By June Ramli
Irwan Ismail never thought that he would be living on an island and scuba diving all day long.
The former graphic designer for renowned publications such as the New Straits Times, Malaysian Insider and the Malay Mail took the plunge in 2018 after deciding to pursue a life as a full-time scuba diver.
The decision to leave the city centre came to Irwan after moonlighting in the profession as a freelance diver since 2012.
“It started out as a hobby,” he told the dailystraits.com in an interview recently.
But soon Irwan decided that he didn’t want to moonlight anymore and packed up his life to start a diving centre in Pulau Tioman, Pahang.
“I decided to start my own business by renting a building from a friend who owned a resort here.
“I’ve been here for dives before in the past and so I know this place by heart,” he said.
Before leaving his salaried job, Irwan made sure he had all his loans paid off and some savings set aside for the unexpected.
“My car was paid off and I only had very little left on my mortgage,” he said.
Irwan said his prudent living of always saving money and not using credit cards helped him transition into the business world with ease.
“I invested RM100,000 to start with and I also took a personal loan for the business while I was working to supplement my savings.
‘After the renovation (of his scuba diving centre) was complete, I invested another RM100,000 into diving equipment. Then in 2019, another RM140,000 went for a boat.
“I didn’t have a business plan, only a tenacity to make this work,” he confessed.
Irwan said once the set-up of his centre was completed he was officially open for business in February 2018.
“My diving place is called Sorte Met Stella Dive Centre.
“The name meant how a lad named Sorte met Stella at a dive centre and then they went diving together.
“Diving must always be done in pairs, you cannot do it alone, it is very dangerous,” he said.
His business was thriving with the company engaging customers from all over the country and the region.
Irwan reckons that he had taught over 1,000 people and personally done 6,000 dives himself.
He said the customers came after aggressive promotions done via social media, corporate clients whom he had solicited during his days living in KL and also through talks he presented to people who were on the fence about the sport.
Despite having another 42 diving centres to compete with, Irwan said his business grew from strength to strength thanks to his specialisation of underwater video and photography.
The business finally broke even in March 2020, after almost two years of grinding before the COVID-19 pandemic got the best of it.
“Business has now been almost at a standstill, we have had no income for about seven months since the monsoon started in October 2019, “ he said.
However, despite the uncertainty of the business, Irwan is still not calling it quits yet and plans to preserve despite the challenges ahead.
As an immediate measure to get the place going, Irwan decided to let go of his staff by converting them into freelancers, then followed by diluting most of the dive centre’s equipment such as its go-pro cameras and drones into cash.
“I sold a lot of things, except for my car, I was going to sell but I decided against it cause I still need the car. I can’t sell my house because that is for my daughter,” he said.
Elaborating more about the business, Irwan said freelancers who wanted to open their own diving centres should bury the idea once and for all and continue freelancing instead.
“This is a tough business, in fact anything that has to do with seawater is challenging because seawater would normally cause erosions and damage things frequently. They need to be serviced all the time costing its owners such as myself a lot of money,” he explained.
He also said that finding good staff to work with was also a tough act as contrary to popular belief not everyone was keen to work on an island.
On running cost, Irwan said a dive centre’s monthly outgoing was about RM25,000 plus and minus per month.
But due to the lack of business during the pandemic, he said the running cost had now been reduced to half of that amount.
Asked whether he had ever considered taking a bank loan to get things running again, Irwan said he had a go at it but was knocked back.
“I did ask for a loan but the bank said no because they deem us as a high-risk business,” he said.
Asked what his future plan was, Irwan said he has started designing some bespoke T-Shirts featuring ocean creatures and is selling them online.
“You know, when you have worked in the media, you make friends with a range of people, so I contacted someone who produces T-Shirts in KL.
“So far, I have sold quite a lot of pieces and it has helped me with some of the bills but it’s still not enough,” he said.
All in all, despite the challenges faced, Irwan doesn’t regret starting his diving school and considered the present challenge brought on by the pandemic as a survival of the fetus scenario.
“When I have a bad day at work, I go for a dive and check out the turtles, you can never get that sitting in an office job,” he said.
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