Guest column: Speed freak

Be prepared, you are warned before your first encounter with T.S. Wong, CEO and cofounder of Asian portal company MyWeb. He talks fast - really, really fast. Thus advised, this reporter braced herself when Wong called from his Beijing office, 1 a.m. his time. Fast? No, the Road Runner is fast. Wong is hypersonic. "Hello, thisisT.S.Wong," he says. "I'msorryI'mlate. Iwasinameetingthatjustended."

It's entirely possible that Thean Soon Wong simply goes by T.S. so he can introduce himself quickly and get on with business. Ever since the 28-year-old first sat down to a PC as a 20-year-old electrical engineering student in Singapore, he's been working at breakneck speed not only to catch up with the Internet generation, but also to lead it into uncharted territory. Wong hopes to bring Net access to tens of millions of Asians who, like Wong, have gone most of their lives without a computer or online access.

"We had no computers in our little town," says Wong, who grew up in the Malaysian village of Taipeng. Attending the National University of Singapore on a government scholarship, Wong found himself behind. "It was quite overwhelming at first," he says. "Many of my classmates already ran their own bulletin board service. I felt quite inferior, in a way that prompted me to spend more time understanding what I could do online."

After four years at college, Wong was well ahead of the curve. "We were struck by how the Internet would change our lives," says Wong, who with two university friends, developed the idea of providing Web service to Asia via the television. After all, there are 300 million TVs in China, compared with a relatively scant 12 million PCs. While Wong and his partners brimmed with passion over the Web's possibilities, convincing others that China was about to join the Internet revolution was a nearly impossible sell. "It was really tough to raise money," says Wong. "I thought everyone else would subscribe to my idea; that it was so obvious how important the Net would become. But there were a lot of disbelievers."

Then Wong met angel investor Victor Ing, who now serves as the company's executive director from his San Francisco office. Ing laughs when he remembers the first time Wong walked through his door. Yes, says Ing, Wong "spoke fast," and in his hand, the recent graduate clutched three sheets of paper - Wong's shorthand version of a business plan. "This was in 1995," says Ing. "Netscape was just about to launch its IPO. The Internet was in its infancy stage. In Asia, it was virgin territory."

Still, impressed with Wong's vision, Ing gave him a chance. Turn in a detailed business plan within a month, Ing told Wong, and he'd consider investing. "I was just testing him," says Ing. True to form, Wong delivered the plan three weeks early. Duly impressed, Ing asked Wong how much money he had available to invest in the startup. "Nothing," said Wong, who assured Ing he was willing to borrow on his credit cards. If Wong was "prepared to invest his dreams on nothing," Ing told Wong, then he was prepared to back the venture.

What followed for Wong's MyWeb was hardly a cakewalk. In an unusual variant of a garage startup, the staff of four found free office space in the kitchen of a store located in Singapore's red-light district. Friends lent them an air conditioner and furniture. "If all the employees were there at the same time," says Ing, "there weren't enough chairs." Just as the business was taking off, the Asian economic crisis hit. "At that point," says Ing, "it was all doom and gloom. But T.S. soldiered on."

Good thing, because today MyWeb has an enviable foothold in the Asian Internet market - although behemoths AOL and Microsoft are nipping on the small company's heels. The MyWeb portal has a strong presence in China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. Further, the company has sold more than 20,000 set tops that attach to ordinary TVs - giving users MyWeb access. Wong's latest project is marketing a new Philips TV with built-in MyWeb software. Wong anticipates that by 2003 some 16 million users throughout Asia and India will be logging onto MyWeb's portal site regularly.

Today, Wong can afford to buy a few more chairs - and with more than 140 employees, he's had to do so. He's moved out of the kitchen and into a bona fide office space. In fact, the company's putting up stakes worldwide. With global headquarters in San Francisco, it has satellite offices in Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, and Shanghai.

Wong hasn't bought a Lear jet yet. The once-impoverished student may be a millionaire, but he is the first to recognise that his fortune is only on paper. "The game isn't over until the chips are cashed in," he says, adding that while his company made a profit last year, MyWeb - like its Internet startup brethren - is directing all earnings into business development. "We don't take those millions seriously."

Wong says he's careful to keep close watch on the company, staying ready to move forward when the market demands. If any industry can outrun even the most nimble of entrepreneurs, it's the Internet. "I sometimes think experience can be a baggage," say Wong. "You can easily get confined by your own box. I think that's why a lot of big companies stumble, because they are stuck in a way of doing things; the way they've always done it." It's hard to imagine Wong stopping long enough to get stuck anywhere.

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