Some of us start an entrepreneurial journey later in life.
For others, it may not come at all, with most people preferring to work in an organization where there’s at least a modicum of predictability, of security, or at least the expectation of a regular paycheque and work hours that are conducive to something other than work.
And then there are people like Liwordson Vijayabalan, who’s been exercising his entrepreneurial muscle since he was 14 and now, at age 22, was the winner of the Sarnia Lambton Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneur of the Year honours at the 2018 Outstanding Business Achievement Awards.
Vijayabalan, who was born in Scarborough to immigrant parents who called Sri Lanka, had already found his way to Sarnia, moving here with his mother (who spoke no English at the time) and two younger siblings.
What does a 14-year-old do to entertain himself?
Vijayabalan—we’ll call him Li, the name his friends use over Liwordson—started a YouTube channel, teaching himself how to create, edit and distribute content, all with an idea somewhere deep in his psyche that this was the way things would be done in the future.
Today he credits his father—a musician who “acts like one” Li says with a chuckle—for his creative genes.
With a son of his own now, Li is also very much determined to create his own path, including building a team who he also calls friends.
The organization he continues to build started out as Tomorrow Media, since rebranded to TMRRW Inc., which has offices in the former Taylor’s Furniture building at the corner of Cromwell and Christina St. N. in downtown Sarnia.
But let’s rewind just a bit, back to those early YouTube days.
“I understood even then that the internet was the place to be,” says Li of his exposure to a platform that continues to grow, and which has become an integral part of modern culture.
In the process he ended up building his own computer so he could record and edit and learn how to make them as good as a YouTube video could be in 2010.
Asked whether those early YouTube creations are still online, we get a lightning fast response:
“I truly hope not,” Li says with the kind of laugh those who know him are accustomed to hearing.
Two years after that, he and a high school friend—Graham Pedregosa—launched an apparel company that turned out to be highly successful, arguably one of the most successful youth entrepreneurship projects of its day.
Even so, the venture—Victor Apparel—was short lived, not because of any financial constraints but the reality of what happens when one of the partners goes off to university and the other has a newborn son to consider.
The university bound one was Pedregosa, who has since returned to Sarnia, taking his first (unsuccessful) stab at municipal politics.
For Li, the next step, as a 16-year-old, was to pursue other ways to engage an audience, embracing hip-hop as one of the steps—mainly on Facebook, which at that point was a platform with basically no way of making money for creators like him.
“Now, Facebook is full of videos but at the time, people didn’t do that,” he recalls.
But Li could see where the social landscape was going and one thing was for certain: he wanted to be in on a process of helping companies and brands find themselves on the internet.
The story of how TMRRW Inc. came to be starts when Li approached the Sarnia-Lambton Economic Partnership and subsequently connected with Fraser Parry, the organization’s senior business counsellor.
Receiving one of the first grants as part of a Summer Company program, Li hit something of a snag when he realized a self-employment path was not at all what he was wanting to pursue.
“In a one-person operation, I could only generate when I’m working,” said Li. “What I wanted to do was something more than what I myself could do. I wanted to be a business.”
Telling his counsellor that he wasn’t going to meet any of his agreed-upon milestones might have been a little awkward, but Li pursued, sitting down with his friends during Christmas break 2015 for a discussion around what they could do together.
With Li the acknowledged leader in a tightly-knit pack of friends who had gone through school together, he had a proposal.
“I said, guys, quit your jobs and we’ll start a company,” Li recalls.
Well, maybe there was a little bit more to it, but not much more.
Li knew each of the crew, including Pedregosa (the marketer), Lewis Menelaws (the coder), and Jason Neung (the photographer), had their own specialty.
And let’s face it: Li is one persuasive guy.
“They all said ‘okay, let’s do it.’”
By the following February 2016 they were in business, having taken out rented space not too far away from where they are today, the top floor of the former Taylor’s Furniture building we referred to earlier.
Li is also “self-aware” in understanding is strengths and weaknesses when it comes to work, which is why the team approach he has embraced is so important to any future success.
“I have a history of procrastination and when I’m the only one involved, I tend to let myself down,” he says. “But when there’s a team of people, it anchors me and I’m motivated.”
Indeed, Li says he feels more like a shepherd than a boss.
“There’s a little tug here and there,” he adds. “People come to you and ask what we should do and I tend to have the answer when the time comes. And, after all, we’re equally invested—as partners, not employees.”
Still, when Li ends up suggesting they go in a particular direction, others tend to follow.
Since their launch, TMRRW has been involved with several notable projects, including the development of a new website for the Sarnia Lambton Chamber of Commerce, and a new site for Imperial Theatre, among others.
Li is also engaged in building a co-working space in the lower level of the building, a project that is still being developed as the market demand solidifies.
Looking ahead, Li sees even greater times ahead for the company he founded with his friends.
“It’s an awesome thrill, doing this,” he said. “That to me is fun. Showing people what you’re capable of, not just talk, is key. I also love making change, love building things. It’s fun but it’s still lots of work.”
Spoken like a true entrepreneur.