From entrepreneur to entrepreneur-whisperer

From entrepreneur to entrepreneur-whisperer

In Episode 1821 of the WDKY podcast, I interviewed Huang Shao-Ning, who is an angel investor and mentor to fellow entrepreneurs at AngelCentral. Before AngelCentral, Shao-Ning tried, but failed to rest on her laurels after a successful exit from JobsCentral, the jobs portal business she built with her husband and partner, Lim Der Shing. After a trial being a tai-tai bored her to tears, and having scrapped plans to travel round the world because of young school-going children, Shao-Ning and Der Shing did the next best thing – translating their entrepreneurship experience into an angel investment network where she supports not just start-up founders, but also angel investors in the region. That informal network quickly became AngelCentral. The Asian start-up ecosystem is brighter for it.

You can listen to our full conversation here. Here are some highlights:

Entrepreneurship did not always have the lustre it now has.

When I became a founder, I was asked by a friend if I was committing career suicide. Now, entrepreneurship is no longer (seen as) the option for people who have no options; it’s for people who want to make a difference, who want to change the world on their own terms and who believe that they can do it.

There are more female entrepreneurs now, but they still face unique challenges.

We have quite a number of women in the start-up ecosystem now, which I’m very happy to see. Even within my own portfolio, I have six to seven companies with women CEOs.

A lot of women find it difficult to take the first step to become a founder because of the little questions we tend to ask ourselves a lot more. And there is still that societal expectation of women needing to do more on both the home and work fronts. Even within the social circles that I have, I have more women asking, “Is this really the right career path for me?” and “What does it mean for my family plans?” For women, it’s a very real thing.

Before deciding to be an entrepreneur, you have to have THE conversation.

In my first session with early-stage founders, I give them the pet speech. Have you had the conversation with yourself? Have you had a conversation with your life partner? Have you had a conversation between the two of you, or the three of you, the co-founders? More and more of them would actually tell me yes, they have done that sharing, very open sharing on the years they’re ready to commit to this, the finances they are prepared to put into this, and if they have a family, how they prepare for the family’s needs.

The first rule of working with your life partner: you don’t talk about work.

With Der Shing, I remember the first rule that we had was, we cannot talk about work after we get home. That didn’t help. At dinnertime we just continued with the conversation. We were flouting the rules non-stop and then we said, maximum three topics. It didn’t work. We realised then that we need to have a proper setup for any key discussions that we need to have. So we had to come up with the rhythm. We learned to have a business rhythm at work, we learned to have a business rhythm between the two of us, and I also learned to have a rhythm with myself. I would actually block off my own schedule that I don’t allow people to touch so that I can do what I need to do.

Luck matters – and flexibility does too.

By the time we launched, there were something like twenty-five job portals in the market. But then it so happened that I had received this postcard from my school in the US that was running an online campus fair for their global alumni. And I thought, why don’t we try that with schools in Singapore? We have already built the system and we can just tweak it a little bit. The thinking has been done. It’s just the positioning needs to change. The US model was that the tech company sold the software to the school and the school had to bring in alumni, students, jobseekers, as well as bring in the employers. But we tweaked the model a little bit for Singapore and we didn’t charge the school. We took a gamble on that to say to the school: we will be your service provider, we’ll bring both the platform and the employers, but we get to keep the sales to fund the operations. And the school sees that it’s a free service for them – they just have to bring in the students.

The ability to reflect and learn from experience matters.

The difference between founders who are doing well versus those we can see going south is their approach to reflection – the way they reflect on the learning. Every 12 months when you look at the founder or you check back with them again, do you feel it’s a different person or is it still the same person? Those who reflect and learn, especially if they do not mind sharing their learning, are the ones who do well. When they’re willing to share, when they’re willing to really talk it through, then they pick up on what they have failed at. When I wear the investor hat, I’m trying to gauge whether this is a person who can listen and debate things through. Some founders say, “Yes, I agree with your feedback but…” There will be others who say, “Ok, what do you mean by this? Can we delve deeper?” So it’s really about how they handle feedback and then you see what they do after that.

Founders must feel ownership.

I have one founder in mind. For this founder, when things were going south, it was everybody else’s fault. You didn’t do this for me. I asked for this, you didn’t help me with this and stuff like that. My investors said they would open this door for me and the door didn’t happen, they didn’t follow through, they didn’t help me call the person again. It’s that stark difference.

Raising money is a double-edged sword.

My key advice to founders is very clear. If you are raising for the sake of raising, that’s not a good idea. You should raise only if you need to. And you should be cautious, because at the end of the day, raising money, it’s diluting your equity. Imagine 10 years down the road, when you own 100% of the business, versus you own 30% of the business, it’s a very different story. In fact, I just had one founder tell me that his belief now is really that valuation doesn’t mean a thing. It’s really the equity ownership. It’s the difference between owning 100% of a $40 million company and owning 10% of a $100 million company. I think founders should raise nowadays because the environment is very different. I mean we all know about the talent crunch and unfortunately, the good engineering talents are very, very expensive now and you can’t even find them here. You need to go offshore to find them unfortunately. All this requires cash. If you are going to play the tech story, you will need the resources to scale up fast.

Hire those who are willing to go into the trenches with you.

I don’t care so much about whether they have all the skills. I don’t mind if they are not from the top schools. I don’t mind if they are not from the top companies. It’s the willingness to go into the trenches with me. It’s hiring the right candidate who is willing to put in the effort to work with you, who is willing to go that extra mile with you and at the same time, working at a start-up, you want someone who has a certain amount of ambition.