by watching youtube. A live seminar can provide you with so much than just the content, the network and energy you get is priceless!

Is it more difficult to fill a room nowadays as compared to before?
If you find that it’s difficult, then you may be using the wrong (communication) method. The people are still there – so there is no reason why you can’t fill the room. You just need to change your marketing strategy.

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Success Resources is now organising events in over 35 different countries. How does a Singapore company establish such business scale, global network and influence?
We did not intentionally plan for Success Resources to go international. The only countries we grew our business in intentionally were Malaysia and Indonesia. Most of our growth was by coincidence. It was mainly through our event participants that experienced our conferences who approached us to bring the conference to their respective countries. I guess when you do small things well, the universe will reward you with bigger responsibilities. If you can’t be a good usher, people wouldn’t engage you for bigger tasks.

Looking at the lineup of speakers at Success Resources, there are mainly western speakers at your events. Is there a shortage of talent in this part of the world?
We have a good mix of talents at our events. The right question to ask is whether or not the speaker can deliver the objective of your conference. At Success Resources, the choice of our speakers have not been about his or her race, gender or demographic. Ultimately, our top priority is to bring in a speaker that can meet the needs of our clients. An interesting example is a program we organised called the Warrior Camp. This is a highly physical and intensive camp. Most of the attendees were surprised when they turned up and found out that the chief instructor was a tiny female trainer. She may not seem to have what it takes, but she is the toughest physical trainer out there who is pushing the students.

You have had close encounters with some of the most successful people in the world through your business. What do these people have in common? What did you learn from them?
One thing these successful people have in common is that they have all gone through tough challenges in their lives and have bounced back. The common denominator among them is that they never quit. All of them understand failure as much as they understand success, they have failed many times, and dust themselves off and get back up. If they had quit, they’d not be amongst us today.

In terms of businesses, when I met Jay Abraham, I learned how to multiply my revenue with my existing resources. When I met Robert Kiyosaki, I began to understand how wealth is created. When I met Tony Robbins, I learned to be very passionate about what I do. I am personally very selective with the choice of my teachers. A key criteria is that they must have done it. If you want to be a millionaire, don’t learn from some one who’s not a millionaire. Don’t even learn from a millionaire, learn from people who have earned $10 million. The key is to learn from someone with a proven track record in the field that you want to be in.

This article was published in the Jan-Mar 2016 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!