Working for a startup not just about money, but discovering yourself
Parental buy-in still a cultural problem in this part of the world
CONSIDER this a column about tough love, and a follow-up to my last column on the question of what it takes to be a startup employee.
Especially since Chin Xin-Ci, cofounder of personal safety app startup Watch Over Me (formerly known as SecQ.me), reached out to share her own thoughts.
She recently had a conversation on this very topic of working for startups with a newly hired developer.
“His parents were completely against him working with us, and preferred that he worked at some oil and gas company instead,” she said.
A lengthy discussion was had, and the duo concluded that it was about priorities and the uncertain life of a startup.
“You need to have a certain level of ‘okay-ness’ with uncertainty to work at a startup after all, and everyone's acceptable level of uncertainty is pretty varied,” Chin said.
Asked about his experiences in interviewing young candidates for his company, Jared Lim, founder of financial services startup Loanstreet, noted that candidates could be split into three broad categories.
“There’s the urbane group that wants money and are motivated by ‘cool hipster-type’ factors; then there’s local university graduates looking to learn and want a stable job; and lastly, pioneers who are looking to have their own thing in the future,” he said.
Candidates in the last category are usually quite plugged into the tech startup scene already and are looking to beef up their experience and networks before launching their own venture, Lim said.
Meanwhile, Chin noted that having too many young people getting caught up in the perceived ‘glamour’ of working in a startup is also not a good thing. “Then they come in and realised it’s not glamorous at all!”
When it comes to internships, the accepted level of uncertainty is high, as still-students are more open to learning something rather than photocopying documents and fetching coffee – as per tradition.
Choong Fui-yu, first-time entrepreneur and cofounder of Kaodim, a startup working on matching users to service professionals, said he was pleasantly surprised about the general openness to entrepreneurship.
“People, not just the young, seem to be a lot more open to the idea of entrepreneurship, despite its risks and how it’s really a radical departure from what we mostly are accustomed to,” he said.
With two interns already on board and another two on the way at Kaodim, Choong shared that money wasn’t even on the list of priorities.
“This may not seem like a big deal given that they’re interns. But all our applicants are what I consider very high achievers in their own right.
“These guys could go out and secure any contract job in a bank or multinational that’ll definitely pay more – but they chose to intern at a startup, and a very young one such as ours at that,” he added.
Choong feels the opportunity to really do something is what attracts these young talents.
“For example, it might seem ridiculous to sign up 500 users in a day, but when they actually achieve it and realise that they’re capable of such a feat, it really opens up their perspective about the other amazing things they’re capable of, but never realised,” he said.
He said that most times, these types of realisations or epiphanies are what they’re looking for – more than just the money.
It was certainly seemed to be the case for one of the startup’s interns, who had to help his household financially and went to work at a bank after a short stint with Kaodim.
“After about a month in the bank, he came to visit to speak about working with us again,” Choong declared.
Asked about whether there were any issues in terms of parental disapproval, Loanstreet’s Lim (pic) reported that he’s not heard or experienced any yet. “Or it could be their parents don’t know,” he added.
I asked about parental approval or disapproval because especially in this part of the world, cultural and societal norms heavily influence the choices many young people make when it comes to career paths.
One friend who spends quite a bit of time matching developers to companies wryly pointed out that internships are one thing but when it comes to full-time jobs, no parent would be comfortable having their child working in a startup for long.
“At its core, it’s about parent’s return on investment on their offspring, right? So much gets invested in a child’s education; their pride won't let them work for a startup long, especially if the parents are educated or a bit conservative,” he said.
I had to run through that bramble bush with my parents when I decided to join my current company Digital News Asia, a fledgling startup with little money but a grand vision.
“Hah, new company? Will still be around next year or not Ah Bee?” my mother anxiously asked, “Current company okay what, publicly listed and won’t close down so fast.”
Blessings were cautiously given after I explained that it was one of those now-or-never opportunities and assured my parents repeatedly that their oldest daughter, surprisingly, was somewhat employable – options could be found, should this boat sink.
Even for Ngeow Wu Han, chief designer at MindValley, an Internet company founded in 2003 by Vishen Lakhiani, which claims revenues of US$20 million – parental confidence remains elusive.
“Even after working seven years at MindValley my folks will still ask me if this company has got a future or not … it’s tough love,” quipped the married father of four.
So here’s to tough love and proving to parents that success can be had, at companies of any shape and size.
This column originally appeared in the Metro Biz section of The Star and is reprinted here with its kind permission.
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