Q&A: How This McIntire Alum’s Fun Empire Landed Him on Forbes' "30 Under 30 Asia" List

June 13, 2019
four people play bubble bump

Think back to the last team-building activity you did for work or school. Maybe it was a scavenger hunt, a chili cookoff, or even a trust fall.

Now, imagine what would have happened if your team had done archery instead, or taken a cooking class, or played something called “bubble soccer,” involving large, human-sized inflatables. Would that have made the experience more memorable, and more valuable?

UVA alumnus Ryan Ho thinks so—and so do Google, Facebook, Apple, Disney, Nike, and many more of his clients.

Ho, who graduated from the McIntire School of Commerce in 2014 and landed on Forbes’ "30 Under 30 Asia" list this year, runs The Fun Empire, a Singapore-based events company.

It offers more than 30 unusual and memorable team-building activities, including games like bubble soccer, combat archery tag, poolball, and ninja tag, as well as giant board games; escape rooms; go karts; and creative activities like cooking, candlemaking, and leather workshops.

All of them are designed to build successful, high-functioning cohesive teams—something that Ho knows a thing or two about. He played on Singapore’s national youth soccer team for eight years, traveling around Southeast Asia and developing a reputation as a tenacious defender. He also served in the country’s military and, at McIntire, took an academic view of leadership and management while gaining real-world experience with companies like Ernst & Young and consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where he worked after graduation. 

We caught up with Ho earlier this spring to learn more about what makes a successful team and how his business has thrived so far.

Q. Why did you start The Fun Empire?
A. At McKinsey, and during my internship with Ernst & Young, it was pretty common for companies to organize team bonding events so that people from different offices and departments can come together and get to know each other.

I realized that the typical programs, at least those in Singapore, were pretty standard and traditional, with activities that had been around for many years. It wasn’t uncommon for employees to do the same program twice, three times, or even more.

I thought there was an opportunity to innovate and introduce new concepts and activities that could be more effective. I was particularly inspired by bubble soccer—where you hop in these huge inflatable suits and change a typical soccer game into something new and hilarious. We came up with our own proprietary version of that game to kick things off. Thankfully, it went well, and clients have really enjoyed the unique and fresh angle we take.

Q. Building bonds among employees is a common goal for many companies, but it can be elusive. What makes a team-building activity successful?
A. One of the most important factors is getting everyone involved in the activity and ensuring that the objectives require them to work together to solve challenges—something we integrate into every activity we offer, often with a time limit or other pressure. It helps people get to know their colleagues on a deeper level and also abandon some of the fronts they might put [up] at the office.

It all comes back to the power of play as a way of encouraging people to drop their guard, be creative, and bring their personality into an activity. You can learn a lot about people, from how they react under pressure to what they are like outside of a typical office environment.

Q. What sets The Fun Empire apart from your competitors, and brings in clients like Google or Apple?
A. I think the first and most important factor is the uniqueness of the games and activities, most of which they have not seen before. The second is our track record and focus on quality of experience. We really work hard to provide a great client experience and train our staff carefully to ensure that each event runs smoothly.

I am proud to say that we are the only team-building and events company in Singapore that has attained the ISO9001 certification in quality management [an international standard for consistent quality in products or services]. It shows how much effort we put into designing a great experience.

Finally, I think clients appreciate the variety. Most teams want to try something new each time they come back, and we have expanded our portfolio rapidly over the last few years.

Q. How did your experience on the national soccer team help you understand what makes strong teams tick?
A. Both my time playing soccer and my national military service—mandatory for all Singapore citizens—were influential in my upbringing. I was thankful for the opportunity to represent my country at the youth and senior level, and I learned a lot about teamwork.

The success of the team belongs to everyone, as do the failures and challenges. A well-functioning team needs everyone’s input and effort, and it requires constant discipline. As a competitive athlete, I trained almost every day, with matches on the weekends. I did not have a lot of free time, but it was a worthwhile sacrifice that allowed me to learn a lot about commitment, discipline, and following through until the end. It shaped how I view business and life in general. I always try to put my best foot forward, do my best work and not take shortcuts.

Q. At UVA, did you have your sights set on entrepreneurship?
A. I have always had an interest in entrepreneurship, and before enrolling at UVA, I managed to start a few small startups and businesses, just to learn the ropes. One was an online fashion company, crowdsourcing T-shirt designs; another was an online platform matching students with tutors.

At McIntire, the rigorous [Integrated Core Experience] program gave me a good grounding in the fundamentals of business, something I am so thankful for today. I got to join so many different interest groups and activities at UVA around entrepreneurship and business, and those really formed my perspective as well.

I also used my time at UVA to get experience working for a large company, first with my internship at Ernst & Young and then with McKinsey. Even then, though, I knew I wanted to start something of my own eventually.

By Caroline Newman,  Associate Editor, Office of University Communications, cfn8m@virginia.edu, +1 434-924-6856. This article first appeared in UVA Today June 12, 2019.