Every leader wears a hat – a military general, a captain, a head chef. For KF Seetoh, it is a Gilligan hat. It is a plain looking thing that hides the part of his head that comes up with those radical ideas – ideas like Makansutra.
Established in 1997, it started out as a local hawker food guide (now, a bible of sorts), and has since expanded into diverse domains, from TV and radio, to web and mobile, to events and eateries. Of course, a Gilligan hat isn’t the only hat Seetoh wears. As an entrepreneurial trailblazer utterly devoted to his craft, he juggles multiple jobs, and often, with seeming ease.
We speak to Singapore’s original foodie to find out how he does it.
What inspired you to set up Makansutra?
When I first realised that the food we love is very connected to our heritage. Food is culture and hence, there was a world of opportunities and lifestyle when we see it as so, like books, food markets, events like our World Street Food Congress, television and online content plus consultancy.
Do you remember your first encounter with food that made you fall head over heels?
Watching a mee goreng seller on a tricycle back in the day. His skills were deft and there was always a line. I realised this was part of our food culture only much later. It’s the extra layer of story and knowledge about our food that makes me “fall over”, so to speak.
What made your company such a huge success?
To a large extent, it is because of the business model, not just one that sells street food, but promotes and develops it. [That means] creating opportunities, awareness, content and ideas through books, food halls, TV shows, events and online content. Create your own ocean and fish in it.
Success is a numbers game. I rather be satisfied with what I do and make a change in the business. Selling food as a culture and opportunity is a complex game, which absolutely thrills me to bits.
(Photo: Agatha Cristel Peren Braga)
What is it like to head such a huge business, and how do you manage to juggle everything?
I don’t think it’s normal for a person to handle so many things in a company, from curating and developing the World Street Food Congress, creating TV shows and producing it, to setting up food markets and halls and be involved even in the type of soy sauce it uses and how the pictures should look like. But that’s me. I love every facet of this job. I learn on the fly and it is very invigorating. It takes more than passion, which is so passe, to do this. You need a thick skin, gumption, curiosity, hunger, lust and desire for the craft and business.
I have to go into management details as we don’t easily find professionals who are experienced in this rare space. [It’s] not something I like to do as it doesn’t free me to imagine more ideas for the company quite often. [But] my work isn’t really work to me and I sleep very well every night naturally. [I also] take shut down breaks as often as I can with my wife, Patricia. Shut the mind down ever so often and ignore problems that don’t solve any goals. Don’t waste time with time wasting emotion and situations.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?
Change in societal expectations, because change is permanent. The challenge is how to take this business and culture and repackage it for tomorrow and yet not lose the essence of its heritage. [We went] from being a “food guide” to being in the space of advocacy through events, media messaging and social enterprise in aspects of our work.
How is being an entrepreneur today different than it was, say, 10 years ago?
Not much difference. The successful ones today still know that it’s 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. The wannabe “entrepreneur” thinks the Internet can turn them into billionaires with just viral clicks and likes.
(Photo: SG Food on Foot)
What is one mistake all entrepreneurs tend to make?
Short sightedness and a very stiff business model. They cannot see far and lack business flexibility and direction in what they do. Don’t go into any business [if] you have no stamina, thick-skinnedness, a decent domain expert knowledge and flexibility.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
That there’s 24 hours in a day. A Malay gentleman at a car workshop in Eunos [said it to me]. I do not remember his name. It was in the ‘80s. I simply said to [myself], like how a pair of sport shoe motto did, “Shut up and Just Do It”.
What are some tips you wish you’d received when you first started this venture?
I wished I had a mentor but over the decades it’s really “if you believe it’s worth doing, then it’s worth overdoing”, from books and good friends. [I also learnt] from the disruptors in the industry back in the day like Jeff Bezos of Amazon and even Richard Branson.
What’s the future like for Makansutra?
This era is the time for real expansion, time to stop having fun with ourselves (Patricia and I) in the company and start the corporate journey to take it further afield. We have many interest in our regional Makansutra Hawkers food market model, our new format TV food show and our World Street Food Congress, so let’s see.