Entrepreneur

From Real Estate To Sociology: 6 S'pore Founders On What They Studied Before Starting Up

Last year, we asked 12 Singapore millennials on whether or not what they studied in university played a big role in their current jobs.

For most, while their courses helped them to a certain degree (pun intended), many of them agreed that the skills needed for working life usually comes from outside the classroom.

But what about founders of startups?

Is a business or marketing degree necessary to run a successful venture? Is a tech-related degree integral to building a tech startup?

We asked a few of them and found out more.

Karl Mak, SGAG

Karl Mak / Image Credit: Stuff

1. When was your last ‘encounter’ with formal education, and where was it at?

SMU School of Economics.

2. Why did you choose that course to study?

I’ve always wanted to attend business school but I wanted a less generic degree like business management, plus I excelled in Economics in JC, so I thought it was a natural choice.

3. Do you have any regrets, and what would you have studied/done if you had the chance to start over again?

I was not expecting Economics at university level to be so heavy on mathematics as I was an arts student in JC! I spent a fair bit of time playing catch up on the Math.

If I had a chance to pick again, I’d probably take a second major in Computer Science/Law/Finance.

4. Were there any applicable skills that you brought over from school to starting up/work?

From my Economics degree, not too much direct impact on my startup.

But SMU’s focus on developing our presentation, business acumen, and soft skills proved to be extremely useful in the business environment.

5. What are some things that you think can’t be learnt at school?

Sales.

There’s nothing like going out there into the real marketplace to sell a real customer your product. The experiences you get from rejections and the sweet joy of closing a real deal can’t be learnt at school.

6. What’s your advice for those looking to start up, but feel like they don’t have the ‘qualifications’ to?

I think a degree is purely a stepping stone to facilitate learning, it means absolutely nothing in the real business world.

A deal is not done because you have a degree from a fancy uni – in fact I don’t think anyone cares.

The most important traits for startup founders would be the interest to keep learning and growing in every aspect to make themselves better founders.

Zelia Leong, Anywhr

Zelia Leong

1. When was your last ‘encounter’ with formal education, and where was it at?

Msc Management at NUS.

Prior to that, I did a Bsc Management at University of Manchester with SIM, and prior to that, a Diploma in Human Resources with Psychology at Singapore Polytechnic.

2. Why did you choose that course to study?

I did HR because I knew I wanted to go to a Polytechnic (more freedom with flexible classes and ‘practical’ lessons instead of the usual generic subjects), but did not know what I wanted to study.

It was asking a 17-year-old with absolutely no ambition – only thinking about skating and hanging out with friends – to pick a course that could chart the rest of her life, in the short time period they gave us to decide.

So I just decided on that HR with Psychology course because I had a friend enrolled in it, and it also appeased my parents since my mum is a HR Practitioner.

I then went on to do more general courses, simply to get that degree that society and employers say you’ll need.

After leaving a three-year career in HR and travelling for six months, I realised that the passion to learn and grow has always been with me, and I wanted to do something different but didn’t know where to start.

So while in the middle of the Arctic Circle in a wooden cabin in Finland alone with my thoughts and absolutely nothing to do, I applied for my Msc programme.

I returned to Asia to continue my travels, and was granted a Skype interview when I was on an island in Thailand – and got accepted into the programme so I returned to Singapore to pursue it.

3. Do you have any regrets, and what would you have studied/done if you had the chance to start over again?

No regrets, since I believe all my decisions and choices had led me to where I am now.

It’s not perfect, but it’s been a fun journey.

I don’t think I would choose to study something else – I’m generally not a fan of learning in classrooms.

4. Were there any applicable skills that you brought over from school to starting up/work?

Not being a fan of learning from books and classrooms forced me to have self-discipline, planning, self-initiated learning, learning outside of the books, and finding out your own strengths and weaknesses.

I discovered that I learned best on my own – at my own pace and style. So instead of attending lessons where I just zone out and not pay attention, I studied and did my own research and learning out of cafes.

It was so effective that a bunch of my classmates joined me to do the same.

5. What are some things that you think can’t be learnt at school?

Vision, understanding others, empathy, and instinct.

6. What’s your advice for those looking to start up, but feel like they don’t have the ‘qualifications’ to?

The world is your greatest classroom.

Be humble, work hard, understand where you lack, speak with mentors and always be open to learn.

Alaric Choo And Ian Ang, Secretlab

Alaric Choo (L) and Ian Ang (R)

1. When was your last ‘encounter’ with formal education, and where was it at?

Ian: 2015. I was in an Infosys undergrad program. I dropped out when Secretlab launched.

Alaric: 2012. NUS FASS where I majored in Sociology.

2. Why did you choose that course to study?

Ian: Hardware/software integration has always been really interesting to me, and it’s something I’ve always done since young – from setting up the 56k modem at home to setting up an ERP for my parent’s business.

Alaric: It wasn’t a decision I spent much time deliberating on. I decided that I wanted a degree as a fallback as well as to give myself time to explore what I wanted to do career-wise. Back then, I knew that whatever I was going to end up doing was unlikely to be related to my degree.

3. Do you have any regrets, and what would you have studied/done if you had the chance to start over again?

Ian: Engineering – either electrical, mechanical, or computer education would have been perfect. I think things would’ve been a lot easier if I had started out with the required product design skills for Secretlab, rather than learning on the way – which was painful but enjoyable as well.

That being said, I don’t think choice of education and entrepreneurial success are directly related. Your discipline, grit, and aptitude play a much bigger role in ensuring success.

Alaric: I would have taken design or skipped taking a degree entirely. I had a hard time transitioning from the education system overseas to the local system and did not find that I was a good fit for a structured system. If I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do back then I would have pursued it immediately.

4. Were there any applicable skills that you brought over from school to starting up/work?

Ian: I think my Diploma in Business Studies taught me some basic fundamentals of business, such as the 4Ps of Marketing and the basics of Accounting.

5. What are some things that you think can’t be learnt at school?

Alaric: Most of my defining experiences was outside of the classroom.

Both Ian and I strongly believe that lessons we learned from our gaming days have greatly affected the way we look at and run our business.

While there were a number of meaningful lessons learned, a big takeaway for myself was learning to how to analyse opponents, devise strategies to win, and then practice it relentlessly until success.

In business, our ability to construct plans and to execute them under immense pressure requires meticulous preparation and study as well as a clear thought process. This was a discipline that we inculcated from our days of gaming.

6. What’s your advice for those looking to start up, but feel like they don’t have the ‘qualifications’ to?

Ian: Be aware of what your weaknesses are. If you’re a technical founder, find a business savvy co-founder, and if you’re a non-technical founder, find a technical founder.

Learning is a lifelong journey that doesn’t stop at school. You can learn on the job if you’re open-minded enough to learn from your staff and consultants.

Val Yap, PolicyPal

Image Credit: PolicyPal

1. When was your last ‘encounter’ with formal education, and where was it at?

I graduated in 2012 from Imperial College London with MSc in Business Management.

2. Why did you choose that course to study?

Before graduating from University of the Arts London in 2011, I published an iPad App on iTunes for my final year project.

I realised that I love building something from scratch and bringing my ideas into fruition. Hence, a little seed of entrepreneurship dream started growing inside me and I decided to pursue a graduate degree in the relevant field.

3. Do you have any regrets, and what would you have studied/done if you had the chance to start over again?

If I had the chance to go back to school days, I would have learnt a few more languages in my free time!

I always feel that it would be the most personable speaking to someone in his or her native language.

4. Were there any applicable skills that you brought over from school to starting up/work?

At Imperial College London, I took courses including Business Economics, Finance, Accounting, Strategic Management. Outside of classes, I was involved in Imperial College Investment Club, Finance Society, Bright Futures and Singapore Society.

All these courses as well as involvements in societies have helped me build on both subject-matter knowledge as well as soft skills such as organisation and networking.

5. What are some things that you think can’t be learnt at school?

Empathy.

I personally think that generally, students of similar backgrounds tend to go to the same school. Thus, they may not be able to truly appreciate what they possess as compared to the less fortunate.

Even more so – grit.

As Angela Duckworth puts it, grit is a bigger factor than talent and I.Q. in determining success.

In a startup journey, the challenges seem to be never-ending – one will need the courage and resolve to keep pushing on.

6. What’s your advice for those looking to start up, but feel like they don’t have the ‘qualifications’ to?

You should never feel inhibited by a self-perceived ‘lack of qualifications’ to pursue the dream of starting up!

I am thankful to have had the opportunity to study at Imperial College London and learnt a lot there, but I’ve learnt way more since I embarked on this startup journey.

Never belittle yourself. Don’t ever impose limits on yourself. Chase your dream!

Jacky Yap, GRVTY Media

Co-founder Johnathan Chua (L) and Jacky Yap (R)

1. When was your last ‘encounter’ with formal education, and where was it at?

I studied Real Estate at NUS.

I also went for the NUS Overseas College Programme in 2011, where I studied business at Fudan Uni.

2. Why did you choose that course to study?

To be honest, real estate was my fourth choice at NUS!

I wanted to come to Singapore to study, so I just chose NUS. In my mind, real estate couldn’t be that bad since it is practical, and the stuff that I can learn could be applied in my day-to-day life.

3. Do you have any regrets, and what would you have studied/done if you had the chance to start over again?

Yep, I regretted it because halfway through, I realised that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed studying before uni.

I would have chosen computer science, or finance/accounting.

What I would have done differently is study harder and take extra modules that deal with data analytics, risk modelling, and of course, HR-related modules.

But again, hindsight is always 20/20.

4. Were there any applicable skills that you brought over from school to starting up/work?

For sure. In real estate, we learnt how to value real world property developments. We also learnt a little bit of property finance.

Both of these are useful when I’m analysing funding announcements of startups or just the financial situation of companies.

It’s not entirely an apples-to-apples comparison between properties and companies, but the thinking behind it helped set the basic foundation.

Other than that, I returned everything to my professors already haha!

5. What are some things that you think can’t be learnt at school?

People management and risk-taking.

6. What’s your advice for those looking to start up, but feel like they don’t have the ‘qualifications’ to?

Qualifications don’t matter – it’s all about execution.

So if you have a good idea, just go for it.

Don’t Let Your Lack Of ‘Qualifications’ Hinder You

Just like life, the link between what you study and where you eventually work isn’t straightforward.

What really stood out in all their responses was that many important lessons cannot be learnt while sitting quietly in a classroom.

A few of the founders also dived into industries that aren’t vaguely related to what they studied in school – proving that it’s not the degree and qualifications, but the passion and determination to succeed that determines the final outcome.

Think about it – Alibaba’s Jack Ma graduated with an English degree (though he got a Business degree a few years later), and Razer’s Min-Liang Tan was a graduate of NUS’ Law School.

But perhaps one of the most applicable advice for those looking to start up comes from Ian Ang, co-founder of Secretlab:

Be aware of what your weaknesses are. If you’re a technical founder, find a business savvy co-founder, and if you’re a non-technical founder, find a technical founder.

 

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