Are you a Harimau x Startup?

  • DNA-Hiredly, accelerator partners aim to strengthen startup culture
  • New normal of hiring technical talent from anywhere, a tough new reality

A strong corporate culture helps align the team and ensures everyone is pulling in the right direction.

“We work hard and play hard,” beamed a startup founder when I asked what kind of culture he was building in his promising startup. Fortunately, I was wearing a mask so he didn’t see my jaw drop.

“Culture is something that has always been important to use, but founders have so many balls to juggle that this facet of company building gets pushed back till the time we felt the company was ready,” said another founding duo.

This “company being ready”, in my conversations with many startups over the past 12 months seems to coincide with the raising of their Series A round, where a large chunk of the investment tends to go to hiring good talent and founders know that investors will be asking them about the culture they already have in place, that helps them retain talent and entice new hires to come onboard.

The problem with this ‘wait till Series A’ approach to build culture is that it will not work anymore. Not in the Covid-inspired new work order, where organizations are happy to hire technical and digital marketing talent especially, no matter where they are based. By technical talent, I mean those with skills in software engineering, embedded software, cloud engineering, cyber security, analytics, IoT and other technical areas in the digital world,

Good luck to all our Ringgit paying companies!

It gets worse. The founder of a startup based in Singapore just told me last week that starting salaries for fresh technical trained grads can now command S$4,000. Those RM earning Malaysian talent, just across the Causeway, sure look enticing to Singapore-based founders now.

Sleep on that, Malaysian-based founders.


The crux of the scary new reality

So now we come to the crux of this scary new reality. What can our startup founders do to retain and attract talent while they are still in bootstrap mode or raise early rounds in smaller amounts than regional competitors? Definitely not, raise salaries.

This brings me back to my anecdotes about culture, because I’ve got one more for you. A founder told me that they weren’t getting the culture part of their organization right. “Not until we made our most recent HR hire, right about the time Covid-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020. We started seeing a massive [positive] change since then.”

What was different about this, their fourth HR head hire? The designation was changed from Head of HR to Head of People and Culture, which sends a strong signal to the entire organisation.

Now, before you break off reading further to send that email to your HR head, assuming you have one, many startups do not, hold on. It is obviously not so easy as that.

This founder, of a startup that is more than six years old, was lucky that business was still able to grow, despite not being able to get his culture part right. But he was learning with each experience. It’s still a work in progress but he is happy. So are his Gen Z staff. “They, especially, understand and appreciate the value of purpose,” he observes. Not just purpose but personal and professional growth as well.


Elevating importance of culture

Are you a Harimau x Startup?A conversation I had with Derek Toh (pic, left) of Hiredly (formerly WOBB) reinforced that observation about Gen Z/ Centennials. A survey Hiredly did a few years back of young jobseekers on what they valued most in a potential employer, revealed two key data points. 31% wanted Career Growth while Social Connection, ie an appreciate culture, team-oriented work and friendly environment, was the next most valued trait at 26%.

Digesting all this just heightened, to me and Derek, the importance of building culture early on in startups as a key ingredient that will keep talent better engaged and likely to stay longer.

Not just to us. To Aaron Sarma and Xelia Tong of Scaleup Malaysia, Adlin Yusman of Endeavor Malaysia which runs Scaleup Endeavor, Ben Lim of Nexea which runs Corporate Accelerator, Bikesh Lakhmichand of 1337 Ventures, which runs Alpha Startups Accelerator, Matt Van Leeuwen, Chief Innovation Office of Sunway Group, which runs Sunway iLabs and Sam Shafie as well, who runs WatchTower and Friends Accelerator.

Who better to help drive this with than with these accelerators, who are already pushing their startups to develop their culture early.

We ideated together and came up with the three main criteria (Growth & Culture, Professional Development and, Impact) and various metrics under them and also decided to have three categories of submissions, according to headcount ie 5 to 20; 21 to 50 and above 50 staff. The rationale being that the culture tends to evolve as a startup grows.

[Ed: Submission by headcount, clarified.] 

We are all partners in the inaugural launch of our Harimau x Startup list (we are not calling it “award”) that is all about recognising startups in Malaysia that are already doing a good job at creating a rich, shared, impactful and growth infused culture.

We actually do not think many founders are focusing on this early on, with the reasons cited earlier. But through the introduction of our Harimau x Startup, we hope the awareness of creating a vibrant, growth culture now, not later, will make this a key imperative for them. And for those who do make our list, well, they should probably have an easier time hiring talent for sure.

We encourage you to participate in our inaugural Harimau x Startup and not just to win the cool Harimau NFT that will be minted for the winners but also because, Suresh Thiru, former COO of and Asia CEO of SEEK has agreed to mentor the winner of each category, once a quarter, for a year.Are you a Harimau x Startup?

Finally, a very special shout out of appreciation to Lau Shi Ying (pic), who took time to help us refine the metrics, merge some and come up with tighter definitions.

Why did I reach out to her? Well, she is an investor and mentor for several early stage startups. She also happens to be a former Head of GrabCar for Malaysia, growing it from a three person team, to a 70+ team and a market leader in Malaysia for private car ride hailing.

With that, please do your part now, founders, and show us the culture! Closing date for submissions is 11.59pm Jan 31st.

[Ed: We have changed the Permissions for the form. Editing will not be allowed now. Please download a copy instead and send the submission to [email protected]]


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