The 3 billion-dollar lessons from JobStreet’s Mark Chang

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I still remembered Mark Chang’s parting advice to me when I told him that I was leaving JobStreet to start my own company.

“Go (forth and) take risks.”

I liked that so much that I got a poster made and mounted on my wall here inside the HackerHub where I work.

Mark Chang @HackerHub

Hanson Toh (ex-Google, now running his own startup Service Clicks) came to visit HackerHub a few weeks ago. When he saw the poster, he laughed and remarked disbelievingly, “Mark said this? Really? Mark Chang?

True enough, ‘taking risks’ perhaps won’t be something that immediately comes to mind when Mark is mentioned in any casual conversation. Indeed, the people who know Mark would usually describe him as “practical“, “conservative“, “thrifty“, “humble” and “grounded“.

Taking risks“? Nah… not that much.

But I know otherwise.

For someone whom the Focus newspaper called “the most successful techno-entrepreneur ever to surface in Malaysia”, Mark Chang is a low-profiled man. This was by design; he never enjoyed basking in the limelight that much.

I had lunch with a couple of startup entrepreneurs last Saturday, and we talked about the JobStreet billion ringgit deal.

To quote someone at the meeting verbatim, “I’ve heard (Mark) speak at a JobStreet fair once. A typical Chinaman. You won’t imagine him to be the kind who makes billion dollar exits. And I heard he’s a real penny pincher, too!

I didn’t bother responding to the friend of mine.

I know that he may not fit into the swashbuckling entrepreneur-hustler archetype which we commonly associate with billion dollar exits. But to call Mark Chang a pussy-footed country bumpkin who penny-pinched his way to a billion bucks is a travesty.

And there’s this other side of him that’s not immediately obvious to many people (especially those outside JobStreet) – and that is his enormous benevolence.

I know this because Mark (and one of his other partners in JobStreet, Suresh Thiru) have been some of the most generous and helpful people I have met in my career path.

After leaving JobStreet, I asked Mark to mentor me, and he agreed. Additionally, I took a consulting gig on the side which required me to go back to JobStreet once a week. I also had a weekly one hour slots with him where I would update him and get his advice on things that mattered.

And through Mark, I have had many doors opened, numerous pitfalls sidestepped and some hard questions answered.

I have connected with people who probably wouldn’t take my calls if not for Mark’s referral. I stopped short making a deadly blunder that could have left my budding business dead in a pool of blood if not for his advice (more on this later). I learnt from him how to deal with unlimited requests with limited resources – especially relevant to a startup where time and money are scarce.

I kept in contact with Mark for about two years after I left JobStreet. However, for the most of last year I had been working around the clock on building GoodPlace.my (a startup in the online property vertical), and in the midst of the hustle and bustle I have somewhat let my mentor-mentee relationship with Mark lapse.

Foolish, I know.

Then in February the news broke about the JobStreet deal with Seek. When I heard it, I had little butterflies in my stomach. The deal was enormous at MYR1,730,000,000 (spelled out for effect) for a complete buyout, representing the biggest ever exit for a Malaysian dotcom startup.

During a gathering with tech entrepreneurs at the HackerHub, we discussed about what the deal means for local startups, and how we could emulate JobStreet’s success in our own businesses. The following is a summary of what I shared during the meeting.

Work Hard And Wait For The Rain.

Mark used to quip, “I know only of the ‘kerbau’ (buffalo) way, that is, to work hard and wait for the rain.”

Truth be told, for a long time I have disagreed with him (albeit quietly). Indeed, for much of the earlier part of my entrepreneurial career, I was rather opportunistic in my focus and and short-term in my thinking. Instead of working hard on one thing and then wait for the proverbial ‘rain’, I would instead “look for places where rain is plenty, and then get a buffalo to do the work” (an antithesis to Mark’s approach).

My approach was scatter-gun by design, and it worked well. I made money in the online lead generation business; in simple terms, I provide a steady stream of potential customers to businesses online for a fee. At one point I had some 150 websites spitting out dollar bills in all the “hot” consumer niches – weight loss, self improvement, dating, meditation – you name it. There was absolutely zero focus; I had fingers in every pie where there was money to be had.

In short, Mark’s “work hard on one thing and wait for the rain” concept absolutely played no part in my business plan. In full hustler mode, I had simply gone to places where money was being made by the minute, hand over fist.

Churn-and-burn was the name of the game, and as such, the business model was deliberately mercenarial. You see, I didn’t care how the sites looked as long as they did what they were supposed to do: to capture, warm up and then redirect traffic to my clients’ websites. The lead generations sites could look as hideous as a Geocities site in 1998; as long as they made me money, I didn’t give a hoot.

And then things changed.

The KLCC Condominiums Database (a precursor to GoodPlace.my) was a hobby project which got started when I was interning at a property agency (more on this later).

And as I have never expected it to be a instant moneymaker, I decided to follow Mark’s approach for a change. Just as an experiment, I thought.

The KLCC Condominiums Database was a collection of reviews of upmarket apartments located in the KLCC enclave. Different from the usual cookie cutter stuff that one would find at the developer website or a property portal, I wanted to provide impartial reviews of the condominiums, exposing the properties for what they truly were – the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

The proverbial ‘kerbau‘ then went to work. I had meticulously researched each property (mostly online, and also by talking to tenants, agents and building managers), collating and cramming as much original information as possible into each review.

I spent a good few Saturday afternoons wandering in the KLCC area taking pictures of the condominiums (and getting chased by the overzealous security guards in the process). I laboured over the website’s user interface with my limited Photoshop skills, ensuring that every pixel was in its rightful place. Exploiting my meager PHP skills, I manage to code a simple aggregator which pulled listings from external classifieds sites.

Sticking to the ‘wait for the rain‘ philosophy, promotion was deliberately kept at a minimum. Traction was painfully slow but I waited patiently.

And as I waited, I wrote more reviews, took more pictures and wrote some posts at the property section at the Low Yat forums. I also reached out to other property bloggers, local and international.

Eventually, the ‘rain’ did come, and when it did, it poured.

Traffic was initially trickling in from Low Yat and the other blogs, but then the search engines decided to place my site on top of the search results page for the majority of the property names (even beating some of the more established property sites). As a result, I was receiving hundreds of targeted search traffic per day which would have cost me a bomb if I were to buy them by the click.

For the last few years demand had been lagging supply in the KLCC property market, and with my website driving the majority of buyer leads online, it was easy for me to pitch property agencies. I didn’t do much shopping around although in the end I did close a nice six figure deal with an agency which I liked.

I am following the same blueprint for GoodPlace.my, and I am happy to report that it’s working well so far. At the time of writing, the GoodPlace network (which includes all our sister websites) is already servicing some 32,000 home buyers and agents a month despite near zero effort in promotion and marketing. All the on-site metrics look good – engagement is high, feedback is consistently good and email open and click through rates are reportedly above industry average.

Make a superior product, get the word out and then wait for opportunities to knock; it worked for JobStreet, and there’s no reason it won’t work for your startup.

Build A Kickass Team.

Suresh Thiru is the Chief Operating Officer of JobStreet, and I have known him as one of the hardest taskmasters in my entire career.

Suresh Thiru

Suresh ran JobStreet’s engine room. With a team of handpicked people with strong operational background, getting things done efficiently was the order of the day. Indeed, the guiding mantra was “serve fast, fill all” (the “fill all” part referred to job vacancies).

The competitive spirit was feisty. Eric Sito, one of Suresh’s ablest managers told me during my on-boarding at JobStreet, “Mark decides which war to win. My job is to fight that war.” I never told him this, but I had greatly admired his work ethic and fighting spirit.

Suresh’s “get the work done” focus was the perfect complement to Mark’s strategic vision and moral compass. And together with Albert Wong (engineering), and Greg Poarch (finance) the foursome made a formidable team.

Mark’s ability to assemble a strong team reflected on my current struggle to recruit A-players into my own business.

Admittedly, I have been doing a reluctant job at reaching out to people, and as a result, I could have grown more quickly with a good team in place but I didn’t. Suresh knew that this was my biggest bottleneck, and he gave me a good dose of arse-walloping over my piss-poor effort at recruitment. Upon further reflection, I have decided to put in more effort to build up a team for the rest of the year – in particular, good hackers and people with strong operational background.

I still routinely go back to JobStreet to meet Suresh because I know that he gives me the straight talk that I need to hear (and yes, I am a sucker for pain). This brings me to my next point.

Listen To Your Elders.

In any industry, there are inevitably people who have already done the things that you want to do. Get them to help you. Ask them what the typical mistakes are. They can save you from months or even years of chasing rabbits.

Before I started GoodPlace.my, I had thought of joining a company which is already running a property classifieds website to learn more about the business.

Mark asked me not to do it. “Things might get complicated later,” he said.

Suresh was absolutely livid about the idea. I had defended myself, “I need to learn more. I know nothing about this business. I have no idea what I want to do exactly, and I might not end up competing with them anyway. And besides, I think it’ll be really fun.

But Suresh wouldn’t have any of that. “Yes, I know, STEALING can be FUN. Don’t do it.

He then offered, “If you want to learn about the property business, why don’t you work for my friend instead?” He then asked Previndran Singhe to take me in as an intern, who eventually gave me my first break in this business after I have launched GoodPlace.my.

Later I had found out that the property classifieds company that I had wanted to join had a rather chequered history – they seemed to take a leaf out of the Cut Throat Corporate Playbook with a history of attacking  competitors through frivolous lawsuits and mass poaching of employees.

What if I had joined that company and then quit in six months to start a property site? I might have gotten sued into oblivion, putting a premature end to my budding entrepreneurial career with a single knock-out knee in the groin.

Truth be told, heeding the advice from the elders in the game have saved my hide, many, many times.

In most situations startup entrepreneurs will never have the benefit of hindsight, and as such, the advice of the those who have been-there-and-done-that is worth the weight in gold. Seek out the elders in your industry and ask for guidance; they will save you from a lot of unnecessary grief.

The JobStreet Way At Startups

At the end of my presentation at HackerHub I was asked, “JobStreet was founded some 16 years ago. Will this still work today?”

I had absolutely no doubt in my mind that it would.

For me, the JobStreet Way is a disciplined, level headed approach to building startups into profitable (and ultimately defensible) businesses.

Note the emphasis on the phrase “level headed”. Conservative management of growth is key. As such, for startups going down the “grow-quick-and-then-sell-for-a-million-bucks” route this may not be relevant at all. But for a long-term business delivering solid value to the user then this is a good blueprint to follow.

Indeed, these are the principles that GoodPlace.my get stitched into its founding DNA.

Eight figure exits are awesome, but that won’t be GoodPlace.my’s raison d’etre. It wasn’t JobStreet’s. It’s hard for me to imagine Mark thinking some 16 years ago, “I’m starting this job site, and I’m gonna sell it for a billion bucks.” That would be rather out of character for him.

Knowing Mark, he would probably have thought, “We’ll deliver a good service that fulfills a need or solves a problem, and the society will then reward us.“

And that’s exactly what I am going to do with GoodPlace.my.

Khai Yin is the founder of GoodPlace.my, a Malaysia property blog and deal matching service. He can be contacted at khaiyin.com. He is currently a contributor at NextUpAsia.

Also read: Bakerzin’s Daniel Tay and His Greatest Regret: Not Starting Earlier

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