Unlike our previous interviewees, who were still attending university and who had gotten their startup work experience by doing internships, Hui Qian has played multiple full-time roles in various startups in different countries for 3-4 years now.
The first startup she worked for, WOBB, hired her as a community developer.
I came to know of her through a friend and wanted to find out more about why she consistently chose to work in startups over larger companies. Knowing that she had worked in a startup in Malaysia, I was curious also about how she viewed working in Singaporean startups versus those in her home country. When asked, Hui Qian agreed to the interview without fuss.
We met on a Friday evening at the office of JobKred, the startup she had been working with as a Front-End Developer for the past 4 months.
I’ve heard that you’ve worked for several startups before. Is there a reason you’ve repeatedly chosen to work in startups instead of traditional corporations?
I actually started off in corporate, doing headhunting for about 7 to 8 months. It was a very straight-laced, white-collar environment—no casual Fridays. I had previously done a stint in a management consulting firm as well, so I already knew what to expect.
At that time, the startup boom was happening in KL and I was poached [by the first startup I worked for]. At that point, my career wasn’t even a year old, so I thought I should throw caution to the winds and try working in a startup. After all, I could always go back to corporate if I hated the experience. There was nothing for me to lose!
So that’s how I picked my first startup and I ended up staying on for two years. By the end of those two years, I realised that startups provide quite a lot of benefits. The previous startup I was at, for an example, had flexible hours, no dress code—I only had to dress up if I was meeting external stakeholders—and I could take leave whenever I wanted. It’s difficult to let go of such benefits, even for a better pay in corporate.
My philosophy is that even if I don’t earn much, I am still young and can ascend the ranks. Working in a startup means getting to work with many different people, in many different departments and standing to benefit from the perks I mentioned. I don’t need a brand name on my resume. What’s more important to me is that I don’t have to drag my feet to work every morning, worrying about things like office politics. It’s important that I like going to work.
Startup life is fast-paced and challenging but exciting, so that’s why I prefer working in startups as compared to working in corporate.
So this was what you realised after you spent two years working in a startup in KL right? You then moved to Singapore?
After two years, I quit my job and joined a coding bootcamp in KL, so that was a 6-month break [from working] for me. When I quit my job to join the bootcamp, I had already had the intention of moving to Singapore afterwards to earn more money (because one Singapore Dollar is worth three Malaysian Ringgit).
The bootcamp ended after 3 months and I took a month-long break, then went job hunting. I received an offer and then moved to Singapore earlier this year.
Do you think there are notable differences between startups and traditional corporations, especially in terms of the culture?
My first startup boss was not a man of fluff. A lot of startups these days tend to say things like, “Oh, we’re very friendly! We’re a family! Let’s all be friends!” But that’s not what our dynamics were like—we were friendly with each other, we worked well with each other and were on the same wavelength; in fact, if you put us in a group together outside of work, we’d still really get along—but we didn’t work together as friends. Our boss liked to say that we had to be like a professional sports team, working together to achieve our goals.
This approach made me realise that, past the facade of fun startups have, what really matters [when it comes to operations] is a healthy level of respect and transparency between the boss and employees as well as among colleagues. Startups often face problems like where the company is going, how they are going to achieve that and how the rest of its members, who are not at management level, are going to be involved… It’s important to have transparency and honesty in situations like that so that employees don’t feel lost.
My boss practised this thing called “radical candour”. He didn’t believe in mollycoddling people. He preferred that we expressed our thoughts to one another candidly, so that we could get shit done instead of spending time worrying about whether we were hurting someone else’s feelings.
So that was something I liked: there was no red-tape, no politicking. It was no-nonsense and straightforward. We just drove numbers and got shit done. That’s my favourite part of startup culture. In corporate, you have to say one thing to the client, say another to your boss and say something else to your colleagues. Sometimes you even have to pretend not to like your boss when you go out drinking with your colleagues.
Why do you think one has to say different things to different people in traditional corporations? Does it have something to do with the size of the company and the hierarchies?
Yes, this ties in to the reason I’ve chosen to join smaller startups in general. Lots of people asked me why I didn’t apply for the big names like Carousell and Honestbee. Well, firstly, I probably wouldn’t qualify but secondly, these startups are already pretty big. After reaching a certain size, hierarchies and management levels tend to develop, like they did in my first startup, and this was before we’d even hit 20 employees.
I don’t really have a preference for team size, but I have noticed that smaller companies adhere to the more honest, transparent culture that I like about startups. Once they start growing, however, checks and balances have to be put in place to manage all the people.
So far, you’ve spoken quite a bit about your startup experience in KL. How do you think it compares to the experience you’ve had here with startups in Singapore?
In terms of work, startups are pretty universal—move fast, break things; actually, please don’t break anything—it’s challenging. I think the pace in KL and in Singapore, in terms of how fast you need to complete your work and how you communicate about your work, especially in the tech scene, is pretty much the same.
I’m in tech, so basically… just finish as fast as you can, close as many tickets as possible, escalate them if necessary, ask for help if you need it… I think it’s the same globally as well, so there isn’t very much difference, for me at least.
And in terms of culture?
Culture? [laughs] Well, that’s a huge can of worms…
You can just speak briefly about your experience. You don’t have to tell us all the details!
Well, perhaps now my situation is a little different. Currently, my CTO, CEO and I share similar backgrounds—we’re all Malaysians working in Singapore. The point is, I’m not working under a local and I don’t have a typical Singaporean boss now, so the culture in my current company still has the same feel as the one in KL.
I wouldn’t say there was a huge culture shock. I’ve assimilated perfectly into Singapore… I’ve seen some nasty stuff from Singaporeans but Malaysians do nasty stuff as well. In the end, it’s just a matter of whether you are lucky enough to meet good people!
What do you think is an important quality trait for startup employees to have and why?
For an employee to have? I’d say it’s important to make sure you do your work and deliver it on time.
Self-management is also important. As a front-end developer at my current startup, I need to manage my own tickets, and since I have an intern reporting to me, I need to manage what he does as well. Then, I also need to “manage” my CEO and CTO. I have to deliver technical tasks to my CTO and since I’m the only one handling the UI/UX for the company, I need to communicate with my CEO and find out how he wants the product to grow and et cetera. There are a lot of things on my plate, but what’s important is knowing and following the company’s priorities.
You need to be very independent but you can’t think of yourself as a solo contributor—ask for help when you need it. This is actually very important for those who are starting out doing tech in startups because a lot of junior developers feel the need to prove their worth but end up not being able to finish their tasks, then bringing work home to do into the late hours of the night. I know because I did that a lot in my previous company. It comes to a point where you’ve Googled and Stack Overflowed everything you can, and it’s just not working out. At that point, just reach out to a senior developer, or your CTO, or someone with better technical acumen, and ask them for help or some insight.
Startups are known for their shortage of manpower. Have you ever been in a situation where you find that you’re stuck and you’ve tried your level best, but there’s no one to go to for help? What would you suggest that someone in such a situation do?
Let me answer this question from a non-technical perspective. Say you’re tasked to manage Facebook Ads—this actually happened to me in my previous company—and you have no idea how to do it. In my case, the company was cutting costs and I was told that I had to handle the digital marketing portfolio, or they would not be able to keep me.
I had no idea how to do digital marketing, so I sat down and talked it out very frankly with my boss. I told him that I would take on the portfolio and manage it for him, but that he would have to give me some time to go and learn how to do so. I said that if he had resources or tips, he should give it to me.
So to answer your question about what to do if there’s no one in a better position to help: talk to your boss about it. If it’s stakeholder focused, you need to talk to the boss. If it’s skills-focused, you need to talk to the boss about getting extra training. If you have to manage clients, you need to ask your boss about the general way in which to manage clients and then do as your boss would’ve done. Because after all, that’s why they hired you, isn’t it? To take over some of the tasks that they were originally doing.
Make it known to your boss that you just need a guideline and that they just have to point you in a direction for you to go. Because even when it’s just you and the boss, the boss would’ve, at some point, done what he now wants you to do. If it’s not something that the boss has done before, then he’ll need to put his confidence in you. You can find out the best practices, implement them, test to see what gives the best results and then incorporate that back into your strategy.
Alright, cool. How about starting up your own company? Have you considered that before?
I’d like to think I know myself well enough to know where I want to go in the future. After my first six months in my first startup, I learnt that I liked having a salary and having a job. I don’t want to put my own money into my own venture. There are a lot of smart people out there, and I’d work for them, help them implement their ideas. As long as they’re paying me, I’ll code for them, do whatever they want.
I am not entrepreneurial. I’m very sure of that. So if someone were to come up to me and ask, “Hey, you wanna start this thing together?” I’d say, “If you pay me a salary, sure.” Don’t give me stock options—they ain’t worth nothing until you IPO—give me money!
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From what it sounds like, it seems like you wouldn’t consider being a co-founder.
Maybe in 10 years, when I have significant savings in my bank account… and they pay me a salary… and give me stock options on top of that salary… maybe? But now? Hell, no.
That’s interesting! When we first began this interview, you mentioned that if you went into corporate, you could earn a little bit (or sometimes, significantly) more. But you chose a startup anyway. So it seems like money wasn’t all that important to you then. But at this point, it seems like money is important after all.
I did try to give the whole Malaysian dream a chance. I thought to myself that everyone starts somewhere, and it’s alright even if I start with a very low basic salary. But after several years of doing that I was like, “Nope, I’m outta here!” I decided that it was time to earn that Sing[apore] dollar. Come on, it’s three times the value! [laughs]
So, I did give it a shot; I tried to believe that as long as I was happy and could make my own way through life, I’d be fine. But 3 years into it, I realised it wasn’t fine.
It seems like working in Singapore became a sort of compromise! You still get to work in a startup, and even though it probably doesn’t pay as much as if you worked in a traditional corporation, since the Sing[apore] dollar is worth more, you’re still paid better.
Yeah! It’s the best of both worlds!
From the perspective of an employee, what sort of advice would you give to startup founders on how to create a good workplace environment?
Be honest. Transparency is very important. Having integrity in your business dealings is also important. As an employee, I don’t want to be caught up in your shady business dealings!
If you’ve reached that basic level of decency, the next step is making sure that your employees know they are appreciated—that you value their time and their contributions to the company. If you don’t [show your appreciation], your employees will just jump [to other companies]. A lot of startup bosses complain about their employees jumping ship, but that’s because these bosses don’t know how to show their appreciation!
If people have been delivering good work consistently, you should let them know that. Appreciation doesn’t have to take the form of raises or huge parties, but at least have a small team get together. After completing a significant project, for example, treat your employees to lunch to show appreciation where it’s due.
This one might be tough but if an employee has been doing good work for you for over a year, you should raise their salary. If you don’t, what you’re basically saying is that you don’t value them enough to do that. Everyone has their own path in life and everyone has to fend for themselves. You can’t blame an employee for leaving if you don’t pay them.
If you’re thinking about the long term, think about their career progression. Show them that you value their contributions to the company and that you want them to grow with you. Give them the option of ascending vertically, or allowing them to explore working in other departments and growing there. Show them that you care.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with us that you haven’t had a chance to yet?
Employees should protect themselves—get everything in black and white. This is very basic recruitment advice but don’t hand your resignation in to your current employer until you’ve received an offer from your new employer, in black and white, signed it and sent it back to them.
Also, don’t expect a typical 9-6 job; you sometimes have to work above and beyond your hours. Just make sure you get your work done, be a responsible employee, manage yourself, manage your own time… You shouldn’t feel like you have to sacrifice everything for your company—that you have to miss birthdays, anniversaries and family events just for the company. There may be times where something time-sensitive has to be done, but this shouldn’t be a recurring thing. You shouldn’t feel like you have to give up your life for the company you work for.
You can’t expect a typical 9-6 job at startups, but I’m sure people would say the same for the corporate world. You mentioned that you worked in a management consultancy before, and they’re known for their crazy hours; which do you think would take more of a toll on a person?
That was actually an internship [at the management consultancy].
But to answer your question, they’re similar but different. I interned at the consultancy for 2 months and did mostly grunt work—converting .doc files into .pdf files for instance. One day, I worked until 1 am, submitted this work to the relevant colleague and went to sleep. The next day, when I opened my inbox, I found that my colleague had sent me a reply at 3 am.
In a startup, on the other hand, I don’t have to be at work at 9 am sharp, but I have also stayed up until 2 am to fix a bug. So in terms of time, I think it all depends on how you manage it and how your company expects you to manage it. It also depends on whether there are any third-party stakeholders. So if you have clients that are messaging you at 11 pm, you might have to talk to your boss about that.
Either way, it’s important to make sure that you don’t burn out.
Have international experience working at various startups (including at least one Singaporean startup) that you’d like to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, reach us via our Facebook page or leave us a comment right here!
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