Photos: J.Judisun Photography
“Our passion for learning…is our tool for survival.” These words of wisdom from the late Carl Sagan, one of the greatest scientists in the world, couldn’t ring truer for Lionel Chok, who made a mid-career switch due to “circumstantial reasons”.
Screenwriting; staging and directing theatre plays; producing award-winning films and documentaries; and web programme commissioning, the media practitioner has done it all.
Lionel is also many things: He is a filmmaker, speaker, lecturer, media trainer, and features contributor at Forbes Asia. He is even an industry advisory board member at Kaplan Singapore.
Since turning his back on his Economics qualifications to join the media industry in 1996, Lionel has gone on to pursue a four-month intensive course in film directing with the New York University and later on theatre directing, acting and set design courses with the acclaimed National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney. With an already impressive resume of media experience under his belt, the father-of-one never imagined becoming a technopreneur would be the next on his list.
In June last year, Lionel, 44, founded iMMERSiVELY, a startup specialising in (VR) Virtual Reality technologies, with offices in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
“It was not a choice. My career switch was a result of circumstantial reasons,” said Lionel matter-of-factly when asked to share his successful transition from a media practitioner to a tech startup founder.
In 2014, Lionel’s high-flying job at a local media organisation took a nosedive and things got bad enough for him to consider a job outside of media. He applied to various non-media companies but none came through, and it was always a unanimous reason: “We don’t see a fit.”
“Everyone tells me to stay in the media [industry] because of my background,” said Lionel, “But I wanted so badly to try something else that I eventually joined an e-commerce startup for a third of my last drawn salary.”
While in the midst of job hunting and dealing with rejections that same year, Lionel discovered Virtual Reality when he had a chance to pick up an Oculus VR headset. He didn’t think much of the device then but when news of Oculus being acquired by Facebook for billions broke and Google rolled out its cardboard VR headsets, it sparked the filmmaker’s interest in learning about Virtual Reality.
With a combination of fortitude and an insatiable appetite to learn, Lionel began his search for a crash course that would qualify him for a career in tech. Shortly after, the go-getter quit his e-commerce startup job, dug into his savings and brought along his wife and (then) three-year-old son to London to pursue a Masters degree in Creative Technology, specialising in Augmented and Virtual Reality, at Middlesex University.
The decision to uproot his family and return to school mid-life to pursue a new interest might seem like a drastic decision for some, but the move actually turned out to be a game-changer for Lionel.
“I didn’t go out to pursue VR purposely. What I wanted then was a continuing education where I can work towards a tech career,” he shared. “You can say it was a blessing for me… 2016 was a big year for VR so I chose to focus in that area of study during the last semester of my Masters.”
Today, the Creative Technologist and startup founder is a proud advocate of VR for education and businesses, and is optimistic of new emerging technologies becoming the new paradigm for filmmaking and experiential storytelling. Just like his unplanned career switch from media to tech, Lionel’s entrepreneurial journey came to fruition as a result of circumstantial reasons too.
“The first thing on my mind, when I came back to Singapore, was to look for a job and earn my savings back!” (Laughs) But he soon realised that his freelance consultancy gigs for clients’ VR projects were paying him better money than his employers at an emerging technology startup company that he had just joined. He was firmly convinced then to launch his tech startup, iMMERSiVELY.
However, not everyone was immediately impressed by his mid-life aspirations. Some people thought he was off his head to even think of launching a startup in his 40s.
“I don’t think age is a qualifier,” said Lionel, before admitting that a startup life isn’t exactly what his wife was expecting after his graduation. “She’s pissed!” (Guffaws)
“When I found a job after we came back to Singapore, she decided to pursue her PhD, which she’s been putting on hold for some time. So now, we’re in trouble!” (Laughs)
While iMMERSiVELY managed to break even after just six months and Lionel could now afford to hire two staff and pay for all the equipment, the founder has yet to collect a salary for himself.
“The good thing now is that I get to steer my own ship,” he said. “What’s even better is that I’m not swatting flies at work! Things are moving…business opportunities and people are enquiring about us.”
More importantly, Lionel has learnt that life is too short to just stay in a cushy job. “Not everyone is the adventurous type, I know, but at some point in your life, you have to try to find something different and see where that takes you.”