When contacted, Clement was eager to share his experience working in a startup with us. He obliged to come down to our office so that we could conduct a face-to-face interview, during which we spoke about his experience working as a summer intern at (and the very first employee of) FinTech startup Lendela.
If you’re a Singaporean tertiary student who’s only ever considered working for the biggest corporations, we’ll let Clement convince you to do otherwise.
Which startup did you work for? What does the startup do and what was your role in the startup?
I worked at Lendela Pte. Ltd. We are a online loan broker, reinventing the customer experience and connecting banks and consumers. We are part of the global fintech group Zentro Finmarket, which is headquartered in Sweden.
This concept of the integrated loan broker proved to be successful in the Scandinavian region. A similar product was successfully launched under another subsidiary in Brazil 2 years ago and it’s become a leading player in the Brazilian market. We are now launching under the brand name Lendela in South-east Asia.
As the first non-equity employee, my role was not specifically defined, especially in the beginning, and I was assigned to many different tasks during my 3-month long internship.
During that first month, for an example, I was assigned to market research and product management. I was tasked with the research and creation of the product rules engine where customers can fill up the Lendela application form and we would present the best loan offers to them. I worked closely with the CTO to implement my findings on banks personal loans products onto the backend system. I also had input on new ideas for website design and typewriting content for the website.
It sounds as if Lendela is creating a search engine for loans in Singapore. Is that the case or does it offer other services as well?
I think what you’re describing is a loan aggregator, and there are a couple of companies that do that. Loan aggregators help the user compare loans but eventually direct them back to the bank’s website for the actual application process.
What we want to do differently is to create a seamless experience for the user, reduce drop offs, and allow consumers to fulfil their dreams of getting that car or house through the loan. With us, the consumer does not need to pay to get the best loan offers from various banks, which they can compare and choose from.
You mentioned that you did market research and product management. Were you the only person doing this? How many employees and interns diff the startup have when you were with them?
I was the only intern at Lendela at that point. For the first month of my internship, my bosses (who are also the CEO and COO) were still transitioning from their previous jobs and one of them was actually moving from Sweden to settle down in Singapore. We had no office at that point and I worked from home. During that period, we had a couple of face-to-face meetings and many more meetings via video-call.
Later on, after both my bosses got their Employment Passes, we moved into a co-working space called Collision 8 at Clarke Quay. It was an exciting time not just for the company but for me as I was witnessing the “birth” of a new company, similar to the garage beginnings we hear of all the big-name technology companies like Microsoft and HP.
What was the most interesting project you were tasked with while working there?
After the market research, I was tasked to craft and write articles for our blog. That was really interesting for me because it allowed me to step out of my comfort zone—I’m a math and econs student, so writing is certainly not one of my strengths.
Another interesting aspect about this task was the freedom and authority my boss gave me to “own” it. I found it puzzling at the beginning that I was not getting any specific instructions on what to write in the articles. Instead, I was given rather vague instructions to write blog articles that would interest the consumer and increase traffic to the site.
But I did my homework and started crafting deep and insightful articles about personal loans and the questions consumers have in Singapore when applying for them. I wrote an article about HDB and private home ownership as many young adults in Singapore are looking to purchase a property upon marriage.
How did you decide what topics to write about? What was your process like?
When my boss tasked me with writing the blog, I set myself a goal of writing four articles before the end of my internship period. Since my task was rather open-ended—to “write what people would want to read”—I looked at different sites that had information about loans and came up with the four most important things consumers would want to read on the subject.
It was tough at first, but I managed to finish the number of articles I set out to write, and gained more confidence in the process.
What was the greatest difficulty you faced in carrying out your role?
Working without the help of any other colleagues or interns—that was a double-edged sword for me. On the one hand, I had to do most things on my own, even though I’d never done them before. On the other hand, I got the freedom and opportunity to challenge myself. I also got direct attention from my bosses and got to bounce ideas directly off of them. Being with them daily and getting to attend business meetings also allowed me to learn a lot about the business first-hand.
It sounds like you got the freedom to try out lots of things, but the fact that this was your first internship and you didn’t have a lot of experience made you fearful.
I was a lot more afraid and timid at the beginning of the internship, because sometimes I asked specific questions only to receive vague answers, like with my blog task. But I gradually gained more confidence to own those tasks and operate independently to the ultimate gain of the company.
Unfortunately, that also meant making more decisions that my bosses sometimes disagreed with. The internship ended up being a very good learning experience in terms of balancing the acts of taking ownership and following instruction. My boss did not have the time to spoon feed me step-by-step instructions, but neither could I read his mind to know what ideas he had.
This is how I learnt the importance of communication. I solved this issue by creating templates to make suggestions for changes that he had tasked me to do. This sped up the decision making process and made my work much more effective and efficient.
You mention that you were able to learn about the business first-hand from spending time with your bosses. Can you share one interesting thing you learnt about the business by spending so much time in close proximity to them?
I learnt both tangible and intangible things from these interactions. Let me begin by talking about the tangible things first: I got to see what it’s like to grow a company from the very start, and so learnt about the different aspects necessary in running a company.
From expansion, to marketing to the fund raising process, all of these things helped me visualise what it means to own a company. I think this is something that was unique and I treasured every single opportunity I had to hear from and talk about the business with my bosses.
As for the intangible things, I got to see how they reacted and performed under pressure during their pitching sessions in which I had the privilege to sit. Sometimes the questions were difficult, and the way they reacted in these stressful situations is definitely something I can learn from. I also learnt that it is extremely important how one presents themselves and structures their sentences, which speaks of their analytical thinking process.
Why did you choose to intern at a startup instead of a traditional corporation?
To be honest, I didn’t really make a conscious choice as they were the first company to accept me after my end-of-semester exams. But after comparing this experience I’ve had in Lendela and what I’ve heard from others about their internship experiences in traditional corporations, I certainly see a difference in culture and hierarchy between the two types of companies.
What sorts of differences?
One of my friends, who worked in a large firm, didn’t really enjoy his internship experience. He felt that there were too many regulations, and he couldn’t really make any changes to anything. He held a backend role, which involved a lot of coding but had to go through a lot of red tape in order to get the approvals from the right people before he could make any changes.
I think working at a startup gives one a greater sense of job fulfilment and ownership of the work one does. After a few weeks on the job, I stopped thinking so much about how I could benefit from this experience and started thinking more about how I could contribute to the success of the company, even as an intern.
Lendela might also have been unique in terms of work-life balance despite it being a startup as the owners were slightly older compared to owners of other startups. The bosses have their own lives to lead and their own families to build and so there was quite a bit of work-life balance.
What do you think is an important quality trait for startup employees to have?
As an intern, I think one must be willing to learn and to contribute to the success of the company instead of thinking only about how he/she can benefit from the internship experience.
In the beginning, I, too, focused heavily on the types of contributions I could make that would look good on my resume, would get me converted to full-time staff or would allow me to learn the most.
But as the weeks went by, I learnt that if I contribute solely to the success of the company and not think about my selfish desires, employers and bosses will recognise my contributions and take care of me too. After all, it is in the company’s interest to reward employees fairly as startups do not have time or resources to train new staff and the financial muscle to keep searching for talent.
But one can contribute to the good of the company as well as to oneself. Or do you think that both those things are mutually exclusive?
Well, a lot of my peers are a lot more concerned about what they are able to get from their internship experience than what they are able to contribute to the companies they work for. They join large companies that have proper structure and learning programmes, then leave after the internship period, thinking only about how they can benefit from the experience.
I don’t think that’s wrong, but I also feel like I’ve grown out of it. Especially in the context of a startup, where you can actually make things happen—I think one’s contribution to the company will definitely be rewarded and is mutually exclusive with one’s personal benefit. My boss taught me to be focused and loyal to the company you are working for and not having one foot out of the door.
Have you considered starting up before?
Not seriously. But I did start thinking about an idea after we joined that co-working space. I thought it was quite cool that the co-working spaces were not just for people to work together. They also had shared pantries and co-fitness spaces.
I was very impressed by the nice office space, but also the idea that companies in the space can bring each other mutual benefit through networking and partnering up. I think co-working spaces are the future of SMEs and startups because such spaces provide companies with access to other partners, whether for marketing, legal, design or other kinds of help. They also have flexible tenures, which helps startups that need to expand and grow their business.
I found what they had created very interesting—something more than an office. Perhaps I might go in that direction!
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What sort of advice would you have for someone who is going to start work at their first startup?
[laughs] You know, I actually recommended that my friend replace me when I left Lendela and they interviewed her but things didn’t quite work out at that point of time.
About your question, I think that one must be willing to step out of their comfort zone. No matter the role you hold, you need to be willing to explore other tasks and to be prepared for the unexpected. You have to be okay with doing all kinds of different things. I think some of my friends who are shier may struggle with that.
It’s also important that one is loyal, especially if you join smaller companies. What I mean is that one must be willing to sacrifice almost as much as the owners and think and work for the good of the company. If you do so, your employers will treat you likewise.
From the perspective of an employee, what sort of advice would you give to startup founders on how to create a good workplace environment?
Because we live in a country with one of the highest GDPs per capita and the highest cost of living, I think good compensation is on everyone’s list. Paying competitively and fairly is important in attracting both interns and full-time staff.
As previously mentioned, creating a sense of ownership in each employee is important. I think my bosses did a good job that from day one: they shared insights about the business with me and talked openly without regard for hierarchy and as friends. They also did not micromanage me and allowed me to express my views on the work I had done.
There were other practical aspects that helped create this sense of ownership and belonging as well. On the first day of work during lunch, we went down to make company name cards. I was shocked that they were prepared to make a box of name cards for me even though I was only an intern. It was a small gesture, but it helped create a sense of belonging to the company and responsibility towards my work.
I also think it’s important for startup bosses to have close relationships with their employees and foster an entrepreneurial spirit among them to help build and grow the company. This would help employees understand the mission and vision of the company and can be helpful when they face challenges, like when they are stretched and overworked, lacking belief in the business idea or facing inevitable politics at work.
Having said that, I think traditional corporations also can play their part in encouraging employees to share their views. Even though bureaucracy is inevitable in large organisations, I hope that people at the management level understand that employees’ viewpoints and constructive ideas should be heard. And that all companies should have appropriate avenues to channel new ideas and make changes for the welfare of its employees.
Unfortunately, one of the problems many startups face is their inability to pay a competitive salary, especially in their early stages. You enjoyed your time at Lendela and learnt a lot from the experience. If your bosses were to give you a full-time role at a salary say 20% lower than the median for fresh graduates in your school, would you accept it?
It depends on the stage the company’s in and the stage of life I’m at. For now, as an intern, I’m alright with not having such a high pay. But after I graduate in 2 years, I’d want to work in a place that pays more competitively.
I think compensation is still the number one priority for most people, especially for men who have spent 2 years protecting and serving the country and an additional 3 to 4 years pursuing a degree. But after doing this internship, that priority has gone down a little for me and I’m more focused on the job and the type of work I’ll be doing in the future. I think a sense of purpose in work, driven by your passions and dreams, is also important. That’s why I think we as a society need to look past materialism and work in a place where we can fully fulfil our personal aspirations.
You mentioned that you want to work at a place that’s more developed. But when you work at small companies, especially in their nascent stages, you learn how to build a company. So why not go back to small companies and help them build themselves up instead? If it’s about the remuneration, what if this small company offers you equity, for example?
I think the decision to do something like that is very tied to an individual’s personality and situation in life. As a young and vibrant youth today, I have nothing to lose, so I don’t mind the risk. Those who are thinking of settling down and building a family are going to have greater expectations of receiving a high pay to build that family. It all depends on how much one can stand to lose, so I’m definitely excited about such an idea today, but things could change in the future.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with us about your experience that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to share?
I feel that this experience has really opened my eyes to working in different types of companies, especially startups. Before that, I had a few misconceptions about startup and work life in general. I realised the idea of working in big corporations that pay handsomely is really traditional and definitely isn’t the only way of looking at one’s career. This opportunity also gave me a wider scope when it comes to looking at future career possibilities and how I can plan my career.
I would also like to thank Dionnis [an intern at UpCode] for introducing me this opportunity to share my experience and I hope it goes a long way for people who are thinking about working in or starting your own startups.
Have a different experience as the first employee of a startup and want to tell us your story? Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s have a chat!
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