It started with homemade cheesecake.
At 14, when Home Economics was just another lower secondary class to attend alongside General Science and Chinese, Charmain Tan was baking and selling cheesecakes to classmates and friends.
“What would you know as a 14-year-old, right? But even then, I saw myself as a business owner,” she recalled.
That kickstarted her entrepreneurship journey – an up-and-down adventure that saw her becoming the founder of QuickDesk and being named in 2019’s Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list.
The annual list features 300 young disruptors, innovators and entrepreneurs across Asia, all under the age of 30, who are challenging conventional wisdom and rewriting the rules for the next generation.
There are 10 categories which include the Arts, Entertainment & Sports and Healthcare & Science. In 2019, Charmain shared the honours with Singapore band The Sam Willows and tennis ace Naomi Osaka.
QuickDesk, a simplified one-stop customer relationship management software that has serviced more than 800 clients locally and internationally, was selected under the Enterprise Technology – no mean feat for a business graduate with “zero background in technology”.
“God knew what I needed even before I did”
At 21, Charmain’s in-born drive resurfaced when she started her first company producing winter gloves for touchscreen devices. This was around the time when phones such as the iPhone 3G, iPhone 4 and Samsung Galaxy S were launched.
For her, setting up that company was an object lesson in the providence of God. Until then, she knew God but never really trusted Him, constantly feeling that “God would bless everyone else but me”.
Without experience in textiles, manufacturing and even lacking knowledge of the process to secure funding, Charmain saw God bring the right people alongside her. From teammates to angel investors, everything was provided for.
She recalled how one investor, who came across her booth at an exhibition, got so actively involved in the business that roles were reversed.
She explained: “In most cases, the recipient is the one chasing for funds but in my case, it was the investor who actively helped me get things done and tried his best to help me secure the funding fast.
“That was a faith-building journey. God knew what I needed even before I did – and God provides.”
It was from her first company that Charmain realised first-hand how small businesses struggle with handling sales processes while lacking digital tools to drive sales productivity.
That became the inspiration behind QuickDesk, which she started in 2015. Charmain’s product found traction in the market and her revenue grew exponentially.
“As I started making money, I put God aside – as a bystander,” she recalled. “I wanted to make money in my own way, even though I knew that my priority should be to seek His kingdom first rather than my own riches (Matthew 6:33).”
She wanted to live life on her own terms and there were milestones that she wanted to reach – become a millionaire, own her own home and get married by the age of 30.
But the good times didn’t last forever. The business began to fall apart. She encountered fraud and her team mates left.
“Everything that could go wrong, went wrong,” said Charmain. “I was lost and depressed but God showed me light.”
“At 29, I was left to rebuild the business and myself. I started asking God: ‘Why me? Why do I have to go through all this?’ I was lost and depressed but God showed me light.”
In the desperate search, God revealed His heart: He was calling her back to His path. “I knew I needed to seek God,” Charmain said, quoting the words of Jesus in the book of John.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
“My entrepreneurship life was pretty much like a roller coaster, filled with many ups and many downs,” she said.
“But I came to learn one thing through it all, that God made all things happen for a reason. More often than not, the downs are there to prune us, a lesson for us to learn.
“I realised that God made it happen for me, not to me. To teach me what it means to walk in His way and not ours. He’s the one who could provide for me, yet I chose to follow my own ways.”
“God never meant for us to run this journey alone”
As Charmain remembers the people that God brought into life at different stages of her entrepreneurial journey, she looks back with much gratitude.
“Starting a business alone as a student can be really tough. Everything seems like a new territory, and the statement ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’ becomes even more apparent,” she explained.
Charmain recounts how when she needed to pitch to investors, God provided a mentor who helped begin her fundraising journey and foray into many other stage talks.
Later on, God also sent a computing professor to journey with her and ensure she didn’t end up buying IT solutions that weren’t the best for her company.
“Starting a software company with no tech background is not easy at all,” said Charmain.
And after she lost her chief technology officer, she could only look up and ask for angels as she tried to sustain the business.
“Becoming a solo founder left in the organisation led me to yet another path of lostness,” confessed Charmain. “As I again cried out to God, He brought me even more mentors, friends and coaches.”
Whether she was putting together a training team, starting to do enterprise solutioning or thinking about scaling overseas, she was amazed at how she would cross paths with successful yet humble mentors who were willing to help.
“This startup journey is indeed a marathon, but God never meant for us to run this journey alone,” concluded Charmain. “As I have benefitted from the various mentorships, I now mentor companies myself too.”
His will, His way
Today, Charmain has realigned her goals with the intention of shining the light of God through her life and the challenges she faces.
“Sometimes, we cannot understand why things happen moving forward, we can only understand them by connecting the dots back,” Charmain said.
“God makes all things happen in His time.”
She sees now how a product she launched in 2018 wouldn’t have done as well if she did it when QuickDesk first started, simply because she didn’t have enough experience earlier on.
For now, the pint-sized Charmain has big dreams for the future – from expanding the education arm of her business to providing free education in digital skills to children in developing countries.
Success, to her, is no longer defined by the money she makes, but rather to walk the path that God has left for her – a journey of learning to live in accordance to God’s will and not her own.
“Through it all, if there is a common trend that I have observed is that God makes all things happen in His time. God has a plan for us,” she added. “Have faith: Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance of what we do not see.”
Charmain is one of the mentors participating in a new nationwide Marketplace Mentorship Programme. Started by Samuel Tan, an undergraduate from 3:16 Church, he noticed that graduating students transiting to the workforce may struggle and stumble to live out their faith in the marketplace.
Through the mentorship programme, he hopes to help them to become salt and light in their specific industry. Registration for this year’s intake closes on April 20. Visit www.faithx.one to learn more.
This article was first published in Salt&Light and has been edited to reflect latest updates from the interviewee.
- Looking back, can you see how God was leading you through various milestones in your life?
- Who or what are some things you can thank God for?
- What does it mean to seek God and His kingdom first above all else?