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Looi Qin En on Co-Founding Southeast Asia’s #1 Tech-Enabled Recruitment Platform, Student Entrepreneurship, and the Leader’s Responsibility to Derisk

· Podcast Transcripts

The most effective leaders try to minimize the risk that they take. The nature of technology, the nature of building a company is such that it's already so volatile. There are so many things that could go wrong. So many things that are uncertain. And so, a leader's responsibility is to systematically de-risk, especially those critical failure points

- Looi Qin En

Jeremy Au: [00:00:00] Welcome to Brave Dynamics.  This is your host, Jeremy Au. Leadership is harder than it looks. As a proven founder and Harvard MBA, I interview courageous entrepreneurs, executives and investors every week. I also share my frontline experiences, coaching insights and own professional development journey. If you're stepping up as a new leader, founding a startup, or venturing into the great unknown, this is the podcast for you.

 Looi Qin En is the co-founder and former COO of Glints. Founded in 2013, Glints is now the number one tech-enabled recruitment platform in Asia for employers to build successful teams. Their mission is to help all people and organizations to realize their full human potential.

They were the youngest founders to have raised venture capital in Southeast Asia. They are backed by VC firms such as Monk's Hill Ventures, 500 Startups, Wavemaker Partners, Golden Equator Capital, MindWorks Ventures, Fresco Capital and Singapore Press Holdings.

They have been featured on Forbes, Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Yahoo News, The Straits Times, Business Times, Today, Tech in Asia, e27 and Channel News Asia. Qin En led people operations and grew the user community from zero to 250,000 across Singapore and Indonesia, managed enterprise accounts and led the internal human capital strategy.

At the age of 15, he wrote his first research paper on predicting personality through social gaming and went on to publish 12 more human-computer interaction papers in international peer-reviewed conferences and journals. He fostered student entrepreneurship as a partner with Dorm Room Fund, associate lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Entrepreneur In Residence at Entrepreneur First and advisor to the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship for Singapore Management University.

He has worked in management consulting at Boston Consulting Group, founded and sold the web design agency Half Grand and has been a brand strategist at Training Edge International. Qin En graduated with distinction in two years from Stanford University, majoring in Management Science and Engineering.

He was honored with Forbes 30 under 30 and Entrepreneurs 27 under 27. His hobbies are high intensity cardio and watching action movies.  You can follow him at his social media profile online in our show notes. (https://www.linkedin.com/in/looiqinen/)

Hey Qin En, it's so good to have you.

Looi Qin En: [00:02:57] Hey Jeremy, thanks so much for having me on your podcast.

Jeremy Au: [00:03:00] You're just an amazing dude for so many years and I'm so happy to see you again.

 Looi Qin En: [00:03:05] Yeah. So good to catch up, but it's funny how now, with how COVID is happening, it's so much easier to catch up and find time with each other. Like we don't even have to find where and when to meet. It's just let's hop on a Zoom call.

Jeremy Au: [00:03:19] Yeah. I still remember back in the day where people were so curious about how you got started as a leader co-founding Glints and dropping out of school and all of that dramatic story of , "We do not believe in education. We believe in crushing it in the startup world", and parents , were worried for the kids and kids were like, "Look at Glints, we've got to follow Qin En and the starters path." And everyone's just like me doing this armchair commentary. So it's great to see how the company has grown so tremendously over the years and also to see your own professional development journey.

Looi Qin En: [00:03:59] Yeah, definitely. I would say just so much has changed in the past what, seven years since I started my leadership journey? Like you said, it really began with my company at Glints.

Jeremy Au: [00:04:10] Yeah. Why don't you take us to the beginning? Tell us more about your journey.

Looi Qin En: [00:04:16] Yeah, definitely would love to. So, really I would say leadership journey in my mind started when I was in National Service. And it was a time where I made some of the best friends, I would say, and these guys ended up becoming my best men, my groomsmen crew earlier this year when I got married.

The leadership journey started then, because that was when I started to realize that leadership is not necessarily an issue of authority or title. And that's funny, because you learn, the military is a place where that really matters, but I learned it's really about connecting with people, understanding where they are, where they come from, what their concerns are and then voicing it out. So, I actually had that opportunity to do that starting during the latter part of my National Service.

And that was also coincidentally, when I founded Glints together with two of my schoolmates from Hwa Chong. Thinking back, it was truly that time in about 2013 where my leadership journey started, where I started to really understand what it means to be put responsible for a group of people, giving them a sense of direction, a sense of purpose.

It started out with our friends. At first, we couldn't hire anyone. So it was just friends who were helping us out of goodwill. Then we went on to hire a few interns because that's all we could afford. And of course, as time grew by, as we raised more funds, then we started to assemble a proper full time team. And I would say that was really how the trajectory of my leadership journey continued.

After I left my company in 2017, I went back to Stanford to complete my education. And that was when my leadership journey continued on, where I had the chance to start and lead two faith-based organizations. So, it's been quite a ride seeing both leadership opportunities, not just in a professional world, but out of it too.

Jeremy Au: [00:06:05] Amazing. How did you personally get started at Glints? Take us back there.

Looi Qin En: [00:06:11] Yeah. Wow, okay. So, the early days were really a matter of, it started with me and my two other schoolmates. We wanted to find good use to our time and we started to look for internships at startups because after all, there were only startups who hired people who can work on weekends, two days a week.

And one thing led to another, we realized that, hey, startups really want young people to help them out. They are always in short of manpower. But on the other hand, a lot of times, people who are in National Service, people who are year one, year two undergraduates, they found it hard to find these internships. So we thought, hey, why not? Let's build a program to connect these two people. So imagine in the early days, it was literally two Google spreadsheets. One spreadsheet had job candidates, another spreadsheet had job descriptions. And it was just the three of us matching them. Of course, things are much more different now; we can't do that. Glints has more than half a million job seekers, but that was really the origins of it, two Google spreadsheets.

Jeremy Au: [00:07:13] Yeah. What was it like working around that white board?

Looi Qin En: [00:07:17] Well, I would say, you can imagine there were just many nights where it was the three of us in that room, perhaps with one or two other interns. We were all trying to figure out what the next steps were.   I think that was when, looking back that really helped defined what leadership meant to me, but it definitely did not feel like leadership at that moment.

It felt like, okay, we are all on the same boat. We're all honestly trying to figure out what is going on and what to do. So, at that point I didn't even imagine to call myself a leader because in the first place there was no team to lead, there was nothing to lead. So, it was honestly a time of uncertainty, a time of really trying to figure out what could just work.

Especially our angel investors had given us our first check of $50,000. It was the first time we have seen such a huge sum of money. So really making sure that, hey, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. How do we make the best use out of it?

Jeremy Au: [00:08:13] Why is leadership so important in startups?

Looi Qin En: [00:08:16] Well, I think leadership is just absolutely critical in startups especially, but even outside of startups. I think fundamentally, leadership is so important to me because it gives the team a reason to wake up and get out of bed.  There's really two ways that each individual can wake up each day. They can do that with excitement, with intent, knowing that they're going to do something today that brings them closer to a goal or they can get up and go, "Oh man, it's just another day, another job, another moment I need to get through."

And I felt one of these moments, especially in the the later days of Glints, where we were all trying to figure out how to capture this wave of fresh graduates who were going to come out of the local universities.  Looking at my team, we weren't sure what was the best way to go about matching it.

So, one evening, we were all gathered in office. We divided the whole company into two teams. One team was looking at the different companies, the different jobs that are available. Another team was looking at the candidates. And it was like an auction. It was like a bazaar. So someone would say, "I have a candidate with XX experience, XX skills." And then the other team would be like, "I want that guy. I think that guy's suitable for my job." And so it was like this marketplace bidding, shouting over each other.  The energy was just real.

And honestly, I can tell you that experiment failed.  Clearly doing things just by manual shouting and manual assessment wasn't a very accurate way, but I'm pretty sure that that night, all of us left feeling like we did accomplish something. And even though it wasn't the ideal model, even though it wasn't the model that we ended up with, we all knew that, hey, I was part of something. Yes it didn't work out, but it was still something.

And I think that's why leadership is so important. And making people feel that even in times where things don't work out, they are still achieving something and really growing their sense of fulfillment.

Jeremy Au: [00:10:10] Things were good and things sometimes can be tough like you shared. What hurdles did you personally face and how did you overcome them?

Looi Qin En: [00:10:18] I think one of the biggest hurdles I ever faced, especially I would say ever since I started the company, but even up till now, it's really dealing with ego. And I think that it's such a real struggle at times, to be able to acknowledge that. Sometimes you've got to roll up the sleeves to do the dirty things, things that you really don't want to do. One example of that was cold calling.

In the early days of the company, I absolutely hated cold calls.  Well, it's not to say I love cold calls now, but at least I feel I am okay doing it. But I could tell you there was a time when I just left Stanford, that was in 2015 and I just gave up my scholarship. I had to pay quite a bit of damages on that. And then I'll be like, hey, I'm back here. I'm now a startup founder, a startup leader. I should not be doing cold calls. I'm better than that. I didn't leave Stanford to do cold calls. And that is just ego speaking.

But,  that was really one of the toughest things. To be able to bite my ego and do the hard thing. I also remember another time later that year when we started to do sales meetings, literally one of the prospective customers asked us, "Hey, are you a student here doing a survey?" And I was like, "No, I'm actually the company trying to sell you a solution."

And so it's just such a humbling experience. But I think it is a constant battle because on one hand, especially in the startup world and especially as a leader, you often get a lot of accolades, you get a lot of media attention. I think one thing we both have in common is, for example, the Forbes 30 Under 30 thing which I guess perhaps to some, it sounds like, wow, that's such a great achievement. But honestly, some of my friends joke and tease me about that.

But I think the fact that a lot of times, these things really do get to my head. And I think just being able to recognize that, hey, honestly, that was just for the past. And that's behind us. Now, what matters is the present moment and the moments going forward. So yeah, I would say that was really one of the biggest challenges I had.

Jeremy Au: [00:12:13] Amazing. What are the common myths that you've encountered in technology?

Looi Qin En: [00:12:18] One of the most common myths, I have heard, especially to be a good leader in technology and entrepreneurial environments, it's the ability to take enormous risk. I guess even that is the reason why the media even made such a big fuss about why me and my co-founders left Stanford, left Berkeley, left Wharton. It's because, wow these people are... The implicit message was: these people were taking huge risks.

But I think that is a huge myth because I think at least what I've learned it's, the most effective leaders try to minimize the risk that they take. But the nature of technology, the nature of building a company is such that it's already so volatile. There's so many things that could go wrong. So many things that are uncertain. And so really, I feel like a leader's responsibility is to systematically de-risk, especially those critical failure points.

I  think one very clear example of that was,  when we were raising our Series A funds  and we had to bring forward our timeline by a few months. And I think one of the things that we were trying to derisk, it's essentially how can we make sure the company stays afloat and all of our team continues to get paid? It was stressful because we had our plans laid out, but then everything suddenly had to be brought forward. But I think that's really part and parcel of being a leader, we're just actively looking out for what is the biggest critical failure points and then systematically trying to reduce and remove it.

Jeremy Au: [00:13:39] So true. I think that's so underappreciated, which is that great leaders de-risk everything systematically for the team and for themselves right?  And I think that's always the huge gap between reality and what is portrayed or commonly understood. 

So many people look at you as a role model in their life. Who are your role models in real life?

Looi Qin En: [00:14:03] I personally think that I've been so blessed to have amazing mentors who are my role models. I'll share two of them. So, one of them is Alex Lin. He used to be the head of Infocomm Investments, now it's SGInnovate. And earlier I was sharing with you how I absolutely hated to do cold calls and the whole ego thing. Honestly, the biggest reason for that change was him.

To me, why he was such an amazing role model it's because he wasn't afraid to confront the hard truths. He wasn't afraid to just say things that will make people uncomfortable or in fact even upset. But these were the facts, these were the reality and ultimately he was driving towards change. And that is a role model because for me, that's something I struggled with.

A lot of times I care a lot more about how people think about me than perhaps the outcome itself, and   I think there was one very good example where , he just sat me down and was like, "How many calls did you make today?" And I was just giving him a bazillion reasons why the cold calls didn't happened. I was working on this, I was working on that and he just looked me in the eye and just said, "You have to make those calls."

That was one of those big wake up moments for me. Recently I  am now with Boston Consulting Group, and another role model I have is Anthony Oundjian. So he's a senior partner, he leads the Manila office. And one of the reasons he has been such an amazing role model, it's how he's able to really show genuine care and concern beyond the work itself.

So, one example, just very recently, I was working together with him, for only two or three days, putting together initial proposal. And after that, I got assigned to another project. We went our own ways and stuff, but then about two or three weeks later, he actually bothered to follow up to say, "Hey, thank you for the work that you did. This is the end output of what we actually presented to the client." Of course it was radically different from what I originally said, because that was the initial draft.

He didn't have to do that. Honestly, he's a senior partner. He doesn't have to circle back and say, "Hey, here's the deck we presented." And I think just the ability to connect, to make team members feel special and I think especially when the disparity in the  hierarchical structure is so large. I think that just really speaks volumes on who that person is and therefore he's definitely one of my role models.

Jeremy Au: [00:16:22] Amazing. What support or resources are available for others considering a journey similar to yours?

Looi Qin En: [00:16:29] I think one of the biggest resources is actually finding one or two people who you aspire to be in their shoes I would say eight to 10 years from now; reaching out to them and developing a relationship. So those two role models I just shared, these honestly were the people who have made a huge difference in my life.  I think really being able to build not too many. I think it's impossible to build too many.

I think, as many others would attest, having one or two solid mentors is probably enough to change the trajectory many times. And that's something I will personally also advocate for. In terms of reading, I really love this author, Mark Manson. He has this book: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, and it's really crisp, it's really clear, it's really logical.

One of the things that really stuck out to me was I think he mentioned about this,  sometimes you see at a grocery store , let's say a old granny would scream at the cashier for not accepting the coupons. And that's because in the person's life, all that really matters is the validity of those coupons.  It just struck me because it's like, how many times do I get worked up, get stressed, get upset over things that honestly don't really matter that much? So, the ability to separate what's important from what's not  was one of the great insights I got from him and his blog.

Jeremy Au: [00:17:50] That's great. One of your hobbies is high intensity cardio. What do you like about that?

Looi Qin En: [00:17:56] Oh man. I would say it's just so energetic and uplifting. So I think I will disclaim it, that it has to be done in a group setting. I think when you put a group of people together to do high-intensity cardio, it just really creates a kind of energy where everyone's sweaty or everyone is tired, but no one gives up. Everyone keeps moving even if it means you have to take the less intense options.

 And at the end of it, of course you're physically tired, but I think it's really that feeling that, hey, together as a group, we did accomplish something together. And a lot of times, without using verbal cues, we are able to encourage each other to push ourselves and push our fitness levels. So, for me as someone who was a couch potato, honestly I would say five years ago, it was really this idea of group high-intensity cardio that at least helped me to be fitter.

Jeremy Au: [00:18:45] You've gotten to do a lot of things after Glints and the achievements there. Could you share about some of the lessons you've learned since then?

Looi Qin En: [00:18:53] Yeah, definitely. Well, I think one of the big lessons I learned after stepping out of Glints, it's really to take a broader view of things. And also at the same time, be humbled. I say that because as someone who has been a startup founder, I think there's a certain sense of confidence, a certain sense of perception that you are better and you have the ability to out compete everyone else.

And I think that rightfully so, you have to have that confidence. Otherwise, there's no point starting a company. But I think for me personally, the danger of that was, that was my first work experience. And because of that, I used to think that, because I had built a company really there's nothing else that's more difficult.

So, of course stepping out of it helped me to realize that, hey, there's so much more challenges out there in the world that need to be solved. There's so much more to be learned, so much more to grow. And I would say just having the expanded view of things, it's something that, it's truly different.

  So, maybe one very specific example that I can share. It's a lot of times when I was, as a startup guy when I was building Glints, our primary customer base were SMEs. Of course, we would occasionally work with multinational corporations, we'd work with governments, but the bulk of our revenue and interactions were with small and medium enterprises.

But right now where I'm at in consulting shows me how some of the largest organizations, the largest companies in Southeast Asia works. And that is such a different dimension altogether that I would have never considered. So, I think just being able to step out and see the world in different perspective, different lenses is something that I've been able to experience since then.

Jeremy Au: [00:20:36] There continues to be the eternal debate about whether to go to school first and then go launch a business, to drop out of school, to not go to school and defer that. What advice would you give to someone who is going through that debate?

Looi Qin En: [00:20:51] So I'm going to steal this concept. Obviously I forgot where I heard it from. But basically to think a bit like Tarzan, the guy who swings from tree to tree, vine to vine in the jungle. Now the concept is simple, you don't let go of the vine or the tree branch that you're currently holding on until you have grabbed onto the other one.

So, I think one of the biggest things that, just looking back on this journey, and you're not the first to ask this question, I'm sure you won't be the last. But the advice I always give is, the point where I chose to leave Stanford back in 2015 was when we had raised our seed round of half a million Singapore dollars. And in that sense, there was already some level of validation, not just from investors, but even from customers and users and that really gave me the confidence to lead.

So, if you ask me to do it all over again, and if I hadn't had that kind of traction I had, honestly, the answer would be very different. And so I think the long story short is I think we should not see things as, oh, you should go to school or, oh, you should drop out to build a company. I think it's just a matter of, what are the best options and opportunities available to me right now?

And the truth is for most of the people, not everyone is able to come up with a startup and get funding at 17  or 18. I'm not saying that to say that we were different, we were better. But I'm saying that there are just different times and different opportunities. Choosing when to, and what opportunity, it's truly the most important part of it. It's not so much about taking deterministic routes like, oh okay, I have to build a company before I go to school. So, I would say really just assess what's available in front of you and then make the best decision out of it.

Jeremy Au: [00:22:31] Looking back, what do you respect most about your co-founders?

Looi Qin En: [00:22:35] I think what I really respect about them, it's a can-do and relentlessly resourceful spirit. I think there were many times when, especially in the early days where I just felt that things wouldn't work out. I was just telling myself, you know what, maybe this is it. This is where things come to an end. But I think what I learned from them and what I respected the most, it's their never say die attitude. This attitude that we are in it to succeed and we will make it happen. There's no such thing as not succeeding. I will say that drive has definitely carried them super far, even after I've left the company and it's still something that I still remind myself as a lesson that I learned from them.

Jeremy Au: [00:23:15] Yeah. It's amazing to see Oswald and Ying Cong really continue to advance and push the company further since then as well.

Looi Qin En: [00:23:22] Yeah.

Jeremy Au: [00:23:24] When you look at the world, you've got an opportunity to see Stanford, and now you're back in Singapore and Southeast Asia, what do you feel about being on both sides of the pond?

Looi Qin En: [00:23:34] Well, I am biased. I love Southeast Asia. I think this is home. And I think more importantly, there's just so, so much untapped opportunity. So honestly, the equation for me is very simple. I didn't even bother to look for opportunities in the U.S., and that was still a surprise for quite a few of my family and friends who thought that, hey, Silicon Valley, that's kind of like the Mecca to be in.

But I see it differently. I see it as, yes, Silicon Valley is the Mecca, but there is so... That is kind of like, you are such a tiny fish in a huge pond. There's just incredible amount of competition there. Whereas if you come into Southeast Asia, you see this place that honestly, I think there are lot more problems than solutions right now and that to me just screams opportunity. So yeah, this is definitely, I would say Southeast Asia.

Jeremy Au: [00:24:31] Many startup founders must come to you all the time to ask for help or advice.  What are some common themes that you often give as advice to them?

Looi Qin En: [00:24:41] Well,  the first, common theme for at least many student founders. It's, "Hey, do I study or do I build my company?" I think we have covered that. But I think that the next thing that people always come to ask, it's really, how did you build a team? How do you build a team, especially when you are young, you are inexperienced?

And I think a lot of times it's really about number one; demonstrating that you care for the team. I think just being able to show the empathy to acknowledge that, hey, I don't know this. I'm also trying to figure this out. I think that it's in itself super powerful. And I think the second thing it's really to lead at the front lines.

So, being a leader is not about sitting back thinking of a good strategy and saying, "Hey, go execute it." It's about rolling up your sleeves and being the last one to leave the office. To say, "Let's get this done together. And we'll work this out together."

Jeremy Au: [00:25:34] Glints has managed to raise money from JFDI, Monk's Hill Ventures, 500 Startups, Wavemaker Partners, and so many other incredible investors. What would you say has been some advice that you will give in terms of fundraising in Southeast Asia?

Looi Qin En: [00:25:53] I'm going to shamelessly copy one of our mentors who taught us this too, which is, if you ask for advice, you get money. And if you ask for money, you get advice. So what I mean by that. It's yeah, I don't know because you also built a company. I think you might be able to tell me whether that's true or not.   A lot of times, if you go on knocking on doors only at the time when you need money, that's probably too late in the conversation.

The best conversations and the most fruitful ones honestly happen when you are not in need of money. And when you are genuinely  seeking advice for help and actually acting on it. So, one of the questions that we get is how do you raise funds, especially from such an early stage, without any proven experience and background?

Now, one of the things that once again we learn from our mentors, it's when you speak to an investor, when you ask them for advice, they're going to give you a couple of things to look at. Chances are most of the time, people just nod their heads and then they never follow up. They never share back. But what we learned is to take that advice, write it down, execute it, experiment it, and then send an email back to the investor. Tell them, "Hey, I actually worked on the advice. This work, this didn't work. And here's one thing in particular that you could help me out with."

I think just being able to show that, hey, you're receptive, you're humble enough to learn. And you actually listen. I think that in itself is an incredible tactic that I would say that works a lot of times when it comes to fundraising. And not really because it's just a tactic itself, but it's really the heart, the attitude of willingness to learn.

Jeremy Au: [00:27:28] Let's fast forward to 10 years in the future. What is your dream day to day life?

Looi Qin En: [00:27:35] My dream day to day life. Well, my dream day to day life. One of my dream is actually to build a company and actually to do it together with my wife. I know that sounds like some people will actually say, that's crazy. You shouldn't do that. But I think honestly, both of us compliment each other really well. So, I'm someone who I think is very opportunistic. If you tell me something, that's an opportunity right there. I'll grab it. I'll execute it right away.

She's more of the one who is able to think long term, to think ahead and foresee problems. I believe we both make good partners and hey, since we're early life partners might as well just throw in one more element of starting a business together right?

Jeremy Au: [00:28:17] How did you meet your wife?

Looi Qin En: [00:28:19] I met my wife back when I was at Glints. Yeah. And so it was interesting, because we first met at the workplace and then that was when it also became a place where... we kind of saw each other at work first and honestly we kind of hated each other at the start. Because we just always conflicted. I was this guy who wanted to go and grab opportunities right at the onset whereas she would be the one who is like poking holes, taking up the long term issues that could come up. So yeah, I would say it was anything but love at first sight.

Jeremy Au: [00:28:51] What advice would you give to people who are founders and have personal relationships to maintain and nurture?

Looi Qin En: [00:28:57] Wow. Well, that's super hard, man. I don't think... Honestly, that's something that I am trying to figure out myself too. But I would say really being able... The funny thing is since you asked that, I think a lot of times we are really good at problem solving at the workplace in professional settings. But somehow that muscle seems to just disappear when it comes to personal issues and personal problems.

I think a very concrete example I find myself going through at the workplace, whether it's  building my company or even right now where I'm at. When people give me feedback and tell me areas of improvement, usually I thank them. I try to understand what they're trying to say and I actually try to act on it.

But in personal relationships, I would say the tendency is almost completely the opposite. I would try to justify why I was right in doing so. But I think just being able to apply the same mindset in personal relationships has been very helpful. At least that's what I found so far. But at the same time, it's really not natural. So that's something that yeah, even I myself am continuously working on.

Jeremy Au: [00:30:04] Well, that's amazing because it sounds like we both exited from our first companies with our now wives which is [laughter], it's good both ways, right?

Looi Qin En: [00:30:18] It's a priceless outcome right? Money can't buy that.

Jeremy Au: [00:30:24] Exactly, there we go. Well, it's been absolutely amazing catching up with you and thank you for sharing your story us.

Looi Qin En: Thank you so much, Jeremy. It was awesome be with you on this podcast.

Jeremy Au: All right, see you around.

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