Accepted into US universities, trio use gap year to build intern-startup matching business
JDFI.Asia impressed by the fact they were so ‘damn cheeky,’ but willing to learn
WHEN faced with a gap year before university, most opt to travel the world, relax with friends, or take up a part-time job for extra pocket money.
That wasn’t the case for the young team behind Glints, an internship portal based out of Singapore.
The founding trio comprising Looi Qin En, Oswald Yeo and Seah Ying Cong – all aged 21 – has been accepted into Stanford, University of California Berkeley, and Wharton Business School respectively, but are using their pre-admission gap year to work on their startup full time.
In an email interview with Digital News Asia (DNA), Yeo says that the trio’s foray into entrepreneurship was, in hindsight, inevitable.
The three founders had competed in many business plan competitions back in high school and junior college, but were dissatisfied with the fact that at the end of all of them, it was really only about producing a piece of paper. There was no real impact nor business created.
“So we have always been itching to start something real ourselves; when the opportunity came, we took the leap,” he says.
That leap, according to Yeo, was serendipitous. The team had gotten acquainted with the local community of entrepreneurs and was convinced to launch and run a startup-intern matching programme for companies.
He says that despite working with an "extremely small budget" for online advertising, the team not only managed to recruit youth for these internship positions, but also received overwhelming response from all over the world.
“We had not only local youth but also youth all the way from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and even the Czech Republic, who were keen to be involved in the business environment of Singapore and Asia. Almost every company we met also needed interns,” he adds.
The demand for interns and internships on both sides revealed that there was a potential business to be had, and the trio realised the potential of providing a platform for interns and companies to find each other.
Accelerating for success
Part of the team’s mission to get Glints as far as they possibly could involved joining an accelerator programme. The trio applied for and got accepted into JFDI.Asia (Joyful Frog Digital Incubator) and its 2014 intake.
“We acknowledge that 'we don't know what we don't know.' We are still very green in this field, and there is so much more to learn out there. Upon reflection, we realised that we have been adopting the ‘screw-it-just-do-it’ attitude, which did bring us to some interesting places, but was not structuring our business growth.
“Hence we decided to apply to JFDI, to give some structure into the madness of entrepreneurship. Sure, our business acumen is much stronger from where we started, but we are out to build Glints to be a phenomenal company. JFDI's rigorous curriculum and excellent mentorship is our launchpad towards this vision,” Yeo says.
Speaking to DNA about the decision to accept Glints, JFDI.Asia cofounder Hugh Mason says that they are the youngest team ever accepted into the accelerator programme.
“Young people bring fantastic energy, but [their lack of] life experience usually means the domain of expertise in which they can work is quite limited and, frankly, they have not yet had the chance to meet many difficult life situations.
“They tend to get more attention in media because they are better looking than us 'crumblies,' but actually, statistics from researchers like the Kauffman Foundation show that the median age for a successful entrepreneur is actually the late 30s to early 40s,” he adds.
Despite these reservations though, the Glints team stood out and won over the gatekeepers at JFDI.Asia mainly because they were, as Mason puts it, “so damn cheeky.”
“Not in an arsey way but we sensed immediately that they have that fundamental naughtiness and healthy disrespect for rules that marks out some of the very best entrepreneurs. We liked that they nearly got jailed for running a business while doing their National Service!” he shares.
That level of commitment to a burgeoning startup without having completed their university degrees is not quite yet the norm in Asia, where society still frowns upon taking too many risks without the safety net of a degree in hand.
Mason says that the three founders may have to make that hard choice, or they might be the vanguard of a new generation of smart young people who are asking themselves: "Why am I paying so much for this piece of paper?" and "Who gives this institution the right to give it to me anyway?".
“This team has plans for its service that go way beyond simply placing interns, and it could well be that developing that business alongside a university course could actually be a huge asset -- they will be embedded with the very best talent of their generation and able to learn from it, provide services to it, and respond to what it wants faster than anyone outside could do,” he adds.
When asked about the inevitable choice the Glints team will have to make come the end of the JFDI programme and with it, the call to resume their studies, Yeo says that growing the business remains their priority.
“Because of how much we are learning we are merely postponing tertiary studies, and not postponing education. There are of course mixed reactions from all our parents, but they have generally been quite supportive so far and we really appreciate it,” he adds.
Yeo says that whether or not Glints takes off full scale by the end of the JFDI.Asia programme, the three founders are going to make decisions with the company as a priority as they “fully believe” in it.
“Even if there are challenges along the way, it is not right to give up and just go to school ... but to tinker [with] our approaches until we find the right solutions, and things click.
“Be it another gap year, dropping out altogether, or running Glints in our college to benefit from the student community and entrepreneurial environment of Silicon Valley, we are keeping all our options open at this point of time. But whichever path we choose, making Glints work is our top priority,” says Yeo.
As further validation for the demand that Glints would help meet, the startup has already received S$75,000 (US$59,940) from private business angels and JFDI.Asia, and is aiming to raise its next round of funding at the end of JFDI.Asia’s 100-day boot camp to accelerate its rollout across South-East Asia.
Next page: Can Glints take off?