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Career AdviceSuccessful High flyers’ story

Future of communications: SaaS solutions connect apps and people alike

Published on Saturday, 23 Feb 2019

With smartphones now everywhere and with IoT (the Internet of Things) set to transform many aspects of daily life, ensuring all these devices function correctly is a massive task.

But behind the scenes, individuals like Steven Yap and companies like M800, of which he is co-founder and chief executive, are making it happen.

“Basically, our team empowers everything, making the apps communicate,” he says. “We put in the SDKs (software development kits) providing the solutions to enable people to communicate any way, anywhere with global connectivity.”

The standard features support voice, file transfer, instant messaging, video and conference calls. However, major clients — the 1,000-strong list goes from banks and payment companies to manufacturers, international brands and suppliers of medical devices — may have any number of different requirements.

In each case, the specifics are covered in an SLA, or service level agreement, which also ensures regulatory compliance, data privacy and cyber security.

“It is software as a service (SaaS); we are the enabler,” says Yap, who oversees the firm’s strategy and direction. “We work with technology development firms and write software for B2B and B2C communications. But we also offer ‘white label’ data mining, so clients can display the behaviour of their customers and see when or where they make calls or send messages. They can then do deep learning and use that to develop AI (artificial intelligence).”

At present, M800 has around 300 people globally, with the majority in Hong Kong and most employed as developers and engineers. In creating software, they start with a “vision”, but must then follow a defined process and clear methodology.

“You have to be driven by standards, as well as social responsibilities,” Yap says. “We want to expand the platform and services into different vertical markets and start building a data scientist team; that’s the next phase.”

Born in Kuala Lumpur as the fifth of seven children, Yap regards himself as one of the “lucky ones” who came along when the rough times were over.

Under family instructions, his father had left Guangzhou as a teenager to escape the Second World War, landing initially in Kota Kinabalu and arriving in Kuala Lumpur with just 17 Chinese yuan in his pocket. But he worked hard, studied business, married a fellow emigrant and, in due course, found prosperity distributing Chinese medicine and ginseng.

At home, Yap recalls, there was always a sense of discipline. All the kids had to get up early, make their beds, carry their own bags, apply themselves to every task, and develop self-reliance.

“When I was young I didn’t always agree with that, but when I came to run my own company, I really understood the importance of what my father had said, though I modernised it a bit.”

Sent to Singapore in Grade 8, to a school where everyone else spoke Putonghua, Yap struggled — and won a reprieve. But by 1977, he had fewer qualms about finishing high school overseas and was sent off to join an elder brother who was already in Toronto.

“I liked Canada, the people were nice, it was very systematic and seemed a more open society,” he says. “At first, my English was very bad, but I had a Walkman and would listen to the radio every day to improve. Even now, I can clearly remember the words to songs like Daydream Believer and the jingle for Wrigley’s double mint gum.”

With a natural ability for numbers, he went on to study maths and computer science at the University of Windsor in Ontario completing the usual four-year course in less than three.

“I liked everything — the theory, proving things, the abstract elements, computational problems, and making algorithms more efficient,” says Yap, who had a scholarship, but also cooked and washed dishes at local restaurants to make ends meet. “I would write codes in Fortran, Cobalt and Java to understand the language in the microprocessor and, early on, decided to pursue a career in technology.”

To that end, the next step was an MSc in computer science at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, before securing a full-time job with Bell Laboratories in Ottawa, doing mainly coding work. Six years on, in 1994, he moved to Nortel Networks and, soon after, was given the chance to look at a system in China.

“They needed strong tech support guys, so I initially went for a year and ended up based in Hong Kong. I set up a team for tech transfer and was able to apply all I had learned on the R&D side in a more customer-based business.”

Seeking a new challenge, he subsequently joined CITIC 1616 Holdings, as director of commercial in charge of global mobile added-value services. And that paved the way to starting M800 in 2007, with a business partner who had a similar vision, mindset and belief, and had already proved to be a smart entrepreneur.

The key aspect was foreseeing how smartphones and tablets would develop in the next five to 10 years and how the use of apps would become ever more important. It took a year or so to raise funds and build contacts, after which things really took off.

“I didn’t invent anything, I just moved from one space to the next and kept learning,” Yap says. “Basically, I’m good at one thing: building platforms for communications. I’m able to contribute a little bit in this area and, otherwise, the success of the company comes from the process and principles learned in my early days. A lot of leadership is from that.”

When off duty, Yap makes an effort to keep fit, loves reading history, and is part of the church community every Sunday.

“I try to make sure I’m a good man,” he says. “Life has treated me well. I am blessed with my family, but it’s now time to give back by doing more community service.”