Cover Story
Lighting The Way
Grace Lim 
Tan (seated)and his team set weekly goals to achieve to bring Futurelab forward the best way they can
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Walking into Futurelab’s office and getting acquainted with the team was like getting to know a family. They are a cohesive unit working together to achieve the same goal and there were lots of friendly banter and laughter. This jovial atmosphere could have to do with the fact that everybody here is working on something close to their hearts.

The premise of Futurelab is simple – an online social learning platform for university graduates who are unsure as to how to prepare for the next chapter in their lives as working adults. The website (futurelab.my) connects them with professionals who, as mentors, give advice on anything they’d like to know about the profession and the industry they are interested in.

The reasoning is that the better informed they are, the better prepared these job-seekers would be for job interviews, and the higher the chances for them to get employed.

Brian Tan, 29, is the co-founder and CEO of Futurelab and is currently the only one of the three partners running the company on a full-time basis. Originally from Miri, Sarawak, Tan moved around quite a bit when he was younger – he had lived in Abu Dhabi and Brunei – because his dad worked in the oil and gas industry.

When he was 12, he returned to Malaysia and met Tai Fung Wei Tan, who became his best friend, and one of the founders of Futurelab. They met the third partner, Clarissa Chang, via a mutual friend in high school. “We hung out a lot and often spoke about working together and giving back to society. Education was an area that we were really interested in,” remembers Tan.

Being a lover of science, Tan then went off to study Biochemistry at the University of Bath. “I really enjoyed my studies, and part of my course was a one-year placement at Oxford University researching a rare disease. At the end of my research, my supervisor asked me to stay on for my PhD. By then, I was questioning whether I wanted to be working in a lab for the rest of my life. I found that it wasn’t what I wanted.”

The tricky part was telling his parents who wanted him to work towards his PhD. Eventually, they compromised with Tan going on to pursue his Masters in Management at the Imperial College Business School. It was here that he found that he actually enjoyed management consultancy.

“It involved all the skill sets I already acquired as a scientist – a good problem solver, team player and communicator. When I returned to Malaysia, I applied to a few consulting firms. Although I was confident, my first interview was a disaster.
I realised that I wasn’t prepared at all.”

Apparently, there was a discrepancy between his expectations and that of the employers. Determined to secure a well-paying job in consultancy, he visited several online career forums in search of others who were in the same boat as him and even got them to practise case studies with him.

When he finally did land his “dream” job, he found that many of his colleagues were not happy. He revealed that they were always talking about trying new things but lacked the time to meet people outside work. Tan took the initiative to start a gathering of like-minded people, not realising he was planting the seed for Futurelab.

“I posted on the internet that there would be a meeting comprising consultants. The response was so overwhelming that we had to cap it at 20 people,” he shares.

That first meeting went extremely well, and the attendees bonded through mutual grievances and ambitions. More meetings followed and Tan expanded it to include professionals from other fields including lawyers, accountants and bankers. The positive response of these meetings throughout the year convinced Tan to establish Futurelab, which aims to help people secure jobs that they want by bridging the expectations of potential employees and employers.

“Some of the challenges faced by the graduates are mismatched job expectations, increased competition, lack of industry knowledge, and also unknown career opportunities,” he notes.

After securing funding from the Cradle CIP150 grant in January last year, Tan quit his job to concentrate on Futurelab. From the get-go, it garnered positive feedback, including being hailed as one of the Top 50 start-up ideas by MAGIC Stanford Go2Market.

Two months after the online platform went live in July 2016, Futurelab was selected to participate at MAGIC e@Stanford in Silicon Valley. Through this programme, Tan learnt more about entrepreneurship. Today, Futurelab has a team of 11 people, including the co-founders.

Tai is the chief technology officer (CTO), overseeing the tech division; he is also the co-founder and CTO of GoGet, a point-to-point delivery service. As the chief communication officer, Chang takes care of marketing. She is also the executive director at EPIC DNA, a sub-division of EPIC Homes that focuses on growth and learning.

Tan reveals that Futurelab began with only 40 mentors and 60 students, mainly in Malaysia, but through strong word-of-mouth, it has grown into a global community of 48 countries including the UK, US and Australia.

“The growth is organic as we hardly do any advertising,” Tan says. “We spoke to some American students who were using Futurelab to look for jobs and internships in Asia. As fresh graduates, they needed a local network and Futurelab was their gateway into this market. This need to bridge the gap between students and the profession of their choice is not just a Malaysian thing but a global one.”

The current subscription model, which is divided into packages, was launched in June this year. Subscribers are given credits to book for sessions with the mentor of their choice, with each session lasting from 30 to 60 minutes. The mentors, who come from diverse backgrounds such as education, oil and gas, technology, legal services, fashion, and social enterprise, are not paid; instead 40% of the profits are channelled to Futurelab’s educational partners, namely Teach For Malaysia, 100% Project, and Edunation. Among the good work that they have done was successfully helping a teacher in Pahang through the 100% Project to equip her classroom with shelves, books, dictionaries, desks, and even a projector.

For Tan, it all boils down to his desire to help others; in fact, the importance of education was something that was drummed into him from an early age by his mother, who grew up in the Philippines. “She was from a poor family and education was her ticket out of the difficult situation.”

He adds: “It’s very heartening to see that there are many successful professionals who struggled in the beginning of their careers who want to help others get off on the right foot. Knowledge is golden and Futurelab works at giving job-seekers invaluable industry insights and help build the skill sets you need to get the job of your choice.”

Futurelab also breaks down borders, allowing graduates to dream further, literally speaking. “We want students to think bigger. Do you want to work at Google? Go ahead and give it a shot. Do you want to work in South Africa? No harm in trying. Don’t limit yourself to what your family or what society expects of you. Malaysians need to think bigger because we most definitely can go bigger,” Tan enthuses.

And if you need any proof, just look how far Tan has come.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 246.