Mr. Teo Ser Luck is one busy individual.
I was scheduled for an interview with him during the Tech In Asia conference last week, and was due to speak to him right after his session at the main stage.
Over 15 minutes passed, and there was still no sign of him.
“I’m so sorry, we’re trying to bring him over now,” said the PR contact person frantically, pointing to her colleague who was in charge of ushering Mr. Teo over to the media centre.
Looking over, I found the reason for the delay.
At the lounge area, Mr. Teo was surrounded by a small crowd, all holding out their name cards and eagerly pitching their startups (I guessed from the makeup of the event’s attendees) to him.
Even from a distance, I could see that he was patiently listening to whatever they had to say to him.
When he eventually broke away from the crowd, he gave me a wide smile as he greeted me, in spite of looking visibly exhausted.
Expected, for someone whose schedule consists of responsibilities in both the private and public sector.
While he stepped down as Minister of State for Manpower and Mayor of North East CDC to pursue his interest in startups last year, what many might not know is that he is still the MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, and attends regular Meet The People (MPS) sessions.
I asked him jokingly if startup founders attend these sessions (usually for residents to air their concerns) to pitch to him, and he laughed, revealing that it is actually a regular occurrence.
“Some of them fly in from overseas, and they come to the sessions because they don’t know where to find me.”
Sometimes I don’t reply my emails very quickly, so they’re like, “Ah, let’s just go to the MPS and look for him there!”
When he’s not carrying out his MP duties, he’s managing several Singapore startups, having “meetings, meetings, and more meetings”, and travelling up to 3 to 4 days a week “trying to build the ventures” overseas.
On his startup journey so far, he shared that “it’s exciting, but it’s tough”.
“Because I started from zero, […] it’s always a journey of uncertainties. But it’s exciting because it’s uncertain.”
“Aiyah, What Did I Get Myself Into?”
If you ask me if I enjoy [startup life], some moments I really enjoy it, but some moments I’m like “Aiyah, what did I get myself into?”
“But on the whole, I have no regrets. It has been a very worthwhile trip, and I hope to continue on this journey and build up something successful that will make a positive difference to the community.”
But most of all, Mr. Teo shared that he wanted to build a business “before [he] couldn’t”.
“[We all live once], and when you have that once in a lifetime chance, you have to calculate when you want to do it.”
Of course, I can be very comfortable and just follow through along the way.
“But I realised that in Singapore, the beauty of the system is that you can actually do something like that – building your venture – and you can still be in public service as an MP.”
“I’m not trapped by levels and status or anything. I just wanted to serve Singaporeans, and as an MP, you can do that as well, although it’s not a larger platform like a Minister of State.”
But why the rough-and-tumble startup life and not the corporate route, given his private sector experience in MNCs like Nike, Menlo Worldwide, and DHL Express?
“Since I was young, [starting up] was something I had in my mind,” he recalled.
“But at that time, [I was] like many Singaporeans – we don’t have the capital or resources, so what we do is we work for someone first, and we try to learn the ropes of the way of how business is done.”
And from there, when you’re more ready, you do it.
“I’m the type that has a lot of ideas, and I like to take these ideas and make them happen. When you have that kind of characteristics, I think you’ll end up becoming an entrepreneur.”
And even in politics, there are some things that I do [that are] a little more ‘challenging the status quo’.
“I usually look at things and say, ‘Well, it can be done better. How do I do it better?’ And that’s where ideas come from.”
On the topic of politics, I asked if his former colleagues have been curious about startup life.
“Ya! I have very good colleagues – well, they’re still my colleagues in Parliament.”
“They always ask [about me] and they’ll share ideas with me too! I’m very lucky, because my colleagues are in politics, and I’m in politics and business.”
“The only tinge of sadness is that I can only help them to a certain extent [as an MP], and I miss working together as a team. I really miss those days, they were all very nice.”
To Startups: “Don’t Focus All Your Time On Fundraising”
While he declines to reveal the startups that he’s involved in, he readily shared the problems that most startups in Singapore – his included – are facing.
“[The problem is] capital, usually. And whether or not they are prudent.”
I think prudence is one of the issues, and also the way that they spend their money [and if they] spend it wisely.
Like many startup founders that we’ve interviewed before, a shortage of talent is also another issue that Mr. Teo brought up.
“If you look at education level and the demand on their skill sets, a lot of [talents] are actually are equipped with the skills to be able to do so. But unfortunately, for some of them, their work ethics and attitude – it’s just not there.”
For him, while ideation is not an issue, implementing them successfully is where the problems come in.
“That needs resources like cash, talent, and infrastructure. We also need speed. I don’t have enough time to do what I want to do, as fast as I want to do it.”
As for his advice to Singapore startup founders, he remains firm in the belief that a successful business model is the key to success.
“If you have a viable and commercially sustainable business model, it will fund itself.”
Don’t focus all your time on fundraising. If you raise funds, it’s just for expansion. But don’t [fundraise] because you are struggling.
“Celebrate when you reach milestones because your business model works, when demand meets supply, and when you continue to scale. That, to me, is more positive.”
“I Hope That We Can Have More Companies That Are Successful”
On his hopes for entrepreneurship in Singapore, he quipped that he hopes to be able to “rattle off new company names that [he] can be proud of every year”.
I hope that we can have more companies that are successful, and we don’t have to keep repeating the same company every time for so many years!
“And we’re not proud of them because they’ve raised a lot of funds, it’s because they’ve really built a viable business.”
Ending off the interview, I asked if his two children (aged 16 and 18) had expressed any intentions of starting up.
“They have. You’re bound to influence your children – but when they’ll do it, I’m not sure. They don’t share it so openly, but I know that they do, and they have a lot of ideas too.”
But they probably shouldn’t expect him to finance their venture, though.
Raise your own funds – don’t ask me. If it’s a good idea, I’ll invest, haha!
“I think it’s good to be a ‘real’ entrepreneur, without direct family support until you develop a good product with demand.”
I’d like to thank Mr. Teo for his time!