"Why I think leadership is so damn important is because the only way barriers have been broken in media is by people taking a risk and making something that people look at... It does take a certain type of individual who I would refer to as a leader in the space to create content that might totally bomb and totally fail." - Haresh Tilani
He was talent scouted for the starring role in HBO's first comedy in Asia, "Sent", as Lead Actor and Associate Producer. Haresh has also co-created, co-wrote and starred in series produced for HOOQ and MediaCorp, earning awards from the Asia-wide Filmmakers Guild and the Asian Academy Creative Awards. Prior to becoming a content producer, Haresh was part of the founding team of the airlines, Scoot, and was its Head of e-Commerce and Distribution.
Haresh is currently a Founder-in-Residence of the eighth cohort of Entrepreneur First (E F). EF is the world's leading talent investor and has created over 200 companies and raised more than 500 million in investments.
You can find community discussions on this episode at https://club.jeremyau.com/c/podcasts/24-haresh-tilani-on-breaking-barriers-in-the-media-industry-adapting-content-production-in-a-pandemic-and-engaging-socio-political-discourse
Jeremy Au: [00:02:04] Hey Haresh.
Haresh Tilani: [00:02:05] Yeah. Good to see you. And thanks for having me dude.
Jeremy Au: [00:02:05] So for those who have known you as the guy who swims in the fountains of shopping malls, and as the person who wears army gear and does PT on a bus, who's the man behind the legend?
Haresh Tilani: [00:02:27] So my name is Haresh Tilani. Right now, I am neck deep in media, I never really started out when I was young ever thinking I would end up in media. And I always tell people I stumbled into media. I was not the kid who wanted to perform for others, who wanted to be one stage, who wanted to be the center of attention at parties. Hell no. So, I started off being decent in math and science, thought I would become an engineer, did an engineering degree, worked for a big corporate, and realized, "Holy crap. This is not what I want to do." Saw the bubbling up of the internet and online content, and took the plunge, and that's where I am now after six years of entering the media space.
Jeremy Au: [00:03:03] What was it like when you first entered the media space? What were you like as a new employee and fresh graduate?
Haresh Tilani: [00:03:09] So you mean when I first took the plunge away from my corporate life. I guess maybe I'll just rewind a bit. So, when I graduated, I did mechanical engineering, and a second degree in entrepreneurship, and I came back to the corporate that sponsored my education. Because in Singapore they have this thing, corporate says, "We'll pay for your education. Come back and work for us." And I was bonded to them for four years. And before I started, I was, "Oh shit." Because you know when you go to university your perspectives of everything changes. So, I came back and I was dreading starting work in a corporate, but I had the bond and it was too big an amount to pay off. So, I started in the corporate world.
I didn't enjoy the first two years because it was everything I had not wanted to work around. It was corporate, it was bureaucratic. I did learn a lot. I did learn a lot about how to manage your superiors, manage subordinates. But after two years, I found some way to be part of a startup that was funded by the big corporate which was a low-cost carrier. So that was cool. And two and a half years of that. And then I took a plunge into the media.
I essentially paired up with my current co-founder who started his own small production house. And it was not a big company or anything. It was just me and him saying we're going to make one video a week for a year on YouTube, and just see what happens. So, it was very unglamorous. It was just me and him working in a temporary office just brainstorming ideas, going on the streets of Singapore trying to make funny shit, and putting it online and hoping for the best. That was essentially our business plan, make a video a week for one year and see what happens.
Jeremy Au: [00:04:32] What was your parents' reaction about you leaving your steady corporate job for this risky thing?
Haresh Tilani: [00:04:39] When I transitioned to that startup that was funded by the big MNC, things were actually going very well for me. I was climbing up the corporate ladder. So, I took the leap of faith. My family generally wasn't the happiest, but I think I had built up a reputation among my family of always doing what I want to do even if it doesn't make sense to them. So, you can argue it as a good thing, a bad thing, but to me at least, "Okay, I want to do it anyway. You all are not happy. That's fine." And I just went ahead.
So even up till now to be honest, there's a lot of managing of expectations amongst family because it's hard to kind of explain to them what I do. The only time they are happy is when I appear in the newspapers or on the TV. It doesn't matter what show it is. If I can get five million views on YouTube, doesn't mean shit. Doesn't mean shit. Yeah. So that will always continue as long as I'm in media or something creative.
Jeremy Au: [00:05:28] I remember my parents were also super down on me starting my first business, and then I ended up in The Straits Times and then my mom was cut out the whole newspaper article. I don't think she still understood what we were doing, but she just cut it out and she sent the link to her friends. And I was, "Oh, well thank you Straits Times. I mean we're thankful for the publicity but the best thing you did for me was it gave me approval from my mom."
Haresh Tilani: [00:05:52] Yeah, exactly. Do not underestimate the power of mainstream media. Even though the mainstream media might not be the most evolved, the most progressive, generate the best content, but they do a lot for appeasing parents, Asian parents.
Jeremy Au: [00:06:04] Yeah. We should all send in the thank you letters. "Thank you for making my mom love me again." So, I think you've really come across as someone who is a pioneer in the Singapore, YouTube, influence, content media space, and you continue to lead and push things forward. You've had a chance to see many leaders in the space. Could you tell us why leadership is important in this industry?
Haresh Tilani: [00:06:28] Yeah. I mean I think right now, the one thing that has come up over the past few years is the access to data. And what I mean by data? Data in terms of how people view content, how people react to content, how people engage with content. So now unfortunately there's a tendency to think about future pieces of content based on how people react to historical pieces of content. That's what Netflix has been doing with their algorithm, just looking at whatever works and putting it all together with this secret sauce for the next TV show. You see Hollywood studios doing that. You see even on YouTube with the trending page and all that. It's always just about generating content that I feel sometimes is a bit too safe.
And why I think leadership is so damn important is because the only way barriers have been broken in media is by people taking a risk and making something that people look at, they're, "Shit. What is that?" Or, even if it polarizes, I think that's the only way our content can evolve. That's the only way the stories will not be as generic as now they are seeming to trend towards. It does take a certain type of individual who I would refer to as a leader in the space to create content that might totally bomb and totally fail. But that's the only way I think we can evolve, and I think it's so damn important because if everything is just controlled by algorithms, we won't see anything new.
Jeremy Au: [00:07:47] Who have been people that you feel represent that case making and that boldness versus the algorithms?
Haresh Tilani: [00:07:55] On YouTube, there is one called Casey Neistat. So, he has been doing YouTube since 2008 and he used to do videos one a week, but his starting point where he exponentially grew was, I think in 2016 when he just decided that, "You know what? I'm going to make a video every day." And he was going to vlog his life. So, to me, what he did beyond that literally elevated the standard of vlogs across YouTube to the point where people were trying to copy his style and all that, which I mean you can copy his style, but you can't copy his brilliance. And to me, that was someone who, "Okay, he took a space that was familiar, that was saturated, and totally elevated it in terms of production quality, storytelling, and he blew up." But it also elevated the game for everyone else. And you can see across the board, every prominent YouTuber, they also felt they had to elevate their game.
So, I thought that was really cool. Then you get people like the guy who created Black Mirror. So, he is Charlie Brooker. Black Mirror for those who are listening and are not aware of, first of all, get out from the rock you are living under. It is an anthology series that kind of looks at technology from a very dark perspective, and kind of hypothesizes what an ugly side of technology could look like in the future, ugly, scary. So I thought for him to create an anthology series like that was cool, but I think last year he did a choose-your-own-adventure story with Netflix called Bandersnatch which is essentially those storybooks you read when you're young where you choose where you want to take the story and then you go to that page.
So, he did it with Netflix. And even though you could say that, "Oh, he got access to do that even though a lot of people did it." I think he kind of changed the game because he did a very successful version of that which is super hard. And to see that, and to actually experience it so seamlessly, I thought that was dope. That's something very cool in that space.
And in terms of podcasts, given that this is a podcast, I mean you get someone like Joe Rogan, who anyone listening to podcasts probably knows, and his climb to the podcast God status that he has now has actually been very long. I think he started doing podcasts in 2010, and even though he wasn't an overnight success, I really respect the fact that he kept to that format for years, and he just made what he wanted to make and just stayed the distance even though podcasts had some growth in 2010, 2011, then it dies a slow death, and now it's back up. And he has been making podcasts since then.
So, I think if you were to just say, "Okay, podcasts are dying. Let me change formats." Then he wouldn't reach a status where he is now. So, I think anyone in media needs to appreciate that overnight successes are few and far between and you really need to stay the distance and be willing to risk failure if you want to create a brand that's unique.
Jeremy Au: [00:10:40] Yeah. Definitely. And you shared a lot of the tough times for a lot of creators out there, and how they did that. Personally, how did you overcome the hurdles that you must have faced over time?
Haresh Tilani: [00:10:51] A lot of crying to sleep and avoiding friends. Because I mean, yeah. I'm not going to lie. It hasn't been the easiest personally. I've been doing this for six years, and I think on one hand when I look back, I also feel sometimes, "Maybe I just should have done more trendy stuff. We would have grown bigger." We're not the biggest channel in Singapore by any means. But the challenges were sometimes, "Okay. If we want to do this video, it might be a risk, it might bomb." And on YouTube, and Facebook, and any platform you create content, if you have a shitty video, the algorithm kind of deprioritizes you for your next video. And you keep doing that, you can literally get lost in the abyss.
So, to manage taking risks like that, even doing a listicle video which, "The 10 types of this. 11 types of that." Statistically it tends to get higher views. Just managing that is not the easiest task. And also when we started pitching long form TV shows, in Singapore and certain parts of southeast Asia where it can be a bit more conservative, especially when you're working with national broadcasters, to kind of keep pitching the stories that maybe you want to tell versus what you think they would accept, managing that is also a difficult thing. So how we overcame it? Because we got rejected so many times for TV pitches until we finally made our TV show last year, which I can talk about later. But we had to kind of adapt our business because at the start I always imagined myself having a team of writers, a team of producers, a team of everyone. But then once you reach critical mass, you need to take on every project, even the shitty ones, the ones you hate, because you have all these mouths to feed.
So, we changed our business model to focus on, "Okay. We don't need to make 10 average shows. We just want to make one or two great shows a year. And how do we do that?" So, we really shrank down the size of our team to make our creative brain trusts, or our source the selling point. So, and incrementally charge more and more for our services. So instead of doing 10 projects of X value each, we just do two projects of five X value. And that kind of helped us because now it's easier than ever to scale up and down for media projects. So, by keeping the core team small, a project comes, we scale up. For our TV show we had 76 people on our payroll at one time. And then after that it just shrank back down all the way to the two of us.
Jeremy Au: [00:13:02] Awesome. Tell us more about this TV show. Why are you so excited about this long form?
Haresh Tilani: [00:13:06] The first time we actually had some entry point into the TV industry was in 2016. So, our first viral video was in January, 2014. I left the corporate world in May, 2014. We did that, "Okay, make a video a week for one year." from 14th May, 2014 I believe. And we continued. We built a business around that in terms of making branded content for brands and agencies. And in 2015 November, we got a random email from HBO just saying, "Hey, we've seen your videos. Would you like to meet up and discuss?"
So, we ended up meeting them and after a few meetings, they told us that they were working on their first English comedy series in Asia, and they wanted to see if we'd be interested to help out. So, they pitched some stuff to us which was more us kind of being production support. And then they said, "Okay, we're also thinking of casting you as the lead." which in my mind was crazy because I never really done proper acting. So outside I said, "Yeah, let me check my schedule." So, one thing led to another and in the end, I did end up being casted as the lead. I was involved in their writing process as the person who contextualizes the story by the Hollywood writers to Singapore.
So, me and my teammate for MOF we were associate producers and we saw the whole process on making a TV show, and it blew my mind. And I was, “this is what I want to do." So, we carried on making YouTube videos, and we started just reading up and studying how to come up with stories, how to write treatments and pitches. And we got rejected so many times because of the nature of stories we wanted to tell. So, to give some context for the nature of stories, the TV show we ended up making last year is a comedy about a guy who falls in love with a terrorist. So that kind of hopefully would help you guys understand why in Singapore those sorts of stories might not be the most appealing for networks.
So, we made that. We co-created it, we co-wrote it, my teammate directed it. I was the lead actor. And we did the final edit. So literally we were there every step of the way. The pilot came out last year. It won an Asian Academy Creative Award, and the full series came out earlier this year.
Jeremy Au: [00:15:03] Amazing. How do you feel now that it's out?
Haresh Tilani: [00:15:06] I feel great except that unfortunately in the media space where a lot of things aren't the most perfect network that we made it for, announced their liquidation in March this year. So that kind of put us in a pickle because their platform is down. I can't really speak about the process because the liquidation process is going on. But it was just another sign that the media industry is due for some sort of innovation. And that was before COVID hit, which was another big blow to the media industry. So, I feel super proud that we made it and I feel super confident on making another TV show in the future whatever it looks like in this post-COVID world. So, I have bittersweet feelings about it.
Jeremy Au: [00:15:47] It's interesting that you mentioned the pandemic. It's impacting so many industries from retail to hospitality, and other people are looking at it from how it's impacting Southeast Asia and Singapore from a geographic angle. How do you find the pandemic impacting media in Southeast Asia?
Haresh Tilani: [00:16:06] Media first and foremost when lockdowns were happening over the world, so the production of any piece of content, always involves people doing very unhygienic stuff in group settings. Sharing food, sharing drinks, sharing makeup. I don't know. Intimate scenes, fight scenes, sweat, it's just all over the place. Do for smaller shoots, let's say a YouTuber who records in his room, people could still carry on producing content. But the moment COVID hit a turning point, TV and film productions or even web series productions that have maybe more than 10 people on set, or even more than five people on set were immediately stopped around the world because you could not shoot.
I think as the COVID situation improved in respective countries, production started to continue, but even then, the number of steps that need to be taken are huge. You can't have as many people on set as you had previously, you can't share makeup kits, you need a health officer on set. Even in Singapore, the practices that were recommended by the media, thought leaders, was based on practices in other countries. And everything is resulting in the cost of production going up. So that's one thing. A lot of the smaller players, if you're a standalone YouTuber, you can still survive, but the mid-tier folks who have a production house and focus on medium quality productions that have people on set, they are getting massacred unfortunately. The big boys, they can still have the budget to fly their cast and crew into some part of a country and continue it there. So, the cost is increasing. People are having their businesses impacted.
But in terms of even storytelling, if you imagine scenes where there are 300 people in a Game of Thrones battle with horses, those kinds of things aren't going to happen any time soon in the near future. Intimate scenes aren't going to happen unless your actors are already a couple. So, the way stories are being told is being changed. I think as early as April, Hollywood writers who had finished the scripts of seasons that were about to be filmed of TV shows were having to rewrite scenes, keep them in smaller settings with less people on set, because otherwise you can't go in and film. So, the way stories are being told, who knows? In 2021, 2022, we might see might be Avengers in a house because they can't fight Thanos on this big battleground with 7,000 people. The sitcoms you see might not be anything that's outside. It might be very contained in spaces. So that is having a big impact.
So, everything about content is being changed from the way it's created to the way it's consumed, to the way the business models, the production processes. I know the Mandalorian for example, they started shooting in donut shaped LCD screen where it projects 4K LED around. So, you don't see the green screen, blue screen replacement anymore. They literally project what ends up in the film.
Jeremy Au: [00:18:56] Wow. I've definitely seen that myself as someone who loves improv and standup and does that as a hobby. Definitely seeing that whole industries will get hammered because with the pandemic restrictions on audience and density, performers are also struggling around how to be creative with the new restrictions.
Haresh Tilani: [00:19:17] Yeah. And I mean standup comedians, performers, at least for people who create content like podcasts and all, you can still find a way around it. some of my friends doing standup comedy, they had their big shows planned this year. They're trying to do online standup comedy which is not the same. So, unless there's a technology that kind of can convey emotion and laughter from group while on a Zoom call, it's going to be tough man. It is going to be tough.
Jeremy Au: [00:19:44] It's definitely interesting to see the entire creative industry really go through that change like you said. So, standup having to go online, production having to go online, YouTubers and their houses and their casts and their staff and all of that. So much changes happening. Is there any hope? Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?
Haresh Tilani: [00:20:03] I think there is light at the end of a very long tunnel. So, I think now it really is about adapting. And I think as cynical as I can be about a lot of things in media, I think for me I've never really seen production quality or scale of the scene as something that allows you to tell the best story. In terms of another leader who I think has been doing great during quarantine is Kevin James. You know the guys from King of Queens the sitcom? So, he was in King of Queens which was a big sitcom in the early 2000s or late 90s. So, he started a YouTube channel a few months ago, and he does just short one-minute clips. And it's basically mainly him or another actor.
So, he does this thing where he inserts himself seamlessly into the most iconic scenes from movies, and to me of any mainstream celebrity that has gone online, he has done the best possible job of really embracing what it means to be a YouTuber. And all his scenes are actually shot with minimal crew, it's shot by this one production house that for real, was started by eight brothers. Literally, the eight brothers run the production house. But if you watch his videos you can see how it's very COVID friendly because it's filmed in his house, it's filmed in minimal sets, and I think there is a way to carry on, but this about adapting.
Look at the rise of TikTok. You see people creating content that gets millions of views and when you look at it you don't understand why, but you can't deny the fact that it's getting a lot of traction. And most TikTok videos are not the best produced in terms of production quality but there's still a way to create content that resonates with people around the world.
Jeremy Au: [00:21:38] In this day and age, there are so many people who still have a dream to become an influencer or a content creator. I was actually reently reading an article which is saying that one of the most popular occupations now for kids these days is to be an influencer like a YouTube star. So last time, it used to be a scientist, soldier, et cetera. But now YouTube star is one of the top kid occupations. So, I'm kind of curious for maybe not the kids, but for whoever is thinking about as a career, or considering a journey similar to yours, what advice would you give to them?
Haresh Tilani: [00:22:15] I would say that, okay, anyone who wants to go into media and all, first of all you need to realize that what you see on camera is not what actually... It's not consistent once the camera stops. For example, I am known as a guy who creates funny videos. But one thing that I routinely notice is that people are disappointed how unfunny I am in person when they meet me, or how low energy I am, because in my videos I'm, "What's up guys? Blah, blah, blah." So, you need to understand that what you see on camera is still an edit and it's still a persona that people put online. It doesn't mean it's inauthentic, but it's just heightened.
And the other thing is I think compared to maybe 20 years ago when people wanted to become an actor and all, the hardest part was almost getting to a point where you can be seen by people because you want to appear on TV, you want to appear on ads. Now it's very easy to create content and put it out for the world to potentially see, but standing out from the millions of people around the world is not an easy thing. And for every overnight success you see, there are millions who are just never get there. So, don't bet your life on this overnight success. If you want to do it, you need to basically be in it for slightly longer than you might think.
It's like starting a company. Everyone thinks this one genius idea is going to make them a millionaire. I thought I was going to give myself one year to try making a video a week, but after one year, there's no way you can build something in just one year. And I think the one thing I always tell people is that you know that saying where, "Find a job you love, and you'll never work a day in your life." I think that’s bullshit because I've seen it so many times where people start things they think they like and the moment they face some obstacle or hardship, they are, "You know what? Maybe this is not for me."
No, so I think that advice is bullshit. I think regardless of what you think you love, if you make it a career, you will have days where you hate it but that doesn't mean you should stop doing it. I think like anything, it's never easy building something great. I think there's one saying that implies it, and I think that's so true. If you think you like something that just gives you a direction. It's not going to be an easy thing. And if you face hardship you shouldn't just stop there. You need to understand that anyone who created anything of significance went through the same hardship.
So, for me in media I enjoy reading biographies of the people I look up to. And understand that, " even people who are world famous now for the longest time, they were just doing standup comedy in a Chinese restaurant with no one giving a shit when they were 35."
Jeremy Au: [00:24:43] Wow. That's going to be dark for the kids who are listening. I mean I remember I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist because it's the glamor of discovery et cetera. And then I realized that I enjoyed the structure and the problem-solving part of it but the day to day wasn't what kind of gripped me for that. And I think that's actually great advice kind of looking behind the myth or the glamor of the role to the actual day to day.
Haresh Tilani: [00:25:08] Yeah. I mean just to give more context; I'm not saying that be scared of anything. I think if your inclination of what your calling might be, just give it a shot. That's the only way to find out. And if you face hardships, and you really try and try but you really feel, "Okay." It's not your thing. That's totally fine. That's totally fine. But just you have to try it to know whether or not it is something that you want to pursue.
Jeremy Au: [00:25:31] You earlier shared about how in the past there was a fight to even be in front of a camera for the old school. And I think you're implying that today you can be on a camera called your mobile phone, right? So, what do you think about that? Do you think people should just go for it and just upload whatever they want, and then see where it sticks?
Haresh Tilani: [00:25:51] I mean I would say I think people do over share. So, I think certain people need to calm down and stop sharing, but if people who have an interest in creating media. So, one thing I was guilty of at the start when I first went into this space was every video, we upload on YouTube needs to be perfect. “Keep editing to make it perfect." But one thing I slowly came to terms with is the whole concept behind startups also you ship fast or what's the thing that was made popular? You just get your minimum viable product out and you can iterate content. But I think it is important to know that not everything needs to be perfect. And as long as you have something that is 90% there, just put it out and then move onto your next project.
And for the longest time, even before we created our first video, it was always, "Okay. I don't feel it's right. I need more time." and all that. And I think people who feel that they might want to be in media, the most important thing you can do is upload your first piece of content, be it your blog post, be it your Instagram post, be it your video. And how I think you should think about it is that if it's shit, no one will see it, so you don't even need to be worried about embarrassment. But if it's good, if you get some traction, then just work on your next one because people have very short memories.
The one thing that people also might not realize about media which I realized firsthand is that I finally understand why people in media you see a lot of cases of them being volatile or kind of having volatile mental states. Because when we were making viral videos, I used to get recognized on the street, and I started noticing that if we don't make viral videos and I get recognized less, it was affecting my mood dude. So I was, "Oh shit." And the same thing. When you receive a few viral videos, you upload a video that doesn't do well, it can affect your mood. So how did I get here?
What I'm saying is that I think if you want to create content, don't worry about making shitty stuff because people forget very easily. You can have 10 shitty videos and one great video. More often than not, people will remember you by the great video. If you have 10 great videos, you made one shitty video, yeah, certain instances people might remember your worst ones, but there's always a way to just keep making content to iterate rather than just have two videos that you think are perfect. It's better to of 100 videos have 95 that are not that good but five viral videos than have four videos, one of which is viral, if that makes any sense.
Jeremy Au: [00:28:17] What are some other common myths and misconceptions that you've encountered in this space?
Haresh Tilani: [00:28:23] I think one thing that I came to realize is that any time you Google, "Most amazing scenes" or, "Most amazing lines in movies" and all, there's this notion that it was entirely crafted, that everything fell in place. But if you Google, you will often see that some amazing framing with the sunset and the clouds, if you dig deep and listen to the director when they ask how they came up with that, if they're honest you will find countless examples of... I remember one. I can't remember what movie. I think it was the famous Taiwanese director and it was a scene literally where there was a castle and some clouds moving, and the sun was perfect. And people ask him, "How do you conceptualize that?" He said, "To be honest, the sun was setting, we were losing light. We just had to do a wide shot. We couldn't zoom in. We put it there, we took it, and it turned out to be an iconic scene."
So, the one thing that I wrestle, I studied engineering which inherently trains you to think in a more structured way, and I realize that that whole notion of waiting for inspiration is absolute bullshit. True, you might be lying in bed or taking a shower and you have a thought. But I think it's so much more important to keep thinking of creative ideas and that is the only way to think of an idea. So, anyone who thinks that, "Okay, I can't be creative because I've never had an inspirational thought in my life." No, realize that most creatives get to the point where they can think of creative ideas only through forcing themselves to think of creative stuff.
I know Stephen King for as long as he has been a writer, every day he would make sure he writes 3,000 words. Every day. I even bought a book to understand the rituals of the most creative people in history, and the most common element was that they just continued to create, and it was through creating so much that once in a while you get a hit. And that whole notion of, yeah, sitting under a tree and an apple falling on your head, having a genius idea rarely happens.
Jeremy Au: [00:30:16] How do your de-stress and unwind?
Haresh Tilani: [00:30:21] When we were doing videos and having thankfully more and more attention, I actually started to like just going on long runs by myself. I used to listen to music and podcasts, but then I realized, "No, it's nice to get away from social media." Probably because my life revolved around social media. But going for long ass runs one hour, even if you're running at a snail's pace but just working up a sweat and enjoying the run was one of the more consistent ways I found of de-stressing.
Jeremy Au: [00:30:53] What's your favorite run from your perspective?
Haresh Tilani: [00:30:56] Oh. My favorite run. So, in Singapore, I mean I don't know how many of your listeners are from Singapore, but Singapore actually has a lot of nice places to run that are surprisingly scenic. So even when I went to MacRitchie Reservoir and I ran the 11K loop for the first time, I was surprised at how at certain points you can't even believe you are in Singapore. And in certain parts, in I think near Alexandra or something, you get some really scenic areas. But of course, you asked me what my top run was ever.
A few years ago, I actually took part in an ultra-marathon in Iceland which was a 250-kilometer run over seven days where you carry your own equipment and the training for that was what made me realize, "Oh shit. Actually, running and not worrying about how fast you're running can be very therapeutic." So, if you've been to Iceland, if anyone has been to Iceland, it's a ridiculous landscape where over the course of seven days, there were certain times I was running besides glaciers, certain times I was running on a desert, certain times I was running amidst lush greenery. I got injured halfway. So, the second half of the run was the most painful run I've ever done in my life. I couldn't really notice landscape because I kept on looking at my feet. But the first half was really fun.
Jeremy Au: [00:32:01] I love that. Sounds like you're describing a lot of careers, is you start out the first half and then it's great, and then the second half you're just limping as you're getting through it. I think you mentioned something that's interesting. As one of the first few people who was creating content but also as a result being super hyper immersed in social media, and then you talked about how having to have a hobby, or a way to get yourself out of that space. And I think it feels like everybody in the world is now in your shoes. Everybody has so much social media that is Facebook, YouTube, the latest social media platforms. And I think there's a big conversation about how to have that balance. What are your thoughts about that?
Haresh Tilani: [00:32:40] Yeah. Everyone needs to force themselves off social media. I think for me it's a bit more heightened because part of my work involves having a Facebook tab on YouTube and Instagram, and I actually found it affecting my mood as well because it's the same thing you hear over and over again. Whatever you see on Facebook and Instagram is just the best excerpts of people's lives, and when you see that on an unrealistic time scale, it kind of paints a different reality and you get the whole FOMO grass is greener kind of thing.
So, I think people need to actively unplug or maybe even actively help their friends unplug because every time I unplug while I go for a run, yeah. You don't want to lose out. The world carries on. It's not that bad a thing to unplug once in a while. But the problem is it's not the easiest thing to do that because actually they are configured to keep your attention, to retain your attention. So, everybody needs to fight it. And I say this coming from someone whose business is built on people engaging with our content. No. Except for our videos. Our videos you can watch all night, but all other content just step away after 30 minutes of browsing.
Jeremy Au: [00:33:55] Lots of people are always thinking about, "What's the next big platform?" So, they're thinking, "Okay. I was on Facebook, and then I need to get an Instagram. Now I need to get a TikTok." And then there's all these new media platforms that are coming up. What do you think about that? Do you feel like it makes sense? Or do you feel like it's a bit too hopscotch? Or is the reality of you just got to march with those mediums?
Haresh Tilani: [00:34:20] A bit of everything, because that's something that I personally struggle with as well because when we started in 2014, YouTube was the place to go for videos. And then when Facebook decided, "Hey, we want to compete in the video space." And they started making videos a big priority and they had a shitty content ID system that didn't detect people uploading duplicate videos. We realized we needed to be on Facebook as well. Then when Instagram came out, we realized, "Oh shit. We need to be on Instagram." I'm not even on TikTok. I never went onto Snapchat. I do that if you are starting as a creator you can benefit from having a presence of every platform. It's not the easiest thing to do but I think if you are starting out, that can be helpful. Then once you start building a brand, you can be a little more selective.
So and that's why I would say anyone trying to create content make sure that whatever content you create does not stress you out, does not kill you, does not make you go crazy because the only way you can survive in this sort of environment is being comfortable creating content across all platforms. And the easiest way to create content that you're comfortable with is to do it in a way that is most natural to you. Because I've seen people try and just put on this persona online for different content platforms. And after a while you get burnt out because your whole life is an act. But the people who succeed and I think do the best job, they are just themselves on every platform. And that is I think the most sustainable.
So, I will willingly admit it, I've never been the best at making sure that I'm always on the latest platform. I just make sure I'm on a few platforms because you never just want to be on one platform. If they decide to change the algorithm, change the way they operate, you can literally get screwed over. So that's my take on it. And I think if people find being on too many platforms kind of taking away from being good at any one, then you don't need to be on every platform, because the last thing you want to be is a Jack of all trades and a master of none.
Jeremy Au: [00:36:14] One thing I notice is that your trajectory of videos over time have begun to take on the tackling of social issues and societal topics of interest, and you also do that with humor and grace from my perspective. I'm just kind of curious why that arc. Because you could continue swimming in Takashimaya Fountain, and I think that continues here. I think the willingness to do that and the bravery and audacity is still there I think in all your comedy today. But it's just interesting to see that it's almost becoming a means to an end rather than the end in itself.
Haresh Tilani: [00:36:53] I would say it's just an evolution of who me and my teammate are as people. I think one logistical issue is that the reason why we stopped doing on the street videos is it was a blessing and a curse. The blessing was that we were getting bigger, the curse was that people started recognizing me. So, the moment I approached them on the street, then they are like "You know what? Something is happening. There's some camera here." And I'm, "No." Then, yeah. So, it became harder to do that.
But the bigger reason is because as you grow older you also realize there are different things that you care about, and once we kind of had some validation. Okay. The way we create content resonates with certain demographic of people. Then we started taking more risks. Because if you want to make a video about xenophobia or racism, or even counter-terrorism there is the risk of not something that is wholesome. But we knew that, "Okay. There is something we are getting right, and let's just slowly push towards that." Because that has been stuff that have always cared about. And I think the older you get, the more cognizant you get of how the world around you affects yourself, the people around you, and you start thinking about the future of the world, and you start having different thoughts that you might have when you were 25.
From the start I think why we started carving our different niches, because when I started doing YouTube, I was 30 and my teammate was 32 which is way older than every other YouTuber out there that we met. And we realized, "Okay. There's no way we are as cool as them. There's no way we are as good looking as them. There's no way we're as hip as them. Let's just try and do stuff that maybe differentiates us from them." And I think anyone would agree the person they are when they're 30 is the very different from the person they are when they're 21. So, we started focusing on that. "Let's be willing to focus on issues that were a little riskier, a little more provocative, but would appeal to the older demographic."
Jeremy Au: [00:38:37] I think Singapore society is going through changes. And I think you're talking about those themes. So, you said xenophobia was one, you talked about identity in terms of racial and cultural affiliations. What do you think about those trends? You look at the next 10 years and so forth What's your hopes and fears?
Haresh Tilani: [00:38:57] So I mean on one hand I am very hopeful because people seem to be caring a lot about stuff more so than they used to be. I think there's a whole bunch of factors, the access the information, the fact that now people with different thoughts can find people who actually agree with them instead of being the outcast within their own social circles. But on the other hand, what I'm genuinely afraid of is the increasing rise of people living in their own echo chambers. And it's one thing that has influenced the type of content we create the videos we create, the videos we create, the podcasts we make because now every issue that is potentially controversial or taboo immediately polarizes people, and it's always us against them. And I think that's a very scary thought.
The reason we started our podcast called "Yah Lah But" which is where me and my teammate purposely try and force ourself to take opposing views and talk it out is because everything you see online you can see someone post this one view, get 1,000 shares, and people loving his comments, and commenting lovingly. But then you get the people who hate on the comments and just keep shitting on it, and someone will post another post about this person. And that would have 1,000 shares. And it just feels like, "Oh my God. What is happening?" So, I am genuinely worried about that trend. But I would say overwhelmingly I'm still more encouraged because I think people are also realizing, "Oh shit. Echo chambers exist." The importance of finding alternative viewpoints and checking your own beliefs and perspectives and making sure there's a balance.
Jeremy Au: [00:40:27] If you had a time machine to go back 10 years, what advice would you give to yourself back then?
Haresh Tilani: [00:40:34] I would totally know what sort of videos I should make to become the biggest YouTuber in the world. I would come up with the cinnamon challenge beforehand, whatever stupid challenges they have today, and I would be the one to start it. What was the Harlem shake? Dude, I would download every piece of every viral video. No, but I'm just kidding. I would say 10 years ago was when I was one year into my corporate life. I think going through that corporate life also shaped how I saw the pursuit of entrepreneurship or the pursuit of building your own thing because you kind of realize what you don't like and what you like.
So, I would tell myself that instead of sometimes not going to one extreme and trying something out, because as much as taking a leap of faith is something, I'm very proud of, there were things that I myself shied away from because they were a little too extreme or too out there. And there's always this notion, "Okay, what's that point?" It feels like one small step towards something that you might never achieve. Let's say standup comedy. For the longest time, I thought, "You know what? I should do standup comedy." And this year, I kid you not, when our TV show was ending, I was, "This is the year I'm going to try standup comedy." And then what? Standup comedy around the world shut down.
So, I would tell myself that I think the best way to see life is as Tarzan going from tree to tree. And when you start off, you're just swinging from extreme to extreme, but as you get older the amount you swing will get less and less. And I think that is the only way to find out what you really want to do. So instead of assuming that life is A to B, just a straight-line path, no, life is always going to be you swing to one extreme, you realize, "Oh, shit. That's not what I like." And you swing to the next extreme. "Oh shit. That's not what I like." But each oscillation is narrower and narrower and hopefully in 10, 15 years down the road, you come to what you really like. But you must be willing to swing from extreme to extreme, and just try shit out.
Jeremy Au: [00:42:22] Awesome. Thank you so much Haresh.