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Billionaire's 28-year-old son picks digital music empire over palm-oil riches

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Kuok Meng Ru didn't spend much time with his billionaire father when he was growing up.

[SINGAPORE] Kuok Meng Ru didn't spend much time with his billionaire father when he was growing up.

As the third child of an agribusiness tycoon, he was sent off to a British boarding school at 10, graduating later from Cambridge University with a mathematics degree.

His father Kuok Khoon Hong was busy building Wilmar International Ltd into the world's largest palm-oil business, starting from scratch in 1991.

The younger Kuok's mother constantly reminded him: "Much has been given, much will be expected."

Yet it was the father who introduced his son to Eric Clapton's music. That led to an obsession with BB King and a love affair with the blues guitar.

"I always felt like I had a personal relationship with him," Mr Kuok said of the late guitarist.

It's no surprise then that the younger Mr Kuok chose to go into the music business instead of the family business.

The 28-year-old and his partner Steve Skillings are working to turn their startup BandLab into a global cloud-based community for people to create, collaborate and share music.

BandLab is being funded by a group of private investors that include Mr Kuok's father and JamHub Corp, a maker of audio mixers. Mr Kuok declined to say how much investment is going into BandLab, but said the startup is fully funded until 2019.

By then, BandLab will probably have about 100 employees, double its number now, he said.

Their approach is similar to Instagram, where there's a thriving community of people sharing photographs. Bandlab is betting that people will want to do something similar with their music.

BandLab debuted (for web, Android and Apple iOS devices) in August 2015 and is generating millions of dollars in annual revenue, according to Mr Kuok. The startup is aiming to be the social network of choice for fans and musicians.

"We want to bring that simplicity and convenience to the people who make music," Mr Kuok said in an interview at BandLab's office in Singapore, where about 40 employees, mostly software developers, work side-by-side.

Unlike SoundCloud, where users share completed songs, BandLab lets aspiring artists seek feedback or collaboration for works in progress, publicly or privately.

If a joint effort takes off, it's easy to track contributors, helping to avoid copyright issues. One group on BandLab has 50 rappers and musicians from 15 countries working on a song together.

"Ultimately the two most important things for artist is to make music and have people listen to their music," said Mark Mulligan, a London-based digital music analyst at Midia Research.

A key challenge for BandLab now is to scale the business and amass listeners, he said.

"The actual people who create music, there is absolutely a market for this, but it's a much smaller number of people. There's always going to be far bigger audience than contents being created."

BandLab isn't Mr Kuok's only musical endeavor. He's also turning Swee Lee, a sleepy 70-year-old distributor of guitar and audio equipment in Singapore, into a modern enterprise, selling merchandise online and offering music lessons.

It's now the biggest distributor of instruments and audio equipment in Southeast Asia, with shops in Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam. Sales have doubled since he bought the company in 2012.

Swee Lee is also where Mr Kuok bought his first guitar. Mr Kuok declined to say how much it cost to buy Swee Lee.

Mr Kuok's efforts, backed by his father, also underscore the fact that he's part of a bigger dynasty that goes beyond palm oil. The older Kuok is a nephew of Robert Kuok, one of the richest men in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Worth US$13.2 billion, the family patriarch controls businesses from sugar and fertilisers to hotels and logistics companies.

While the blues-playing younger Mr Kuok acknowledged his family's support, he said that much of the clan's success came from taking risks and setting out on their own. His father mortgaged his apartment at the age of 40 to start Wilmar, Mr Kuok said.

"We don't believe in entitlement," said Mr Kuok, who declined to say how much of his funding came directly from his father.

"Our family is about, 'You earn what you build. You will get support but you need to deserve it.' My father built his business in my lifetime. Having witnessed firsthand that building something meaningful takes time, it's incredibly important to be aware that overnight success is the exception, not the rule."

Mr Kuok said he also learned about hard work from his other role model, BB King. In 2011, he went to his first (and last) concert by the blues guitarist.

"His success came after years of touring experience and hard craft," Mr Kuok said. "That's something we try to bring in everything we do at BandLab."