Millennials are lazy. They’re entitled. The ultimate “me” generation. Or so they say… Djoann Fal just made the Forbes 30 under 30 at the tender age of 26. It was only 4 years ago that he was living off 711 food busting his ass to get here. I wanted to write about his life as CEO of GetLinks, because everyone loves a rags to riches story.
It is a Thursday afternoon in March 2018, and I am sitting in a glass meeting room at GetLinks Headquarters in Bangkok. It is a scorching hot day. After a 30-minute wait (Djoann is an important man these days, clearly), I see him pace into the common area, his face obscured by misty ribbon wrap around the tall glass door. He’s wearing jeans and a white T shirt. The lobby is brimming with bright young people working away at a frenetic pace, lying on bulging bean bags, faces illuminated by laptop screens. Djoann puts his arm around one, then another, before finally walking into the meeting room to greet me. He gives me his trademark hug before taking me on a tour of the office. The place is packed. “We moved in 6 months ago” Djoann tells me. They’re growing fast clearly.
It’s been 4 years since my desk sat alongside Djoann’s at Hubba co-working space in Ekkamai. At the time, I was launching my own tech startup. Djoann and his small team might as well have been living there at the time – they seemed to be the first in the door and the last ones to leave, surviving on 711 chocolate bread and barely making ends meet. Although my startup had failed, his startup GetLinks clearly had not. GetLinks today boasts the largest tech talent network in Asia, and offices in Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore.
We take a seat by his desk which faces onto Lake Rachada and Benjakitti Park.
When you think back on 4 years ago, what’s the biggest difference in your life today?
DJOANN: I think the biggest difference is everyone believes in us what we are doing. Back then, GetLinks was just an idea in the ether. It’s something tangible now. You can touch the product. That’s the biggest difference I can think of, because this job is my life.
People must take you more seriously now.
DJOANN: Yes of course, a lot more. But we still have a lot more to prove – we are so small compared to where we want to be. This really hit home the other day actually. I was in China yesterday to visit Alibaba HQ. Jack Ma was once an English teacher. After overcoming a TON of adversity, today he has 50,000 people working for him. 50,000! It’s like a Chinese army, seriously. It’s moments like that when you realise a couple of things. One, that great success is only possible by delegating the execution to other people. Two, stay humble. Seeing Alibaba HQ felt like a slap in my face.
I like Djoann a lot. He is expressive in the way only French people know how to be. Plus he looks you dead in the eye when he speaks – not like an axe-murderer – like someone who gives a shit.
What was the moment you realized that GetLinks was actually going to become something?
DJOANN: It was probably when we went to Silicon Valley for 6 months. GetLinks is the first Thai startup to be selected for a Silicon Valley accelerator and receive funding from the US. Our company holding is still based in Mountain View until now. This was a dream come true. Silicon Valley had basically told the world that they believe in us.
I should imagine a lot of young startup founders go to the Valley and feel a certain amount of impostor syndrome. Did you experience much self-doubt during that time?
DJOANN: I think ever since childhood I’ve always felt as though I was in the wrong place. It’s only now that I feel complete because finally I am in control of my life and I act upon my ideas. Most people’s inadequacies come from not following their dreams and not taking action on the things they want to do.
Was there a spark that changed everything?
DJOANN: I don’t think we’ve ever talked about this before. I had a car accident. That’s how I got this scar on my arm. I lost a close friend in the crash and, well, it’s cliched but… it hit me like a ton of bricks just how short life is. I was 18 years old. If I had died, my life would have meant NOTHING. All my ideas would have died with me. I wrote a 10 year master plan right then and there, I got clear on my career direction and I told myself I would not waste any more of my time. Time is short and very precious.
I find it fascinating that for some people a great trauma is a new beginning, and for others, it’s the end.
Where did you get the idea to write this 10 year master plan?
DJOANN: I read a lot of books. I was completely lost at the time and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if life was worth living. Nietzsche was a big influence. He said that masters are the ones who decide what’s next. That idea really resonated with me. Most people drift through the day, and when you drift, you are at your most vulnerable. Someone will ask you at that very moment to do something that fits with their plan, and you respond “Sure, why not?” because you are drifting. You don’t have a plan. So you go along with it because, well, you have nothing better to do. This is how you waste a day, then a month, then a year and then a life. I want to be a master. I want to decide what’s next.
You talk about time a lot. You’ve chosen to invest an inordinate amount of time into this company GetLinks to transform the way people work. Why this?
DJOANN: It took me a long time to realize why. Here it is. I don’t want anyone to waste this life. I meet so many people of all ages who are lost because they don’t know what to do and they have no net. If GetLinks can achieve any one thing, it would be to empower people to take control of their lives. We will start with jobs, but in 2-3 years, GetLinks will be about lifestyle. We will go from connecting people to work to connecting people with a meaningful life both inside and outside of work. We’re creating a movement.
Asia needs an employment revolution. Two financial crises, one in 1997 and the other in 2008, have seriously affected the life chances of young people in Asia, who are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. This is truly a global youth unemployment crisis. Solving issues woven deep into the fabric of Asian working culture is an incredible challenge for any organization, let alone a young startup. But I will say this – you can tell that Djoann has found his calling – you can feel the difference in him.
Isn’t creating a movement a bit clichéd by now too?
DJOANN: It is a cliché, so we don’t call it a movement. We call it a war. So many companies want to start a revolution these days, but they fail because they are not authentic. They are created by marketing people who know nothing about young people. I was in Occupy. I was a member of Anonymous when I was 14. These people are my people.
I had no idea Djoann was some kind of technological anarchist.
Just to change tack. When I was sitting in the meeting room, I saw you putting your hands on shoulders left right and center. Is this a style or is it just you?
DJOANN: I didn’t realise! I guess I just want to give my team confidence. It took time for me to gain confidence myself – I went from an INTP to an ENFP – pure introversion to super outgoing. I want to encourage others to feel comfortable, confident, and not hold back. I give a lot of high fives (he does). We are sharing energy. I’m not a Buddhist, this is just the science of how to create a trusting environment at work.
Do people take advantage of your friendly approach?
DJOANN: Every day. Some people think I am soft. Undoubtedly, investors think I’m too young to be the CEO of an A or B company. They want someone with grey hair and a ton of experience. I know this – but it doesn’t affect me. I need to stay the same and I hire the right people. We can easily find young tech talent, that’s what we do, but managerial staff with grey hair is a bit more challenging. We are hiring right now, tell those types to contact us!
Are you happy?
DJOANN: The reality is I’m pretty stressed. We need to get this talent network and market place to work in 6-10 countries within the next 12-18 months. It is a big responsibility and a huge amount of work man. But you know what, I have a great team around me and we are HUNGRY.
Learn more about GetLinks. If you are a tech professional or an old man or women with grey hair, there may be a job going.
Disclosure: This article first appeared in LinkedIn on 22 April 2018, via Adam Sharpe. Republishing sponsored by GetLinks.