Gwendolyn Regina Tan arrived in Brisbane two days after finishing up a holiday in North Korea, a trip that began as a volunteer, entrepreneurial teaching exercise but turned into a vacation after the government cancelled the program.
“North Korea was so interesting, we all know it’s propaganda, and in the museums and newspapers you see phrases like ‘American Imperialists’ everywhere,” Tan said. “And when you go to primary schools, there’s posters of North Korean soldiers stabbing American soldiers. This is in primary schools – it starts early.”
The Director of Strategy and Business Development, Asia Pacific at Mashable, Tan is currently leading the company’s expansion into Asia, which she discussed at QUT Creative Enterprise’s Creative³ event in September. She also explored Mashable’s ten-year journey from a personal blog to a global media company, and their use of proprietary technology Velocity, which was built in-house, in scouring the web to “see which stories will go viral before they go viral.”
And while she readily acknowledges the cultural differences between Australia and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, Tan’s experience as a well-travelled tech entrepreneur allows her a unique insight into global media consumption.
She argues that, whether through billboards or smartphones, everyone consumes news, and while “we may argue that what the North Koreans are consuming is propaganda and not news, [they are consuming] media in a certain way.”
Tan is currently based in Singapore with Mashable Asia, which joins Mashable UK, Mashable Australia and Mashable India as local versions of the New York based digital media company. But while her role technically includes looking into the whole of Asia for strategic entryways, she is quick to point out the complexities of inter-continental growth.
“The key thing when I looked at my strategy for expanding into the region was really taking a step back and understanding I cannot tackle that entire Asian region at once, obviously,” Tan said. “You always need to have steps, so I focused on Southeast Asia first, and more importantly I focused on a single market.”
First up was growing the Singapore newsroom, which launched in September. While Malay is the national language in Singapore, English is the country’s most used and Mashable’s default language. This meant that Tan’s first priority was finding an editor to tap into their existing, English-speaking audience, which they found in former TechCrunch writer Victoria Ho.
“It’s not about Asia [just] being different countries now, it’s about looking at the cities – who’s currently reading Mashable?” Tan said. “It’s maybe English-speaking locals and experts; for example, you’re looking at an elite Thai population in Bangkok reading Mashable, an elite Vietnamese population in Saigon and Hanoi reading Mashable.”
Another part of Tan’s job is creating strategic partnerships, which will become increasingly important as Mashable rolls out local content in languages other than English. For example, Tan mentions that some select articles can now be found in Thai thanks to a recent agreement with a local media group, and she says Mashables hopes to focus more on local languages as they go forward.
Her passion for intercultural communication and tech entrepreneurship has come from a professionally and geographically diverse background. An alumnus of the National University of Singapore, Tan founded and sold the tech startup blog SGEntrepreneurs to Tech in Asia in 2013.
“My background with entrepreneurs is useful here because you need entrepreneurial people to start in new countries or a new region,” Tan said. “So I was joking earlier how I was working in my PJs for 3 months. For me I was basically managing my own energy.”
Tan is the Singapore curator for US-headquartered StartupDigest, the Singapore Ambassador for the Thousand Network, and an active investor; she was a founding member of an early stage Singaporean technology investment firm with three exits to date, and continues to angel invest with a portfolio that includes Oddle.me and The Commissioned.
A world traveller and speaker of English, Mandarin Chinese, French and Spanish, Tan has also worked as a mentor at Polish tech startup incubator Gamma Rebels, and has lived in Vietnam and the US, where she spent a year at Stanford University doing technopreneurship.
Throughout all this, Tan has developed a liberal, confident understanding of technology and the media, which she describes as her “lens”. This understanding, she argues, is necessary for anyone looking to succeed in the creative industries.
“It’s about, it sounds trite, but looking into yourself and figuring out how do you see the world on your own and which aspects of it differ from other people,” Tan said. “So for myself, generally I’m quite liberal, I’ve grown up in Singapore, I spent a year in the US and I’ve travelled a lot. And that mindset, it’s interesting in the local context, in the Singapore context.”
“[Earlier] we were asked a question about how to differentiate when there’s so much competition; everyone can start a blog, a dating app, a food app stuff like that,” she said. “I would advise people who are looking to start say a media company to find out what’s your unique point of view.”