5 Leadership Lessons from a First-time Startup Founder (2017)

As we look forward to the new year, I have been pondering what are some of the biggest leadership lessons I’ve learned this year. WOBB has gone through significant growth, starting from just me (one person sitting at home in my pyjamas), to a 25 person team, with some of the most talented employees in the business.

I’ve definitely made many mistakes and learned a lot from them. But here are my personal top 5 leadership lessons from 2017.

1) The team doesn’t live inside your head

I’ve met founders who said that they were frustrated when the team doesn’t seem to be able to deliver exactly what they’d would hope for. “Sometimes if you want to get something done right, you have to do it yourself.” Admittedly I’ve had this thought myself too.

But what I’ve learned over time is that poor communication from the leader can cause a lot of these problems. When leaders don’t communicate with clear instructions and specific expectations, it causes the team to try to figure out what they think you are looking for, based on that they know, and of course, they are not going to get it right. Because they are not mind readers, they don’t live inside your head.

I always try to remind myself that as the founder of the company, I have access to information from other founders, investors, clients and competitors etc. I’ve been in the company since the beginning, and have clear context of everything that is going on in the company, because every team reports to me.

I can see the full picture. The full picture that individuals in the company do not have access to.

It is therefore our responsibility as leaders who have all the information, to see that your team can’t see everything you see, unless you make that effort to show them clearly what you need, or give them access to the information that will help them. Be clear and specific about your expectations.

Because if you don’t make that effort and just expect them “to know”, it’s your fault that they are not delivering good work, not theirs.

2) Be quick to weed out the “show horse”

(To be kind, I have changed some details of the following story to keep the person anonymous, but the essence of the story is here.)

Jim joined our company full of enthusiasm. Every time I spoke to him, he was incredibility helpful, looks so engaged and was always willing to do everything that I asked. He was also a very bright kid, someone I could ask a question to, and he’ll somehow find an answer.

I really liked Jim, and was thinking of promoting him.

Then one day, someone came to me and started sharing his concern that he caught Jim spending his time watching Youtube during working hours, and sometimes even during meetings, when I’m speaking at the front, he would be watching a video on his laptop instead of paying attention to the meeting.

I was surprised to hear that. There’s no way Jim would do that. Not the enthusiastic Jim that I know.

Then over time, I started hearing other concerns from other people in the company. Uncollaborated, totally independent stories.

“Jim doesn’t go for any client meetings, his calendar is always empty. He spends more time trying to talk to you than get any meaningful work done.”

“Jim is rude to me and doesn’t take feedback well when the team asked him to work harder.”

I started to wonder… wait, is Jim behaving differently in front me because I’m the boss? I paid more attention to his actual work and how he spends his time in the office.

And it turned out to be true. Jim spent most of his energy trying to appear to be doing a great job rather than actually doing it. He had the lowest activities, and delivered the least results. Everything that he touched either stagnated or became worse.

Jim spent most of his energy trying to appear to be doing a great job rather than actually doing it.

It was so easy to be blinded by this “showhorse” had I not made the decision to be unemotional about this and looked at it objectively without any biases.

Suffice to say, Jim didn’t stay long in the company after I started paying more attention to his actual performance rather than appearances.

Remember to watch out for the showhorse.

3) Embrace your “followers” as equals because they make you a leader

As single founder, people always ask me whether it feels lonely not having a co-founder I can share my worries with, or to bounce off ideas. And when I tell them that I can do all these with my core team, it always surprises them that our team is so engaged.

In fact, the team is so passionate about the performance of our business, that I often find them seeking out to do more for the company, seeing problems that worry them and proactively figuring out how to fix these problems, and sharing a lot of the stress that I share as a founder.

But what’s the secret? There no big secret. Just pull them into your world as an equal. As someone that you genuinely value, with opinions that you value, with actions that you trust.

Of course, some of you are now thinking “but not everyone in my team is at the level where I can trust and empower them in such a way”. In which case I would ask you to either:

  • Try anyway, because are you sure you can’t empower them? Or is it because you don’t have the courage to let go?
  • Start thinking about your talent attraction / employer branding strategy so you hire better people

Either way, this video from Derek Sivers reminds me all the time how your followers make you a leader.

4) You dictate the culture of your company

Leaders play a critical role in influencing the culture of their teams. After all, you decide that is acceptable behaviour and what is not. You decide what behaviours get rewarded, and what gets punished.

So if you’re ever in a situation where you’re frustrated that your team is “lazy”, or always late, or don’t openly share their ideas, very often you’ll find that it’s you (the leader) that made the culture what it is.

Whether it’s because of your decisions to hire the wrong people (that ultimately influenced your team’s culture), your inability to publicly reward the right behaviours or punish the wrong ones, or because you do not lead by example, it really all comes down to you to dictate the culture of the company.

Your inability to publicly reward the right behaviours or punish the wrong ones… it all comes down to you to dictate culture

If you don’t want others to be late, then you shouldn’t walk in late just because you’re the boss. If you want your team to share ideas and act proactively, then don’t get annoyed whenever you hear an idea you don’t like (how are they supposed to know what ideas you don’t like, over time they will just learn to speak less).

At WOBB, we even went as far of building our own 9 core values that are specific and actionable to give the team clear guidelines on what is expected behaviour. We obsess about these values, and it’s what drives a lot of our business decisions.

WOBB’s Wall of Values is situated in the middle of the office and takes up an entire wall, as a clear visible reminder to the team about expected behaviour in the company.

5) You should pay more attention to your star players, not less

A common mistake I find many leaders make is that they tend to leave their best people alone, get out of their way. In their mind, if they have a star player that has earned their trust, they should leave their star alone. That’s called “empowerment”.

These leaders then tend to focus their time and energy on their weakest players in their team, which they believe needs “fixing”.

I believe that’s not a great strategy. Because not only will you find that spending time with your weak players doesn’t guarantee they will perform better, you will also soon discover that your star players will also start to get demotivated.

Your star players will soon feel that they are no longer growing in their role, or no longer getting a lot of recognition for their achievements. After all, they are star players, they are always expected to perform and deliver, and over time, it just becomes “normal” and no longer celebrated.

They are no longer coached, because how do you coach someone that is already at the top of their game? And this adds on to your star players feeling stagnated.

I’ve always believed that a better strategy would be to focus your time and energy on your star players instead. These are your best people. They are the most engaged. They have high will. They want to keep growing and they care deeply about their performance and your business.

Give them recognition for their achievements, no matter how many times they keep hitting their goals (that’s a good thing right? Celebrate!). Spend time strategising with them, supporting them, working on making them better.

Paying attention to them is not about you not empowering or trusting them. In fact, very often, high achievers want attention, because that’s what drives them, and it’s a mistake to stop doing that.

And how about coaching? How do you coach someone that is already a star? The real question is – why are you making it so easy for them? They are your star players! Give them bigger tasks, challenge them to do more. Make them uncomfortable.

That is your opportunity to coach them so they keep growing and pushing boundaries. Celebrate whenever they raise their standards. And support them when they need help.

And other people in the company will look to them as examples of how to excel in the company.

In short, investing your time building your best people is a much better long term strategy that will produce a high performance team.


Looking Back at Alliance Bank Bizsmart Challenge

Last weekend, I went to YEC KL, organised by the same team from Alliance Bank Bizsmart Challenge, which WOBB was fortunate enough to be in the Top 20 last year. We learned so much from being part of last year’s Challenge, and made so many friends along the way. One year is a long time in the startup scene, so I thought it would bring back some good memories if I got to see everyone again.

I did write a post about the top lessons I learned from the program as soon I finished it, you can also read that post here. And almost one year later, here’s how some of these lessons have turned out. Continue reading →

Being Lazy

I’m sure throughout your career, you’ve come across people who want to do as little as possible to get through life. It’s their self-identity, they tell themselves that they are lazy, and therefore they are. Sometimes  this makes them feel cool. Sometimes this makes them feel smart. Continue reading →

Entrepreneur Views: Gen Y Work Life Balance

They say Gen Y value work life balance. So it may be a challenge for employers where work life balance is not possible due to the nature of the business. But the reality is, not ALL Gen Y talent put work life balance as a priority, and there are many quality talent out there that is willing to put in the hours to get the work done, it just needs to be the right kind of work, and in the right kind of culture or environment.

One industry in particular, does not allow for much work life balance. And that’s the events business. If you’ve ever heard any stories about the people who run events, you will know that work hours are long, and stress levels are high.

Yet for Jwan Heah, this has been a challenge he’s faced and overcome across the many years he’s been in the events business. Jwan is the Group CEO of Pulse Group, an events company spanning across Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, and has previously been involved in organising some large scale events in the region.

If you’ve ever heard any stories about the people who run events, you will know that work hours are long, and stress levels are high.

Jwan has managed to hire and manage some of the most motivated Gen Y talent in the industry, so when I was looking for ideas on what makes Gen Y work hard and put in the hours, Jwan was kind enough to share some of his thoughts with me.

D: What are your views about work life balance?

JH: You spend the bulk of your time each day at work plus the the after hour work that you put in equates to a huge part of your life is work. If you’re spending almost all your life with/on work, then blur the lines a little so that you don’t have to balance work and life. Every morning you wake up and you’re excited cause you know its going to be a fun day, you head out to the office and hang out with a bunch of like-minded awesome people to do something you enjoy, its something you look forward to and then it doesn’t become work anymore. When you find joy in what you and who you do it with, its not work anymore.

D: When you interview Gen Y candidates, what techniques (or interview questions) do you use to distinguish those that are willing to put in the hours, from those who won’t?

Manage Expectations During the Interview

JH: During the interview, we start by giving an explanation into what we do and we’re very direct and open with how bad the situation is. Extremely long working hours, ‘show goes on no matter what attitude’ that includes occasionally the need to perform manual labor work, smile while receiving stress induced profanities, meeting crazy deadlines, dealing with all manner of people, changing plans within couple of hours notice, driving solo to ends of Malaysia or hop on a plane etc. Basically to get stuff done or die trying.

Ask questions about their personality

JH: Questions during interview focus more on personal attributes rather than skillsets. What makes you happy? If you are given RM1,000 to plan an internal company event what would you do and why?

Give them space to be sure of their decision

JH: Finally we tell them to go home and think about it and come back to us in 48 hours if they still want to pursue a life here in PULSE ASIA. At the end we always advise anyone wanting to join us that its their life and Pulse Asia is merely a platform to help you achieve your goals and personal vision, if the culture and environment gives you the added ability to do that, then join us.

jwan team - gen y work life balance

D: If your staff feel burned out from hard work, how do you try to balance that, to ensure that you retain them, and that they remain committed to their work?

J: We maintain a family like culture and a fun filled environment, and we’ve made spreading happiness and positivity a mantra. Everyone is aware of the company’s performance at all times including financials & profitability, we set targets and celebrate each mini achievement or win, and each individual’s contribution is publicly acknowledged and announced during our daily huddles and emphasised during our ‘Gratitude Fridays’. Although we do practice having a leave form, we are not tracking the number of leaves a PulsElite takes and half day off to sort out personal errands is a common practice. As long as the work is done, we allow the flexibility. Its the culture that we’ve built (building more like it) that keeps everyone together and committed to their work.

D: How do you compete with other employers who can offer work/life balance to their employees?

JH: We don’t compete. We’ve created (constant fine tuning) our culture and we’re continuously evolving to ensure we stay relevant in our industry. We’re transparent in terms of our expectations from the start and do our best to understand employees expectations. Part-timers, friends, vendors and clients constantly get a glimpse at how we live our lives as PulsElites and that creates good word of mouth for us. As an organization we do all that we can within our capacity and financial limits to provide an environment that is safe, fun and caters for as a wide a spectrum of personalities… as mentioned in the earlier questions, in the end its up to the job seeker to decide which organization suits his/her desires, values and goals.

We don’t compete. We’ve created our culture and we’re continuously evolving. In the end it’s up to the jobseeker to decide which organization suits his/her desires values and goals.

D: What do you think are some of things employers can offer that Gen Y candidates will find more important than work/life balance?


  1. Exorbitant amounts of money?? (hahaha)
  2. Clearly articulated and visible Vision, Mission, and Values statement. So you attract the right people who share those dreams and make sure its repeated day in day out.
  3. Engagement. Break the boundaries of the traditional hierarchical structure and engage across all levels and departments. e.g CEO spending time with the janitor to get his/her feedback and acting on those feedbacks, upper management walking the floor daily. This probably has a much bigger impact than on work life balance. In the end, people want to know that they matter.
  4. Involve everyone who will be affected by a decision in the decision making process.
  5. Opportunities for learning and personal growth and development
  6. Champion a social cause. Provide the resources and time for people to spearhead community enrichment programmes or charity causes.
  7. Drivers and/or UBER. Cause driving to the office and to meetings stuck in traffic is emotionally and physiologically taxing. Coupled with trying to find parking for an important presentation a the clients office can cause serious damage to the heart and mind! (we are beta testing the use of UBER for work at the moment)

How to Recruit Superstars for Your Early Stage Startup

Unfortunately, if you are an early stage startup, you HAVE to recruit superstars. You don’t have a choice. When teams are small, one or two average performers would mean that you have an average team. And with the level of challenges faced by early stage startups, average teams are going to fail.

But that’s really tough right? Because being an early stage startup also means that you do not have the resources to compete for the best talent. Some people think can get away with just “selling them your vision”, but be careful not to exaggerate because many startups are saying that they want to change the world or revolutionise something, and most of this sounds a lot like fluff to smart people (they are the ones you want to hire, remember). I mean think about this, if your startup’s business is to make money by selling bags, TVs or toys online (I’m not referring to any particular startup here), any altruistic vision to “change the world” doesn’t really work for most people.

The most important question you need to ask yourself is “Why would a superstar want to join an early stage startup? Why wouldn’t they just start their own?”. The truth is, they may want to start their own startup one day, and you should accept that as the reality, and for whatever reason, perhaps they are not able to do that now, or don’t currently have an idea that they feel very strongly about.

Be careful not to exaggerate, many startups say they want to change the world or revolutionise something, but most of this sounds like a lot of fluff to smart people.

Before we go any further, I would just like to mention the very basics of being able to recruit. Your startup needs to have a good idea and is able to pay salaries, either because you are revenue generating or are well funded (or has the potential to be well funded). After all, for employees, one of their top concerns is having some form of stability and career path. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at how you can attract and recruit some superstars for your early stage startup.

1) Build Credibility for Yourself (the Founder)

Regardless of what area your startup is in, what matters most to talented people when they decide if they want to join you, is less about what business you are in, and more about who you are as the founder. Is it someone they respect? Can this person mentor them in their careers, when they too may one day decide to have their own startup?

When news came out that Joel Neoh was starting KFIT, many people that wanted to apply to join KFIT probably were not into the entire fitness thing, but because they’ve heard so much about Joel and the opportunity to learn and work with a team that they admire, it was easier for KFIT to attract talent.

When Cheryl Yeoh first came back to start MaGIC, they managed to build such a high quality team. I don’t think it was the “excitement” of working in a government agency, but the idea of working alongside Cheryl was enough to draw a lot of good applications to MaGIC.

(Both KFIT and MaGIC use WOBB.CO to hire, so I know for a fact that they attract good quality applications.)

Well, most of us don’t get that kind of media attention. I certainly didn’t,  and most people don’t know who I am. So when I first started WOBB, without a strong track record, I knew I needed to build some credibility. I want to share with you some of things I did at the start that really helped us hire good quality talent.

Build your Linkedin Profile

Derek Toh Linkedin Profile

When someone googles your name, what’s the first thing they see? You can start by having a strong Linkedin profile. There’s so much you can do on your Linkedin profile (include photos, videos, links to publications) that it’s definitely under-used.

I will write a separate, detailed piece about what makes a strong Linkedin profile in Malaysia (there are also many good articles on the internet about this), but as a start, make sure your profile is complete. That means, having things like a professional looking photo, up-to-date information about your career to date, any achievements and definitely have a summary that is personal, yet gives you credibility.

Have a personal / professional blog

Yes, like the one you are reading now. I bought “derektoh.com” at the start of my entrepreneurial journey, because I thought it was a great way to tell a story as I learned about the business world. Turns out, it was also a great talent magnet. I’ve actually had people approaching me after they read my blog, asking if they could join WOBB.CO.

When someone googles your name, what is the first thing they see? You can start by having a strong Linkedin profile.

So go out there can get a domain in your own name. Basically, people who didn’t know you before will now have one stop where they can read about what you value, how you think and behave, and most importantly what kind of leader and entrepreneur you will be.

It’s important to know that even though I’ve called it a “personal blog”, I would suggest keeping it fairly professional. Not to write about your break up, or food, or travel adventures. Unless it’s relevant to what you do.

Also, remember to update it frequently, ideally at least once a week.

Put it on your business card and email

Now that you have an amazing Linkedin profile, and a professional blog in your own name, it’s time to make sure people can find it. When WOBB.CO first started out, I had my personal blog address and Linkedin profile on every business card I gave out, and in the email signature when I’m emailing. People do click and read it, especially if they don’t know you very well.

Btw, this benefit goes beyond just recruitment, it could even help you close business deals and partnerships if the person you are working with believes you have credibility.

2) Get Visibility, Go Where the Talent Are

The next thing you need to do is figure out where you can find the type of people that you are looking to hire. In my view, there are three types of people that you could potentially hire. And they are:

  1. Fresh graduates who are generally open to consider different careers
  2. Talent from other startups
  3. Startup enthusiasts (i.e. people who are not necessarily already working at a startup, but they follow startup news and may have friends who work at startups)

I would avoid approaching people who have been in corporate jobs for most of their career, not because it’s not possible for them to consider working at a startup, but it’s a decision based on how best to invest your time. This group is the least likely to consider working at a startup, and therefore should also be the one you invest the least time on.

So where do you find the people you are targetting?

magic career fair

Go to career fairs for startups

Career fairs are filled with fresh graduates or people in the early careers, and it’s a great place to get your brand out there as an employer. You will want to avoid generic career fairs that are dominated by large corporate companies (basically the guys with the most money also buy the most outstanding booths, and get all the attention). You want to look for the career fairs that were designed for startups.

Here are some of the startup career fairs that I am aware of:

  1. MaGIC – happens once every six months or so, I believe, and typically coincides with other events that they hold such as MaGIC Startup Academy. Doesn’t charge for this.
  2. YouthsToday – organises startup events (may not be directly about careers, but great place nonetheless) every now and then, and it’s good to reach out to them to find out when the next one is. There is a fee to attend.
  3. Enactus @ University of Nottingham’s Malaysian Campus – as far as I know, they have organised the first one in early 2015, and currently preparing for the second one in 2016. There may be other universities that have startup career fairs, but at present I am only aware of this one.  WOBB attended the first one, I think results were okay, but they promised the second one to be bigger and better. This is a paid event, should be a couple of hundred ringgit to attend.

At the time of writing, we are also considering organising our own career fair / networking session at WOBB.CO, as long as employers are interested to fund their own costs, it will not be profit-driven.  You can drop me a line at derek@wobb.co to discuss.

Attend startup networking events

This is where you will meet existing startup talent and startup enthusiasts. There are many startup networking events that have grown and increased in popularity, and that’s great news for someone like yourself who is looking to recruit. Here are some of the startup networking events that I am aware of that may be worth your time.

My number one tip for networking events is to have long, meaningful conversations with a few interesting people, rather than trying to meet as many people as you can, and end up having superficial, unmemorable conversations.

Here are some of the startup networking events that I am aware of:

  1. Startup Grind – this is a global movement, originated from San Francisco I believe. Events are in the form of an “interview” with a popular startup personality on stage, and is very casual and conversational. Arrive early and leave late if your goal is to meet people. There’s a fee to attend, and they provide snacks and drinks during the event.
  2. DrinkEntrepreneurs – this is a pure networking event, no stage, no speakers. I’ve never attended one myself, but some of our WOBB team like going, and I hear there is a lot of startup talent and startup enthusiasts who attend these events. And people are drinking. Yes, alcohol. Which means if you stay long enough, you could be in danger of being too happy. And make some real friends. You’ll need to pay a cover charge to join the event.
  3. SITEC – This is Selangor’s version of MaGIC, as their goal is to play a role in building the tech startup community in Selangor. They organise networking sessions every month, and invite startup founders to speak. I believe it’s free to attend.
  4. WOBB’s Coffee Sessions – Every month, we organise a meet up with jobseekers who use WOBB, to understand how we can help them, and to get feedback on our app and website. Turns out, we ended up making some new friends and even hired people we met through these sessions. Everyone buys their own coffee, so it’s really casual. I would welcome some founders of early stage startups to join us, we don’t charge. Just be nice to our jobseekers.

StartupGrind KL

StartupGrind KL, image from PEATIX.COM

Get invited to speak at startup events

Instead of attending an event, why don’t you speak at one? Many people who attend startup events are not actually founders, but people who are curious, inspired by startups, and would consider working for one. So if you’re up there speaking, you’ve automatically got the attention of potential employees.

You will need a compelling story, perhaps you are solving a problem that many people care about, or if you are doing really well, then let them know you are succeeding. No one likes to join a startup that is stagnating or on the decline, so get the audience excited by showing how much progress you are making, and invite them to speak with you for “advice” afterwards, which will be your opportunity to identify potential hires.

Many people who attend startup events are not actually founders, but people who are curious, inspired by startups, and would consider working for one.

Now, getting invited to speak for the first time is always the most challenging, especially if you don’t speak publicly that much, and you are not very well known. Start by looking at events where where they invite a panel of speakers, instead of having solo speakers. Get connected with the organisers, either through your friends in the startup scene, or even approach them on Linkedin (you’ve got a pretty good profile now!).

At the start, don’t worry too much about how many people are there, or whether you can hire them. Just go out there and speak. Get some practice. Get some exposure. Before you know it, you may be invited to speak at other events.

3) Vision and Culture

Superstar talent don’t just want to work for a paycheck. And while you’ve built up some credibility for yourself, that still won’t be enough to attract them if they don’t feel like they are part of something much bigger than themselves.

Have a vision for the company

Think about how your startup can change lives, but remember not to exaggerate. If your vision is clear, ambitious, realistic and resonates with who they are, it will be a strong magnet for superstar talent.

Examples of some vision statements include:

Microsoft – A personal computer in every home running Microsoft software.

Toys R Us: Our vision is to put joy in kids’ hearts and a smile on parent’s faces.

WWF: We seek to save a planet, a world of life. Reconciling the needs of human beings and the needs of others that share the Earth.

At WOBB our vision is that one day every Malaysian will be doing a job that they love, as we make it easy for jobseekers and companies with the right culture to find each other.

(So many people have approached me directly to ask if we are hiring because they care so much about this vision)

Have a vision for their careers

This is not the vision for the company, but rather a vision for the careers of your team and their individual careers. Tell them how you will expect them to progress as the startup grows, and how this accelerates their growth, opportunities, and finances. The beauty of being in a startup is that the possibilities are endless, there isn’t a set hierarchy or structure for growth, and that gives you flexibility to craft out the right plan for people who intend to hire.

Have you heard of the chain of fruit stalls, MBG? I was speaking on a panel at an event with their founder, Adnan Lee, and he told me that his vision was not about the business, but rather, he had a vision for the people that work at MBG. And that vision is “To Improve the Quality of Life for All MBG Staff”. Interesting isn’t it? You can have a look at their vision and mission statement here.

MBG’s vision is not about the business, but rather, they have a vision for the people, and that is “To Improve The Quality of Life for All MBG Staff”.

And most importantly, let’s talk about CULTURE

If you want to be able to attract and hire superstars, you need to be clear what kind of culture you want to have as a company. Some of the employers that use WOBB.CO started out without a Culture Page, and they didn’t attract many CVs, but after they created a Culture Page, their job applications jumped up between 4X to 5X. And the quality of the CVs improved dramatically too. So it really works.

I could go on and on about how to define and shape your company culture (it is, after all, what WOBB is all about), but to get you started, here’s a simple infographic.




Increasingly, what superstar talent care about is evolving really fast. If you look back 10 or 20 years ago, all the best talent would have wanted to join large corporations who can pay well, have good benefits, and also stable long term career growth. Small businesses were generally seen as not the best place to work for some of the most talented individuals.

This is, however, no longer true. Young talent are drawn to the new, unfamiliar territory known as the startup scene, which is essentially made up of many many small but fast-growing companies, and with the right credibility, presence and culture, they may choose to work at your company too.

recruiter startup

Corporate companies, start paying attention to startup talent


Last week I had a really good chat with Michael (not his real name) who works at a large respectable corporate company, and naturally the conversation was about the talent market in Malaysia. Michael has been struggling to recruit quality talent, despite the fact that the company he works for is well known and can offer a bright career path to people who join them.

Michael: “Derek, where are all the talented young people hiding? It was hard before, but it seems harder now.”

Me: “There’s a big group of them that are very curious about the startup scene. Not everyone wants to work in a startup, but I’ve seen some really bright young people choosing startups, and many would have at least flirted with the idea. I think corporate companies should really start thinking about how they want to attract this group of entrepreneurial talent if they want to stay competitive.”

Michael: “Really? But there’s no stability in a startup, and no one knows what kind of long term career you will have.”

Me: “That might have been true a couple of years ago, but that’s changing. With many well funded and successful startups, stability becomes less of an issue, in fact if you look at corporate companies now, many of them are laying people off. There really isn’t a safe job anymore anyway, so many young people just decide to go ahead to do what gives them the most satisfaction.”

Many startup talent would have landed a role in large prestigious companies, yet they decide to work in  early stage startups

The conversation ended with me promising to see if I can help them think about how they can stay relevant when it comes to recruiting young talent in Malaysia. And to get these answers, I actually didn’t have to look very far.

WOBB.CO has actually been very fortunate to have hired some really bright people. These guys would have landed a role in large prestigious companies, yet they decided to work in an early stage startup. I did sometimes wonder in slight disbelief that they chose to join me, but I was always very grateful and never really asked them “why”.

Now that some of them have moved on to different things in their life, I decided I can start having candid conversations with them about why they decided to work at WOBB.CO in the first place.

Meet Rou Jun

The first time I met Rou Jun, she had just recently graduated and was in the middle of interviews with some prestigious corporate companies. She knew very little about WOBB.CO at the time we met because we had not launched the app yet.

rou jun tanRou Jun was a first class marketing graduate from HELP University College, and was valedictorian for her graduation ceremony. She’s been actively involved in social work in the fight against human trafficking, and was also a state and national level swimmer for Malaysia.

I thought to myself, “Seems like quite the super star candidate, she’s probably not going to join me. But let’s do coffee and see what happens.”

She did join us. And did an amazing job while she was with us too, almost single handedly helping us build the foundations for our marketing work. She has since moved on to embark on her next adventure in Europe.

She promised to be honest when I asked her these questions, which I hope will you some insights into the mind of our young talent today.

Me: Why did you choose to work at a startup when you could have worked at a big, prestigious corporation?

RJ: Because I have heard many interesting stories from fellow friends who have worked in startups about the experiences startup companies have to offer compared to big companies. For example, many people/articles told me that startup companies offer more hands-on and practical experiences I would need if I plan to start my own business in the future. It is also more exciting to work at a startup because the company is still at the starting stage and I get to be really passionate and excited about the product. Working at a startup also makes me feel like I am contributing to the company’s vision as I can see the impact of my work pretty quick.

Me: How would you rank the importance of these five things: company brand; impact of your job; work culture; salary; and self-development opportunities.

From high to low: Self-development opportunities, work culture, impact of my job, salary, company brand.

Working at a startup also makes me feel like I am contributing to the company’s vision as I can see the impact of my work pretty quick.

– Rou Jun

Me: If you were offered a job in a corporate company, what would you need to know about the company or job, for you to choose them instead of going to work at a startup?

RJ: Working hours – meaning whether it would provide me with a healthy work-life balance or if I would have to work overtime most of the time. Opportunity to grow, both professionally and personally: If the job can provide me with a continuous learning curve. If the salary is decent. And the company reputation in terms of treatment of employees.

Meet Kai Yong

It was a busy day when I was pleasantly surprised to have received a message from a super enthusiastic undergrad student, emailing me from Manchester. Kai Yong found out about WOBB.CO through reading articles about the startup scene in Malaysia, and decided to approach me directly to see if we were hiring interns during his summer break.

kai yong kanI looked at his CV, and I was really impressed. First class grades in pursuing a Law degree in the University of Manchester. Had leadership roles in associations such as Enactus, Manchester Entrepreneurs and AIESEC. Interned at several reputable law firms. Another super star candidate.

Is this guy serious about working in a startup? I repeatedly told him about all the mundane stuff he will have to be involved in as an intern, and kept making sure that he will actually show up for work when he got back from Manchester.

And yes he did show up. He was a soldier, a business development machine, so involved with many bright ideas, and did his work with a lot of passion and drive. So now that he’s back in Manchester, I asked him these questions.

Me: Why did you choose to work at a startup when you could have worked at a big, prestigious corporation?

Ever since I learnt about the stories of successful startups, I changed my perception towards how business is operating now. Big corporations no longer enjoy huge competitive edge because technology has allowed startups to grow rapidly at a more cost-efficient way. Joining a startup gives me the opportunity to put myself in the front line of revolution and innovation as the work often involves introducing new ideas to the society and challenging the current social norms. As an aspiring entrepreneur, I believe a startup is the best avenue for me to learn how to grow a business by grasping the essentials of people-power, Internet of Things and branding. 

Me: Large corporations may argue that having a strong brand on your CV is important for your future career. How do you feel about this? Do you feel this is true, and how does that affect what you think about working in a large corporation vs a startup?

KY: It is true to a certain extent that having the names of those huge corporations on CV may indicate someone is a strong candidate as the competition for a placement or an internship at such corporations is intense. However, I do believe that good employers nowadays look for candidates who are all-rounders specializing in 1 or more areas. With that being said, specialisation is no longer the only skill that employers are looking for now.

Joining a startup gives me the opportunity to put myself in the front line of revolution and innovation as the work often involves introducing new ideas to the society and challenging the current social norms.

– Kai Yong

Working in the corporate world that are usually systematically departmentalised may not be able to offer an overall perspective of the company’s objectives to an employee as the layers of bureaucracy involved have made it almost impossible to happen. Employees may be put in charge of one specific area of expertise for a long period of time. This may not be beneficial to both parties in the long run as the employees will lose their ability to adapt to new environments or learning new skills. 

On the other hand, I believe that a startup offers an environment where you are constantly faced with challenges to complete tasks with limited resources and manpower. The best thing about the task is you get to decide how you want to solve the problem. The tasks are always well integrated as they involve various areas ranging from marketing, branding, technology to business development. This is where creativity and innovation start to become part of your day-to-day working life. 

Me: How would you rank the importance of these five things: company brand; impact of your job; work culture; salary; and self-development opportunities.

1: self-development opportunities

2: impact of your job

3: work culture 

4: salary 

5: company brand 

CONCLUSION – So what does all this mean?

It can mean nothing. After all, these are only two people out of a huge pool of talent out there. Or it can mean a lot. Because the fact is, they are two highly qualified young people, completely unrelated to each other, that many large corporate companies would love to hire. And if a little startup (which couldn’t even afford their own office, laptops or a proper table) managed to out-compete a large corporation to hire them, then it’s time to pay attention.

WOBB.CO is only a tiny blip in giant, fast growing startup ecosystem in Malaysia. I believe I’ve barely even scratched the surface when it comes to the quality of talent working in startup scene.

I hope this helps companies understand the evolving priorities of our young, talented workforce, and the need for companies who are serious about recruiting quality talent, to start adapting and rethinking their company culture.

Learning from the Best – Alliance Bank Bizsmart SME Challenge

So we finished in the Top 20 of Alliance Bank Bizsmart Academy SME Challenge for 2015. After two months of training and networking, the question I get asked frequently is – What did I learn, and was it worth it?

I don’t really want to write too much about what I learned from training. Obviously I learned a lot. When I first found out that training was compulsory, I thought about how busy I was going to be trying to manage the business at the same time, but I made the decision to go into every session with an open and receptive mind. And I came out of each training session learning new ideas that I wanted to apply to the business, or how we managed the team, and I felt lucky that we were selected.

I want to write about what I learned from some of the judges on the panel.

Continue reading →