You also need to remind yourself that you're moving forward on some different dimension and it may not make sense to you at that point of time. But down the line, we look back and be like, "Oh wow, that's where I started. And I've actually made a lot of progress." And that's how I look at it. Remind yourself the days are super up and down. You'll be anxious one day. You'll be ecstatic the other day, and managing that ups and downs is very important. There's a chance I don't reach that goal I set out for myself, but that's okay because I've actually made progress along the journey of whatever this bigger goal of what I want to do in life. - Reuben Noronha
Reuben Noronha has spent the last few years building and scaling businesses in Asia. He founded his first company, Nivaasa, a co-living startup in India, in 2016 and ran it for a few years before selling it. He then had the opportunity to move to Southeast Asia to build and scale new business verticals at Zilingo. He enjoys the 0 to 1 phase the most and love building teams up. When not working, he spends his time podcasting, DJing, and trying to understand the cryptocurrency world.
Hey, Reuben. Good to have you on the show.
Reuben Noronha (00:02):Thanks Jeremy. Thanks a ton for having me.
Jeremy (00:04): Well, good times ever since we were hanging out in Entrepreneurial First, and now on deck. Always good to see another, I don't know, founder soul slash operator soul out there.
Reuben Noronha (00:20):
Yeah. I was very pleasantly surprised to see people I know in different Slack communities. I'm like, "Wow. Like this is getting cool." Like you're on that Slack and now you're on this Slack. Yeah, it's been cool.
Yeah, I think one thing we notice is that the founder community is very tight globally. And so many times when I'm doing a podcast or hanging out with someone, it turns out we know someone else who was also a founder across the world. It's such a small place. And then if you zoom in one level deeper into Southeast Asia, then it's even tighter. Right? Everyone's just like, I don't know, one degree of separation, honestly, from each other or two degrees.
Reuben Noronha (00:58): Easily. Easily.
Rubin and I'm so excited to share your journey because you've been a consultant at Bain just like me, but you've also been and founder of your own startup. And then you've also been an operator at a fast growth startup that was on its way to being a unicorn until COVID hit, caused the lingo. Lots of interesting journeys experiences. And now you have your own podcast as well, so lots to cover. But just tell us a little bit about yourself. Tell us about who Reuben is.
Reuben Noronha (01:30):
I'm originally from India. I was born on the coastal town of Goa and moved to the north of India and grew up there. I come home to start a very normal family. It's me and my mom, dad, and my sister. Mom and dad sort of moved to north of India to get us like a good education. Lived in, in Faridabad, which is a small town of Delhi. Studied, grew up there, went to university to get a degree in economics. And that was sort of a very pivotal moment because of course from school and moving to university, as for many, many people sort of got a degree in economics. Followed the standard path where the best job out of university was getting into consulting. Luckily managed to get into Bain. I worked there for about a couple of years, but I knew at the back of my mind that I eventually wanted to start something. I would play around with different ideas in university. I was part of the entrepreneurship club, so on and so forth.
After two and a half years at Bain, knew that I wanted to start a company. And my co-founder at that point of time, he was my batchmate in college. We lived together, and after doing our first job, we decided that we would start this company. We started this company back in 2016 called Nevasa, which is basically a co-living provider. You can think of it almost like we work for residential, but if you're here in Singapore, companies like Hmlet, Cove very similar business model, wherein we would manage apartments and properties for landlords and sort of lease them out to tenants and sort of create a better experience using technology. Did that for about two and a half years, and that was like my first experience of being a founder. Learned so much through that experience. It's far from what you see in the newspapers and news around all the glamor. It was much, much more hard, but it really taught me what it meant to be a founder and what it really meant to be an operator and run a business.
Literally did everything from, moving furniture to sort of pitching investors, everything under the sun. There for about two and a half years, and we realized that was out of an industry, a space we didn't want to be in for the long run. We sold the company off, exited. And then, I was like, "Okay, what do I do next?" Luckily sort of, I knew somebody who should work as Zilingo at that point of time, came down to the Zilingo to build out the monetization team. But at the start was just like, "We have a bunch of things to do. Can you just come and help?" I was like, okay.
Built a bunch of businesses at Zilingo, including the financial services business, including our software services, the Stack. And late last year in July, I decided that I wanted to go back and start my own company again. It was the pandemic, so it was, to the world was quite the counterintuitive thing to do, but for me it was the most obvious thing to do. Decided to shut up again, join EF where I met you. And yeah, that's where I am right now. Along the way, sort of been like launching. Like I launched my podcast. I've been making videos. I DJ a bit. Yeah, doing a bunch of random things on the side, but yeah that's basically a not so short introduction to me and my journey so far.
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I'm just so curious, obviously so much to go into. And a lot of people often ask themselves and say, "Should I start at management consulting as like the first stage of my career? Should I go straight to the startups or being a founder?" I'm kind of curious, what did you learn from Bain that you took away for the rest of your career?
Reuben Noronha (04:54):
That's a great question because I think what Bain really, really taught me was how to move from a very university mindset into a professional mindset. And I think that's super, super important. And truly, it seems quite trivial, but I've seen a lot of people like join startups, even at Zilingo, right out of university and basic things like, "How do you write a structured email?" Is like, you learn those hard skills in consulting. And I wouldn't say that those are the only things you learn, but sort of as a team of just learning how to operate in a very professional setting is very different from how you operate, at a college club or a university, maybe a company shot in college. I think that was one big, big skillset, which I feel still, I still use today.
People jokingly say, "Oh, you guys make slides." Yeah, we make slides. But at the end of the day, if you've got to communicate an entire business in 10 slides, that's not easy. I feel just that hard skillset of really operating in a professional setup was probably one of the most valuable things I took away from Bain which I continue to use today, and just like an analytical mindset. I think in consulting you have to be highly, highly data driven. You have to be highly analytical and it sort of helps you flex that muscle. Over those two years, two and a half years to literally being like really data driven, being very analytical, knowing how to finish stuff within timelines. Yes, you can make this better, but you've got to finish it in say that amount of time. Like those skills, I think, you don't learn in university. Consulting, I think is a great place to teach, and learn that kind of stuff.
Jeremy (06:34):Yeah. Communication is so key and such a key skill to learn. I think the joke goes like in university, if you don't write five pages to explain something, you don't get an A right.
Reuben Noronha (06:34): Yeah.
Jeremy (06:47):And in business of all it's like, "If you can't explain it to me in less than 60 seconds, I'm out of this room."
Reuben Noronha (06:47): Exactly. Correct, 100%.
Yeah. I think I feel like a lot of people underweight communication as a skillset to teach or learn, because I think we have the university mindset where longer is better and summaries, summarization and brevity is looked down upon honestly. Right? It's easier to write long paper than it is to summarize a long paper.
Reuben Noronha (07:16):
Yeah, absolutely. Even like at Bain remember, we had this thing called answer first. You always had to be answer first. Like, I still continue to use that today. When somebody asks me a question, it's not the process of how I arrived at that. Like you start with the answer and then you're like, "Okay, if you want to know how we got to that answer, let's go into it." But just things like that, they get drilled into it at consulting. You've got to be answer first. You've got to be answer first.
Jeremy (07:38):Yeah, exactly. Get the answer and put your point of view behind it. Right?
Reuben Noronha (07:41): Yeah.
Jeremy (07:42):Otherwise everyone's just kind of like, what's the point of you talking for minute one, minute two, minute three. Like, are you going to say yes or no? Are you going, up or down, right?
One interesting thing is obviously, you've learned a lot from Bain on those skillsets. Would you say, for those who are graduating and trying to weigh between joining a consulting firm or a bank or some other professional services institution, because you're in the top 3% to 5% of your cohort and they get to go there, versus joining a startup, versus founding their own startup, what would you recommend Reuben?
Reuben Noronha (08:26):
Oh man. I don't know if people are going to like this answer, but ... Of course, a big caveat is it depends on a bunch of things and we sort of double click on it. But if you are someone like me, which means a pure generalist, I would personally say, go start, go work in consulting to start with, if you have the opportunity to do that. If you have an opportunity to start off working at a great consulting firm, then I would say do that and do that purely with the mindset that, "Hey, this is a means to an end." And I would say, start on that.
In general, working at a startup, I think working at startups are fantastic. And the amount of growth you can experience is exponential. But again, it's a hit or miss. There's a chance that you can exponentially grow or nothing happens.
And it gets even worse for starting your own company. And I think that's sort of maybe like a lesson for even myself for the rest of my life, that is if you are not like, start a company, if you really, really want to solve a problem, not because you want to start a company. That's probably the worst reason to start a company. Why? Because I want to start a company. If you want to solve a problem and nobody else is solving a problem, and you can't survive if that problem is not being solved, and the only way to do it is starting a company, that's probably a good reason to start a company.
If you're at a university and you're assuming that you have all of these options open to you, I personally would say, go work in consulting for a couple of years, build out that skillset. The brand value helps a lot. But always remember that it's a means to an end. I think what consulting will a hundred percent make you do is, you'll get so comfortable with the salary, you'll get so comfortable with the title, and "Oh, I work for McKinsey. I work for Bain." And you'll never end up leaving, but you've got to promise yourself that, "Okay, I'm going to do this for the short term and I'm going to leave and I'm going to eventually do that."
Because I was listening to a podcast the other day, and what's interesting is that the average age of a founder, I think in the United States, I don't know the caveats, but maybe there is some amount of money or something like that, is somewhere in the mid thirties. It's not, a 21 year old. And yes, there will be super smart 21 year olds, but if you look at averages, it's probably not. I don't know, that's my two cents and that's sort of, Reuben's personal advice. Take it with a pinch of salt on what I would say.
Yeah, I totally agree with you. And I think the way I think about it, this is a riff on what you said, is that there are so many great people to learn from, so many great mentors, so many great coaches. And a lot of them are at professional services firms or also at startups. And I think when you're just graduating it's a great opportunity to learn something from someone. Whereas I think when you found something about yourself, you kind of miss out, you foreclose opportunity to learn from these great people. And then if you zoom in a little bit more between joining a company like McKinsey, being a BCG versus joining a startup, I think it exactly, like you said, it's hard to tell from the outside in whether the startup is going to make it a not, or more importantly if the boss is good or not, right? At least, sometimes they're great people and sometimes, it's not so great because the company's in trouble, or the boss is not that great. Right?
Reuben Noronha (11:36): Yeah.
Whereas I think that being in BCG, McKinsey they always have consistently good managers. I think the average manager there, in retrospect, back then I was like, "Oh, this average manager is not that great compared to this superstar manager." But then once you're outside the womb of management consulting, you're like, "Oh, wait." The average there is much higher than the average of management in the world today.
Reuben Noronha (12:05):
Correct. Yeah, with startups, I think it's a hit or miss. And hence I think the best way, or even decide whether to join a startup is not even what the company is doing, not even where they are in the journey. It's about the people. If you really like the people and you really like working with them, it doesn't matter if they are CHD. It doesn't matter if they are just starting off. At the end of the day, you're going to spend most of your living day and maybe somewhat of your night with those people.
But then, and right out of the university, you don't have that opportunity to sort of meet all of these people. Like I remember in consulting and now in retrospect, it's such a stupid question when at consulting in my interview it was like, "Reubin, where do you see yourself in five years?" And I had like an answer. And I'm like, what a stupid answer. Like, I don't know what I will do in five years. How do you ask a 21 year old? Where do you see yourself in five years if he doesn't know anything about the world. But sort of, I think like, your twenties is sort of, in my opinion, a good time to sort of spend exploring like random things. Like 19 year old Reuben would never think I would start a podcast, but here you are. I'm running a podcast.
Spend those years sort of experimenting and figuring out what all is really out there and how the world really works. And then yeah, then you're in a better spot to, once you've taken all the information, then sort of decide on what you want to do for the next, maybe 20 years.
Jeremy (13:23):Yeah. And so you walk into Bain. You're like, "My dream in five years is to make partner and being head
..." I'm just making words up for you. That's not true.
Reuben Noronha (13:32): Yeah. 100%.
Jeremy (13:32): Was it?
Reuben Noronha (13:34): That was me.
Jeremy (13:34): That was you? Okay.
Reuben Noronha (13:35):I was like yeah. When I went to Bain, I'm like, what's your goal? I'm like, "My goal is to become a partner at Bain." Duh. What else would be my goal?
Jeremy (13:43):I know nothing else. Right?
Okay. And then you walk in and then at some point you're like, "You know what? I rather found a company instead." What was that transition like? Because there are so many folks out there who are stuck at McKinsey, Bain, BCG, because they listened to our advice two years ago or someone similar to us. And if you're like, they've got the skillsets, and they know how to write a professional email. They know how to shop on time, and wear a suit and travel on a plane. What happened there? Why did you suddenly say, I rather be a founder than a partner?
Reuben Noronha (14:23):
A couple of reasons. I think the wrong reasons at that point of time, it was the school. This was I think back in 2013, 2014, at least in India, like the startup bubble, I wouldn't say bubble, but the wave was starting. People from engineering colleges mainly were starting companies and they were growing and it just sounded, it felt super cool. And I think back in university also sort of, I knew that was something I wanted to do at some point in my life.
Yeah, I think at that point I'm like, "Consulting is so like, everybody does it. I will do something which everybody's not doing." And that was sort of my biggest reason to get in or just toy with that idea. But why, at that point of time, I sort of, I think the first two years at Bain were immense amount of growth. When I would sort of take a pause and look at myself, "Okay, six months ago, what was I doing?" And I had significantly grown as a professional in those last six months. I'm like, "Okay, I'm going to continue doing this."
And I think the second question I would ask myself is, "Hey, can I replace my boss? If they don't come into work tomorrow, can I do their job"? And for me, it is the day I can say yes to that question, that "You know what? I can actually replace my boss." Was the day, I'm not going to learn much for the next month, two years of my life here because it will take me another two years to get promoted to that role.
Roughly about two and a half years, the answers to both those questions were, "Can I replace my boss?" I was like, "Yeah, I can do it." And even if I stay here for the next three, four years, do I eventually want to get that? The answer was no. It was too long. For me, from that point to become a partner, it was like eight years. I'm like, "Oh man. Who knows what's going to happen in eight years."
I was like, "You know what? Let's try the more risky thing to do. Let's start a company." But I think more importantly, I think for me personally, was my co-founder right. He too wanted, was in a similar spot. He too worked in consulting. He to wanted to start a company. And the fact that we both were going to do it together was probably the biggest reason why we decided at that point that, "Hey, let's do it." Because starting a company alone is just, in my opinion, impossible. Well not impossible, highly unlikely to succeed. Not because of talent or smartness. It's just like emotionally it's absolutely a roller coaster.
The fact that this, my co-founder Lewis was ready to start a company at that point, and I'm like, "Man, this is my best chance. I've known him for so many years. If I don't start with him now, I don't know if I'll ever find a great co-founder again. You know what? Let's just do it. What's the worst that'll happen. It will move up. We go bankrupt, go get jobs." We had some amount of savings at that point of time, so it was like, "Yeah, let's try it. One year, and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work."
Jeremy (16:49):How do you find that experience founding?
Reuben Noronha (16:52):
Oh man. It's I think something which everybody should go through, but it was super hard. It's super hard through that journey because I went to a decent college, and I went to Bain, so you come into the world thinking like you're the shit. But then you start dealing with people, and like I then believe like that was the biggest reality check, like the biggest slap in my face, because like in the real world, nobody cares where you went to university, what consulting job you did. We were in real estate, so we were dealing with property agents and brokers. And say like Singapore, real estate brokers in India as an unorganized sector. Basically, if you don't do anything, like you don't have a degree, you don't get a qualification, there's a high chance you'll become a real estate broker.
They didn't know what Bain was. They didn't know what consulting was. They're like, "How much money can I make with the sponsorship?" And if you couldn't give them, be like, "Oh, we'll build this. And there's a vision." They're like, "I don't care, man. Are you going to pay me brokerage or not?" I think that experience was amazing to see that and experience that firsthand about how nobody really cares about your credentials and they only care about what you can do for them.
And also just sort of what it means to run a company. You're wearing literally all the hats under the sun, customer support, operations, marketing, investors and la la. I think the first year was great. I think for us the first day when we started the company, we were bootstrapping it. We were profitable. We were running a small business, but I think in the second year, our typical mistakes, like I think my opinion first-time founders make is we thought the only way to build a company to raise venture capital. Started doing changes to the business model to make it more attractive, to raise venture capital, ended up messing everything up. And then two and a half years into it we're like, "We don't want to continue because we were so far away from where we had the actual business was." We thought at that point, and we were pretty burnt out. But no, I think those two and a half years was great. It really taught me about like, no task is too small. You've got to do everything.
And yeah, I actually enjoyed it. I actually enjoyed wearing these multiple hats and constantly bubbling between different roles, but also sort of building that tolerance to just shit. There's shit from all sides from your customers, from your partners, from like your family's always like, "Reuben are you sure? Maybe why did you leave that job at Bain? I wonder why you did that." It was, I think, a good experience. It taught me a lot, which I sort of continue to use even today. Very hard during, but in that retrospect, very, very good.
What has been a difference between your memory of being a founder during that time period versus now, years down the road, having that retrospective look? You're kind of talking about viewpoint change. Like, because you saw it one way and now that you've got more experience under your belt, you've been at other startups now, you've been hanging out with other founders who have had similar journeys as well. How has your views change on that versus being in it?
Reuben Noronha (19:49):
Yeah. I think when you're in it, it's horrible. Like I think when we were at the end of Nevasa, really, I thought it was one of the worst decisions that I made. I'm like, "Man, I took two and a half years off. Didn't make any salary. What am I going to tell a future employer? How do I justify the last two and a half years of my life?" At the end of it was pretty like, I didn't know what's going to happen. You had sort of made this promise to everybody. Luckily we hadn't raised venture capital, so there was not money involved, but you've made this commitment and promise to many people that you were going to do this and well, you didn't. It was quite scary at that point of time.
And I think there were times during the company, we were like, ecstatic. We're like, "Wow, this is it. This is amazing." And there were days where like, "Oh my God, everything is breaking." Those ups and downs continue, but towards the tail end, when we knew that this company was not going to succeed and we were not going to sort of scale this to our vision and we had to sort of sell it off, and again, in that sense, we had failed our original vision, it was pretty scary and it was very de-motivating.
But in retrospect, like once you finish that and when I started joining Zilingo and even today, and I meet other founders and I see some of the lessons I learned through force and experience, they were such important lessons. And in my opinion, there's no way you can learn those lessons if you don't experience it yourself. now when I look back and like, okay, what did I really take away from those two years? Did I take away a successful company and lots of money? Absolutely not. But did I take away skills? Did I take away experiences which will help me in my journey to eventually get to that, wherein maybe I start a company, two years, five years, or 10 years from now with the same objective. I feel I'm in now a hundred times better space of position than I was when I started off Nevasa.
Now that's very hard to see when you're in it, but once you're out of it and then you can sort of look at it with a different lens, it's so obvious that you've taken away so much, you've learned so much, which would have been impossible if you hadn't had that experience. Like it would have been impossible for me to learn all that if I'd been at Bain for another two years. But yeah, I think once you're in it, it's very hard to see it.
Yeah. I mean, startup failure, right, is such a sucky phrase because you know, I feel like there's a lot of like, I don't know, motivational imagery where it's like failure is good. Failure is a teacher. Failure is awesome. And then on the other hand of the scale your parents are like, "Failure's bad. You're a failure. My family is a failure." It's a little bit very like binary, right? Like failure is bad versus failure is awesome. Like how do you think about that? Do you think founders should, I don't know. Do you have a point of view on how founders should deal with that?
Reuben Noronha (22:27):I think there's this word that people use called failure porn.
Jeremy (22:29): Yeah.
Reuben Noronha (22:30):
And I think that is a bit much that fail, like you only learn by failing and you got to eat shit. You got to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Part of that is a bit extreme. But I think the reality is that you're embarking on this journey wherein the probability that you do not succeed. Let's not call it failure because in my opinion, you ... It depends on what scale you're measuring. It's did you reach your goal or did you not reach your goal? Let's forget about the word failure. Did you reach your goal or did you not reach your goal? And this journey that you're on, there's a high chance that you will not reach your goal and that's common knowledge that sort of success rate. Right? But even if you don't reach that goal, which you had defined, have you progressed? Have you moved forward from when you were started? Absolutely. Yes. You might have moved forward on a different dimension. You might have moved forward on a different plane. You may not have reached that goal you had originally set out for, but I can guarantee you that you move forward.
That's sort of how I look at failure wherein when you start out, when you set out, you know for a fact that the goal you're trying to reach is very, very, the chance of it is very slim. It's not because of you, because for 5,000 other reasons why you will not get that. But you also need to remind yourself that you're moving forward on some different dimension and it may not make sense to you at that point of time. But down the line, we look back and be like, "Oh wow, that's where I started. And I've actually made a lot of progress." And that's how I look at it.
And it just seemed as long as you can remind yourself, the days are super ups and downs. Like you'll be anxious one day. You'll be ecstatic the other day, and managing that, that ups and downs is very important. And I think you do that just by being like, "There's a chance I don't reach that goal I set out for myself, but that's okay because I've actually made progress along the journey of like whatever this bigger goal of what I want to do in life." That's how I see it.
I think the binaries are a bit crazy. Like I wouldn't tell people like a lot of people use the term fail, fail fast. Yeah, you should fail fast and eat shit for breakfast. Yeah, all that is important, but it's not like ... Like the motivational side in my opinion is to, like I should be a big in the past to like consume Gary Vee, like nobody's business. I used to eat him for breakfast, but like towards the end I'm like, "This is like too much. What is this crazy stuff?" Like acid, lots, lots of ourselves. That's sort of my two cents on how to think about failure and success.
Jeremy (24:52):I don't know, man. Like that doesn't sound very like, all you just said doesn't seem to fit on a poster.
Reuben Noronha (24:58):
Yeah, it doesn't fit on a poster, and because I think it is quite nuanced. I think somebody who manages to put it out into a book or a poster will probably, like that's a great ... If somebody can figure that out, it's great. But yeah, I think it's so nuanced. And like you said, I think it totally depends on the lens you look at. When you're in it, it looks completely different, but when you're out of it, it looks completely different. Yeah, like I think it's purely on what perspective you put on.
How did you recover from the burnout that you experienced with the end? And then there was obviously you had to go and do the acquisition. How did you recover? Like, did you go on a nice spa or go for a hike? I just have it ... There's a lot of founders who go through this, right? I mean over 90% of founders basically failed to achieve the outcomes, right? We're just a unicorn. There's lots of founders who are always walking around, who are at some point going to burn out. How did you recharge?
Reuben Noronha (26:04):
Yeah, so to be honest, I don't think I actively spent time recharging because as soon as we wrapped up a Nevasa and we sort of closed the deal with the company who was acquiring us, I'd already sort of got a job at Zilingo. And I knew that I was going to be sort of moving to Southeast Asia, working at this company. I actually, like right now in this part of my life, I was very nervous about, "Oh, you've been your own boss and now you're going to work for somebody else. And how is that going to be?" And to be honest, at that point of time, I had like, there was no money in my bank account. I'm like, "You know what? These guys are paying me a salary," which was like almost comparable to what I was making at Bain.
Little did I know that I spent two and a half years, so that was probably not a good representation, but I'm like, "Wow, I'm going back to make my Bain salary." I was on top of the world. I'm like, southeast Asia. I think at that point in time, I was going to move to Jakarta. I was like, "Wow, this is amazing."
I personally didn't take much of time, like spa or going for a hike or travel and things like that. Maybe I should've. But for me joining this new company was almost like a new adventure starting. And for the first, I would say first month or two, it was like, it was super like, it was a new place. It was new people. It was ... Just, everything was new and that was super, super fantastic.
But no, I think when we were wrapping that up, like we knew six months before we actually ended that this was going to be an ending. Mentally, I think we just prepared ourselves that, this was going to phase out. But so yeah. I personally didn't spend too much of time between projects. I think we wrapped up in March of, I think Feb of 2018 and by March I was already in Jakarta.
Jeremy (27:46):Wow. It sounds like a good place for you to recharge, right?
Reuben Noronha (27:51): Yeah.
At Zilingo, what was it like? I mean, so for a lot of people who you were joining at a time, a rocket ship, right? Lots of people getting added every month, every week, every day to the team, expanding geographies, expanding verticals. What was it like to be at a ground floor? Roughly what employee were you?
Reuben Noronha (27:52):I think I was somewhere, I think 105, 110 something like that.
Jeremy (28:15):Yeah, so at 100th employee. And then in two and a half years it became what? For every [crosstalk
Reuben Noronha (28:26): 900 I think.
Jeremy (28:27): 900, right?
Reuben Noronha (28:28):Yeah, right before
Basically 100 to 1,000, right? Which is like the, that's the hockey part, hockey shape part of the curve. Right? Because you add 900 employees across two and a half years. Yeah. That's pretty much one person every day.
Reuben Noronha (28:41): Roughly.
Jeremy (28:44): What was it like?
Reuben Noronha (28:46):
Oh, it was absolutely crazy. I think for me having run my own company and sort of being a founder with of course, ambitions of what sort of that company Zilingo was. I was like, "Wow. Like I have so much." And luckily I had the fortune of working with the CEO of the company. I was like, man, like these guys, they started, I think in 2015, so roughly around the same time that I started. Maybe a year before I started my company and I'm like, "Wow, look at how far these guys have reached." When I entered, I was like, "Man, like I need to learn as much as I can from all these people." The two and a half hours at Zilingo was absolutely fantastic.
I think, that's also a time where I realized that, it's super important on where I direct my energy because like the Reuben from 2013, and maybe even when I was doing Nevasa versus Zilingo, wasn't that different. Yes, I had bit more experiences and things like that, but when I saw the unit of output for every unit of input I was doing was much, much larger. And this was mainly because there was resources, there were teams, there was infrastructure, there was a platform on which I could build on top of, which I liked sort of when I was building my own company. For me, because that infrastructure and that platform existed, I could do so much more with that same amount of energy of mine.
And over the two and a half years sort of, it was absolutely fantastic in terms of building new businesses. My first job was to set up a new vertical for the company. I had zero experience in financial services, so it was me like completely learning every day on the job. And then sort of after that, really building teams and learning how to run and lead large organizations and sort of realizing at that point of time that what really builds and breaks companies is not the business idea and all of that. I think once you cross product market fit all that, gets sorted. But how do you essentially run and manage teams? And sort of me starting the journey of becoming a leader was eventually sort of, I had to run an org for 100 people. I think it was one of probably the biggest, biggest, biggest takeaways from my experience in Zilingo.
But it was crazy. Like, I think as you imagine, every start up, the size all the time, there are new things happening that you're always sort of like racing to grow faster ... Typical, I would say typical what I had imagined, what a fast-growing company would be was exactly that. But I think once you're in the fire like, "Oh man, this is, it's crazy."
Yeah, it was an amazing journey. And then the train caught COVID came out of nowhere. Right? What was that like? I mean, you kind of saw that a little bit because Asia, you have a regional, so you look at different markets. What was that first whispers of COVID? What was it like processing the news? How did it play out?
Reuben Noronha (31:37):
Yeah, so COVID, I think when it really started getting serious was I think in Feb. I think it's when Singapore also announced something political. And at that point of time, I think Sequoia, which has put out this big letter to its founders, and we were like, Zilingo was Sequoia portfolio. And this was a public letter. And then something similar at the start of the financial crisis about sending a letter to all their portfolios about you've got to piss off cash and things like that.
And when the letter sort of went out and the last time this had happened was the financial crisis. And it was like, "Oh man. Nobody knows how long this is going to last. Capital raising in this environment is going to be very hard. Businesses, we didn't know actually the extent of how much business would come to a standstill in this back in Feb. But as the months progressed and we were like countries who are going into lockdown. India, for example, went into lockdown. Indonesia, I don't think when fully locked down, but they were sort of clamping down. Thailand, Singapore. It was an ravaging the US. For us, travel absolutely stopped. Suits like, "Oh man, like the shifting gears." We started 2020 with this high. Like, I think at that time we also closed an acquisition. We were like all guns ready, like 2019 stock, we ha just closed our series D, 2020 stock. We just closed the acquisition. And we're like, "Man, if this is going to be anything like 2019, all guns blazing."
But when COVID happened, like oh man, we had to really, really think about longterm for the company. And as in South Korea, I think like most people are acting for like, I wouldn't say most, but a lot of people in the industry, I think desperate call, desperate measures. Right? We had to do layoffs. We had to scale back the business in some parts, shut down some offices, which we knew like, if there's a given business unit was not going to turn profitable in say the next eight to nine months, or at least have a clear path to profitability. Like we didn't know how long the pandemic was going to last. And to be honest, with what's happening with India right now, who is to say how long it is going to last?
Yeah, at that point in time, I think we had a really, really ... And it was very hard. It was my first time that I had to do layoffs on people on my team and man, that's probably like, I think the lowest point of my journey as a Zilingo. I think that in retrospect, again, I know a couple of years later I'll look back and I'll be very grateful that I had the opportunity to do that. Mainly because it taught me, why you need to be super careful when you hire talent. Because the ultimate shittiest feeling as a leader, as a CEO of whatever, is when you have to layoff people because they decided they would join you. They took a risk on the company and now you're like, "Hey, sorry." That was very, very hard.
But luckily I think now the company is sort of much more stable. I think COVID is, people have started trying to get used to this new, whatever new normal. But I think fashion in particular got completely slammed. Think about yourself, when is the last time you bought some clothes, maybe in 2020, right? You probably didn't unless it was like lounge wear or something like underwear maybe.
Jeremy (34:38):Pretty much. Exactly. More shots.
Reuben Noronha (34:46):And you're not doing that you're going on. More shorts.
Yeah, I think fashion in particular got quite a beating. We of course pivoted like other things to sort of keep the business going. And so now I think the business now is in a better spot, but yeah, I think COVID was, like for many other businesses, was pretty bad for the company.
And what was your personal experience of it? Were you scared? I mean, because now you've gone through two sets of experiences, obviously. One as a founder where you are in charge. You own it. You own the relationship going through a tough time. And the second time, to some extent you are a leader. You're also an employee going through a set of tough times. What was the difference in tone and feeling between those two experiences?
Reuben Noronha (35:28):
That's interesting because at sort of my first company, I was playing the role of purely a founder. And I think that had some responsibilities. And yeah, of course like knowing that there were tough times was hard. At Zilingo I was an employee, yes, so it was a side different. It wasn't my company. I could theoretically always go get another job. But what sort of made it slightly harder was that I was actually a leader for other people. I wasn't the founder, but I had a lot of people who sort of depended on me. Like I hired them.
That sort of made it very, very tricky, but in the back of my mind is like, "Yeah, Reuben can eventually go find another job. Yes." But sort of telling these 100 people or telling even like maybe the seven or eight people who directly reported to me and I hired them and I was convincing them that, "Hey, you've got to come and join this. Now telling them that, "Okay. I'm sorry." That was hard.
I would say like net, I would say it was probably the same amount of hardship, if I would say. I think different parts are different kinds of it, but yeah, on an absolute level, I think it was different, but it was quite, quite hard.
Jeremy (36:35):You're going through this and after some time plays, the movie keeps playing and then you're like, "Let's go to Entrepreneur First and hang out with Jeremy." How was that-
Reuben Noronha (36:46):Wow, I think Jeremy is going to be like-
Jeremy (36:49):You're like, "You know what? I want to fall again.
Reuben Noronha (36:52):Yeah. To be honest, I was like, "I felt about this guy called Jeremy and he's going to go to EF. I have to
get in there."
Jeremy (36:52): I wish.
Reuben Noronha (37:00):
But jokes aside, all of these two and a half years, I had learned so much. And I always knew that I was going to go back and start another company. And now we never said sort of like in the middle of COVID and I think because you were in, I just spent so much time with myself. I'm like ... It was also 2020. I'm like, "Oh, what it's like. It's the end of the decade. It's the decade which started with me going to university." 2010 is when I started university and I'm like, "Oh, so much has happened over the last decade." And in fact, shameless plug, that's what my podcast is about, about these stories over a decade.
But as I was in 2020 and the circuit breaker, you couldn't meet people. You were at home. You're like, "Okay, what's the next decade going to be?" And I knew starting another company was always going to be a part of it. And I think, look at the model stuff I've learned in the last two and a half years. Think of Reuben as a first-time founder, starting Nevasa, and think of Ruben now. It's like two different people.
I was like, okay, I knew I wanted to start a company. It was always in the back of my mind. COVID like weirdly enough, even though it created a lot of challenges and problems, in my opinion, and how I see the world is there's always opportunity in changes of immense amount of flux. The world was going to change it the way it operated. I was very particular about, if in fact I had to start a company, I was like almost hell-bent that I wanted to start a company which could not have existed before COVID, because in my opinion COVID sort of had resulted in things like remote podcast. I would actually never have started a podcast before COVID because I would have this perception that a podcast can only be done in person.
Similarly, I think there are many businesses which have come out of COVID, which would have been, I won't say impossible to start, but would have grown very slow pre-COVID. I was like, this is going to be a great time. Everybody starts at the same place. Nobody has any kind of unfair advantage of running a business prior-COVID. COVID happened now to the world, so everybody who's trying to start a post-COVID business starts today. And I was like, "You know what? I'm going to try and do it because there are ... I'm fortunately lucky to have some mode of runway for myself personally." And very few people are going to like try and start a company in this uncertain environment.
Luckily I dealt with uncertainty quite a bit in the past. I'm like, "You know what? Let's just do it." And now is the best time. Luckily sort of, I got into EF at that point of time. This is a great place for me to even, toil around and experiment. That is how sort of EF happened. While for me, it was the most intuitive thing to do. Wherein, there was an opportunity. There was going to be a world which was different from the world before. And everybody was sort of shouting on the same ground from the same starting point. And thus, I did not have, I would be as competitive as anybody else who is trying to start a post-COVID business.
Jeremy (39:33):What would you say is the difference between. Entrepreneurial First and On Deck?
Reuben Noronha (39:39):
You are the fastest EF page, you are On Deck because you pay them. That's the most basic. And I think that's a fundamental important because like it's two different mindsets, right? And I think that premise sort of explains what the experience in both of these places are. Whereas EF sort of investing in you because they think that you can start a company and in return, they want a stake of you company. And the entire experience through EF is very, very, in my opinion, very single minded, start a company.
But as in On Deck, you are paying them. They've recovered their costs. Basically what they use, the word it's a buffet. You eat, you pay your entry fee, then you do whatever you want. We don't really care. It's a bit more chilled.
But I think both of them are creating their own regards. I think for me, if I'm to start a company EF is great because you're in a group of about 80 people who are all there with the same objective. And it's an environment which pursue you for that objective, start a company. Otherwise, finding a co-founder, finding a co-founder to leave their job at that point of time, super, super hard.
But yeah, I think EF is much more like strict is not the word, but like very rigid. It's very one track. And if you want to start a company, that's exactly what you need. You don't want like random stuff happening, like mixers and wait for events and social gatherings. You're here to start a company. Boom. But if you're still in this phase where you're trying to figure out, you're not really sure, start a company, you work at a company. What I want to do? What kind of company do I want to start? Then, sort of, I think the On Deck. I did the On Deck podcasting, but sort of the On Deck experience is more conducive to like figure things out, versus I know exactly what I want to do. Well, what would you say? You've been through both of them.
I would say EF is very defined around a geography as well beyond what you just said. Obviously everybody's in Singapore, which is great, especially if you want to build a business with someone in person. But it also limits the pool as well, because then it's a much smaller pool, right? Or folks, who are ready to found a company in this country at the same time. And I think that's why they can only be in the major hubs. They can't be in a tier two city, to be honest.
Whereas, I think On Deck is very focused on that global distributed community. Long story short, maybe there's some people who are also in the same geography as you are, and that could be seen as a downside. But the upside is, yeah, you get to work with people in the States or Australia, or you can be a tier two or tier three location, ecosystem and still be able to co-found someone. I think there's a lot of value there.
I think obviously, I think the second thing is, EF for cost continues to be very focused on a little bit more technical folks in terms of academia, scientists, researchers as well, of course, computer engineers. I think very strong, in terms of their proportionality, especially versus Antler in Singapore and Southeast Asia.
Reuben Noronha (41:20): Correct.
Jeremy (42:34):I think that's a great place to build a deep tech startup, and I think they're not afraid of it.
Reuben Noronha (42:38): Yeah.
Versus On Deck, obviously there's a lot of engineers who are joined the program, but less scientists. I would say less academics. The startups tend to lean towards a little bit more towards the SaaS, B2C, B2B, but not too much under deep tech, I would say. Yeah, so that's how I think about it.
Reuben Noronha (42:58):Yeah. One big reason for me to join EF was the possibility to start a deep tech company. Like if not for
EF, Reuben working with a PhD to start like a deep tech company, it's like impossible. Like that's never going to happen. But I'm like, "Hey, EF could create that for me, so let me just try it out." And yeah, the kind of people I met was like, wow. And I think there's a really, really on to something because there's so much like ... A lot of these PhD people who've studied like eight, nine years, right, they've done, there's millions of dollars being put into research and there's so much debt and some of it takes like most startup and commercial and people like yourself, to come in and be able to sort of bring that to market.
But so yeah, I think they're really, really onto something. But, yeah three months I think is quite tight. And for us it was remote, right? The biggest fear of co-founders, that co-founder split and to sort of build that relationship in three months, at least for me, the person I was working with was not even in Singapore. I think the guys who were in Singapore, were meeting up, but like I was working with this guy in Vietnam, Fuc. I actually never met him. And by the way, we're still great friends, but actually I still haven't met him. It's a bit hard to start and I didn't want to really take other people's money. Raising capital when you're really not sure is in my opinion, very, very, I would love to stay away.
Jeremy (44:22):Yeah. I think that's the tricky part for like the accelerated program by Entrepreneur First and Antler is
that there's a timeline. Right?
Reuben Noronha (44:31): Yeah.
Jeremy (44:31):And so it's relatively compressed, which is understandable because they're paying your money, in terms of salary.
Reuben Noronha (44:36): Correct. Of course. Yeah.
As well as the equity investment. But it is tricky because the stability of the team is not necessarily in where the founders know each other, and are both committed to the idea, and committed to the growth trajectory and that makes it unstable, which is not a bad thing. I mean, I think speed creates his own instability.
Reuben Noronha (44:56): Correct.
Jeremy (44:57):But it's something to be aware of and move quickly on as a founder joining the program. Whereas On
Deck is very much like, you can take a time, asynchronous, lots of photos.
Reuben Noronha (45:07): It's a club.
It's a club where ... I think lots of people found their co-founders through the program. It's just, it was much slower. And I think people get a little bit more like, they don't feel like they have to. They're not under the gun to found someone they're not comfortable with. Right? Yeah, I mean the answer maybe is like, it's not do one or the other, but do both maybe.
Reuben Noronha (45:26):
Yeah. I think are two very different ways of doing this. We did the podcast in fellowship, but I'd be curious to maybe know what the On Deck founder fellowship is. I think that's a complete apple to apple comparison and how that sort of works. I don't know.
Yeah. I think for me, I think I definitely, I was referring to Founder Fellowship and I guess you're referring to the Podcast Fellowship. But yeah, I think it's interesting. If you're a large community of folks, like you said, a club.
Wrapping things up here, Reuben, I think you've also been launching a podcast. Could you please quickly share about what a topic is and where people can go to listen to your podcasts?
Reuben Noronha (46:03):
I run a podcast called Drum Roll Reuben's podcast where I talk to people who I've known for about 10 years about their life over the last decade, the things they've learned, their stories and how they've changed as people. It was started off as a very pet project wherein I would basically catch up with people who went to university with me. And again, like I mentioned, like 2010 was when I started university, 2020 is sort of when I started the podcast, a decade had passed and we're sort of reflecting over the last decade. You can find it on Spotify, you know, Ankle, Apple podcast. Just look up Reuben's podcast and you can find us on Instagram at Reuben's podcast.
Awesome. Thank you so much for Reuben for sharing today. And you know, three things that I really appreciated from our conversation. The first of course, was the fact that you had such a brilliant encapsulation of what it is to be a consultant in the first years of your life versus joining a startup versus founding. I think the second, of course, is what's it like to be a startup founder in the good times and the bad times and the failure component versus society. And of course the third thing is the interesting part about Zilingo, getting hit by a train called COVID and your personal feelings about it. And I think that's a lot of instruction there because I think no founder's life and no tech operator's life is going to be all smooth sailing.
Reuben Noronha (46:42): It never is.
Jeremy (47:31):It never is. Awesome. Well, thank you so much Reuben. It's been a pleasure to have you on the show.
Reuben Noronha (47:36):Thanks Jeremy. Thanks a ton for having me. It was super, super fun chatting with you.