Being a young entrepreneur comes with a unique set of challenges.
In a keynote session held earlier today (October 22) as part of Singapore Management Festival, a panel of three Forbes 30 under 30 Asia honourees, who are dubbed the next-generation leaders, came together to share insights and learnings on what it’s like to be a young entrepreneur.
The first panelist is Jon Chua, a member of renowned local band Sam Willows. The band landed a coveted spot on Forbes’ annual 30 under 30 Asia list in 2019 under the Entertainment and Sports category.
His passion and knowledge for music is what drove him to start up his own music agency, Zendyll. The company has worked with top acts in Singapore, as well as commercial brands such as Hugo Boss, Tag Heuer and Adidas.
The second panelist is Serene Cai, co-founder and head of partnerships & projects at Speedoc, and was listed on this year’s Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list.
At Speedoc, she works with major healthcare institutions for clinical validation of digital healthcare, creating consortiums with industry partners to provide enhanced medical care through digital means, and generally finding new and safe ways to enhance healthcare delivery through technology.
The last panelist is Ryan Chew, co-founder and chief operating officer at Tribe, a technology talent and education platform supported by the Singapore government. He was listed on Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list last year alongside his co-founder.
Prior to Tribe Accelerator, Ryan served as Managing Director (Asia Pacific) and member of the Board of Director of Silicon Valley startup Verlocal. In a year, he grew the company to a team of 10, helping more than 100 SMEs and freelancers turn their passion into profession.
Entrepreneurship requires a lot of problem-solving
The first question that was thrown to the panelists is their personal definition of entrepreneurship.
“I think it’s a lack of sleep,” said Jon, half-jokingly. “I think every entrepreneur can relate to that; you’re not defined by (regular) working hours, especially at the start.”
While being an entrepreneur might sound “glamorous”, the reality of it is that you often have to wear multiple hats. Taking on different roles is not easy, and for Jon, he had to learn on the job so it was a steep learning curve for him.
Chiming in, Ryan said that entrepreneurship is also largely focused on solving different problems at different phases of the business journey.
Every time you encounter something, you have to be kind of creative, because unlike working in a corporate or larger company, there’s not really anyone above you that you can go to for answers. So in the beginning of your entrepreneurship journey, you have to firstly solve the market gap. What exactly do you want to offer to the market?
And as you expand, different kinds of problems pop up, whether it’s external or internal. At the end of the day, I feel like the journey that I personally have is very much daily firefighting and daily problem-solving.
– Ryan Chew, co-founder and COO at Tribe
Serene wholeheartedly agrees with Ryan’s sentiment. Recalling her encounter with Grab co-founder Tan Hooi Ling, she shared that even a large company like Grab faces challenges on a daily basis. “Even one hour after the last big challenge was solved, (another comes up),” she remembers Hooi Ling telling her.
She added that being a CEO, or leader, of a company is really not easy because people look up to you to help find solutions. And with every decision you make, livelihoods could be on the table.
As decision-making becomes a core part of their role, where do they find the courage to make such high-stakes decision?
“When your back is against the wall, you will eventually find the courage to (make decisions),” said Ryan simply.
“If you are paralysed by fear (or) uncertainty, or you just can’t decide, then the organisation is just not going to progress and you cannot move the needle. So you just have to bite the bullet and make a decision. Although some people might not agree with the decisions that you make, you have to (just) commit.”
Adding on to this, Serene said that when someone disagrees with your decisions, you can back it up with evidence or data that helped shape your decision to get their understanding.
Jon, on the other hand, feels that decision-making all boils down to trusting your gut.
I think being a good leader also means being a good person, so you have to be able to make decisions with empathy, compassion, and think about individual people, especially if you are not dealing with artificial intelligence (AI) and machinery.
You are dealing with actual people. Especially for startups, every single person (has the power) to make or break your business. We can’t do it alone.
– Jon Chua, founder of Zendyll Music
How important is digitalisation in a business?
Commenting on the business landscape in Singapore, Serene remarked that it has evolved so much compared to pre-pandemic times.
Digitalisation has been a constant buzzword for the past decade, but Covid-19 has accelerated this. Startups today are making the effort to explore beyond existing technologies, such as aggregation of last-mile delivery, for example.
“There are a lot of new niches and new industries that people can add value to,” she said.
Delving deeper on this, Ryan said that Covid-19 has made it very clear that we have to digitalise our economy — from a tech and innovation perspective — or we risk becoming irrelevant.
One challenge however, is that the pandemic has eliminated the social and physical elements to a lot of things.
He noted that for a “black swan event” like Covid-19, the current suite of tools are not quite adequate, so it’s important to always look at how we can take it to the next level.
“What are the new technologies that are coming up? What are the problems (that we see) as a result of the existing gaps in the current state of technology? I think that’s an opportunity right there. As the saying goes, ‘never waste a good crisis’.”
From a leadership perspective however, remote working has proven to be quite a challenge as there is a lacking ability for people to better understand the context of the issue at hand.
When it comes to virtual meetings, often times, people are laser-focused on discussing a problem and trying to come up with a solution for it. What’s missing however, is that “empathy component” that Jon mentioned earlier.
Without proper context, it’s difficult for people to truly understand where others are coming from, and this can lead to miscommunications or misunderstandings.
For Jon, he finds that the challenges that Covid-19 presented to him are unique because he’s in the music and culture industry. Undoubtedly, the music scene has suffered a lot due to the cancellation or restriction of live shows.
Furthermore, more people are consuming music via streaming now, and the biggest winner that emerged out of this trend is the “new middlemen”, or the digital service providers, such as Spotify or Apple Music.
“They make the bulk of the money, while creators themselves don’t actually do so. Record stores have closed down as well, so there isn’t really an avenue (to monetise). As much as the pandemic has (boosted) digital consumption, digital creation is still the same, with more limitations (in fact),” he said.
When he livestreams a show, his production costs increased by three times. That said, while he agrees with Ryan that there’s a need to take advantage of the Covid-19 crisis and digitise, some industries — especially for the industry he’s in and the F&B industry — are unfortunately at the losing end.
Instead of thinking about digitisation, they are more concerned about “keeping their noses above water until the pandemic passes.”
Moreover, with Singapore’s recent “Stabilisation Phase”, the uncertainty of business recovery remains.
Don’t jump on the tech trend for the sake of it
At the end of the day, Ryan feels that technology should be seen as an enabler to solving a problem as opposed to the means itself.
He advised that when starting at the minimal viable product (MVP) stage, the technology doesn’t have to be so advanced because you’re trying to to test whether the problem is actually worth solving, whether there are people looking to put money behind this problem or to solve it.
“One good example here would be blockchain. At one point in time, everyone’s just trying to blockchain everything. Like there wasn’t much consideration behind the actual utility of it or why you really need it in the first place. So that was kind of like a cash-grab situation where everything blockchain seems to be very good. But thankfully, the industry has evolved now. I think that’s a classic example of how you shouldn’t be technology-first,” said Ryan.
“Think about the problem you are going to solve first, and then see what technology you can use to solve that particular problem. (Regardless if) you are a tech or non-tech startup, as long as you’re solving a problem, you stand a fighting chance.”
Serene on the other hand, feels that the use of technology is very much influenced by the size or purpose of the business.
Nowadays, in order to scale and get fundraising rounds, you have to show a proof of concept and go beyond domestic shores. To scale in that way, you probably have to some element of tech.
If you were looking at startup as a small business, and something that is (like) a passion project and you know that you can make it profitable, then maybe you don’t need so much tech. But if you’re in it for the investment game and scalability, then you probably would have to have some kind of tactic.
– Serene Chai, co-founder and head of partnerships & projects at Speedoc
Local to global: How to scale your business?
According to Jon, scaling your business is highly dependent on the industry and product.
You can’t really say that Singapore is not scalable. It really depends on your definition. If you’re trying to go for world domination, then by all means. Singapore might not necessarily be the spot. But if we’re talking about creating a successful business out of Singapore, I think it’s actually very possible. I mean, there are so many case studies that you can read about.
To me, if you’re going to start a business in Singapore and you can’t even make it here, then what makes you think you can make it in say, US? Not to say that there aren’t people who have actually taken that risk to go to a bigger market, but I think that takes more grit.
– Jon Chua, founder of Zendyll Music
His advice is that if you have an idea that you feel does not fit well with the Singapore audience, then you should try to launch in another country. However, if it’s an idea that is suited for the mass market, then try it here first.
“If it becomes a success in Singapore, and you want to scale it in another country, then that to me is a Phase 2 rather than a Phase 1,” he added.
Ryan concurs with Jon, saying that there is no one-size-fits-all solution that can be generalised across different industry and products, as well as business models.
He noted that there are some business models that rely heavily on mass adoption. For example, most fintech businesses take one cent from one user per transaction, so they need the volume and have to expand beyond the shores of Singapore.
Sharing her input, Serene said that entrepreneurs who launch in the US have the benefit of an English-speaking market, so the demographics are very similar to Singapore.
Regardless if you are selling on the East Coast or West Coast, selling a mass market product is a lot easier. However, if you are selling in Singapore or within Southeast Asia, it’s more fragmented and there’s very little cultural congruence.
The crux of this is learning how to turn disadvantages into advantages, stressed Serene. The fact of the matter is, the region is very nascent and Singapore is very business-friendly, compared to some other countries.
At the end of the day, there is no right answer when it comes to growing your business, and different entrepreneurs will encounter different experiences and challenges.
Today, entrepreneurship is still very much a learning journey for all three of them. Aptly summed up by Ryan, the best way to learn is to actually make mistakes.
At the same time, you also need to have the passion and interest to learn about the more “technical portions” of running a business such as fundraising or investor relations.
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Featured Image Credit: Zendyll / TheOrg.com / Tribe