No laughing matter: how SGAG turned humour into a major business

And how it keeps the fun going to remain one of Singapore's hottest startups

Given his mild, down-to-earth manner of speaking, it’s hard to tell that Karl Mak is one of the co-founders of the wickedly funny SGAG and MGAG – platforms that are crafting a business out of poking fun at current affairs and injecting viral content into an audience of millions.

Turning jokes into a business is a risky venture, but the process of expressing ideas and opinions in an entertaining manner through memes is something that Karl and his team have believed in from day one.

“We were not sure where to go [at first], but we saw [memes] as a trend since 2012; that it would sort of hit the entire industry,” explains Mak, 29. “And we’ve seen it unfold in the last five years.”

Cracking the virality code

The word “meme” was first coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It refers to a sort of cultural genetic code – an idea that can move from person to person and generation to generation. In today’s modern times, memes have morphed into visual jokes that evolve at a rapid pace thanks to the internet and social media.

It is precisely this philosophy of sharing ideas and opinions that fuels the identity of SGAG and MGAG.

“I think SGAG represents to us a democratisation of ideas,” Mak says, “that with the current technologies and platforms available to our generation, we have a voice that will allow us to share ideas, opinions, entertainment, and fun in whatever memes and mediums that we feel is relevant to us.”

SGAG got its start at the back of an SMU lecture hall in 2012, when Karl and fellow co-founder Adrian Ang (better known by his SGAG handle “Xiao Ming”), bored of listening to their lecturer, created their first meme. It was a knee-jerk, audience-empathetic response to the news that McDonald’s had run out of curry sauce. The economics and business students shared it on Facebook where, unsurprisingly, it went viral shortly after.

“Initially, there was no end goal or content strategy. It was completely brainless and innocent fun,” Karl shares. “[Ang and I] just wanted to out-joke the previous joke and go further. It was a competition about who could create the better meme.”

As the duo went on to work at separate start-ups, where they were tasked to look at analytics and metrics in order to discover strategies to create viral content, SGAG – which they set up as a website in 2013 (MGAG followed in 2015) – remained a pet project they worked on for fun.

The “eureka moment” came when Facebook launched its analytics tool in early 2015. Mak discovered that a whopping 1 million Singaporeans were Facebook users, and immediately shared that information with Ang. The two speculated that a Facebook page would garner more virality than any blog or website, and could lead to something potentially successful.

In the business of happiness

While commonly thought of as the Singaporean and Malaysian counterparts to the “original” meme platform 9GAG, SGAG and MGAG are in fact separate entities from that Hong Kong-founded site, though they borrowed heavily from 9GAG’s “just for fun” psyche at the start. However, like the memes themselves, SGAG and MGAG have since developed their own unique personalities.

“We knew that we were not the best at writing articles or doing stuff, but we could make awesome jokes,” Karl admits. “The result of that was about finding the next best joke and growing the company.”

Eventually, this saw SGAG’s and MGAG’s transition from a heavy reliance on memes to videos and more personality-driven content that allowed the growing team’s acting chops and goofy nature to shine through.

SGAG and MGAG’s two-part process to generating content involves creation and curation. Steering away from clickbait and merely repurposing content, they come up with ideas by observing data, listening to their audience and constantly trying to improve. The sites’ content focuses on addressing a single question: “Will this make someone happy after watching it?”

Over the years, both platforms have garnered a huge and ardent fan community, who offer up their own work to the brands to be published. Submissions used to come through multiple channels, which proved difficult and time-consuming to parse. Since then, SGAG and MGAG have used chatbots to manage the submissions and engage users.

“There is method to this madness,” assures Mak.

The road to becoming a comedy behemoth was paved with distractions and lucky breaks. Mak recalls receiving ill-matched offers during the company’s infancy, such as putting together an SGAG café, SGAG run, and T-shirts.

The founders simply turned them down and kept their nose to the grindstone. They were later rewarded with brand-name clients ranging from Airbnb to Samsung and McDonald’s, who wanted to collaborate with them to engage their respective audiences in a relevant and witty manner.

It would be easy to take their collective foot off the pedal with that level of success. But their teams are as driven as ever. “We don’t take it for granted. We never sort of sit back and go ‘I’m done’,” says Mak. “It’s always about, how do we push boundaries? How do we make sure we don’t abuse this? How do we take responsible care of this sort of opportunity that we have?”