Update: To put Steven’s commentary in context, I have posted a follow-up he has made on Facebook regarding Zopim (below).
Singapore is considered the Silicon Valley of Asia. However, it is a mistake for entrepreneurs and investors to hire employees solely from this point of view. Mig33 co-founder and CEO Steven Goh, expresses his views on why startups should focus on ambition and drive, rather than skills sets, when hiring.
I had the chance to chat with Steven recently, and he says his view mostly has to do about culture and the startup’s life cycle. He stressed that startups should avoid hiring people straight from multi-national companies, because these might not be a good fit. He says that if you’re building a startup in Singapore or in Asia, “you should think twice (or more than twice) about hiring someone from a larger company.”
But why the difference in perspective from Silicon Valley, where startups try to lure talented individuals from big firms like Google, Microsoft, Apple and the like?
“I’d strongly recommend that you don’t hire out of the MNCs or larger companies. There are great people there, but by and large, startups require a drive, stamina, and flexibility that you generally don’t see in larger company cultures. I don’t believe the Silicon Valley model is equivalent here to building companies by hiring talent out of larger ones, as the genesis for the major companies in Silicon Valley is very different from their local representation.”
Steven cites how American startups would lure talent from multinationals and bigger firms. Asian startups might mistake this for a smart move. However, because the development cycle largely differs from East to West, people with managerial experience in MNCs generally lack the entrepreneurial drive, but rather work better with a structured setup.
“Culturally, organisations here [in Singapore] are seeded differently, as they’re appearing later in a succes’s life cycle, and there’s a raft of formalization that’s appeared. People can be carried on by the presumption of the market (the market comes to them, and the branch here is created as a response to existing demand).”
He expounds that firms that expand from the western markets to Asia are already mature, which means there is a difference in the values and attitudes these espouse.
“My dad, formerly a mathematician and rocket scientist, would say that the hardest thing about getting a rocket off the ground is the first 100 miles. That’s where 95% of the energy get’s spent. By the time Facebook / Google / Yahoo / etc. have put an office down here … it’s not in the first 100 miles. There’s the presumption that they’re here later in the cycle. So the organisations are seeded under very different circumstances.”
There is a missing “middle market” in the region, Steven says. This “makes startups bigger than they are.” For example, Zopim could be Yammer, and HungryGoWhere could be Yelp. Instead, they are not able to expand, but could be “great with the right help.”
A few words of wisdom for would-be founders or startup employees:
“Struggle to live with a low budget — in environments where not everything (especially from head office) isn’t there, and you might have to do it yourself. Startups are tough. You have to work (really work). It’s really the opportunity. Full stop.”
The Mig33 founder says his company moved to Singapore under “extraordinary circumstances,” and they have had to hire quickly.
“The SV model would have us hire out of the larger companies. I should have known better and forgot the assumption about how those were built, and I didn’t hire as well as I should have, and certainly re-learnt my lesson.”
However, Steven says his team is “pretty happy,” and that they are “pretty focused right now.” In closing, Steven recommends startups to hire smartly:
“I would hire a smart energetic person with a great attitude over a person with a CV as long as your arm, any day.”
Attitude trumps skills when running or working for a startup. This sounds reasonable!
Update: Steven has made follow-up comments on e27 director Mohan Belani’s Facebook wall in response to Zopim’s Royston Tay. Steven has agreed to re-post the comments here as an update to the interview (edited for formatting).
“My comments re: Zopim have by and large been that its an under-recognised Singaporean startup and the attention by and large has been to draw more attention to companies coming from SV to Singapore (and again, rather than to encourage, recognise and grow the home grown talent). I’m familiar with the company in conferences, panels, the website (and i asked QR if i could visit a few weeks ago) and a few customers (and we did look at it @ mig but chose a different platform instead). As an example, you can ask Qing Ru and I did plug yourselves heavily to the SPH who then went on to write yourselves up in the paper a few weeks ago.
“I do generally hold the view that Singaporean companies under-exit themselves and don’t get the valuations they deserve and they’re undersold (e.g. i’ll be frank that i think HungryGoWhere for $10m is almost an insult when at the same time Singtel’s paid how much for assets overseas?), and Zopim as good as i think it is, there’s a missing ecosystem in this region that ‘enlargens’ companies and takes them the next step and makes them even bigger than they are already. I just don’t see that in this region. Again, doesn’t say that yourselves aren’t a great company and the team works really hard, but every CEO I know who’s built a company more than $100m in size is always asking how they can get bigger than they are and i’d encourage you to look at the next peak (rather than taking offense to any comments about you reaching the current one (again, as good as it is)).
“… Meant entirely constructively and at all times, think the world of your company. please don’t think otherwise.”
Featured Image Credit: Steven Goh / LinkedIn