Aftershock founders look back on decade of dishing out PCs like pizzas, delivering 'transcendent' customer experience

Lessons on Leadership: Marcus and Joe Wee have arranged for minimal involvement in their other businesses to spend most of their time on the one they started 10 years ago. Turns out, it's not just because of their passion for gaming.

Nigel Chua | January 15, 2022, 10:16 AM

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Aftershock PC founders, Marcus and Joe Wee, are clad in jeans and t-shirts for our interview with them, and most of the staff are attired similarly.

This less-formal dress code is par for the course at many offices today, particularly for companies (or teams) that are not customer-facing.

But what stands out about the dress code at Aftershock is the number of people seen in slippers — including Marcus and Joe, the managing director and creative director respectively, of the 10-year-old homegrown gaming computer company

Aftershock founders Marcus and Joe Wee in Marcus' office.

What's the reason for this curious sartorial trend?

Simply, it's the fact that Aftershock's offices are spread out across multiple units in their industrial/office block along Kallang Place.

Employees who move from unit to unit have thus opted for easy-to-remove footwear to make these short trips between different departments, saving them the hassle of dealing with shoes.

Unintended benefit

Marcus, Aftershock's managing director, shares that this decentralised office arrangement ended up becoming a huge unintended benefit as the Covid-19 situation developed in Singapore.

When the authorities imposed a requirement for offices to shut down their physical operations if a certain number of workers tested positive, Aftershock's operations required relatively less adjustment to the new rule.

Each unit could be treated as a different office space, making for easier scenario planning.

This allowed them to meet the surge in demand for their products, which were crucial to meeting many Singaporeans' work-from-home (and game-from-home) needs.

This is not to say that Covid-19 did not faze them at all. The company strained to keep up service standards in the earlier part of 2020.

"If you look at our record, like yes, we had some complaints when Covid-19 hit initially, that was the first time in seven years, because we've always been focused on customer service."

With so much of everyday life happening online, customers would go "absolutely insane" during periods of lockdown if they couldn’t get their computers serviced, Marcus says.

For the first month or so, "we got roasted a little bit", he admits wryly.

In response, the company "tripled down" on beefing up its service centre operations, and brought the situation back under control.

The service centre's manpower has doubled since early 2020, and now runs with around 40 employees in one of Aftershock's office units.

Aftershock's customer service department.

Intended expansion

While many retail-oriented companies took a hit from the consequences of Covid-19 regulations, Aftershock's operations — and the healthy trend of growing demand for their products — have been largely undisrupted, and they continue their winning formula of cultivating a loyal customer base through after-sales support that goes above and beyond.

So it might sound like Aftershock is in a cushy position right now, in terms of its serendipitously resilient use of space and current position in the market.

But plans are underway for Aftershock to consolidate its operations, and with that, to expand their capabilities.

The founders share that they are thinking of moving to a new headquarters with at least 30,000 square feet, on top of their plans for a new showroom.

After all, Covid-19 considerations won't last forever, and the Wee brothers have their sights set on longer term objectives.

It's a recurring idea that comes up — the long run.

For all of the Wee brothers' combined technical knowledge and experience in the industry, they share that the "long run" for them has a lot to do with an area they've come to focus on relatively recently — company culture, and making sure their over 200 employees are well taken care of, even as the Wees manage the business and try to grow it.

"Long run" thinking

Here's an example of what this "long run" thinking might look like: Deciding against 24/7 support — something that might seem counter-intuitive at first, for a company that so prides itself on service standards.

Marcus shares that having a round-the-clock service team was in fact an idea that they'd considered before, but eventually abandoned.

"There are upsides and downsides. Having people working into the wee hours of the night, it's not a long term solution, and not the best solution for most employees. Nobody wants to stay in a long term job [working the night shift]."

Instead, Marcus explains, the priority is to stay focused on delivering "pristine" service during stipulated hours.

"The idea is, if you need service from Aftershock, it should be instant. And it should be a whole crew waiting for you. And this is where we believe that, yes, it'll be expensive, but in the long run, our customers appreciate it. We want to be future looking."

A "transcendent" customer experience

This future-orientedness comes into play when it comes to handling new (or potential) customers too, at the sales stage.

Rather than upselling, Marcus says that sales staff should in fact recommend cheaper options than what their customers budgeted for, if the lower-priced PCs meet their needs better.

The goal, Marcus says, is to make the customer experience "transcendent".

It's a tried-and-tested formula that has brought the company to where it is today, from its humble beginnings in a shophouse unit in Serangoon Road 10 years ago.

Dishing out PCs like pizzas, being hands-on from the beginning

They were always very hands-on, the brothers say, regaling me with stories of their past exploits.

After Marcus built all 140 custom laptops to fill the orders from Aftershock's first PC show, clocking in a series of sleepless nights before collapsing in office, Joe delivered each of them personally, "like pizza delivery" — out of fear that the laptops might not otherwise make it to their recipients in good condition.

Of course, PC building is now done by a dedicated team, and courier services have become much faster, more available, and offer much better value for money than they did in Joe's deliveryman days.

Employees assembling built-to-order PCs.

After a decade of leading from the front, one might fairly think that the brothers might be keen to step back and reap the spoils of their hard work — but they share that they're in it for the long haul.

No longer their biggest, but still their focus

To the Wees, there's something about Aftershock that sets it apart from the two other companies, Prism+ and Omnidesk, where the brothers have majority stakes.

"We love this company, and we love what it does," says Marcus matter of factly. "That's why we spend all our time on it, even though it's not the biggest anymore."

While it might possibly be more lucrative for them to focus their energies on their biggest or fastest-growing businesses, they've decided that they won't be involved in management, leaving it to their partners to run the show.

After all, Aftershock is their baby, which has — much like a growing child — matured as the years went by.

As Marcus and Joe speak about how things have changed over time, especially in the past year or so, they beam with pride at how things have improved.

But there's also a distinct relief in their tone.

The startup founder's "trap"

Setting the context, Marcus speaks animatedly about what Aftershock was like when it first started.

"When you are a new company, and you just started out, with a squad of 10, everybody's bloody passionate."

One could imagine him channeling that energy, as he continues:

"It's like you're on this, DotA team, everybody wants to win, we all chiong together until very late at night. Like, we don't ask anybody to do it, but everybody does it, you know?"

In those heady "startup days", some of Marcus' World of Warcraft (WoW) guild mates caught wind of what he was doing, resigned from their jobs, and showed up at the door saying that they wanted to work for him.

Such was the commitment of Aftershock's earliest employees, Marcus says, in spite of the financial uncertainty involved.

"Maybe they were inspired? Maybe they feel the energy. Maybe they feel like, this is what the company wants to do, and we want to make sure we achieve that goal together, we win together."

But as the company grew, it got harder to keep that kind of pace, especially with a bigger and more diverse team.

This is a trend that the brothers have come to observe in other businesses as well.

The brothers have come to see it as a "trap" — in the sense that it can be easy for a business owner managing a growing team to try to cling to their company's startup culture — something Marcus grappled with too.

For Aftershock, these growing pains came to a head sometime in 2019, when the company had to "learn our lesson" the hard way, after unhappy employees up and left for the first time.

"We were never truly terrible," said Marcus, but candidly admits that he did need the wake up call.

"We realised, eh! OT's not the way! [The] company cannot be designed to have OT at all. It should be designed to use OT as minimally as possible...

So the whole company has shifted to this [mindset of] 'We're going to make sure we finish our work.' Everybody aims to finish on time, we make sure that people who do their work are acknowledged, and we try to aim for work-life balance."

An Aftershock employee in the company's Kallang office.

This is not to say that work will always end on time.

"Yes, sometimes if we need to chiong for something, that's fine, but it needs to be like a, 'Hey, guys, there's this thing going to happen, can we do it together?' kind of thing."

To Marcus, the only good option, when faced with the "startup owner's trap", is to try to fix what might be broken, and to "make sure that it gets better".

"That's why it's called 'startup phase' — you have to get out of it," he says.

Marcus points out that making this change required a leap of faith on the part of the owners:

"Because human nature will make you think that people will just take advantage. And some people get stuck in that mindset, and they are not wrong — there will be people who take advantage. But [change is] for the greater good of the company."

Managing the transition

While work-life balance is generally seen as a good thing, prioritising it was not just a  simple matter of dialling down the intensity, recruiting more to spread the load, and expecting that everyone would be on board. Some had different priorities.

For example, one of the staff was actually opposed to having more team members. "Because he just want[ed] to tank the whole thing," Marcus shares.

Marcus laughs as play-acts the staff member's point of view, his eyes going wide in mock horror, "Like, 'are you replacing me?'

"But [we said] 'No it's not [that], we're trying to make sure that you have better quality of life!'" he says, chuckling.

"So you need to understand, and you need to tell them 'Hey, you know, you are freaking important here, but I'm trying to take care of you.' And you need to explain to them."

What's next for Aftershock?

Plans for the future include moving to the new HQ, continuing their expansion overseas, and even special projects to give back to the gaming community in time to come.

"You have to keep going to see how far you can go," says Joe.

There is an element of exploration, and perhaps even adventure in this — after all, they are in a business built on fun.

But Marcus points out that it is only from pushing the business forward that employees have opportunities to grow and develop their careers. This is something that gives him a lot of stress, and puts constant pressure on him.

"If you don't put a lot of time into the company, if you don't constantly evolve — because the market is a competitive space — if the company doesn't constantly create new opportunities, you are actually doing wrong by your team, as a business owner" he says, soberly.

And while running the company can sometimes remind him of embarking on a collaborative quest in a computer game, the final objectives in real life are much less finite. "The journey [in business] never ends," he says.

Either way, Marcus and Joe are confident that their new, more sustainable company culture is an important ingredient in the next phase. Marcus says:

"I will say that, yes, you will lose some productivity. But the gains to be had for a company in the long run are gigantic.

We're very happy with where we are now."

All images by Zenn Tan, Teh Aik Hwee, and Hor Teng Teng