SINGAPORE: There are those who dream of founding a tech start-up like Zoom, Snowflake or Facebook – and the fame, wealth and recognition that they imagine must follow.
At 18, Singaporean Dalton Prescott Ng is already the founder of modestly successful tech start-ups, and serves as chief technology officer (CTO) of his latest venture.
But if you ask him, he’ll say that his life is anything but glamorous. “What they see on film is people in suits on private jets,” he said.
The reality is, “a lot of it is sitting in front of a laptop, 10 hours getting work done, writing code. It’s a tonne of work.”
There are some, he says, who think he lives in luxury. The polytechnic student who lives with his parents says: “I don’t buy branded clothes. I buy one pair of shoes and I wear it for a year until it breaks. I eat cai fan (economy rice) every day.”
Young entrepreneurs like Dalton are shaping this country into a smart nation with their innovative start-ups, building companies that rake in thousands to millions of dollars.
But what does it take to be a successful teen entrepreneur – and as the programme On The Red Dot finds out, how can these start-ups succeed in the competitive industry of app development?
WATCH: At 18, my life as a tech start-up founder (3:56)
HOW HE GOT HIS START – WITH MINECRAFT
There has been a huge increase in demand for mobile apps in recent years, and consumer spending on mobile apps is expected to hit US$171 billion (S$232 billion) by 2024, double the amount from 2019.
Many of these apps are developed by talented designers under the age of 20.
Dalton was only 14 when he launched his first venture with friends. That failed because of their lack of business experience.
But he has since gone on to found other start-ups, including MasterApp, that dealt with cognitive learning; and current venture OohSpots, an app that will let users like small businesses conveniently buy out-of-home advertising spots.
His journey into programming started when he was 11, when he got bored with the Minecraft game he was playing. He borrowed books on programming from the library and learnt Java programming language to build mods for the game.
Back then, the computer he was using was an old and slow laptop that was shared with his five siblings, but it didn’t matter.
“I started to fall in love with programming and the ability to create an experience,” said Dalton. “What was just a hobby eventually became a career choice.”
At 14, he told his mother about his plans to launch a software development company, and she thought he was crazy.
“I think especially for Singapore parents, they want us to play it safe. For her, playing it safe would be going to school, doing well, going to a JC (junior college), then going to university,” he said.
But she didn't stop him from pursuing his interest. At 16, Dalton became the youngest recipient of the prestigious Apple WWDC scholarship for two years running in 2018 and 2019.
For him, going to the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in California was a humbling experience. In Singapore, he was well regarded as an app developer, but in the US, he met younger kids who were able to build higher-level apps than he could.
“If you are someone with any form of superiority complex, when you go there, you’re going to lose it,” he said.
FROM POTATO PIRATES TO CYBERSECURITY
In four years, Dalton has made thousands of dollars from developing some 10 apps.
And he is aiming to make it big with his new advertising app – but every day, it’s estimated that nearly 5,000 new apps go live, and only a fraction of them will actually turn a profit.
“There are no major players (in this space) right now. We really need to rush out development because once the foothold in the market has been taken, it’s very hard to get it back,” he said.
The original plan to launch it by July 2020 has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But his team has also been working on a mobile gaming app, Potato Pirates, for software company CODOMO.
And meanwhile Dalton – who is completing his diploma in infocomm security management at Singapore Polytechnic – was also busy until recently with an internship at DSO National Laboratories. As a cyber security engineer, he helped build a communications app for Singapore's largest defence R&D organisation.
“I’m working on so many different things, it helps that I have multiple income streams coming in. If one of them were to fail, I can rely on others,” he said.
Many developers build apps with the goal of monetary gain. But Dalton thinks one should build an app to solve a problem first, and not to squeeze profits.
“Focus on charging customers the right amount so that you solve their problem and they are happy. That’s how you build a successful business,” he said.
HAVING TO PROVE HIMSELF
It has only recently occurred to him that he shoulders more responsibilities than his average peer: A stressful role as CTO, managing his team, his studies, even having to source for funding.
“When I talk to my friends, I realise the kind of stuff that I am thinking about is very different,” he said. “I am concerned about the ROI (return on investment) or what if I were to spend this much on developing the product. And (they are) thinking about what they want to eat tomorrow.”
While being a young entrepreneur has its advantages, including having more energy and more time to learn the business, Dalton has to work harder to prove himself because of his age.
“It is hard (for investors) to entrust someone who’s 17 or 18 with that kind of money,” he said. “So it was definitely a struggle for me.”
To reassure investors, his company appointed an older, more established entrepreneur as CEO.
“So when we go to an investor, he can definitely see that the company is set up properly,” he said. “What a lot of investors are looking for is traction and the ROI. As long as you can show them those two things, then you can most probably get an investment.”
WATCH: Young and boss: Teen app developers (full episode, 22:40)
HYPERVENTILATING UNDER A BLANKET
Learning how to deal with stress, failure and people are skills that this teenager had to pick up.
As a younger boy in secondary school, he wasn’t able to deal with feedback and would get upset when someone criticised his coding. He also took failure hard.
“When things weren't going well, when we were running into issues, I’d find myself under my blanket hyperventilating,” he described. “I didn’t know how to deal with these emotions, I didn’t know how to reason with myself that it’s okay, that if things aren't going well, you can find another way.”
These days, he has learnt to leave his “ego at the door”.
I think especially in small startups, it is very important that you can take brutal honest feedback.
“If someone tells you that your design is ugly, they are not trying to insult you, they are trying to help you make your product better," he said.
But the long hours and workload have taken their toll on his health.
Showing a photo of himself with ripped six-pack abs two years ago, Dalton pointed to all the weight he’s put on since he stopped exercising and turned to stress-eating.
“I worked long hours, I drank a ton of energy drinks,” he said. “That kind of led to a bit of a burnout situation, where I stopped working for a while and just took some time to recover.”
Dalton has also missed out on some parts of teenage-hood – like the Marvel series of superhero movies in recent years.
“In many ways, I wish I could have fewer responsibilities… My job is stressful. But I also know that I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else,” he said.
And while some might think he’s already hit career heights at this young age, he sees himself “at the bottom” with “still has a long way to go”.
“I hope that I'll be successful enough that I can make it to Forbes’ 30 under 30 Asia list,” he added.
Watch the episode of On The Red Dot: Young And Boss here.