“Keep it simple :)”
Audrey ‘Joy’ Tan
As she shared about her interactions with children and her experience as the co-founder of PlayMoolah, the first impression I had of her was that she is a happy person – and there is no other more precise way of describing her. She is a person who likes to smile a smile so sweet it makes you feel comfortable enough to want to tell her each and every life secret you may have. There was also a quiet confidence in her demeanour befitting of a leader, of an entrepreneur, and of a woman that tells you she knows what she’s doing. (And even when she’s stumped, she’ll figure something out anyway.)
Her passion in children led her on many adventures: a visit to a school in Indonesia, nurturing young people to become future leaders in her church, and perhaps her biggest project yet, co-founding PlayMoolah (a start-up that offers online financial literacy games to help children learn about money in a fun and safe environment) with a long time friend.
After the interview, she showed me her workspace. The Hub at 6pm was bustling with people. Every table was occupied, people were typing away on their laptops, engaging with ideas and each other. There was something almost magical about this place – like a silent undercurrent of excitement bubbling just beneath the surface – because nobody here is really just cruising along with life. Like Audrey, they have ideas and they have dreams, and this was them working to realise them.
I’ve heard quite a bit about the amazing work you’ve done with PlayMoolah, but not so much about yourself. How about a mini self-introduction?
I’m Audrey, Audrey Joy Tan, to be exact. I like to embody myself as someone who’s joyful, happy, and contented with life because I think there are a lot of things in life to be thankful for. I believe that we’re very fortunate young people to be born here in this part of the world. I have a passion in children, because as you watch young children, you see how much awe and wonder and curiosity they have in their lives. When I look at children, I get excited and it reminds me of the childlike nature that we as individuals have inside of us. So hanging out and being with children, nurturing them; that’s something I hold very true to.
The second reason why I am so passionate about children is because I believe children have the power to inspire adults. When you speak to children, they ask you very honest questions, like, what do banks do? Why do we need money? What do you use money for? These are very deep-seated questions that sometimes we as adults don’t have the answers ourselves. So when we’re asked those questions, I think it’s an inspiration to look deeper into our lives, to ask ourselves how we see the world, and to retake the lens of a child. I think their minds are very sophisticated and very absorbent; they can take in as much information as they like. And sometimes I think kids present a very objective truth. If it’s black of white, if it’s wrong or right, they’ll tell you. I appreciate that about kids, since sometimes as adults, we lose our childlike nature and it’s all grey and we get afraid to say the truth! You’re afraid to be honest, whereas kids are very honest and they don’t wear masks around things; it’s just who they are!
Were there any specific incident or specific instances that made you so passionate about kids?
I think the first instance is looking back in retrospect at my own life. We were all children once, and I think I was a very adventurous child. For some strange reason I wanted to be like a teacher, an archaeologist and an astronaut. It’s really strange right? And what I did when I was young was I ended up carrying my paper money to make it my own currency at home.
Amanda: (laughs) Yeah I remember we used to do that in school as well. We set up all kinds of shops and exchanged for things with paper money.
Yeah! That sense of imagination in kids, exactly like the encounter you just shared, we did that a lot when we were young. So we set up our own ecosystem, my brothers will come and then they’ll use my currency to trade. So looking back as an adult now, it’s this sense of inspiration that always reminds me to imagine and just believe that what you believe you can do– you can. Cause when you’re a child you never think about whether it’s possible or not, you’re not afraid, you kind of just do it. Even though it’s role-playing, it’s imaginary but there’s so much power in that. The ironic thing is that I’m now running this company that teaches kids about money.
How is this passion for young children reflected in your adult life?
Personally, I feel that this passion for children has driven me to seek out opportunities to work with children. Just some time last week I was in Jakarta, and I visited this school called Schola Bisa. It is a micro-school that provides primary age Indonesian children who did not previously enjoy access to formal education. It was established by a friend of mine, with some local help, and when I heard about what they were doing I was just really amazed and it made me feel like, hey, I could do something with the little I had. So what we did there was we taught them lessons about money, around the subject of needs versus wants. And then we created a game called Coin Catcher and this game demonstrated in a fun way the concepts of needs versus wants.
On the commercial front, as an entrepreneur myself, there’s a lot to learn in bringing a product to a market. We rolled out a campaign with OCBC last year so that has helped us to reach out to kids in Singapore. We’ve got a couple of thousand users all around Singapore, and what we do is we find out the stories on how PlayMoolah has touched their lives in one way of another.
Tell us more about PlayMoolah and how it come about?
There’re a couple of reasons: first, when we looked at the games that were currently out there, we questioned the values behind what they were teaching kids. For example, there was this game called Club Penguin. You go into this world and you’re a penguin. For you to become a more awesome penguin, you have to buy clothes for it. I mean, think about that for a moment. When I see games like that I started to question: is that the kind of games I want to see my kids playing with while growing up? You know what I mean? The nature of consumerism is already perpetuated in the media, in our society, more so in games?
The second reason was the fact that when you look at the needs in the market, there was so much know-how that we as individuals needed to know about money. So I felt, hey, maybe we could harness the power of technology to do something to solve this problem.
The exposure to technology came when I was in the Bay Area on a work-and-study programme; they call it the NUS Overseas Colleges experience. I was with a technology start-up called qik.com, a really cool company that did live video shooting from your cell phone and live streaming on the internet – it’s like Face Time. It was bought over by Skype. So that company gave me a lot of learning about what technology means, and technology is something I find very fascinating in terms of how we’re able to design technology such that we can influence behaviour, or influence the way we make decisions. If you look at the way games are created, it’s actually a safe environment where kids can make bad decisions, still fail, and it’s okay. So I think it’s harnessing the best in design and user-experience to make a product that makes sense and solves a problem in the market.
My founder, Min, and myself; we’ve been at it for a while now. The most recent teammate we got on board is our advisor-turned-mentor-turned-employee. She’s our Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) so she handles the marketing side of things. She’s an amazing woman, very experienced, and she’s the only mommy on the team. We met at The Hub, and it was actually a very serendipitous meeting where a friend of mine said, “You’re looking for help with marketing? Let me introduce you to someone.” So I guess when you are looking for help and you voice that you need help, people come.
How has the response to PlayMoolah been?
I would say we’re still in a very nascent stage of growth. The reception so far has been very positive. From the perspective of the parents, you realise that this is a need, or a lifeskill that they see in terms of how to financially equip their kids to make good decisions. So from a parent’s perspective, throughout the world, they’re saying, hey, it’s an important life-skill that can be taught to our kids at a young age. From the kid’s perspective, we don’t outwardly tell them that they’re learning. It’s pitched in a way that it’s fun, it’s delightful, that you can relate to, so you can learn about money in a fun way, but we don’t tell kids outrightly that they’re learning. We let them discover the lessons as they learn on their own.
We’ve gotten really good responses so far. I asked one of the users, “What do you think of PlayMoolah?” And he said, “I think it’s really useful.” So hey, that’s pretty cool! For a child to say that, it gives a lot of encouragement to the team that this is potentially valuable. In other cases, through the user data we’ve seen kids react to on the platform, we see them coming back regularly over a couple of months and that’s also very encouraging knowing that there’s some value, knowing that the kids enjoy and have fun when they’re playing the game.
What do you think about Singapore’s entrepreneurial scene?
(laughs) It is still very nascent. If you look at the number of start-ups in Singapore who have received their Series A or Series B, there’re actually very few companies who’ve gone through that cycle. By that definition, there is then still a lot of room for growth in this area for start-ups. It’s not mature, but it’s definitely burgeoning, with a lot of support from the angels, the government. We’ve seen a few good exits. Like Darius Cheung, who runs tenCube, which was later sold off to McAfee. Brandtology, a social media company that provides social media analytics, was sold off as well. So it’s interesting to see these pockets of bubbling start-ups who grow, and then exit to another path. I personally feel that it’s a healthy state of the eco-system.
Did your team face any difficulties with getting sufficient financial backing?
The background of this company is that we’re angel funded, which simply means that we’re privately funded by individuals here in Singapore and in the US. The initial point of gaining funding was not exactly easy, but then again there was a lot of discernment that needed to be in that. You know, were we ready to take people’s money? So there was a time when we paid ourselves very little, and we’re not ready to make money. It was only at the point when we’ve made the prototype, when we’ve got our team in place that we said, you know what, we’re ready for funding. It’s only then that we went out to look for people to be part of the organisation, to help support this move.
Do you see yourself doing this for the long-term?
Whether or not I’ll do this for the long run, I think as a leader running a company, you need to have humility. Maybe one day when we’re growing so big, there’ll be someone who is a better leader who is more equipped to grow the company. That’s my perspective to running the company. Having said that, my passion is in helping children learn, and at the heart of that is financial empowerment. But if you strip away the financial component, it’s empowerment. It’s enabling people to feel confident that they can do anything. So money is just one context that allows that, you know what I mean? Once you have confidence, you can do anything. It’s true for anyone of us, like me and you.
So what I see what PlayMoolah can be in the future is definitely a global company with a global brand that kids can relate to and love, that parents can trust and feel secure knowing that their kids are put through a good environment where we the kids are at the very centre of our experience.
In making PlayMoolah a global corporation, what are some challenges you face or concerns you have? Were there any instances that had you questioning your choices?
That’s a good question, and we’re facing it right now. We’re potentially working in Indonesia so the issue is how do we want to make what we’re doing contextually relevant? How do we create languages such that they’re localised? So these are some challenges. And you realise that as an individual and as an entrepreneur, the flexibility it requires for you to navigate that market with openness, with perseverance and with patience, is something that is very real. You can’t cut short the learning curve and try to break into the market. It feels like you need to be very patient to try and navigate it in a way that is just.
I guess, as an entrepreneur, when the going gets tough, that’s when you question. I mean, in good times, who questions? When we launched the product last April, we thought we would fail in the market. From a rollout perspective, we saw that perhaps when you launch a product, you think that consumers would pay for it and adopt it. And because we couldn’t find the product market fit per se, that led us to think about how we could better do it. This was a challenging time in the company when we had to do a pivot to find our customers, otherwise we’d find ourselves stuck.
This was also when a lot of the questions came up: were we the right people to do this? Were we doing something wrong? Why is it not working? Am I equipped with the right team to do it? Some of these questions were answered shortly after; with perseverance, we finally launched with the local bank in Singapore. So I think it’s almost a challenge to know when to navigate, when to switch, when to be agile and flexible. If one thing doesn’t work, then move on.
How did you develop the confidence you have now?
I would say that, ironically, confidence is gained through failing. I think it’s when you fail that you really learn. I think failure itself needs to be defined – for me, it’s when your outcome doesn’t meet what you anticipated. I remember a very specific incidence: when I first went to the Bay Area after I got my placement, I lost my internship very quickly because the company didn’t get their round of financing and couldn’t fund my pay. But that’s the nature of start-ups right? It’s uncertain. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because what came along was a better opportunity with Qik! And that was where I met my co-founder. It’s through setbacks like these that you build confidence, knowing that there is a greater good in whatever you’re going through.
I’ll share with you another example. Last year in April, we didn’t have any growth during that period. But what happened later on was we found the opportunity to work with OCBC, and that roll out was such a huge one that I would never have imagined that possibility. So it’s going through those hard times I guess, because it’s like a rainbow after the rain.
But as an individual and as a woman, there is always this other dark side in which you suffer from self-doubt, and I think it’s a phenomenon that many women experience. I constantly reflect on that and I learnt that I, as a person, am never going to be fully equipped. You know what I mean? It’s that humility in knowing that I’m never going to be fully certain or fully equipped; it’s when we rely less on ourselves and more on a higher power. That’s how I constantly journey through the tough times.
How about some advice for fellow entrepreneurs?
In our society today where jobs are changing so rapidly, where you don’t see the jobs that exist ten years ago, it’s a completely new world! I’ve learnt that life is too short to live with regrets, that as an individual and as individuals, we can be empowered to do more than we think. It’s really in our hands to create our own path. And I think entrepreneurship is such a gift. You get to decide your own path around what you want to do in your life, what problems you want to spend your precious time solving. It makes life a bit more alive and more colourful.
And I think that this is applicable for everyone, not just entrepreneurs. If you adopt the mindset of learning, you’ll never be bored. And if you desire a hunger for learning, you can empower people around you.