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Raj Datwani

Become – High Profiles
September 8, 2017

Today, it’s just me and Raj Datwani. Alex Chew, his co-founder, is not in the equation. Typically, they come as a pair, and although this is the first time Raj is flying solo, he seems unfazed. In fact, he is trying to cope with the lassitude of post-Ultra. Raj looks worn out, and to be fair, we are meeting just a few days after he has organised the most successful and biggest EDM festival in Singapore. Remaining chirpy, he brings me to his favourite room in Madison Rooms, and tells me to sit anywhere I please. One seat, however, is off limits. “I always sit here,” Raj says in an emollient voice, before sinking into the velvet eggplant chair that directly faces the door.

  Almost on cue, there’s a knock at the door. A guest relations officer enters, with a bottle of sparkling water and a bowl full of almonds—both are his usuals and it’s clear how attentive the team at Madison Rooms is to Raj’s needs, since he spends most of his time there—working, meeting and entertaining clients. If there’s any explanation as to why Raj is being so royally taken care of, is because I’m in his very own private business club.

  Madison Rooms is Raj’s third business venture aside from being the executive producer of Ultra Singapore and the owner of The Kitchen at Bacchanalia, a one Michelin star restaurant. Being a serial entrepreneur runs in his blood—in 2010, Raj started a women’s fashion company in New York right after college, when the job market wasn’t favourable. Every successful entrepreneur knows how to seize a situation, capitalise on it, and turn it into an opportunity. Seven years later, after traversing across continents, Raj is perfectly in control of his ship after weathering many storms and sailing through high waters—now it’s just a matter of his destination.

Conversations with Raj Datwani

Co-Founder, AR Entertainment
Text by Wy-Lene Yap
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

RAJ DATWANI: Don’t start with “Tell me about yourself.” [laughs]

WY-LENE YAP: What kind of child were you when you were growing up?

RAJ: Quiet? Pretty well-behaved? Not good at school, played a lot of sports… that’s really about it.

WY-LENE: What kind of sports did you play?

RAJ: American football, basketball, baseball, soccer and tennis.

WY-LENE: Are you still a New Yorker at heart?

RAJ: Yeah, I think so.

WY-LENE: How has your real estate background helped you with the current work that you do?

RAJ: When I was in real estate, I tried to create a name and business for myself, out of nothing. I did not know the industry or anyone when I first started, but I had the passion for it. It’s not too dissimilar to what we’re doing now.

WY-LENE: So you fell into it?

RAJ: I decided to take a course one day, to get a real estate salesperson licence, because it seemed like everyone living in New York City had a real estate need. Even I had real estate needs, and I knew I could do better than those people who were helping me fulfil my demands. It wasn’t very difficult—you just had to show up prepared, have some knowledge about what you’re doing, and sometimes that’ll be enough to close the deal.

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WY-LENE: In the beginning, what motivated you to be an entrepreneur?

RAJ: Circumstance. I graduated from university and didn’t do too well. It was a very tough job market out there at the time, and somehow that ended up becoming an opportunity for me to start something on my own. It wasn’t a big conscious choice going in, as it felt very natural. If you had the opportunity to start your own business, why wouldn’t you?

WY-LENE: That was in Singapore?

RAJ: New York.

WY-LENE: What did you start in New York then?

RAJ: My brother and I had a women’s fashion company selling missy and plus-size casual sportswear.

WY-LENE: Was that your first start-up?

RAJ: Yup, and it is no longer operating.

WY-LENE: Interesting, so you left your brother to do real estate and then you came to Singapore?

RAJ: In 2010, my sister moved to Singapore first and I told her: If you encounter any interesting business opportunities, let me know and maybe I’ll make a trip down. This was at the time when Groupon was taking over the world. Eventually, I joined my sister and we decided to launch a high-end version of Groupon on a platform called Urban Journey, but it has now become a publication. 

WY-LENE: How have your entrepreneurial motivations changed since you first started?

RAJ: It has evolved and I’ve definitely become more focused. I think any time you start a business, especially when it’s your first business, you’re dumb enough to only see the upside. Looking back on our very first venture versus now, things are a lot clearer because we’ve gone through a bunch of them and have learnt from past mistakes. When we go into a business now, we have an end in mind, and bring a lot more substance to the table.

WY-LENE: What do you do on a daily basis to grow as an entrepreneur?

RAJ: Nothing conscious. At the moment, there are plenty of new situations arising, which, when you look back, makes you evolve as an entrepreneur. Alex and I have become better entrepreneurs because we have gone through enough situations to know what to do and what not to do.

WY-LENE: So it’s experiences basically. How do you bounce quickly for setbacks?

RAJ: Don’t view them as setbacks.

WY-LENE: What is the best style of leadership?

RAJ: It’s different for everybody. It also depends on your team and what their motivations are. I would say the best style of leadership is oftentimes by doing and leading by example. But I’ve also seen another kind of leadership which is making sure that things are taken care of. Alex and I balance each other out, and we are lucky to have that dynamic.

We don't really get carried away with what people perceive as success.

WY-LENE: What is the one behaviour or trait that you have seen derail most leaders’ careers?

RAJ: Having an ego, and getting caught up in the hype. If people aren’t able to separate the two, then that’s when the trouble starts.

WY-LENE: How do you keep your ego in check?

RAJ: There’s a lot of hard work to be done every day. We don't really get carried away with what people perceive as success. Until we are really happy with what we have, we don’t think there’s any real reason to have a big head about things. In general, we do a very good job of keeping things in check, and keeping each other in check because we have bigger ambitions to grow our businesses.

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WY-LENE: You are running three enterprises at the moment. What makes a good business opportunity?

RAJ: When an opportunity is presented to you, if you have experience in the field, you can kind of determine whether it’s viable based on market conditions, numbers, the talent around you, and if it would make sense dollars-and-cents-wise. Some of our businesses are risky in nature and they’ve sort of been relatively new to the market. But, we’ve learnt a lot from running them and now, we are trying to apply and create synergy between our existing and new ventures. That being said, we have seen plenty of people start businesses without any experience or knowledge, and they learn along the way to become very successful. In my view, it’s more of going with your gut as opposed to making a business plan and going through with it, which we’ve done in the past. We’re doing less of that now.

WY-LENE: What are your new ventures going to be?

RAJ: Well, there are a couple that we have in the pipeline. It’s in F&B and events.

WY-LENE: Would you say this year’s Ultra Singapore is more successful as compared to last year? It was reported in the press that the crowd was much smaller.

RAJ: ST focused on the Sunday crowd at 3pm, when in fact, more people showed up later. The crowd on our Live Stage was by far the largest that we ever had.

WY-LENE: So in terms of numbers, it was definitely much more?

RAJ: Yes, we had a total of 50,000 people. Last year, we had an attendance of 45,000.

WY-LENE: In your opinion, what did you do better this year?

RAJ: We were very excited to fix the problems that we had last year. This year, people didn’t have to queue for hours to enter and we made sure that security was very tight. We also implemented a cashless system where festival-goers could put money on their wristbands prior to the event, so once they walk in, they could start buying drinks straightaway. Performances-wise, we had the biggest acts on our Live Stage which is important for us moving forward. They were quite well-received, and there were instances where the crowd was spilling over. We even had some festival-goers leave the Main Stage for the Live Stage towards the end of the festival, which says something about the quality of those acts. The Resistance Stage, the smallest one, was also packed when we had certain DJs there, compared to last year. It was nice to see the crowd diversifying and enjoying the amazing acts.

WY-LENE: How do you prepare or deal with unforeseen challenges or crises that happen at Ultra?

RAJ: Last year, we went through quite a lot of unforeseen circumstances, so this year, we really tried to over-prepare, and the challenges that we were dealing with were all expected and highly manageable. With any event, there are changes that you need to make from Day 1 to Day 2, because you have a lot of assumptions going in, but then you need to react and adapt based on what’s happening. No matter what, there are always going to be things that you can’t prepare for. You hear some crazy festival stories where before the doors open, walls come crashing down the stage, or heavy winds wreaking havoc. This year, everything that needed to be done was done, and that left us free to focus on any problems which may arise.

WY-LENE: Do you say a prayer or something when you’re running these events? And hope that Lady Luck is on your side too?

RAJ: Luck plays a part in everything. We had numerous bomohs and people praying, so yeah that kind of stuff never hurts.

WY-LENE: Are you planning to up the ante for next year?

RAJ: Yes. We have a few surprises in store, and we have a year to work on the next one. I believe Ultra Singapore 2018 is going to be the biggest in terms of crowd size, offerings and everything else.

WY-LENE: Is it going to be on the same dates?

RAJ: Nothing is confirmed yet.

WY-LENE: Undertaking such a massive endeavour requires an understanding that the biggest and most meaningful projects can’t be accomplished on your own. How do you get others involved and inspire to help?

RAJ: First of all, I’m fortunate that I have Alex, and it definitely makes things easier and more fun. Next, it’s a matter of finding key people for each business who are strong leaders and can carry out our vision. Their passion for the business has to be completely in line with ours. Thereafter, you start to build around that. That has become apparent to us, since we have multiple businesses and can’t be 100% present for each of them.

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Pulling off an event is more fun than having fun at a party.

WY-LENE: You and Alex are known for throwing good parties and events. What frustrates you the most when you organise them?

RAJ: I can't enjoy them. There were a few instances when I thought to myself: This is a party I want to go to. And that’s the benchmark we set for ourselves. But to be honest, pulling off an event is more fun than having fun at a party.

WY-LENE: I hear you. Let’s talk about Madison Rooms. There has been a surge of private clubs in Singapore, so what have you done to protect Madison Rooms from competitive encroachment?

RAJ: I think just being unabashedly focused on being a business club. It’s not driven by socialising, and that’s the mindset of anyone who comes to Madison Rooms. The social side is not really a priority, so it’s not something that we would venture into.

WY-LENE: You mean like building a community?

RAJ: We don’t want to force a community. We see little communities form at Madison Rooms all the time. But will it ever be a place where everyone’s connecting with each other 100% of the time? I don't know; everyone here leads a pretty busy life, and has a full day of priorities that need to be ticked off. We do create our events and own moments, and that’s when the magic happens—but at the end of the day, the focus of the place is for individuals and their businesses.

WY-LENE: Does it bother you that you are lumped into the same category as Straits Clan and 1880?

RAJ: Before that, we were lumped into the same category as The American Club and The Tanglin Club, which bothered me. That was pretty tough to believe, and sometimes it takes like a quick 10 seconds to explain why we are not like them. With regard to 1880 and Straits Clan, it doesn't bother me. Anyone who goes to Madison Rooms can see and understand that we’re totally different. I think both of them are each other’s competitors in a big way. Plus, we’re much smaller than 1880 and Straits Clan.

WY-LENE: How many members do you have at Madison Rooms?

RAJ: Low hundreds.

WY-LENE: And I remember you telling me that the percentage of female members is 25%?

RAJ: Yup.

WY-LENE: Is it still by-invite only?

RAJ: Yes, it’s by-invite and by referral. Referrals are a little more passive, because we’ll often have new members coming here and saying, “I know so-and-so, or so-and-so asked me to call you.” And we would have to call the person up to verify…

WY-LENE: You mentioned that you have a lot of international members.

RAJ: Yes. We classify international members as not being born in Singapore even though they could have been here for five to ten years or even more. We consider them as non-local.

We’re now building something real as opposed to what’s in our heads.

WY-LENE: Since you started Madison Rooms last year, what is the most unexpected thing you’ve learnt about people?

RAJ: I wouldn’t say unexpected, but I have a deeper understanding of people. When we started Madison Rooms, I had assumptions about people, but we have evolved our offerings based on the feedback of our guests. It’s great because we’re now building something real as opposed to what’s in our heads.

WY-LENE: How many other private clubs around the world have you partnered with?

RAJ: We have around 8 like Capital Club in Dubai and The Bureau in Paris just to name a few. There are a lot of potential reciprocal clubs, but we are very selective.

WY-LENE: Rightfully so. Okay, let’s chat about something else. What makes your restaurant, The Kitchen at Bacchanalia, special?

RAJ: The level of food that is being produced out of such a small space is kind of special, and that’s something that Chef Luke Armstrong has pushed himself constantly.

WY-LENE What does Luke bring to the table that is different from Ivan Brehm?

RAJ: They’re completely different people, even their personalities. A chef’s personality shows in their cooking. Luke’s got a very fresh perspective; it’s very light and approachable, and we’re seeing customers return again and again—each time to have a different experience with us. I think Luke has done an amazing job of taking over a 1 Michelin star restaurant, and also retaining our Michelin star for another year. He understands each produce, and evolves his dishes based on what he’s able to source in a very short amount of time.

WY-LENE: ST gave you a bad review in March. How much do you pay attention to restaurant reviews?

RAJ: We read all of them.

WY-LENE: Do you take it to heart?

RAJ: No. With every compliment or piece of criticism, there is always a reason behind it. So it doesn’t have to be the food—it could be something in them that doesn’t like “X” or “Y”… it doesn’t mean that we’re doing something wrong.

WY-LENE: They could be projecting.

RAJ: When are critics objective?

WY-LENE: I don't know, it depends.

RAJ: There’s no expectation of them to be. Everyone has their own way of looking at things, and there’s only so much you can do.

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WY-LENE: So you don’t respond to negative reviews at all?

RAJ: No.

WY-LENE: Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

RAJ: Michael Jordan. Growing up, I admired him and had a room full of posters of him. He’s the absolute best at what he does, and he works harder than anyone else. He not only achieved what he wanted, but he also made it look easy.

WY-LENE: What is one thing that is unique and true about you?

RAJ: I don't know… I can’t answer this question. [laughs]

WY-LENE: Why is it so tough to answer this question?

RAJ: I enjoy my work and I like to work hard. That’s true.

WY-LENE: But that’s not unique.

RAJ: That’s a hard one. I like easy questions.

WY-LENE: Okay, who has influenced you the most in your life?

RAJ: My parents. I can see the different ways in which they’ve influenced me now. Dad is a very hard worker, has very high expectations of himself, and always leads by example. Mum has high EQ and is able to read situations and people, just by meeting them. When you combine those two attributes, it’s a good type of person to be in business.

WY-LENE: What does your dad do?

RAJ: He is semi-retired, and does all sorts of businesses. He started his career sewing jewellery for 18 to 20 hours a day. He came to New York when he was 21, with no money. And subsequently, he built a big fashion business.

WY-LENE: The promise of the American Dream.

RAJ: Yes! He used to go to the airport in Bombay, sit outside of his car, and watch the planes fly to New York… hoping that one day he would have enough money to go there.

WY-LENE: What’s the worst thing anyone’s said to you in your entire life?

RAJ: I don’t know if it has ever happened before or that I have just consciously blocked it out. I’m trying to remember… I remember a teacher in fifth grade saying that I’m no good and I’ll never do well in school. I also remember a fairly influential person in the restaurant industry here, saying to Alex and I, “There’s nothing about you that’s special or differentiates you from the rest. Don’t open a restaurant.”

WY-LENE: You guys proved them wrong. What is your most unappealing habit? 

RAJ: I’ve been told that I bite my T-shirt too much, and I send too many emails.

WY-LENE: Well, that could be an idiosyncrasy to calm yourself. 

RAJ: Maybe, that’s what it is.

WY-LENE: Last question: What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

RAJ: I’m trying to learn to appreciate some of the things that are happening around me, and the people by my side. In our business, we’re exposed to anyone from 18 years old to people in their 50s/60s, and the most common thing that I hear from people who are older than me, is to try and appreciate things as they are right now—especially the people around you, and the moments you spend with your family. It’s very easy to get caught up in the daily grind and forget about what matters most in life.