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Joseph Phua: Life after stepping down as group CEO at M17


When Joseph Phua studied an MBA in the US, he had an idea of building a technology-enabled dating platform that caters to the Asian community. Soon after his graduation, he returned to Singapore and debuted a location-based mobile dating and networking app called Paktor, which had instantly gained popularity across eight markets in Asia. Four years later, in 2017, Paktor announced a wave of acquisition and a merger with Taiwan’s live streaming platform, which had over 30 million users at that time called 17 Media and established M17 Entertainment Group, marking a significant milestone in Phua’s career.

Since then, Phua’s group has expanded its business to Hong Kong and Japan. Additionally, two apps reached 22 million and 6 million global sign-ups, respectively in 2019. Therefore, It came as a surprise when Phua announced stepping down as group CEO this August and took the role of non-executive chairman. Hirofumi Ono was appointed as the new CEO of the group.

Joseph is now focusing on venture investment.

Phua told Business Next that the idea came from a two-hour ice fishing experience during a family vacation to Japan by the end of 2019. He enjoyed the tranquil break from his busy work life so much that he decided to tell Ono, who was the CEO of M17 Media Japan at that time, that he would try switching off from work and dedicate only one hour to work in the following two weeks. When he returned from his vacation, he observed that the business was still running smoothly without his presence.

“For the first time in seven years, I realize I can really take a good rest,” said Joseph Phua, founder and former group CEO of M17 Entertainment.

Acting on his enlightenment, he traveled to Australia, the UK, and Turkey at the beginning of 2020 and slowly handed over his responsibilities to Ono.

Now that Phua has officially stepped down from the group CEO, he spends time with his family, making up lost time in the last seven years when he devoted most of his energy in his career. Without COVID-19, he said he could have been traveling the world at the moment. He is also keeping a close watch on various companies in hopes of changing from the role of an entrepreneur to an investor.

“My current role at M17 is to bridge the gap between the management and the shareholders and to make sure the executive has fulfilled the demands of the shareholders. The reason for the word ‘non-executive’ in my title is to let everyone know that my former role in the company would not interfere with the current management,” Phua said.

Commenting if he regrets passing his business to someone else, Phua said, “Let’s say, if my goal is to scale up M17 to a 10-billion enterprise, there are two ways to achieve that. The first way is that I have to work 10 years non-stop and sacrifice family time and vacations. The second option is to put Hirofumi in charge, and I can spend time with family and kids or do something else. Obviously, the wise choice is the latter one.”

“I haven’t sold my company shares. I just found a better executive to replace me, so there’s no regret,” he added.

He has strong faith in Ono that he can take M17 to the next level, maybe even going public again. In 2018, M17 announced the pricing of initial public offering (IPO) but withdrew it in the end.

Phua said he is not very good at management. If he considers the task can be finished much faster on his own than allocating it to others, he will take over all the work. He prioritizes speed and agility over other things. In contrast, Ono is willing to take the time to groom the talents, which makes him a better leader.

Between himself and Ono, Phua said while he is good at starting a business from scratch, Ono is very experienced in pushing continuous business growth after the business is already set.

“This year, our business has boomed, and it is growing significantly. We have become immensely profitable, and as this transition has happened, I see the current leadership with Hiro (Hirofumi Ono) at the helm is getting stronger in many ways,” Phua said.

In May, Paktor was acquired by Singapore-based capital advisory firm Kollective Ventures as M17 aimed to shift its focus on its live-streaming business from Taiwan, Japan, and Hong Kong to the US, the Middle East, and North Africa.