A saucy story – William Chew’s journey to starting Mak Tok in Sheffield with the ultimate goal of taking care of his family financially, took him through The Dragons’ Den and beyond. Here is his Merchant Story.
When we sat down to speak to William Chew, founder of Mak Tok, it is easy to see how his affable and earnest manner won the hearts of audiences and one Sara Davies MBE on BBC’s The Dragons’ Den.
The brand ‘Mak Tok’ was born out of a homesick William in 2017 when he was studying his MA in Psychology and Music at the University of Sheffield in the UK. With the weather being cold and dreary, the Penangite missed his mother’s sambal belachan so much that he was determined to make his own. A phone call to mum later, he had instructions and a list of ingredients to get started. However, there was a catch.
He was missing the key ingredient that could not be found in Sheffield – anchovy paste. And this is where his kindly mentor and friend from Malaysia, affectionately known as Mak Tok (Mother Tok in English) couriered the paste to him overnight for his endeavour. She subsequently became the namesake of the company today.
Mak Tok surprises Western tastebuds
After making his first batch of sambal, William gave his Western classmates in Sheffield a taste. To his surprise, they took to it quickly and demanded more. His cousin Shang, who was also living in Sheffield convinced William to try turning this into a business opportunity.
William says: “He said to me, ‘William, let’s turn this into a business and make ourselves millionaires!’ and I was like ‘Oh?! Why not? [laughs]’ and that’s how it all started.” From there, the cousins started taking part in small food markets as a side project around Sheffield to introduce Mak Tok’s pastes to the wider community with some degree of success.
Hard work is no stranger to William as he has been working since the age of 15 to fund his education and any of his business endeavours. While trying to get Mak Tok off the ground, William was still running his company Bermuzik. The company trains music teachers from the UK to teach in China and creates curriculums for music schools in the UK. But as work from Bermuzik was seasonal due to schooling schedules, hence William began to put more focus on Mak Tok alongside his cousin.
“Students would come in during the summer and winter months, and I didn’t know what to do during spring and autumn. So, I thought ‘why not start something else that I really love?’ I love food too. Food and Music. So I started Mak Tok seriously. Since then , I have not even had time to go to the toilet [with two businesses to manage]!” William says jokingly.
Mak Tok hits a snag
Shortly after he graduated from school and Mak Tok slowly gaining traction from the food shows, William’s road to success hit a speed bump when his business investor visa was denied by the UK in July 2018. A long and costly visa battle ensued which resulted in him exhausting £10,000 of his savings on solicitor fees. The amount was initially meant to sustain Mak Tok’s marketing efforts for the next two to three months.
William remembers: “As an international entrepreneur in the UK, of course, I always have to worry about my visa. It took like seven months from the point of application to denial, although I was confident it was going to be approved. During that waiting time, it was very nerve-wracking as I didn’t know if I should put more money into my businesses or not [as I could be asked to leave the country]. After I received the news, it took me 10 more months to get my visa issues sorted. During that time I was drawing zero income and it was a tough time making ends meet!”
After this incident, William took a year to get Mak Tok back on track which led the brand on to The Dragons’ Den.
Mak Tok enters The Dragons’ Den
As the brand began to participate in more food exhibitions and markets, customers began encouraging the cousins to appear on The Dragons’ Den, a UK television show where small businesses fight for a chance to convince a group of investors for capital. Despite being uncomfortable with the spotlight, William plucked up the courage to apply for the programme in December 2018.
He says on overcoming his shyness: “I suffer from social anxiety but my cousin and girlfriend taught me to be more thick-skinned during the process of our food shows. Then, I realised that I am not afraid to present our products as I am very passionate about it, [with this in mind] I went ahead and applied for the show.”
In January 2019, William bravely went to the studios for the audition as a representative of Mak Tok. After passing on round one, he then incorporated his musical talents into his honest and emotional pitch for the judges which won over Sara Davies MBE, a successful businesswoman from the UK. Mak Tok obtained £50,000 worth of investment and gained a new partner.
William recounts his experience: “There were a few rounds to it, but I got in on the first one based on my pitch [without having to go through more auditions]. I spruced up the performance for TV, of course, as I wanted to stand out. It was super scary and I waited over 12 hours for my turn on the day itself. It is a one-take only sort of recording and you only get one shot at winning the judges over. What you see is what you get with that show. I wasn’t expecting to get anything but some exposure for Mak Tok from tv, but thankfully, I got Sara!” Sara currently is an active partner and mentor in the company.
He continues the story while laughing: “My mum said my audition was ‘so cringey’. I was like THANKS MUM. But, I watched myself once when it aired and I was like ‘Oh my gosh!’. I don’t like watching myself at all! However, one thing I have learnt from Sara is that you have to do it – as much as you don’t like it – as you can spot the flaws you have in every video and presentation. From there, you’ll be able to find ways to improve constantly. She’s been doing ‘live’ tv for 14 years [so she knows best].”
Since his appearance on the show, William has started Mak Tok’s Facebook and Instagram pages as well as vlogs actively on its Youtube channel. Mak Tok currently retails items such as its signature chilli paste, pineapple relish, satay chilli paste and its newly launched sweet soy sauce (kicap manis).
William’s hopes for Mak Tok
Although William has successfully obtained funding for his enterprise, he reveals he still works as hard as he did on day one of his business, as he does not want to be complacent. “A lot of people don’t understand that even if your company has an experienced investor, it’s not a sign to put all your eggs in one basket and hope they will carry you to the next level. It is still all up to you to turn your business into something fruitful,” he says.
It’s not merely a passion for business and entrepreneurship that keeps William going in the tough food and beverage industry. His lifelong goal is to provide his family with enough financial security for them to be comfortable for the rest of their lives. “My parents have done so much for me and I want to do the same for them. Everything I am doing, I am doing for my family.”