Editor's Picks

What 2016 Taught Me: 18 Founders Share Heartfelt Lessons Of Their Startup Journey This Year

The end of another year calls for reflection, and among us, startup founders have pretty much the most to look back on, with their rollercoaster ride of a career.

We managed to steal some time from these busy, busy bees, and they shared with us lessons and tips that the ups and downs of 2016 have taught them.

Quek Siu Rui, CEO and Co-Founder of Carousell

Quek Siu Rui (middle) and his fellow Carousell Co-Founders / Image Credit: Gaul SOLOPOS

2016 has been really significant for Carousell. We started the year with around 40 people in our offices and a presence in 4 countries. Through the last twelve months, we more than doubled in size and made some great hires in our senior leadership team.

There are now more than 90 people across 12 nationalities. We announced our Series B funding, and launched Carousell in Hong Kong, Philippines and Australia. We are now serving a community of millions of users in 7 countries and 19 major cities, and have more than 55 million listings on our marketplace.

Our expansion to different markets has taught me that every city is different. We know it at the back of our minds, but nothing beats travelling to a new city and getting feedback from the cab driver or a local on their experiences with buying and selling online. It is so important to optimise the experience of Carousell for every market, and that is what we will continue to prioritise with our community engagements, app localisation, and exploration with technology.

In a startup, there are countless challenges that come your way every other day, but the purpose of making buying and selling simple so that people can free up more time and space in their lives for meaningful experiences is a fulfilling one. I am also grateful to be working with the most passionate and talented team at Carousell. We are all mission-focused on becoming the top mobile classifieds marketplace globally, so that we can serve and help millions more people around the world.

We were pioneers of mobile classifieds 4.5 years ago, but we are really less than 1% done. The problem we are solving is a truly global one, and there’s still a long way to go. 2016 has been momentous, but 2017 is going to be so much more.

(Read more about Carousell’s 2016 here.)

Oswald Yeo, CEO and Co-Founder of Glints

Image Credit: Oswald Yeo
Image Credit: Oswald Yeo

Sales and marketing are only important after you have built a great product for your users. Until you have built a product that people love, nothing else matters.

Next, hiring relentless people is the next most important thing you can do. Relentlessness is so much more useful than even intelligence.

Lastly, raise money at least 3 months earlier than you think you need to.

(Read more about Glints’ 2016 here.)

Founders of Shopback

Shopback’s founders

2016 has taught us a few lessons revolving around judgement calls.

Our second year of starting up has trained us to be more discerning as we ran into more encounters of choosing the bridge to cross, as well as the bridge to not. As we grow in customer-base, geographic locations and team members, we have significantly more stakeholders than before.

It takes much courage to make the right decisions that are not always popular.

(Read more about the story of Shopback here.)

Peck Ying, Co-Founder of PSLove

Image Credit: Peck Ying of PSLove

2016 is the year we started to build up a team and scaling our product distribution, so learning curve was really steep. But here are some lessons!

It is equally important to commit yourself to nurturing your team members as much as you commit to growing the company. They need to keep pace with each other.

Also, embrace difficulties and challenges as opportunities to learn, and control what you can, but accept what you can’t.

(Read more about PSLove and their successful pivot from subscription boxes to 7-Eleven shelves here.)

Quanda Ong, Founder of Gnome & Bow

Image Credit: Quanda Ong

Time is a finite resource, regardless whether you see it in a daily, monthly or yearly basis, and must be allocated wisely based on a diversified portfolio of goals you wish to achieve.

(Read more about the story of Gnome & Bow, and their unique branding here.)

Violet Lim, CEO and Co-Founder of Lunch Actually

Image Credit: Violet Lim

2016 has taught me that despite the changes in trends, the triumphs and tribulations with the business, the craziness of running a growing regional organization, it is important to never lose sight of why I am doing what I am doing. And rather than just looking at where we have fallen short, to also take stock of how far we have come.

It is easy to lose sight of the big picture or even lose oneself when running a fast-growing business. I am thankful for my ever supportive and encouraging hubby cum business partner Jamie, my children, my parents, family and friends who keep me grounded and my amazing team at Lunch Actually Group for making the ride worthwhile.

(Read about our experience with Lunch Actually’s services, and their team here.)

Mark Wang, CEO and Co-Founder of Suburb

Image Credit: Mark Wang

Always be ready to pivot your business directions, no matter how deep you are in it, if it has yielded unsatisfactory results, pivot. Don’t be stubborn in your visions or stuck in the startup dream, always be ready to move on decisively.

Pivot, quick and swiftly. A start up is a business that ultimately requires to be viable and profitable.

(Read more about the story of Suburb, and their plans to bring back the kampong spirit here.)

Walter Oh, Co-Founder of BoxGreen

Walter Oh (far left) and the BoxGreen team / Image Credit: Walter Oh

One of the biggest lessons this year is building a great team for the long haul and growing a business at a sustainable pace. Startups often see talents as resources and trade short term burst of works for a small decline in morale. This happens quite often.

You grow exponentially after a round of funding and hire massive number of people in a short period of time. The team burn out with 80 hours a week in exchange for growth and you make plan to fire or downsize fast if you can’t raise more money. It’s like drilling for as much oil as possible and it just doesn’t work that way.

We love the people who work here too much and when you see people as resources, things just don’t work out. Especially when we are building a company that is focused on individual wellness, striking a balance and growing sustainably is something we constantly work towards every day.

Health is wealth!

(Read about BoxGreen’s smashing start to 2016 here.)

Aaron Lee, Co-Founder of Jaga-me

Aaron Lee (far right) and the Jaga-me team

2016 has taught us a great number of things but two things stand out for us.

Firstly, relationships, reputation and trust are much more important than funding for startups.

As an example, Jaga-Me, as an on-demand home care startup, is in the healthcare industry where there are many parties involved. These parties include existing competition, government agencies, hospitals, insurance companies and everything in between. These parties shape the ecosystem and determines how patients, information and resources flow between the participants. They have an established relationship, reputation and trust with each other and no amount of money can replace that dynamic.

We worked hard at building trust with these existing parties by reaching out to them and sharing with them our vision and hope for a better healthcare system in Singapore. As they resonated with our vision, they provide support and resources to build a mutually beneficial partnership with us. Customers, funding and opportunities came as a by product of building these relationships.

Secondly, customers are important and they shape the business culture.

It sounds so cliche to say this, but in the fury of things that a startup has to do, the customer tends to take a backseat. Jaga-Me has served over 4000 hrs of care in a little over nine months.

We believe that a big part of how we could grow quickly was because we deliberately took the time to focus on our customers, to understand their points of views and build a personal connection with them. In our line of business, it is inevitable that we encounter the unfortunate demise of some of our patients. We took time to comfort their families and in some cases, we attended the wakes.

The feedback provided, naturally helped us to better we ran our business, but it also influenced the culture of the company positively because of the love, compassion and friendship we share between us, the nurses, the patients and their family.

Albert Tirtohadi, CEO of Fynd

Albert Tirtohadi (2nd from right) and the Fynd team

This year has been exciting for us as we expanded to 3 cities (Hong Kong, Jakarta & Taipei). We found that growing startups away from our home base, learning about the differences in culture and consumer behaviour is very interesting.

(Read more about Fynd’s mission to empower those in the lower income group here.)

Timothy Ho, Founder of DollarsandSense.sg

Image Credit: Timothy Ho

Finding talent is HARD! You will find tons of graduates and undergraduates claiming they want to work at a startup. What they actually mean, however, is that they want to work for a startup that they know. But hey, if a startup is known, then maybe it isn’t really at a startup phrase anymore?

That said, I get it. Everyone wants to work with a company that everyone else knows about, whether it’s an MNC or a startup. We need to convince people that they shouldn’t work with us just because of the money, and the off chance that it “may” be fun. We need to convince them that they will really enjoy the work they do, and that’s hard to do.

And talent matters, ALOT. In fact it is probably more important than the idea itself. So it’s not like we can go out there and hire everyone that claims they are interested either.

Roshni Mahtani, Mumtrepreneur of Tickled Media

Image Credit: BBC

2016 was the year I had a baby, developed and launched a new mobile app, ParentTown, and expanded my company into Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

2016 taught me that with careful planning and a supportive extended family, women can have it all.

(Read more about Roshni Mahtani, the successful full time mum and entrepreneur here.)

Cameron Priest, CEO of TradeGecko

Image Credit: Golden Gate Ventures

That business (as in life) is a marathon, not a sprint so the most important thing in success is perseverance.

To persevere we just have to keep on JFDI (just f*cking doing it) and being the best at getting better (be a learning machine!).

(Read more about Cameron Priest, who also possesses one of the most viewed Linkedin accounts in Singapore here.)

Aaron Tan, CEO and Co-Founder of Carro

Aaron Tan (middle) and Carro’s early founders

It isn’t easy being on the other side of the table – Now that I am on the receiving side of the equation. We grow to realise that it isn’t easy being an entrepreneur. We have it easier (slightly) being a VC.

Hiring is really painful – especially in blue collar jobs. It is not easy (and within budget) to find like-minded, hungry and talented individuals. We continue to place strong emphasis on human capital but I never thought hiring good people would be this difficult – especially in other geographies.

(Read more about co-founder Aaron Tan, and Carro’s burstling 2016 here.)

Douglas Gan, CEO and Co-Founder of Vanitee

Image Credit: Wikipedia

The realisation that I’m going to be a father some day made me re-look at the way we develop the business. Instead of trying to burn through the roof to grow, we are building for the long term, building communities and improving our product for our users.

In 2016, we increased our tech head count by 3x. We are fanatical with the online and offline experience. We even developed a Butterfly Strategy to look at the various touch points that we can impact.

In the earlier part of 2016, we shipped out about 60 versions of version 2. We made >5 significant UI changes to our flow and focused on driving substance in the product’s experience both online and offline. In late 2016, we shipped out version 3 and in that version alone, we have made more than 40 updates and 3 significant updates.

Key Products that we launched in 2016 are Vanitee Pay, Vanitee Insider Pass (our Loyalty Program) and TripAdvisor-like Reviews from Real Paying Customers. With the introduction of such features, our users can now get 10% cashback for all their beauty bookings, GEMS to redeem Beauty Products and read Real paying customer reviews.

At times, we are tempted with the illusion of features or filters that helps 1-time consumers or investors “browse the app with ease”. But we resisted. Introducing a feature or a filter that doesn’t really work, driving a bad consumer experience simply sucks. Making sure what we deliver an outstanding experience to our customers in terms of usage and in terms of offline experience is so important to our Happiness Guarantee.

99% of our reviews are above 4 stars. This is a strong testament by real paying customers who genuinely love the experience of Vanitee. You can see more reviews in our app. There’s a review section on the homepage (that’s how confident we are of our Happiness Guarantee).

(Read more about Vanitee’s 2016 acquisition here.)

Yunnie Tan and Ong Li Min, Founders of Miraculove

Image Credit: Justdelegate

2016 has shown us the beauty of a community – that alone we can produce good work, but together we can do so much more. All it takes is a simple step to befriend and connect meaningfully.

We’re thankful for our tribe of creatives turned friends who have kept us sane on the entrepreneurship journey and inspired constantly through the year. Seeing incredible business results from the collaborations was icing on the cake. #CommunityOverCompetition

(Read more about how Miraculove is making weddings unique, one handdrawn card at a time here.)

Keyis Ng, CEO and Co-Founder of Cafebond.com

Eugene Chen (CTO and Co-Founder) and Keyis Ng (CEO and Co-Founder)

First, be focused – There’s lots of people with good intentions giving us all kinds of feedback to improve our startup. We even have a VC asking us to give up our startup to build a tech-enabled coffee machine instead! I learned to constantly remind ourselves to stay focus, work towards our mission and build a product that our customers love. I know one day we will be there.

Next, build a great team – Without our dedicated Cafebond.com team, we are not able to make Cafebond.com the largest specialty coffee e-tailer in Singapore and Malaysia within just 6 months. I can only achieve so much myself and I learn that having a great team make a difference. A lot of difference in fact.

“Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” – Quoting Steve Jobs, I always make myself to learn from people that are better than me. It was a conversation with a coffee industry veteran recently that inspired us to venture into B2B market on top of B2C market that we are already doing.

We will be launching our “Cafebond for Cafes” wholesale platform supplying our freshly roasted coffee beans to cafes very soon!

(Read more about Cafebond’s mission to bring the best coffee beans to Singaporeans here.)

Jacky Yap, Founder of Vulcan Post

Image Credit: Jacky Yap

“All things will be produced in superior quantity and quality, and with greater ease, when each man works at a single occupation, in accordance with his natural gifts, and at the right moment, without meddling with anything else.”

This was a quote I lived by, and definitely learnt from this year. Overall, 2016 has been a year of learning – and I’m really excited about what 2017 has to offer!

These Are Their Lessons – What Are Yours?

It’s a week till the end of the year, and there’s still time for reflection, if you haven’t done so yet.

Not just an evaluation of passed time, reflections also help us set goals for the new year, and we hope that you found something useful to take away from the insights they have so kindly provided.

Here’s to a better, and greater 2017!

 

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