HighSpark: From Failing Student To Successful Entrepreneur

From selling spiders in primary school to crafting groundbreaking presentations for Singapore's biggest and brightest

By Camillia Dass

July 11 2019

Featured Photo: HighSpark

Eugene Cheng, 25, was only in polytechnic when he began taking an interest in presentations and observing how people conveyed their messages.

It was this curiosity that later led him to create HighSpark in 2013, his own presentation design agency.

Eugene was pursuing a diploma in Business Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic when he was first introduced to the idea of participating in business competitions by his lecturers who pushed him to give them a try.

Coming in the top few positions in every competition he attempted, he gained important skills which he was able to bring back to school. He smiled as he said:

"I wasn't doing too well in school. I was actually quite lazy. But the competitions taught me a lot of valuable skills that I was able to use in my projects and presentations. I learned a lot about being compelling and how to sell my ideas eloquently and it was only when I had mastered this that I started to do better in school.”

While he was in school, Eugene started uploading some of his slides onto SlideShare, which is a hosting service for professional content such a presentations, inforgraphics and videos. The site goes through the content uploaded and regularly rewards some of the best ones by featuring them in prime positions on their site so that they get more views.

"I didn't really expect much but somehow I kept getting featured and my slides were spotlighted and I gained loads of viewers. I wasn't expecting that."

One day, completely out of the blue, Eugene received an email from a Japanese advertising agency who asked him to help them come up with a presentation for their CEO. They had seen some of his content that had been highlighted by SlideShare and were impressed with his work. Taken by surprise, Eugene went to his lecturer who advised him on how much to charge the company.

"I thought it was way too much and that they would never agree to it but when I gave them my price, they immediately said okay and I remember wishing I had asked for more," Eugene said with a laugh.

It was after this rewarding experience that his lecturer approached him and convinced him that his skills in presentations and designing slides were marketable and could be further developed.

It was then that Eugene, along with a former classmate, Koh Kai Xin, 25, decided to start HighSpark.

"Convincing Kai Xin to join me wasn't easy. She had her own commitments with her CCA and her personal life. But we've worked together before and we know we work well so it was just a matter of me asking her over and over till she finally agreed.”

Photo Credit: HighSpark 

The pair started out as many entrepreneurs do, with a lot of struggles.

“Many people thought we were too young and inexperienced to know anything about crafting a good presentation and so they were unwilling to trust us. However, we also needed to build a reliable portfolio for our brand. So we ended up having to accept being underpaid a lot in the beginning.”

It took a lot for the pair to start to be considered as qualified professionals and even included a change in their job titles.

They initially started out by calling themselves designers. However, they very quickly realised that by doing so, they were being paid sometimes three times less than someone who did the exact same thing they did but who positioned and branded themselves completely differently. This led to them changing their titles to consultants.

The pair also had to handle their own internal challenges especially when Eugene went into the army and had to leave Kai Xin to manage most of the company by herself.

“It was tough for Kai Xin because she was working alone mostly. I would try to help whenever I could but it got to be too stressful and there was a lot of tension between us. But we managed to get past that and we worked things out and now we are great.”

Photo Credit: HighSpark 

When asked what the best part of his job was, Eugene said that it was in getting to watch his clients do the presentations that he had helped them create.

“We don’t get the opportunity to watch our clients present very often but when we do, it’s really wonderful.”

Eugene talked candidly about his most memorable client. The man was a TEDX speaker and was incredibly intelligent and confident but needed help to condense his ideas into something that was more understandable.

“It was really fun and we got to attend his talk at the end which was really nice. It’s great seeing our clients benefit from what we do.”

Eugene also admitted that part of their success lay in the fact that they were not experts in everything that they did.

“I think not knowing everything helps because then, we are able to present information that a layman could understand which is very important in a presentation.”

Photo Credit: HighSpark

Currently, HighSpark is made up of five other people and they are looking to get more designers on their team. They are also looking to expand their service offerings in the future.

When asked what his greatest takeaway from the business was, Eugene had only this to say,

"We always look up to the executives at the helm of organisations; however, even the most competent professionals still struggle with communication at times. It's never a question of intelligence, but being able to augment their messaging to the audience and getting clear with new perspectives. It's sort of like cutting your own hair, even the best stylists get their hair cut by someone else."