How To Start Your Own Company, According To Founders From The Gen.T List

By Chong Seow Wei

Three entrepreneurs on what you need to know about starting and running a business

Tatler Asia
Photo: Gettyimages
Cover  Photo: Gettyimages

The thought of starting your own company can be both exciting and intimidating. You have an idea for a product that you think could be revolutionary, but aren't necessarily sure where to begin to move things forward. What are some of the most important questions you should be asking yourself before you establish your new company? 

We ask three founders for their insight. This is what they had to say.

See also: Zilingo Co-Founder Ankiti Bose On Pivots, Resilience And “Pathological” Optimism

Find out what you want to gain from starting the company

The first question entrepreneurs should ask themselves is pretty simple: what do you hope to achieve from building your own business? “Figure out if it is money, status, self-worth, [creating] impact or something else,” says John Tan, who founded edtech companies Doyobi and Saturday Kids to teach students in Singapore skills such as coding, design thinking and digital art.

He also adds that if your passions align with your professional goals, it could make your startup journey smoother and more enjoyable. “You don’t have to build your business around something you care deeply about, but it’ll be much easier if you do.” 

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John Tan, founder and CEO of Doyobi, and founder and chairman of Saturday Kids
Above  John Tan, founder and CEO of Doyobi, and founder and chairman of Saturday Kids

Recognise your strengths and weaknesses

Being aware of your skills is crucial to helping you determine your role within the company. Are you a people person, a natural at negotiations, or someone who prefers to build the product rather than deal with people? 

“We must play to our strengths and trust others to step in to compensate for our weaknesses,” says Wendy Yu, who is the founder and president of Yu Holdings, a diversified company based in Shanghai with entities in fashion, beauty, philanthropy and investments. “Being able to delegate [responsibilities] is an art, so the first step is to recognise what you excel at while identifying where you need the support of others.” 

For fintech entrepreneur Moses Lo, who considers himself “a business person”, this meant finding a co-founder who was technically strong. “While [studying] at the University of California, Berkeley, I spent a lot of time at the computer science department of the school, and I also went to events and met a lot of people,” says the founder and CEO of Xendit, a Jakarta-headquartered unicorn startup creating payment infrastructure across Southeast Asia.

With the contacts he made, Lo recorded down those that he saw a potential for future partnerships in a spreadsheet. “I remember there were about 45 names on this spreadsheet. That was how I found one of my co-founders,” he says.

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Wendy Yu, founder and president of Yu Holdings
Above  Wendy Yu, founder and president of Yu Holdings

Find the right co-founders

Entrepreneurs often describe the relationship between co-founders to be similar to a marriage. They involve individuals with different upbringings, personalities and habits coming together for the purpose of starting a business, so it’s normal that there are disagreements

“There will be good times and bad times,” says Lo. “What matters is commitment. If people are committed, then they will solve the problems.” But when issues are left unresolved, it could cause a relationship to sour and break down. Like a divorce, co-founder breakups often have a ripple effect, impacting others around the couple. In the context of a startup, it could spell the end of the company, unless the co-founder breakup is executed properly.

Being able to delegate [responsibilities] is an art, so the first step is to recognise what you excel at while identifying where you need the support of others
Wendy Yu

Know your target market well

Business ideas are a dime a dozen, but a great idea fills a need, either a new or different one, and is also scalable. 

“I’d say build something people want,” says Lo. “Something I learned from Y Combinator is the obsession around customers, rather than the idea you have in your head. 

“Whatever ideas you have, figure out which one you like the most and start talking to people about it. This is the cheapest time to pivot. Get real customers and once you have them, launch something quickly and see if they use it. If they do, you iterate. That's how we’ve been launching all of our new businesses.” 

In order to scale, businesses also need to have a firm understanding of the local culture and needs in each market. “We have to understand the local nuances and reasons why consumers do one thing or another, to make sure we can adapt to all of that,” says Lo.

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Moses Lo, founder and CEO of Xendit
Above  Moses Lo, founder and CEO of Xendit

Instil company culture by example

In startups, founders are the ones who set the values, practices and boundaries of the company. But they cannot foster a certain culture within the workplace if it only exists as words on a wall and not in their actions as well. 

“Culture can sometimes be this vague idea in the cloud, which is why I like these three definitions of it: culture is the extension of leaders; culture is who you hire, who you fire, what you punish and what you incentivise; and culture is the operating system of a company,” says Lo. 

“For the first definition, whatever you do as a leader tends to perpetuate throughout the world, because people follow what they see and what you want. So lead by example. Culture is also defined by the first 10 people you hire, for the next thousand that come after them. So be careful about the first 10 hires and make sure you’re happy with how they treat each other because it will impact future employees. Finally, culture is defined by a company’s decisions, the tools it uses and the processes it sets in place.”

Build something people want. Something I learned from Y Combinator is the obsession around customers, rather than the idea you have in your head 
Moses Lo

Be resourceful and tenacious

Running a business can be a very long journey. Statistics show that successful businesses take years to develop, not months. Most small businesses often only turn a profit after two or three years, and they take longer—around seven to 10 years—to find success.

For Tan, who started Saturday Kids, the first of his two startups, nearly a decade ago, having grit and being able to bootstrap are essential qualities for entrepreneurs to be able to endure the uncertainty of startup life. 

For Yu, beginning with a strong vision in mind is equally important. “[Running a business] is a marathon, not a sprint,” she says. “So create your vision with longevity and true value in mind.”

On how to prioritise your time in a practical and sustainable manner, heed Twitch co-founder Justin Kan’s advice to Lo: “He told me that if you’re just starting out, think about what is going to stop your company from growing 50 percent next week and go fix that. In a few years’ time, think about what is going to stop you from growing 50 percent next quarter? Fix that. Then when you get even bigger, think about what is going to stop you from growing 50 percent next year? Fix that. His advice is really clarifying because it gives you just one thing to do each time.”

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