Scaling up in arts and culture biz
Najihah S 
Yap drives Freeform to focus on arts and culture, and youth

Fluidity is an important element of growth and it has become a testimony to Freeform Sdn Bhd’s 17 years in business.

In its early days, Freeform was responsible for publishing magazines such as Klue and Junk which catered to young, urban readers who were interested in arts and culture. Surviving on razor-thin margins, Freeform pushed through and began diversifying its business to sustain itself.

Founder Adrian Yap has taken various calculated risks and has branched out to different areas of the business, but all related to arts, culture and food.

Due to the sluggish sentiment in the print media, Freeform eventually discontinued publishing Klue and Junk in 2009. It ventured into client servicing, mainly conceptualising events such as product launches and promotional campaigns.


Two F&B outlets

According to Yap, 80% of Freeform’s revenue now comes from its client servicing arm. “We have a team of about 24 and they’re naturally curious about things. We divide the workload into segments and there are content, marketing and project management.”

Freeform has also ventured into food and beverage, opening a café called The Bee in 2010. The Bee became an event space pulling a strong patronage.

Riding on the success of The Bee’s first outlet in Jaya One shopping centre in Petaling Jaya, Yap decided to open another one in Publika Mall the following year.

Freeform introduced a new concept for a food festival called Tiffin, held in Publika last year. “There are similarities between art events and food festivals. People are more interested in the narrative and it’s about the experience,” Yap explains.

“We invested about RM250,000 (on Tiffin) and it was done over a weekend with the participation of 20 vendors,” he says.

This year, Freeform wants to take it a notch higher and create a venue from scratch for Tiffin, which will be held for three weekends from mid-December. “It is a deserted warehouse and we are doing everything from scratch. We are cleaning it, putting all the amenities, designing it and making it suitable. We are bringing fridges, installing air-conditioning units and whatever it requires.

“It is similar to a food court, we turn it around and match it with today’s reality. Nowadays, people have a global palate.

“We’ve scaled up tremendously and we’ve spent more than RM2 mil (which is about 20% of our total revenue) and we are targeting to just break even. Our estimate is about 5,000-6,000 visitors per weekend,” Yap explains.

Twenty vendors took part in the first Tiffin event which was held in Publika last year

Transforming a warehouse

He reveals that the Tiffin event will be held at a warehouse in an industrial zone along Lebuhraya Damansara Puchong (LDP). “We chanced upon the space and the fact that people like to discover new places, it was an opportunity for us to dabble in all kinds of ideas and make it unique.”

Yap and his team took five months to plan and get the work done. The most difficult part was getting vendors to participate. Freeform spent two to three months talking to the vendors, gaining their trust and getting them on board.

“A lot of times, the structural stuff (hardware and logistics) is not the difficult part, but the conceptualisation. With this one month (remaining), we need to look for more vendors and it is also towards the year-end. We will feature guest chefs and more than 30 vendors,” says Yap.

“Someone in our team will handle the sourcing for our vendors. We will handle the logistics of fresh items as the vendors would need these to be delivered to them.”

The major difference in this year’s Tiffin is that it will feature chefs and cashless payments.

Urbanscapes and a new event space

A passion for the arts, culture, and food and beverage is the main ingredient driving Freeform Sdn Bhd. “We’re very much youth focused and skewed towards arts, culture and F&B,” its founder Adrian Yap says.

Freeform, which strives to be the purveyor of arts and culture in the country, dabbled in music events with its first music festival called Urbanscapes in 2002. The festival, held in a venue in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, attracted 1,000 attendees. Yap saw the potential of such events and made it an annual event.

From a small-scale event that featured only local acts, the festival grew to be strong enough for Freeform to charge between RM25 and RM40 for entry in 2008.

Urbanscapes is now an annual showcase that brings international acts and tickets can come up to RM200.

In the last few years, Urbanscapes has widened its repertoire to include visual arts, film screening and even talks.

What was different about this year’s festival was that its fringe events were held at a refurbished heritage building, Urbanscapes House (previously OCBC building), in the city centre.

The building was originally earmarked for a hotel development but the plan did not materialise following Kuala Lumpur City Hall’s (DBKL) freeze on hotel licences.

It was sold for RM21 mil to a building management company and subsequently piqued the interest of Khazanah Nasional Bhd’s Think City Sdn Bhd to turn it into an art hub.

Based on a report, Malaysia’s music events revenue is expected to hit US$7 mil by year-end. The figure is gathered from the sales of online tickets for all music-related events, including concerts, festivals, musicals and operas. 

The Tourism Ministry has also established the International Events Unit – as part of its agency that is responsible for strengthening Malaysia’s tourism brand to drive its growth in the events industry.

Some of the major music events that are organised annually are Rainforest Music Festival, Good Vibes and Urbanscapes. Meanwhile, venues such as Istana Budaya and the Malaysian Philharmonic Hall are known to hold regular music events.

The preparation for a music event can take three months to a year as it includes sourcing for and installing sound and lighting equipment, and the provision of power supply, scaffolding, barriers, F&B catering, public liability insurance, medical staff and transportation.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 260.