Entrepreneurship and creating great companies are his strength, but there’s more to Joel Neoh than just “that entrepreneur guy”.

Fifteen years ago, Joel Neoh became an entrepreneur.

He started his first start-up as a fresh-faced 20-year-old in university and has been hooked onto the rewarding taste of creating companies since. In the next decade and a half, he would own the scene doing what he does best and catch the attention of some of the country’s greatest minds and media alike, some eager to invest, others intrigued to learn more and most just fascinated by his seemingly unbreakable streak to create companies that succeed. When you’ve been doing something for so long and so successfully, you come to be known for it.

It wasn’t long before Joel came to be known as the “entrepreneur guy”.

It’s an apt sobriquet: a quick Google search lays out all his achievements in the field, from his Youth Asia, SAYS.com and subsequently Rev Asia days to the peak of Groupon, Kfit and the consolidation of them with Groupon Singapore and Indonesia to become Fave.

“I never started out wanting to be known as the startup entrepreneur guy,” Joel confesses. “I just wanted to start companies and I thought it was fun working with young people. You suddenly realise that people begin to define you that way.”

Joel is in shirt by Salvatore Ferragamo

The moniker isn’t one he has an issue with, save for the fact that, now in his mid-thirties, he’s beginning to realise there’s more to him than that. “There’s more to life than just work or building a company,” he elaborates, “but I am so used to it that it became hard to grow in other areas.”

The past few year have seen him embarking on a series of things under the radar that might surprise some in his bid to break the mould and stretch his own wings.

“Life has so much to offer,” he reflects. “It doesn’t mean that you can only do one thing at a time. Back then perhaps I was more narrow-minded or overly focused. I spent all my time doing one thing. Now I realise I can do other things without compromising what I do.”

Joel gets comfortable in pants by Bottega Veneta

Breaking the mould by breaking the cycle

A baby grand piano sits in Joel’s sprawling 3-storey home built to an industrial theme in the middle of towering trees around which the home is designed. Other things peppering the space give hint to what he’s been up to – tennis racquets hanging by the hallway, a few books on basic Mandarin sitting on the bookshelves and, most adorably, a handful of chew-toys lying around a corner of the kitchen.

“I enjoy what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years,” he clarifies, “I just wanted to break the cycle of the same learning curve because I think that you draw parallel learning from different things. I didn’t want to be defined in just that way, it just happened because I spent so much time doing it. I wanted to break out of that mould.”

“If we were all more honest about how we felt about what we like, we can be a lot greater at what we do.”

He’s seen the the product of being overly one-dimensional, of being too comfortably confined to the labels given to you and allowing yourself to become pigeon-holed by it.

“Some managers and entrepreneurs say the same thing five years ago as they do today because they’re not really growing,” he imparts. “They don’t expand on the knowledge on how you tackle certain things. That’s how you come to be identified as traditional and old-school entrepreneurs. Being more dynamic with different aspects is important.”

Joel is top and pants by Michael Kors and shoes by Coach

To veer from going down that path, he’s set his heart on an unlikely course of events that he believes will expand his awareness on an all-encompassing level.

“Two years back I decided I wanted to learn three things,” he reveals. “I wanted to learn a new language, I wanted to learn a new sport and I wanted to learn a new musical instrument.”

“It’s a bit absurd, but that’s why there’s a piano sitting behind us now,” he says, gesturing to the shiny black baby grand in the corner. “It made me realise that ‘Hey, I’m not just an entrepreneur doing startups. I can also be passionate about music, I can also learn a new sport’.”

The three were specifically chosen to exercise the three different pillars of his psyche, an insight to Joel’s recognition on the importance of being well-rounded.

“When you’re learning sports, it’s physical, it’s muscle memory, it’s technique. With language, you exercise your brain to form and words to respond to the questions. It’s also memorising. With the piano, it’s a creative, emotional process. It’s also a muscle memory, but closer to a music memory.”

How serious is he? He’s blocked off most Saturdays for Mandarin classes with a one-on-one tutor for an hour and a half as well as a coach for tennis. That baby grand is also now one of his favourite furnishing in the house – an instrument he taught himself how to play from after watching the movie La La Land, fuelled by a liking from the past.

“We are a product of our circumstance, but not a product of our passions.”

“To grow, you have to break out of what defines you,” he expounds. “I have a lot of friends who are married with kids, they kind of just live the same life. When you talk to them, they’re not growing as a person, they’re just comfortable where they are. They’re not trying new things and pushing boundaries, which is very important.”

“When you try and learn all three things that work these different aspects in the same five-hour window, it’s crazy,” he further elaborates. “After doing it for a few weeks, I thought about things in very different ways. It unlocks very different parts of your brain. That’s the broad perspective on learning.”

Joel is in top by Bottega Veneta, pants by Michael Kors and is accompanied by his Samoyed, Mika

Listening to your heart

As much as he believes in growing by trying out new things, it didn’t escape him that a lot of the “new” things he’s trying out stems from an innate love for them that draws back to his childhood. They are things a part of him has always loved – he is now merely free to embrace them after years of non-practice as a product of circumstance.

Piano lessons were part of his childhood but came to a halting stop when his brother showed little interest resulting in his parents giving the house piano away. Tennis was also first introduced to him in his primary school days but Malaysia’s unforgiving sun decided for his parents that squash – another racquet game that you can play indoors in a kinder air-conditioned environment – was a better choice.

Joel is in hoodie jacket, white hoodie shirt and pants by Michael Kors

“I think when I was young, the same with a lot of other people, there are certain things we like but have others make the decision for us to do something else,” he tells. “We may be doing things that we’re not passionate about and we don’t even realise it. Maybe a teacher, your family, your siblings or someone told you to do these things. But if you take a step back, who we are and what we like to do may not necessarily be what we’re doing today, or what we think we genuinely like.”

“If we were all more honest about how we felt about what we like, we can be a lot greater at what we do.”

Many times has he been asked where does he find his motivations and passions for the ideas that come to him. He feels this has a big part to do with it.

“It helps to listen to your heart, a lot of us already know what we like, what we’re passionate about. We are a product of our circumstance, but not a product of our passions,” he observes.

And in true entrepreneurial spirit, he’s found a way to fix that in a manner only an entrepreneur will – with intentional steps and a bigger, better picture as the end goal in mind.

Photography: Ian Wong from The Home Studio
Art direction and styling: Gan Yew Chin
Grooming: Ling Chong
Video: Felix Khu
Special mention: Joel wears sweater and pants by Michael Kors in the featured image