Before founding the global influencer and entertainment company Gushcloud International, Althea Lim had already shown her entrepreneurial spirit. While studying biomedical science at university, she organised parties for classmates, soon expanding to larger-scale events by booking venues.
Lim, this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year for New Media and Entertainment, leveraged the rising popularity of Blogspot and social platforms like Friendster and Facebook. Recognising the potential, she engaged popular student bloggers and the community, effectively targeting youths interested in events to market to their peers.
“I was looking to disrupt the magazine industry at the point in time,” she tells The Edge Singapore. “I had slides that said if you’re paying for a magazine spread at a certain fee, why wouldn’t you allow an “influencer” in that sense to give you a review or to market your products?”
Lim predicted that these digital platforms would significantly influence the next generation, so utilising these select influential individuals, later called “influencers”, could help brands create an authentic relationship with their customers.
Her bet proved right — today, McKinsey values the influencer economy at US$21.1 billion ($28.3 billion) in 2023. This underscores her business acumen in aligning digital platforms with talented individuals. Gushcloud, founded in 2012, is evidence of her commitment to nurturing talent, influencers, and content creators to impact culture and the world positively.
Lim’s mission at Gushcloud was clear: Elevate the digital experience for the next generation. This meant partnering with influential individuals, those with the “X” factor. Gushcloud sought to be the supportive ally, helping these talents transform their skills into careers, aiming to offer influencers the same stability as traditional professionals.
“I’m truly compassionate about content creators and influencers and believe they have a gift,” she says. “And so I want to be there to help them make their lives better, to make sure that they can buy a house and go on holidays with their families from the income they get.”
Lim’s successful vision is evident in Gushcloud’s growth over the last decade. With over 340 employees across 11 cities, the company has represented and travelled with supermodel Naomi Campbell and musician Snoop Dogg.
She has made most of the global expansion efforts. Lim adds: “I will pack my bags, and I will go to a country and hire the first three people, and then I will live and work there for the first six months alongside them to try and teach them as much as I can.”
But not everybody has the same guts that Lim has to settle into a foreign location alone. When leaders and executives ask what gave her the courage to start her expansion efforts on her own, Lim says that it boils down to who she is at heart — having courage and a spirit of adventure — something she believes every entrepreneur must have.
However, that alone was not enough. Given the swiftly changing landscape of digital platforms, Lim and her team needed to be adaptable from the outset. “The way we activated was to pivot to understand the changes in platforms; then we worked to help marketers, brand owners and advertising industries to understand how to work with these platforms and how they can work with creators.”
In addition, being a first mover has vastly benefitted Lim and her team. She likens creators to a piece of land on which a whole suite of properties can be built to increase its value.
While some companies and creators may hesitate to embrace new platforms, Gushcloud is always the first to say, “We want to try something,” says Lim. Despite the risks, she believes taking the initiative is crucial — just as she did in seeking to monetise through Meta’s Instagram and YouTube in the early 2010s, well before it became a mainstream source of income.
A study indicates that six out of 10 children under 12 aspire to be influencers today. Lim says this underscores Gushcloud’s responsibility to consider and respond to this statistic. She adds: “Does that mean we will have enough to feed the next generation with these jobs? If we’re not thinking about that, then a child out there is going to be disappointed; someone might suffer from depression in being unable to realise their dream, and I think that’s how we should think about the industry.”
Trials and tribulations
Challenges arose in her entrepreneurial journey with Gushcloud, including a public dispute in the early 2010s involving influencer Wendy Cheng, who was associated with a rival firm. Post-conflict, Gushcloud had to rebuild its momentarily tarnished reputation.
“We quickly realised that we were not just an advertising company, but an entertainment company and that there were people who believed in us,” she remembers. “We had to rebuild trust and relationships from scratch, forcing us to refocus on who we are as a company.” This experience prompted Lim and her team to articulate their brand values and promises, providing a guiding framework ever since.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Gushcloud faced another challenge — creators could no longer meet, brainstorm and create. “So when the pandemic was a tough period for content creators, it was also a tough time for us,” she adds.
Her most significant challenge came post-pandemic. With the economic downturn leading to bear markets globally, investors became cautious. Lim recalls three investors who had completed due diligence but withdrew at the last minute due to fear.
“That was tough because we needed to raise investments to have cash flow to grow and stay afloat,” she says. For the first time, Lim thought that Gushcloud would have to fold. “But I said, ‘We cannot close’,” says Lim. Instead, the team rallied together and overcame the financial hurdles.
Like Lim, numerous others have launched boutique influencer agencies in the past decade, some emerging from Gushcloud’s ecosystem. Rather than viewing them as rivals, Lim sees them as healthy competitors. She believes that fostering healthy competition is beneficial for improving content creators’ lives and the industry.
She adds: “We must compete to a point whereby everyone can live together because then the content creators will make more money, and they will survive more. And that is crucial for us.”
The next generation
While an entrepreneurial spirit is crucial, the journey is long and often solitary, with many facing failure. Reflecting on her 12-year journey, Lim considers Gushcloud’s greatest achievement to be its sustained growth, evolving into a global entertainment company based in Singapore.
Beyond everything, Lim takes great pride in her exceptional team. She also acknowledges that bringing people together to work toward a common goal is difficult, but the Gushcloud team has moved in tandem since the beginning. “I’m very proud that when we think about sustainability for our colleagues and creators, we are all aligned.”
Lim attributes Gushcloud’s success to three key factors. First and foremost is her commitment to servant leadership, prioritising the growth and well-being of her team and the community they engage with.
This involves simple actions like picking up a stray tissue to foster a sense of pride in maintaining a clean workplace. She says leaders should exhibit the right behaviours rather than just verbalising them and setting an example for others.
The second factor is doing what is right, extending from larger issues like layoffs, which Lim insists should be done with utmost dignity. “Every day, can we say that we’ve been kind to our colleagues, the organisation and more importantly, have we done right?” she adds.
Finally, Lim believes that thoughtfulness — the ability and choice to care — goes a long way. “I choose to care for my company. I wake up at 6.30am every morning to check on stuff, but I’m not complaining because I choose to care,” she says.
Gushcloud’s 12-year journey is just the beginning. She envisions deep aspirations to become the next Universal Music Group. Within the next 24 months, Lim believes the group can achieve revenue in the nine figures. Lim is also in no rush to take her company public. “We want to ensure our investors, shareholders, and team are in a very safe position to list. If it takes 24 months or 36 months, so be it. Most importantly, we must be operationally, financially sound and profitable.”
Motivated by her work directly influencing the next generation, Lim asks: “If your kid becomes a YouTuber or watches an Instagram or YouTube video, do you want a role in shaping the values they learn?” If the answer is yes, she advocates for active participation in the industry together.