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About Terence Lee
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Hard work gave Tan Yong Han his big break. The diligent student came from a humble family – his dad retired early due to an illness, forcing his mom to start working after being a homemaker.
Despite this challenge, luck gave him a little helpful push. Drenched in the rain with no mobile phone and no cash to hail a cab, Tan was running late for his government scholarship interview. Out of the blue, a trailer truck driver spotted him and gave him a ride.
Tan had average grades relative to the other candidates, but Philip Yeo, former chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB), gave him a chance. “I wasn’t the smartest guy, or the guy with the best grades or the most polished,” Tan tells Tech in Asia in his office overlooking the Singapore skyline.
Almost two decades on, Tan is the CEO of the Indonesian operations of Deskera, one of the most successful enterprise software companies from Singapore. Deskera’s customers in Indonesia include Pertamina, a state-owned oil and natural gas company making billions in revenue, and Medco, a publicly listed energy firm.
Tan began his career in government service. He stayed for six years, becoming the director of EDB’s Jakarta center in the latter half of his stint. Essentially, his role was to get Indonesian companies to set up in Singapore, and this allowed him to make important business connections. With the network he developed, Tan felt it was time to leap into the private sector.
In 2010, he joined a manufacturing firm in Indonesia as its marketing director but left after a couple of years. Armed with the knowledge of running a factory, he started a firm that distributed China-made forklifts in Indonesia.
“I remember tearing up because it felt so good to have a company,” he says, describing the moment when he opened the shipping container to receive his first batch of forklifts. It seemed like business was picking up as the firm made US$500,000 in the first year. But it soon became obvious that it was failing.
It turned out that several distributors in Indonesia were pushing the same products. Prices were depressed as customers picked the cheapest option. His rivals also had more experience in selling heavy equipment.
Wanting out, Tan found a way to minimize his loss by befriending his competitors. “One of them just texted me yesterday,” he shares. He was also involved in merger talks that did not pan out, but he was able to sell his inventory to two of his competitors and cut his loss to one-fifth of the original amount.
I like Excel sheets.
The failure humbled him. Up to that point, Tan’s career had been smooth, and he got his start in Singapore, which felt like a greenhouse where everything is regulated and controlled to perfection.
Jumping head-first into Indonesia’s chaotic business environment was risky, and that put Tan, who goes by “Johan” in the country, in an uncomfortable spot. “The reason I worked hard since young was to get a good and comfortable job and a decent pay,” he says.
The experience deepened Tan’s self-knowledge. For one, he admits he is not a product visionary, but more of a marketer as well as a systems and team builder.
“What would you do if you were not paid for it? I would sell something. I just like to sell things. I’ve no interest in making things, except Excel sheets,” he says. “I like Excel sheets.”
Deskera’s sales process
Tan’s desire to carve order out of chaos made him a good fit for Deskera. After all, Deskera sells enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, which is designed to manage a company’s resources.
It’s also fitting that Tan is laser-focused on selling. Product development can be left to his boss, Shashank Dixit, Deskera’s CEO and founder.
Yet peddling enterprise software is different from hawking forklifts. When Deskera Indonesia started three years ago, it saw zero revenue in its first nine months. “When you cook porridge, you don’t cook it in 10 minutes. You’ve got to put it on the boil,” he says.
Also, the sales cycle for ERP software is long – it takes three to five meetings before a deal is sealed. The typical process looks like this:
- Get a sales lead
- Qualify the lead and understand a potential customer’s needs
- Do a live demo running from Deskera’s servers, then get feedback
- Tweak the demo to account for their needs, then get feedback again
- Sign the contract
- Implement the product (takes one to six months)
Tan adds that Deskera is not a fully customizable solution, and he reminds customers about that. “I tell them that our philosophy is to build a highway with a toll that serves 100,000 cars a day. We’re not building a special road for you in your complex.”
True to his love for systems building, Tan studiously implements standard operating procedures (SOPs) at his firm, which consists of over 10 full-time employees. He finds SOPs useful because 90 percent of problems that surface are recurring ones. Fixing these issues is a matter of following the steps.
He opens his MacBook to show a list of SOPs on Simplenote. There’s one for his personal assistant with a list of eight questions for qualifying sales leads. There’s one detailing how people should prepare for sales meetings.
I’m a pretty demanding supervisor.
Some of his SOPs cover the mundane. He lists restaurants near his office from various cuisines, which he recommends to visiting guests. He has templates for naming the company’s Whatsapp groups, which shows his fondness for this task.
Once Tan identifies a recurring problem, he will bring an SOP through several iterations before rolling it out. He then drills the procedures into his team by repeatedly communicating them via Whatsapp and face-to-face meetings. He explains the rationale for the procedures, and that involves reminding employees about the mission and vision of the company.
“I’m a pretty demanding supervisor. I make no apologies for that. I always tell them, ‘Look, I know I’m a fussy guy, but it’s very important for me to spend one hour telling you about what we’re doing instead of giving you an instruction for one minute,’” he says.
Despite Indonesia’s culture of “saving face,” Tan has created the practice of readily sharing mistakes within the team for the sake of learning. He talks about his own missteps and gets employees’ permission to share their slip-ups with the group. “It’s never personal, and when we talk about somebody’s mistakes, it’s not to put that guy down,” he says.
He may have imported this Singaporean discipline to Indonesia, but he has gained much from his adopted home as well. Tan is married to a local, and they have two kids. He also says Indonesia’s laid-back and accommodating culture has rubbed off on him.
“It’s important also to have an open mind and not just measure things by KPIs. You have to give and take. When you’re too meticulous, you miss the forest for the trees. I’ve learned to be more relaxed but still get the job done,” he shares.
The founders of Glints, a Singapore-based #startup that helps youths get their dream jobs, have split up. Looi Qin En, the COO, has stepped down. Oswald Yeo, CEO, and Seah Ying Cong, CTO, will stay on.
The move was announced in a blog post on the Glints website. The startup says the split was amicable.
“In fact, we will be going to Bali together for a holiday end of this year,” the founders wrote.
The decision was made after discussions which lasted less than a day.
“Many companies cling on to team members for emotional reasons, longer than necessary, and this slows the company down. We’ve decided against doing that,” the company said.
Glints claims to have grown quarterly revenue by 60 percent in Q3. User growth doubled quarter-on-quarter. No exact figures were shared.
The startup last raised a US$2 million series A from investors including Gobi Partners, Golden Equator Capital, and East Ventures.
We’ve reached out to Glints for comments and will update this article once we hear back.
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Gaming may soon see its Netflix moment. Already, you can play Doom – a graphics-intensive computer game requiring split-second decision-making – over the internet without downloading it. Even on an old Macbook Air, the lag is barely noticeable. All you need is a fast internet connection.
This feat is being achieved on a daily basis by a Moscow-headquartered #startup called PlayKey. Users pay a fee to connect to the company’s servers, which hosts its wide selection of game titles. The gamer’s commands are sent from a personal computer to the server and back. It is like streaming a show on Netflix – except you dictate what happens in the story.
“We’re trying to move everything to the cloud,” Egor Gurjev, co-founder and CEO of PlayKey tells Tech in Asia.
PlayKey is seeing traction on the business side too. While the five-year-old company is not profitable yet because it is investing money in expansion, it claims to be seeing strong growth:
To be sure, PlayKey is not the only game in town. GeForce Now, LiquidSky, and PlayStation Now offer similar experiences.
There’s no certainty this form of “cloud gaming” will become mainstream. These services may face a common obstacle: Imagine needing to purchase a movie on top of paying a monthly fee just to watch it on Netflix. That is the current situation with cloud gaming, and game publishers are unlikely to budge.
“They like the transactional model, and only a few games are sold on a subscription,” says Gurjev. Yet, he adds that users still get cost savings from not needing to purchase a brand new computer just to play the latest titles.
PlayKey thinks it has another ace up its sleeve: the blockchain. Running a game streaming service is costly because of the specialized servers needed. Amazon Web Services will not do.
To serve its users, PlayKey leases over a hundred Nvidia Grid servers – which are ideal for graphics-intensive applications – in four spots around the world. It’s planning a fifth location in Singapore that will cater to Asians.
The blockchain could eliminate the need for centralized servers entirely. Gurjev envisions a global decentralized network involving two groups of people: gamers and miners. Gamers pay miners PlayKey’s unique digital tokens – called PKTs – in order to access their computers.
If enough miners come on board, gamers would be able to stream from a computer that is in their neighborhood. As a result, PlayKey can expand without investing in physical infrastructure. Gamers get a better experience with close proximity to a server. Miners earn PKTs for serving gamers, and the tokens can be exchanged for Ethereum and other currencies.
A crucial piece of this network – which will be built on top of the public Ethereum blockchain – is the smart contract between miner and gamer.
Miners need to ensure a smooth performance for gamers in order to get the tokens, and the smart contract enforces that by automatically tracking video frame rates, disconnections, and other data. For a start, the company plans to approach professional cryptocurrency miners first because they already have the rigs set up.
“They won’t switch off their PCs if somebody is playing on them,” says Gurjev.
Upending the gaming ecosystem
To raise funds for this network, PlayKey is preparing for an initial coin offering (ICO), which is slated to start on November 1.
Gurjev wants to outdo typical ICOs by giving potential investors more than just a whitepaper to sink their teeth into. Already, his team of 45 people has built a working prototype in which a gamer can pay the miner tokens and play games reliably on the remote computer. Now, they are looking to scale this up to more users and computers, and allow people to access the system without assistance.
If PlayKey succeeds, it can eat into the hardware industry. After all, why splurge on a Razer gaming laptop if your beat-up Macbook can play the latest games at maximum graphics settings without missing a beat?
“We believe there is no need to buy expensive or power computers, especially if you’re a gamer who only plays several hours a week,” says Gurjev.
Further, the startup has ambitions beyond providing an affordable means to play the top games. It plans to set up the PlayKey Foundation, which will fund itself by acting as a toll gate for the entire network. The money will be used to develop an ecosystem of game publishers and developers, competitive gamers, as well as esports enthusiasts.
A game publisher would be able to sell a new product directly within the PlayKey network to miners, who would then attract gamers with the latest titles.
In other words, it could disrupt existing games publishers and distributors like Blizzard, Steam, and Valve, who require users to download games onto personal devices.
And let us not forget the other big elephants in the room: PlayStation and Xbox.
“The next generation of [gaming] consoles could be the last one that is based on hardware,” says Gurjev.
Halfway through his one-year sabbatical, Bjorn Lee panicked.
After working in Zopim – a Singapore company which made its founders millionaires after getting acquired by US customer service software Zendesk – Lee sensed it was time to leave and find a new adventure.
Except that he was stuck.
“I had an existential crisis,” he tells me. “I tried a lot of stupid ideas. When you start a new company, you always think about what’s trendy.”
Prior to joining Zopim, Lee did his own #startup in Silicon Valley and secured funding from the likes of Google Ventures and 500 Startups.
In his second go-round, he wasn’t keen to chase just another hot idea. So he sifted through his passions one by one to find something that could make money.
“I can’t make money from Lego. I can’t make money from robots or farming,” he says.
Eventually, he settled on mindfulness, a scientifically-proven process of bringing one’s attention to experiences happening in the present moment, which can be nurtured through meditation.
Lee has been a mindfulness buff since 2011. After sitting in a 10-day silent retreat in India, he tried meditating for an hour a day after that.
It was too difficult. Yet, inspired by the book Search Inside Yourself, written by mindfulness guru and ex-Googler Tan Chade-Meng, he came across the concept of taking one mindful breath a night, and building a habit from there.
That became the genesis of his new startup.
Today, Lee meditates 12 minutes each morning, monitoring his brain waves with a Muse headband.
He’s also on a mission to make everyone more mindful, and improve our ability to focus and be more productive.
The manifestation of that aim, as it often goes with startups, begins with an app.
Called MindFi, it provides three-minute guided meditation exercises that fit into people’s daily routines. It even comes with a focus timer after each routine to help them stay on task.
I tried one of the sessions on the app. “Now pick up the bottle and hold it in your hand,” narrates the calm voice of Toby Ouvry, an ex-monk who has joined MindFi.
He continues: “When you’re ready, I’d like you take a sip of the water, but do it slowly without being in a hurry. Often, we’re gulping our water unconsciously when we’re drinking. Take a nice, slow, leisurely sip. And before you swallow it, just allow your tongue and your month to swirl around the water a little bit.”
The exercises can be done with open eyes, and are often designed around habits like eating and commuting.
Another session I tried was amusing. “I know what you’re thinking, why are we doing mindfulness in the toilet?” says the voice in another session titled Restroom Solace as birds chirp in the background.
Mindful of the competition
At the time of this writing, the app is still in “pre-launch”, though you can download it on iOS and Android. It has seen interest from investors.
Lee raised a six-digit seed round from Zopim founders Royston Tay and Kwok Yang Bin, as well as prominent Singapore-based angels Wong Poh Kam and Chow Yen Lu. All of them meditate.
However, MindFi is entering a space with two dominant players: Headspace and Calm.
Lee explains that the app differentiates by focusing on short sessions specifically designed to fit into people’s routines.
And while MindFi’s exercises have a practical flavor – a session asks you to reflect on how a work conversation could’ve gone better – the other apps promote meditation for its own sake.
Tack on the focus timer, and MindFi becomes a day-long companion for the novice mindfulness student.
But is it useful enough to get to hundreds of thousands of users? Is the app effective at making mindfulness a habit? And how does he prevent copying?
Lee aims to make MindFi even more distinct. He is not trying to get everyone to meditate. “We see ourselves as an attention coach,” says Lee, declining to go on-the-record about specific plans.
“Distraction is the new fat. If you’re fat, you run. If you’re distracted, you meditate. Because meditation is the best way to train attention,” he adds.
He does plan to charge a subscription fee for mindfulness content, just like Headspace and Calm, and is looking at a business-to-business play as well.
He has also engaged researchers at SMU, Yale-NUS, and IMH to use MindFi as part of a slate of studies to test the effects of mindfulness on users.
Then there is the issue of mindfulness having a limited audience of Burning Man-going technophiles, especially in Asia (I’m exaggerating, of course).
I was waking up at 3 or 4am, and my chest pains came back.
“I’ll agree that there’s less stigma about meditation in the West than in Asia, ironically. Meditation really started from here,” says Lee.
Consider also the fact that Headspace, the leading meditation app, is only valued in the hundreds of millions. Spotify, in contrast, is valued at US$13 billion and Didi Chuxing over US$50 billion.
While this means there’s potentially an untapped market in mindfulness, it also means there’s a lot of convincing to do.
Although Lee is based in Singapore, he’ll market the app globally.
He plans to launch on product discovery platform Product Hunt soon, whose largest traffic source is techies and early adopters in the US.
Lee understands stress intimately. Things reached peak craziness for him after the Zopim acquisition, when he was tasked with running integration between the startup and its new parent Zendesk.
“It was a stressful moment, to be honest. I was waking up at 3 or 4am, and my chest pains came back. I was running a big team of 10 people and we had to interface with five cities across the world,” he says.
Because Zendesk is used by customer support staff everywhere, he saw first-hand the daily pressures they face.
As a result, he was able to better empathize and understand the different kinds of stress in various industries, and that was one of the seeds that eventually led to MindFi.
“Can I build something more direct to help these guys?” he asked.
“Because I also have the same problems.”
Seven years ago, Chris Chong and his brother Karl went door-to-door in Singapore’s Chinatown to sign skeptical merchants onto Beeconomic, their Groupon clone. Soon, Groupon itself came a-knocking, buying their business for millions.
Today, Chong is banging on doors again. His latest venture is SumoStory, an affordable public relations firm that serves startups who can’t pay US$3,670 a month for a standard PR package.
“Entrepreneurs starting tech companies are usually high-risk and unattractive to traditional PR firms. We hope to sieve out promising startups and establish a strong PR partnership with them early on,” he says.
SumoStory offers two six-month packages at drastically lower prices, one at US$588 flat and another at US$1,760.
It keeps prices low by using a scraper to extract information about journalists. An algorithm then matches the #startup to the right reporter, who then receives a pitch from SumoStory.
However, it’s still early days for SumoStory, and its pricing is sustainable right now because Chong isn’t paying himself a salary and is employing mostly part-timers.
As such, the margin on each package is “almost 100 percent,” he says, as he hasn’t done any paid marketing yet.
More automation coming
Keeping SumoStory sustainable will require making its technology useful enough to replace significant human labor. Right now, Chong says the algorithm saves an hour’s worth of labor per press release.
He’ll expand the algorithm to further automate the internal process. He’ll also let journalists use the same algorithm to identify SumoStory’s clients who might be sources of stories.
By 2018, Chong hopes to invest in natural language processing (NLP) to see if press releases can be written automatically. That’s not a stretch – companies like Narrative Science and Wordsmith are already generating reports with data input.
SumoStory has signed 23 clients in the past month and targets technology companies with under 50 employees. It hasn’t raised outside funding but plans to secure a seed investment in the coming months if things go well.
Chong estimates a massive total addressable market of US$66.8 billion in Southeast Asia – that’s if every entrepreneur in the region signs up for SumoStory’s packages.
Just counting SumoStory’s most likely customers would yield 7,000 tech startups in Southeast Asia, resulting in potentially US$8.22 million in annual revenue from its target market.
Of course, the actual revenue SumoStory will obtain in the next few years would be lesser still – unless it broadens its market beyond tech startups.
Chong kept himself busy after selling Beeconomic. He ran Groupon Singapore with his brother for four years and launched a couple of failed startups before hitting a potential goldmine in SumoStory. He also served as the social media editor at the South China Morning Post.
One of his so-called “fail-fast-fail-often experiments” was GoFresh, an online grocery site that launched in 2014.
“Like Redmart, we struggled with the slim margins on groceries, and couldn’t push down the cost of logistics and delivery,” he says.
GoFresh also didn’t attract enough loyal customers to justify the cost of acquiring them.
From that experience, Chong learned the importance of doing market research to test all his assumptions before starting a business.
“When working on SumoStory, I really ensured there was a genuine problem that I could solve,” he says.
Converted from Singapore dollars. US$1 = S$1.36.