One might describe Gillian Tan as unassuming. She strides into the room with the ease of a faint breeze, comfortable yet unabashed, in jeans and a tee. Modest she may seem, but make no mistake, Tan is no face in the crowd.
A bona fide businesswoman, this 37-year-old is the founder of Munkysuperstar Pictures, a television production company, and its subsidiary, Clicknetwork, an online TV network that develops and produces its own content.
The two companies appear glaringly dissimilar to the soft-spoken woman who considers herself the opposite of a style maven. Ribaldry and playful teasing burst through the scenes at Clicknetwork, which produces shows such as That F Word and Chick vs Dick. Expletives run rampant on the high-energy brilliance of ad lib — outrageous and scandalous, yet horrifyingly addictive all the same.
After all, the essence of reality TV does away with the mawkish sentiment of scripted movies, exposing the rawness of humanity that offends and entertains at the same time. It’s a guilty pleasure.
Though both companies now enjoy considerable success, the beginnings were a lot more modest. Back in 2003, Munkysuperstar Pictures was started with a $10,000-loan and a digital camera. With help of a few friends who agreed to be filmed, Tan, then 23, went to Mediacorp with an idea for a reality dating show. The six-episode Eye for a Guy was a success with two seasons and a nomination at the Asian Television Awards.
Tan built Clicknetwork about four years later, but it wasn’t till 2012 that the company turned in a profit.
The rough start
The journey to success was no walk in the park either, with its carousel of critics. “When I started Munkysuperstar Pictures in 2003, the reality TV shows I produced weren’t really a thing here, and people criticised our shows for being low-budget or too controversial,” she explains. “For Clicknetwork, people didn’t really understand the content, being used to traditional TV.”
None of these deterred her, and she stuck firmly to her gut instinct: The world was heading online, so that’s where she will be. Fifteen years since going solo, Tan’s never looked back. With entrepreneurs for parents — her father is chairman of Tan Chong International, while her mother runs Tyan Fashions — it’s no surprise Tan took after them, making her own mark instead of taking on either business. “My interest has always been in video production and I prefer having something to call my own,” she explains.
From something born from a laptop and an audience of non-believers (aside from her parents who supported her from the start), Tan’s companies have flourished. She does not consider herself a great success, however.
“If you’re going by traditional measures of what success is, I don’t think we are very successful,” Gillian Tan insists. “Success is relative. I am happy with what we have achieved but there are many other companies that are way more successful.”
The biggest lesson she reckons she has learnt from her venture is to never bother yourself with other people’s opinions. “Just do what you feel is right,” she says. “I love what I do and that hasn’t changed. I’ve been doing this since I was in school. I can’t see myself in a different line; it wouldn’t fit or make me happy.”
Today, Clicknetwork has five full-time producers and eight web shows hosted by YouTube, with a total of 297 million views and over a million subscribers. Earlier this year, the company was awarded YouTube’s coveted Gold Play Button. It also became Singapore’s first-ever local channel on the video-sharing platform to hit a million subscribers.
Gillian’s all-time favourite
Among Tan’s own all-time favourites videos, is one in which adorable otters float across the water with hands held. In another, a man speaks to a reporter about the attempted rape of his sister during a home invasion, delivering a fiery, impassioned speech directly to the camera.
The platform also plays host to Singaporean blogger and online TV personality Xiaxue, who also stars in one of Tan’s most memorable in-house videos. “For the birth of Xiaxue’s son Dash, I was in the operating theatre filming them the whole time,” she recalls. “I had never witnessed a birth before and it was extra-special because Wendy is like a sister to me.”
As for the magic formula for viral videos, Gillian Tan reckons, “They’re usually extra-funny, touching, thought-provoking, or simply able to elicit a strong reaction from anyone who watches it. This makes people want to share it.”
6 Questions with Gillian Tan
If I could be anyone for just one day, I would be…someone who owns an alpaca farm.
I currently fantasise about…having a clone.
Success to me is…feeling fulfilled and content with what you are doing and what you have achieved.
My greatest love is…taking naps.
The greatest challenge I ever faced…was when my appendix ruptured and I almost died.
I regret…not doing lasik any sooner. I wish I’d done it in my early 20s instead of during my 30s.