First Person: ‘Only use money you can afford to lose’

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 11, 2019 - March 17, 2019.
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Jared Lee believes in the saying, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew”, when it comes to his career and managing his finances. He has adopted this philosophy based on his life experiences and the many challenges he faced when he was establishing his production house and YouTube channel called Grim Film in 2011.

“You can invest in something when you have money that you do not mind losing. It is when you invest [the little money that you have], expect returns and it does not work out, that is when you suffer [financially],” says Lee.

As someone who had a simple childhood, having been raised by a single mother who ran a hair salon, his definition of financial freedom is not having money problems on a daily basis and having some investments that generate returns. “It is when I do not have to worry about paying for food, have a place to live and am able to take care of my family. When it comes to personal investments, [financial freedom] is when I do not have to work and money grows without any effort,” he says.

Coming from a creative background, financial instincts is not something that comes naturally to Lee. But that has not stopped him from learning by trial and error. “I wanted to deep dive into the creative aspect. But to survive in this industry, you have to service clients and manage expectations while making sure that you earn enough money to survive. It is finding a balance between the two, which I think a lot of creatives find very hard to do,” he says.

Lee has worked with brands such as Uniqlo, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Samsung, Japan Tourism, Singapore Airlines, AirAsia and Grab. His company has won several international awards over the years while his YouTube video The Last 7 grabbed two awards at the Vancouver Web Fest in April last year. The short film had beaten the other nominees from Europe and North America to win the awards for Best Pilot and Best Special Effects. Lee’s videos have garnered more than 70,000 views on average.

 

Setting up Grim Film

The foundation for Grim Film was simple — passion. Lee realised his love of storytelling after completing a foundation course at an art college and subsequently, when he was studying mass communications at IACT College. It was during this time that he also discovered that he had a natural talent for filmmaking.

“[In college] I had the opportunity to try a bit of everything that the creative industry had to offer. I was drawn to filmmaking during an in-class video assignment. There was a sense of joy while I was doing it,” says Lee.

After graduating in 2011, he worked full-time at an event company while recording an album for his rock band and freelancing as a storyboard artist on the side. That was when he came up with the story idea for his short film, The Long Distance Relationship.

“The story was one of those that came naturally and I wrote it without getting writer’s block. It was probably inspired by my own experiences of being in a long-distance relationship. But no one died in my story,” Lee laughs.

He pitched the story to his friends and they loved it. They then decided to treat the exercise as a passion project and produce a zero-budget video. When it was completed, it was submitted to a short film competition in the US.

“We uploaded the video on YouTube later that night just for feedback. We did not expect it to garner 70,000 views in the first week alone,” says Lee.

“Soon, phone calls started coming in. There were job opportunities as well as opportunities to collaborate and make movies. I saw the opportunity to start something. So, I took a leap of faith and started Grim Film.”

The Long Distance Relationship won the award for Best Drama at the American Film Festival in 2012. The video had attracted more than three million views as at March 6.

To get things started, Lee spent RM15,000 on the necessary equipment for filming. This initial capital came from his savings. There were no overhead costs at the time because the company was just him and a friend and they would do their work in cafés.

The first three years were the hardest for Lee. One of the challenges the then 26-year-old faced was a lack of experience in managing a company. “I did not know how to be a boss and run a production house. I had no experience dealing with clients. We had to learn from our mistakes and I burnt a lot of bridges during this time, which lost us a lot of potential jobs,” he says.

The company often experienced inconsistent cash flow as many clients took their time to pay for completed jobs. In one case, Lee had to wait two years before he received payment.

“You feel like you have money, but you do not. The industry has been operating this way for a long time. So, I learnt not to assume that I had the money until I saw it in my account,” he says.

Things got so bad that there was even a time when Lee wished he would get into a minor car accident so that he could get, say, RM50 in compensation. This amount, he surmised, would allow him to get through the week.

Then one day, his car was hit from behind and he received RM50 in compensation. But instead of repairing the car, he used the money for his daily sustenance. At this point, he knew that he had hit rock bottom financially.

But Lee persevered. Despite his financial issues, the company continued to make videos and upload them on YouTube as a way of marketing its services. These videos generated interest in its services and the company managed to grow slowly.

However, in the middle of 2012, business started to slow down because prospective clients were becoming sceptical about the services provided by Grim Film.

“A bunch of us started out at the same time. We were among the pioneers on YouTube and there was a sudden boom in the industry. So, when it came to clients, there was a mindset that was hard to break because clearly, our set-up was minimal. But at the same time, we were delivering videos that generated viewing numbers that they had not seen before on the local scene. Things picked up slowly as people started to be educated on how we work and how they could use our services to benefit their brands,” says Lee.

 

Other ventures

In addition to Grim Film, Lee tried his hand at other business ventures — a café in Subang called Morning Wood in 2015 and an event space in Sunway called Pintu Suka Hati in 2016.

The café was a childhood dream of his as he had always wanted to run a food and beverage (F&B) business. The opportunity came about when the previous owners wanted to sell the café and a few of his friends were also interested in the business. So, they bought over the establishment — lock, stock and barrel — for RM300,000, of which Lee’s contribution was RM70,000.

“We either made a profit or broke even every month. That was very good for a new café,” he says.

However, none of the partners were there full-time as they had jobs of their own. Soon, the business stagnated.

“I wish we had at least one partner with an F&B background so that we could give customers new items every month. It came to a point where I became very busy with production and I did not see the place for a whole month. So, we decided to sell the café at the end of 2017,” says Lee.

As for Pintu Suka Hati, he invested in the business because he thought he would be able to rent out the space. However, things did not pan out quite the way he wanted them to.

“The problem was that the place was pure white, even the floor. But people wanted event spaces that already had a design so that they did not have to spend on decorations,” says Lee.

The business lasted a year before it was closed down, resulting in a RM70,000 loss for him.

All three businesses were running simultaneously in 2016 and 2017. Lee had the confidence to invest in Morning Wood and Pintu Suka Hati because Grim Film’s business was picking up and he now had some extra income. “If I see a chance to do something, I will jump right in, even if I do not know what I am getting into. I use money that I can afford to lose,” he says.

Choosing to look at the brighter side of things, the 34-year-old says his experiences have taught him what not to do if he gets into these sectors in the future. “If you ask me whether I am scared of the F&B business, I am not. If you ask me if I would open one again, the answer is yes. But this time, I know how I want to run it.”

Lee had initially planned to invest in other companies, but Grim Film’s growth was something he could not ignore and funds were needed to support this growth. So, he put those plans on hold and invested in his own company.

As for personal investments, Lee chose to buy a landed property in Subang three years ago, despite the real estate market being slow, as he believes in investing for the long term. “I do not expect to be rich the next year. What I mean is if you have money to buy, leave it there and for sure, you will make money in 10 years’ time,” he says.

Lee used to invest in cryptocurrencies and the stock market, but lost some money doing so. He still has some money in his cryptocurrency wallet and is planning to keep it there. “Who knows, one day the price may go up,” he says.

Lee married Malaysian actor and artist Marianne Tan in March 2016. But their financial journey as a couple started when they enrolled in a premarital counselling course.

Lee admits that this has served as a guide for their marital life. “She earns her own money, so our method is more, ‘You do you and I will do me’. But when it comes to the daily necessities, she lets me handle that,” he says.

With both of them being creatives and clueless about money and investments, Lee sometimes advises her on what she should do based on his experiences and mistakes. “We also made a deal that when it comes to any big expenditures, we will always consult each other first. When we are at peace with it, only then will we proceed,” he says.

“I told her to put her money in fixed deposits first. Then, when the time is right and she feels ready, we will invest in property together.”

Today, with the internet and information readily available at one’s fingertips, it is important to do your research online before venturing into anything, says Lee. “Everything is available to you as long as you have access to the internet. If not, you just need to ask people questions, whether they are strangers or friends. So, if you see them successful, just drop them a message on Facebook.”

He says it is good that YouTube is paying attention to the industry in Malaysia, which will benefit the next generation as they will get more support and learn how to run a YouTube channel, avoiding all the mistakes he made through trial and error.

“If I could turn back time, we would definitely be bigger than we are now in terms of the channel because now we know that consistency is the key — not just uploading frequently but also the theme of the content and analysing how people react to your content,” says Lee.

“Data analytics emerged slightly too late for me and I wish I had learnt it earlier. But I hope the next generation will take it into account when they run their YouTube channel.”

His mother’s journey ignited his passion for social causes, specifically tackling world hunger and education. Every year, he and his wife put aside money and donate it to Kingdomcity church as it has a team that builds schools and feeds the poor.

“I grew up with my mother’s story, which I am hoping to turn into a movie someday because she went through hell, including taking up a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant so that she could eat the leftovers,” says Lee.

“I know stopping world hunger would be an impossible dream, even if I were filthy rich. That is why education is important to me because they go hand in hand.”