How a Meme Contest Between Two University Students Led to Singapore’s Funniest and Hottest Startup

Karl Mak, co-founder of Singapore and Malaysia’s foremost meme platform, tells us how to grow a comedy juggernaut.

Given his mild-mannered and down-to-earth pattern of speech, you wouldn’t have guessed that Karl Mak co-founded exuberant content production platforms SGAG and MGAG — platforms that craft a business out of cracking jokes and propagating viral content, their reach extending to an audience of millions.

Turning jokes into a business is certainly a risky venture, but the process of expressing ideas and opinions in an entertaining manner through memes was something that Karl and his team believed in from day one.

“We were not sure where to go [at first], but we saw that as a trend since 2012, that would sort of hit the entire industry,” explains Karl, “And we’ve seen it unfold in the last five years.”

Cracking the Virality Code

The word “meme” was first coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. The word describes a sort of cultural genetic code — an idea that can move from person to person and generation to generation. However, in today’s modern times, a “meme” is a joke that shifts and evolves at an alarming rate, all thanks to the internet and social media.

It is precisely this philosophy of sharing ideas and opinions that fuels the identity of SGAG and MGAG. 

“I think SGAG represents to us a democratisation of ideas,” Karl remarks, “that with the current technologies and platforms available to our generation, we have a voice that will allow us to share ideas, opinions, entertainment, and fun in whatever memes and mediums that we feel is relevant to us.”

SGAG, the progenitor of Karl’s meme-making enterprise, began at the back of a university lecture hall in 2012 when Karl and fellow co-founder Adrian Ang (also known as SGAG’s enigmatic “Xiao Ming”) created their first ever meme as they grew bored in one of their classes. McDonald’s had just announced that they ran out of curry sauce. What followed was a knee-jerk yet empathetic response to this uniquely trivial piece of Singaporean news, which went viral shortly after.

“Initially, there was no end goal or content strategy. It was completely brainless and innocent fun,” Karl shares.

Alluding to a friendly rivalry between himself and Adrian, he chuckles, “We just wanted to out-joke the previous joke and go further. There was almost an internal composition of who created the better meme amongst ourselves.”

As the duo went on to work at separate start-ups, where they were tasked to look at analytics and metrics in order to discover strategies to create viral content, SGAG remained a pet project that they worked on for fun.

The “eureka moment” came when Facebook first launched their analytics tool. Karl discovered that a whopping one million Singaporeans were Facebook users, and immediately shared that information with Adrian. The two speculated that a Facebook page would garner more virality than any blog or website, and could lead to something potentially successful.

In the Business of Happiness

While commonly understood as the Singaporean and Malaysian counterparts to 9GAG, SGAG and MGAG are in fact separate entities from 9GAG, despite having indeed borrowed heavily from 9GAG’s “just for fun” psyche. However, like the memes themselves, SGAG and MGAG have taken a life of their own and evolved into something far greater and unique.

“We knew that we were not the best at writing articles or doing stuff, but we could make awesome jokes,” Karl admits. “The result of that was about finding the next best joke and growing the company.”

Eventually, this saw SGAG’s transition from heavy reliance of previously established meme imagery to incorporating videos and more personality-driven content that allowed the growing staff’s acting chops and goofy nature to shine through. And, of course, MGAG adopted that strategy as well.

SGAG and MGAG’s two-part process to generating content involves creation and curation. Steering away from chasing clickbait titles or stealing content, they aim to recruit creatives, observe data, listen to the audience, and do a better job of producing content in-house. Conceptualising ideas for content embraces a singular philosophy, “Will this make someone happy after watching it?”

SGAG and MGAG also has its massive and ardent community to thank for its creative content. They used to receive several submissions through multiple channels every day, which proved difficult and time-consuming to parse. They have since made chatbots to manage the information and engage user submissions.

“There is a method to this madness,” assures Karl.

The road to becoming a comedy behemoth was paved with distractions and lucky breaks. Karl recalls receiving misguided offers during the company’s infancy, such as putting together “an SGAG café, SGAG run, and T-shirts.”

Karl and Adrian simply turned them down, and kept their nose to the grindstone. They were rewarded with brand-name clients ranging from AirBnb to Samsung, and even McDonald’s themselves, approaching them for collaborations and thus presenting opportunities to grow even further.

“We don’t take it for granted. We never sort of sit back go ‘I’m done,’” says Karl of SGAG and MGAG’s success. “It’s always about ‘How do we push boundaries?’ ‘How do we make sure we don’t abuse this?’ ‘How do we take responsible care of this sort of opportunity that we have?’”

Cutting Through the Noise

There are many lessons that can be gleaned on the road to triumph. One of them, which Karl recognises as a veritable cliché, is to not be afraid to fail. 

“I think there’s still a lot of stigma to failure in a society like Singapore,” Karl observes. “We live in a fairly comfortable landscape where even if you fail, you have a home to go home to.”

Karl recalls the first year as a team in SGAG, where an activity dubbed “The Meme Challenge” would take place every week. The Meme Challenge involved having everybody on the team, regardless of their function, create a meme that would go up on the weekend. The creator of the best-performing meme would receive a prize in the vein of Gold Class cinema tickets, massage packages or buffet vouchers.

In such a scenario, the team was encouraged to disregard the fear of failure and just tackle the challenge. Simultaneously, this fostered a culture within the company where everyone was motivated to think about their next meme and be better than before.

The second most important lesson is to “find creativity in the most mundane of things.”

“I think just learning to observe, empathise, and to open your eyes to what’s around you, you’ll find so many stories to tell in your day-to-day experiences,” Karl notes. “Singaporeans are so caught up in our pursuit of success that we often overlook the little things that bring joy and happiness.”

But, the real secret to SGAG’s success? “Hyper focus,” says Karl. The key was understanding the spirit of what SGAG was, that “this is who we are, and everything else is just noise.”

Unlike founders of other companies whom Karl spoke to, who aimed to accomplish 3–5 different things, SGAG has only one lofty goal: “How to better the lives of people?”

As SGAG and MGAG continue to grow and expand, Karl hints at targeting other unique markets in Southeast Asia, as well as experimenting with genres outside of simply comedy. 

“Humour and entertainment is something that will continue to be timeless and pivotal in every community and in every society. But, of course, executed with sensitive context to local culture, humour, trends, and topics,” explains Karl. “But I think beyond humour itself, there’s a lot that we’d like to experiment [with] and see how far we can push this.”

This story first appeared in Stuff.

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