Inspiring true story/interview of a high school entrepreneur-Mr. Kenneth Lim, Founder openlectures.org

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I recently came across openlectures.org and on deep search come to know it has been started by someone I have known since 2010 – Kenneth Lim Mingjie.

I have known about Kenneth Lim Mingjie and Gary Lee from NUS High School of Math and Science since 2010. At the age of 16-17, they started working on a research topic related to physics during their high school with Prof. Chen Xudong and Prof. Jacob Phang(deceased)  from National University of Singapore . They are one of the brightest kids I have seen in Singapore and in my opinion they should be included in the child prodigy list of Wikipedia page. Just after their high school, they had to go for 2.0 yrs mandatory national service (military service) of Singapore. Kenneth Lim’s desire to “give back to his nation” inspired him to start openlectures.org along with his friends during his very busy and taxing national service schedule. Kenneth Lim already has 2 paper in a top optics/physics journal and 2 more about to get published, also in the top journals. Kenneth Lim and his friends have also published a book “CheMagic: 50 Chemistry Classics and Magical Tricks” in 2008 when he was just 16. On a fully funded scholarship from Singapore government, Kenneth Lim and Gary Lee are going to join Cornell and Stanford universities respectively for their undergrad+postgraduate studies from august,2013 . With 3 journals papers in top journals he could have easily got PhD degree according to standard of any top university’s engineering doctoral studies of the world. We wish him a very bright future and success in all his future  endeavors.

Kenneth Lim Mingjie honors and awards list is as given below:

A*STAR Talent Search Commendation Award – 2010
A*STAR Young Researcher Award – 2010
Singapore Science and Engineering Fair Silver – 2010
Singapore Civil Defence Force Children’s Special Education Award – 2010
A*STAR Talent Search Commendation Award – 2009
A*STAR JC Science Award – 2009
Singapore Science and Engineering Fair Silver – 2009
Rio Tinto Big Science Competition High Distinction – 2009
Singapore Civil Defence Force Children’s Special Education Award – 2008
DSTA Young Defence Scientists Programme Scholarship – 2007
American Mathematics Competition 8 Third Place and Honor Roll – 2005
Edusave Entrance Scholarship for Independent Schools – 2005

In order to share the inspiring story of Kenneth Lim and his friends, I requested an interview of the young founder of openlectures.org. Here goes the interview with Mr. Kenneth Lim Mingjie.

What is openlectures.org? How is it different from its competitors?

openlectures provides free online lectures to anyone who wants to learn. We’re a non-profit, fully student-run organization.

We’re different because there hasn’t been anything quite like us just yet in Singapore. Since we’re student run, the perspectives from which we approach common topics are very different from what’s provided in schools. We like to think that it’s a lot more personal, and it helps students who have difficulty understanding complicated concepts.

We’re also very particular about quality. Many similar services provide lectures which are merely scribbles on a tablet with a voiceover, or a zoomed-in shot of a lecturer at the front of an auditorium with a hundred heads. In each of our videos, it’s just the lecturer and clear, relevant graphics behind them.

What is the vision of your company and who all are its target customers?

We believe in helping anyone who wants to learn. This could be the average student struggling to keep up in class, the competent student looking for something extra, or in some cases people who can’t afford or find academic help when they need it.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and co­founders.

I’m headed off to Cornell University to study Computer Science this year. My co-founder Linan Qiu is a rising freshman at Columbia University studying Economics. We met two years ago at a function, realized that we really liked each other (in the platonic sense, of course), rolled up our sleeves and got down to work.

When did you start openlectures.org and what/who inspired you to start openlectures.org?

We started openlectures in June 2011, while Linan and I were both still serving in the military, for a number of reasons. For one, it mightn’t look like it, but there are people who would love to do better in school, who would love to receive help, but can’t. Sometimes it’s a financial situation, sometimes it’s the luck of the draw that you get a teacher whose teaching style is incompatible with the way you learn, sometimes you’re just looking for a different opinion. We felt that as we made our way through school, and we wanted to offer an option.

When did you start openlectures.org? Were you people still in school back then or your courses were over?

We were done with school (or school was done with us, depending on how you look at it), and serving our mandatory two-year tour of duty in the Singapore Armed Forces.

What was seed capital? How did you manage that?

Seed capital? $0. We’ve come a long way in two years, and we’re glad that we’ve gotten the support of various organizations who share our vision for liberating education. But when we first started we had no monetary support of any sort, nor did we need any.

All you need to create a video is a camera and a whiteboard. These are not too hard to find. Hosting a site for free is also very easy nowadays if you know what you want and where to look. We’ve always been cognizant of the fact that everything we do shouldn’t be reliant on money. One of our very first videos was filmed in the living room of an HDB flat. We shifted all the furniture to the side and set up the camera on the coffee table. We didn’t have money for continuous lighting, so we took a couple of strong torchlights, wrapped them over with tracing paper, and set them each on a chair. We didn’t even have a mike stand, so one of us laid on the floor, just out of view of the camera, and held the microphone up in front of the lecturer.

What are the challenges you faced in establishing your company?

When we first started, people in the education sector came up to us and told us that what we were doing was merely an ego project, that here you are, gallivanting around, and you won’t last for long. Working with schools, even with their cooperation, is a tricky process because a common understanding has to be reached even while reserving the right to differing perspectives and opinions. That’s one.

Creating videos the way we’ve been doing them isn’t easy either. In order to create the videos you see, where the visuals are seamlessly blended behind the lecturer, we film against a green screen, remove the background in post-production, and merge in animations hand-drawn and timed by our illustrators. It’s a lengthy process, and it’s also the reason why many other services opt for easier methods. That said, we’ve always believed, and continue to, that this is the best possible way to learn, so we’re on the continuous race to learn and to figure out how best we can leverage technology to help our work.

How much satisfied you are with your journey so far? What are your future plans?

We’ve come a very very long way. As with any organization, when you begin to scale up, a different set of issues come into play. We’ve only just started our branch office in New York, and there’s already preliminary work going on to expand into the Chinese market. It’s an exciting time. Just a week ago we launched openquestions, a service for students to ask questions and get answers, and within two days we had 13,000 people onboard. There’s plenty to do, and plenty more that we can do, I’m sure.

Your progress record, partnership with leading companies in Singapore is impressive. I am impressed. As your employee/team member what you look for in them?

We look for people who are interested in working on something that could possibly take up all their time and give them nothing in return. We look for people whom society deems crazy or weird, because their ideas are bold and daring. We look for people who are good at what they do, but are not satisfied with what they do.

What is your response to the notion “Asian eco­system does not encourage entrepreneurs?”

If you’d asked me this question a couple of years ago, I’d be hard pressed not to agree. Only recently has been been a huge confluence of activity in the APAC region encouraging a lot of growth and development. We’re hearing that China, while already known to be a manufacturing hub, is now becoming a great place for makers to prototype and push out products, because everything is centralized within a single building. There’s a lot going on in Indonesia in the UX and Analytics fields, both of which are hot things in the current web-savvy climate. So I’d say that it’s looking very promising, but we still have a long way to go. In Singapore it’s a little tricky, because if you’re a young male citizen trying to get something started, all your work gets disrupted when you get enlisted. More work needs to be done to change that.

In your opinion what is better, starting the company of your dream right after college or joining an already established company before to get some experience?

Strictly speaking it differs from person to person, but we all already knew that and I’m not going to give you such a contrived answer. I’d go with starting a company right after college. Working for an established company solely to acquire experience is a very overrated concept. There’s ostensibly a lot more you can learn if you run around on your own and figure out everything for yourself. People say that if you do that you’re likely to fail and waste a lot more time, but even if that does happen, the experience you’re likely to acquire is going to trump everything you’d get from an established company.

What suggestion you will give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

The founder rung of hell, as it is colloquially called, is very real. You’ll start off doing technical things – because that’s the nature of most start-ups – product focused, but as you grow, you have to pull yourself away from these things and focus on the people. These people, and not your product, define your organization and your brand.

What do you think about Techaloo?

Techaloo is great. We’ve got E27 covering the big brothers, but it’s really something to have a similar network connecting people coming right out of college. I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes next from you guys.

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