How one man built a thriving running community

JANUARY 10 — I hate running. It is torture. You don’t stop moving, and you don’t do anything else but move. 

So I was curious about what made Matthew Barsing run, and how he managed to grow a community full of people willing to torture themselves this way.

Barsing founded and currently runs the KLCC Runners Group. Since its inception in April 2016, it has grown to become an active community of 16,000, with 28,000 members on their Facebook group who all run regularly on KL’s car free mornings, a City Hall initiative to cultivate health consciousness. 

It was through co-ordination and growth in size that Barsing was able to attract sponsors. And without sponsors he would not have been able to make the running events — and all the goodies and freebies he gives his members regularly — free. With scale, there are sponsors; with sponsors, more scale. 

But even if sponsors were willing to contribute to the running group’s events, someone still needs to organise everything. And that is the most important third factor: the leader, Barsing himself. 

From his surname, one can already tell Barsing is a Mat Salleh. In the early days, some doubted his intentions and thought he had ulterior motives. As if only a Mat Salleh was capable of doing that. 

But it came with a positive counterforce: people trusted him, and now the members even address him as Abang Matthew. Additionally, their motto is “Freedom comes in all colours”, a direct reference of how Mr Barsing wanted the group to be open to all kinds of people. 

Through this, he gained the community’s trust. If the community had not reciprocated, then the group would not have grown. For the group’s first event, only two people turned up, including Barsing. At this point, anyone would have quit and abandoned the idea of building a community. 

But 10 days later in the first day of May 2016, he managed to gather 420 people. All of them willing to turn up at 7am to do one thing: run. I realised this too: Barsing, despite his busy schedule, managed to remember how many people attended the second event over a year ago. 

That is because it was pivotal. Two to 420; management consultants would call that a 21,000 per cent increase. Other metrics highlight this tremendous growth too, due to Barsing’s capabilities in managing events and sponsors too. 

More than 19 months since the group started, over 100 events have been organised. That’s about five per month. He has also closed almost up to 50 partnership deals with sponsors such as sports giant Under Armour, and PolicyStreet, the leading Malaysian insurance marketplace. 

All of them saw the value and scale of the group in terms of promoting their brands. And with the help of some volunteers, one person did all this in about a year and a half. 

“I’m not trying to not sound sombong, but given that I was able to dedicate 100 per cent of my attention devoted to lead the group, it was a key factor to our overall success.”

Try to think of any other leader who is bold enough to say this. Leaders would normally thank the overarching organisation, such as the people or the voters, the employees or the company, the members or the party. 

But the hard truth for the KLCC Runners Group, as with most organisations out there, is that leaders are extremely important because they can manage people as though they are ingredients of a recipe. Too much of salt, or too little, makes all the difference to the organisation. 

This may be too raw of a definition, but not crediting leaders for their management capabilities and only focusing on employees would be too rosy as well. The silver lining in this, is that hopefully stories such as this are able to inspire people to become leaders, either to sustain existing communities, or to form new ones. 

That is perhaps what I struggle to do every day at work. It’s common to hear people do well in their line of work, but in a start-up where resources are constrained, we are forced to be our own leaders out of survival. 

We have neither the option to hire a six-figure mid-level manager out of thin air, nor the free time to bum around thinking all will be fine.

Hearing how Barsing founded the KLCC Runners Group, however, makes me believe anything is possible. 

* Shaun Liew works for PolicyStreet, the leading online marketplace for insurance in Malaysia, while Matthew Barsing runs the KLCC Runners Group. Both contacts and pages are easily searchable on Facebook and Google.

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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