It was the year 2000 and the beast that was the dotcom crash was still savagely culling unsuspecting bright-eyed entrepreneurs; many saw their net worth crumble overnight. It was a sorry state of affairs.
These gloomy events, however, did not faze husband-and-wife founders of JobsCentral Lim Der Shing and Shao-Ning Leigh Huang. The two intrepid businesspeople gave up the prospects of a steady career, as well as a scholarship in Lim’s case, to pursue their ambitions of building their own internet platform — all while they were just fresh, naive graduates. And mind you, this was when broadband internet plans were just entering the mainstream market.
Thankfully, their huge gamble paid off handsomely. After 11 years of no-nonsense, honest-to-God company building — which included tackling struggles and crises of varying degrees — the duo received a call from the CareerBuilder, a US-based jobs portal that had in 2010 racked in US$556 million in revenue. The American giant met with the entrepreneurs to explore an acquisition deal. The pair and the Americans clicked and soon they were in business.
These days, the seasoned entrepreneurs are devoting their time and effort towards helping young founders attain the success they enjoyed, by mentoring them and investing in their businesses. They also set up an angel investment network AngelCentral, with the goal to unite and strengthen relationships between angel investors through workshops.
In an email interview with e27, Lim and Huang shared about their entrepreneurial journey and their thoughts on the ecosystem.
Here is the excerpt, edited for clarity:
You founded an internet company space right after the dot-com crash in 2000. What was the impetus for this move? And why a job portal?
We started a job portal as we studied in the USA and Monster was already active there. Also, job search is something easy for a fresh graduate to relate to and understand.
Did you have any apprehensions? Did your friends and family think it was foolhardy?
There wasn’t much apprehension as we did not know better. As a fresh graduate, there is not much to lose. Our families were rather supportive although Der Shing’s mother probably felt giving up a good scholarship career path was a bit of a waste. Huang’s family has always been in business so it was less of an issue, though her dad would have preferred she work for him.
Back in the day, there was no ecosystem and no support. How did you get started up then? Who were your mentors or support system?
At first, we were each others support system. Then we brought on board 2 other Co-founders and the 4 of us built and grew the company over 12 years.
In terms of learning, we learned from anyone who would speak with us. The best sources of learning tend to be from other entrepreneurs or from subject matter experts. Its a matter of asking specific questions. In early days, we learned a fair bit from our competitor Jobstreet who tried to acquire us back in 2004. We learned from them how a proper business is run and scaled.
Then in 2009, Der Shing joined Entrepreneur Organization and from there we learned a lot from non-tech entrepreneurs.
Was it difficult to hire people to come on board an internet company then? I imagine securing clients might have been an even bigger huddle
Securing clients was not that hard. Huang and I are salespeople so it was not hard for us to call them non-stop and pound the streets to get clients to buy from us.
Hiring was initially tough as we were an unknown startup but it got easier as our brand grew and we got bigger with more career opportunities and better compensation. It also helped a lot that we were a job portal so we had no lack of candidates!
What were the other challenges you faced as a young internet company?
We faced 2 major periods of weak market dynamics. Once was in 2003 when SARS hit Singapore. The other time was in 2008 during the Great Financial Crisis (GFC).
Both times we responded by just hunkering down and keeping costs under control while running a hard sales effort with promo packages and really hungry sales attitude. SARS was extremely bad as nobody wanted to conduct face to face meetings. During the GFC, we actually ended up still growing revenues by 20 per cent.
What was the lowest point in that period and how did you climb out of it?
Our lowest point was when one of our key partners had to move overseas to follow her partner. We had no vesting or founders agreement and so had to make the tough decision and negotiate to buy her out after it was clear she was not coming back.
When did the company start breaking even and when did things get much easier to handle?
We broke even very quickly. Within 18 months. We kept cost really low and managed to break even with just S$250,000 (US$184,000) in revenue back in 2001. I wouldn’t say things got easier but they got a lot more stable once we hit S$3 – 4 million (US$2 – 3 million) in revenue and S$500,000 (US$368,000) profit or so.
It’s not easier because we shifted gears to aim higher and there are more challenges once we had more headcount. The only part that got easier was that you didn’t have to worry that the business is not for real.
After 11 years of slogging, you managed to exit the company. How did that deal come about?
CareerBuilder contacted us out of the blue and flew to Singapore to meet with us. We got along and they invited us over to the US to see how they operated. From there, we negotiated a price, did a 4-month due diligence process and closed the deal on March 31, 2011.
When did you start raising funding from investors? Or was it all bootstrapped?
The entire business was started with S$18,000 (US$13,200) from the initial founders’ group, which showed how naive we were. Then we raised a further S$200,000 (US$145,000) from our families. Lim’s dad contributed a bit of that. So we more or less bootstrapped all the way. That is why it was so important for us to be sales-focussed and to break even almost from day 1.
Building a company is obviously much easier now due to several favourable conditions — such as government incentives, and an ample supply of private support. What would you have done differently if you founded JobsCentral today?
I am not sure it is more favourable now. Funding is definitely easier but the competition for talent is so much more intense. Back then, we were the only few successful internet companies around, but now there are so many well-capitalized companies. One major thing we probably would have done differently would have been to raise outside money. And use that outside money to expand overseas faster. We expanded overseas only when we hit S$5 million (US$3.7 million) revenue in Singapore!
How did you manage the dynamics of your relationship over the years? Were there rules or guidelines? (for example, no work talk at home)
We tried to not talk about work after work but it was almost impossible. So we definitely had difficulty switching off. Business is an obsessive activity. Also, we are lucky that we are both rather objective and think quite similarly in terms of business issues. We usually agree on what is the right thing to do. We also had complementary strengths with Huang being a strong people person willing to make hard choices and Lim being a strong numbers person and a strategic thinker.
It also helped that as the business grew, we were able to take on more clearly defined roles and try not to step on each other.
How did you manage family life at home when both of you were running the company full time?
We have a very supportive family — our parents helped look after our first 2 older kids and also pretty much our household stuff. We had more time to look after kid number 3 as business was already working quite well by 2008. Finally, kid 4 came after we retired. So we are finally getting to enjoy being parents last 4 years!
Now that you are both focused on being investors and mentoring startups, what are some advice you would give young founders as well as those in mid-stage companies?
We share what we learned over the years. What worked for us and what happened and how we felt about it. What we want are founders who can listen to such stories and know how to seek out more such stories and then make up their own minds on what to do. The best founders figure things out quickly and usually don’t need much advice. They just need quality sharing and stories.
Do you think startups are ‘spoilt’ due to the ample availability of funding options in the region? How does has that affected the behaviour and attitude of founders today (as compared to before when you just founded JobsCentral?)
Our biggest nightmare would probably be to fund founders who just want to be known as an entrepreneur but who are not willing to pay the price of obsession. Some other red flags will be founders spending too much time on tech events, speaking engagements, personal salaries, holidays, social media etc.
Want to hear more insights from Lim Der Shing and Shao-Ning Leigh Huang. and other rockstar entrepreneurs? Come to the Echelon Asia Summit 2018, which will be held at the Singapore Expo from the 28th to the 29th of June. Click here to get your tickets now! Enter the promo code e27-YON to get a free ticket. Offer expires 25th June 2359 hours.