Hitting The Right Notes
Music education professional Mr Benjamin Kwan (Engineering ’14) marches to the beat of a different drum – and has made his passion a career.
It is perhaps a legacy of his National Service days in the gung-ho Naval Diving Unit, but Mr Benjamin Kwan is not afraid of taking the path less-travelled. Even though he graduated from NUS with a degree in mechanical engineering, he has never worked as an engineer. Instead, he teaches adults to play music, despite lacking a formal background in music or in education.
Mr Kwan, 29, is the co-founder of TravelClef, a multi-dimensional music education company that has been hitting all the right notes. One part of the business is a travelling music school. It goes to the premises of companies to teach employees how to play the ukulele or the keyboard. Human resource departments are in favour of holding these workshops because they are team-building exercises, while employees love it because their long-held musical aspirations are finally fulfilled. TravelClef also sells ukeleles and cajóns (a box-shaped drum) that bear the TravelClef brand to its students, and other music schools. The third leg of the business is a matchmaking service that connects freelance music instructors and people who want to learn to play.
To Mr Kwan, it is the music education aspect that is most interesting. In the usual order of things, it is kids who learn music. They attend music school to learn to play an instrument while their ‘long-suffering parents’ put up with the hours of tortured practice. However, TravelClef stumbled onto an untapped market consisting of adults who never got the opportunity to learn to play an instrument as children, and who now do not want to learn with a bunch of 5-year-olds as classmates. “Our customers have gone to other music schools, but they tell us that ours is the only lesson that they truly enjoyed,” he says.
This is partly due to the fact that Mr Kwan himself is a self-taught musician. So even though it is his business partner who is formally trained, it is Mr Kwan who comes up with the outline for the lessons. “I write the syllabus from the perspective of someone with no musical background,” he says. Mr Kwan was always been interested in music but his parents could not afford music lessons. His first music lesson was in beatboxing, which he learnt from a friend while in Temasek Junior College. His uncle subsequently gave him an old classical guitar, and between friends and the Internet, Mr Kwan taught himself to play. It was only at University that he was able to hone his musical talent, as the lead singer of KRinspire, a Kent Ridge Hall band. “I hadn’t learned to read music at the time, I didn’t know how to count tempo, I didn’t know how to pitch myself,” he recalls. He learned all that from fronting the band.
STRIKING A CHORD
TravelClef was actually conceived during his University days, after his first semester in 2010. To supplement his income at the time, he gave Maths tuition and at one point, was down to his last $48. He needed a way to earn more money so he and a fellow former naval diver, Mr Edmund Chew, started an agency to match guitar instructors with people who wanted to learn.
The success of their venture, SG Guitar Music Agency, led them to think that there might be real money in music. They initially wanted to teach music in schools but found that there were lots of companies doing this already. However, their research showed that at the time, no one was doing corporate music classes. “We had nothing to lose so we went for it.” They set up a website, marketed their services on Google, and within a week, received an inquiry from a semi-conductor company. The company was planning a bring-your-kids-to-work day and wanted the kids to have something to do. “They wanted us to teach the kids guitar and ukulele. We had no syllabus — and no instruments — but we just said yes.” It went so well that the HR manager of the company passed on their contacts to other companies in the industry.
The early years were not easy, as Mr Kwan had to juggle work, school and hall activities (he played in the hall volleyball team among other things). “Every day, I’d sleep for just four hours. I’d have four cans of coffee in my bag. A few times, I’d go for night meetings, then the next morning, I’d go for my exams,” he recalls.
GETTING IN TUNE
While at the time, school seemed an impediment to his business, Mr Kwan is now grateful for the training in logical problem-solving that his NUS Engineering course provided him with. He is particularly appreciative for the opportunity to take a cross-disciplinary business module. In that class, he was inspired by one message in particular, when the professor told the class: “If you want to start a business, start now. The only opportunity cost is your grades.” That message gave him the confidence to work at the business despite the challenges. “I knew with my grades, I could not compete with other engineers. But I had the desire to be a success, I enjoyed music and the passion became my job.”
After Mr Kwan graduated, he and his partner were able to focus on the business and began expanding it. They started selling their own instruments because of the high prices they had to pay to buy instruments for their students. For a young firm, this decision was a big one. “Our first purchase was via Alibaba; we spent $10,000 and prayed every day that the ukuleles would arrive.” The shipment did come in, though that presented its own problems. They had no storage space at the time, so the 300 ukuleles were stacked up to the ceiling in Mr Chew’s bedroom.
TIME TO SOAR
Those days are now in the rear-view mirror though. The founders are planning to expand into Malaysia, Indonesia and China, and are also looking to move out of their rented premises into a place of their own. This is because they want to start up a music school for adults which can host a hundred students at a time. They wish to target people who, like Mr Kwan, always wanted to learn but did not have the chance to do so as children. “Now as adults, they have the money but no time.”
Presently, their 2-hour music workshop for adults has seen a good response. The promise is that for $97, students get a ukulele and by the session’s end, they would have learnt to play five songs: You Are My Sunshine, Happy Birthday, Just The Way You Are by Bruno Mars, I’m Yours by Jason Mraz, and John Denver’s Country Road.
Based on his experience, his advice to would-be entrepreneurs who are still studying in university is to go for it, to work hard but to be prepared to pay the price. “A lot of business students plan their business but they never start it because it’s too risky. You can’t always have the best of everything in life: to have straight As and to build up a successful business. You need to know what you truly want.”