1) What's your story?
I was born in Bangkok, Thailand. I spent most of my childhood with a Chinese grandmother who loved singing. As a result, I was able to sing a full Chinese song (Tian Mi Mi 甜蜜蜜) before I could even speak Thai or Chinese.
Towards the end of my junior high school, I succeeded in most subjects but repeatedly failed the English language. My test scores were consistently 2 out of 20, a score given for writing my name in English. Things changed after my 3-day family trip to Singapore. I realized my English improved in 3 days much faster than 10+ years of trying to memorize vocabulary and grammars at school in Thailand. So, at the age of 14, I told my dad I would quit and move to Singapore by myself.
It was my first big decision but one that shaped me to be very independent. In senior high school, I was sold on the American Dream, so I wanted to move to the US. I did not apply to any university in Thailand, and ended up in the US.
During my time at university, I struggled to find what I wanted to do, so I did everything. I declared four majors, took 21 units every semester (most people took 16), managed 3 organizations, and tried 7 internships. It was only after my internship with Amazon the last summer before graduation that I found technology company intriguing. I went back to school and took a Digital Entrepreneurship class and fell in love with it. I dropped everything and focused on getting a job in the Bay Area. I eventually got a job at a game startup in the financial district of San Francisco as an Associate Marketing Manager because my boss told me I already had 2+ years of work experience by the time I graduate. Three months in, I was promoted to run product marketing and management for a $200M revenue game. After almost a year in the company, I decided to pursue another opportunity and now I am in Jakarta full-time.
2) What did you want to be as a child?
As a child, I wanted to be either a Historian or Psychologist, both career paths that made it onto the top list of biggest disappointment for Asian parents. After my tennis and swimming practices, I would be in the school library reading the Three Kingdoms (三国) or Thai history books until it closed. I think I am always curious about the background and history of someone or something because it helps me understand how things came about and why someone made a certain decision. In the nights I couldn't sleep, I still read European, South American, Middle Eastern and Asian histories online.
3) Tell us something unique about yourself!
Most people don't really know I could also speak Chinese and Korean (and now a little bit of Bahasa Indonesia). The two of the three majors I dropped in college were Linguistics and East Asian Languages and Cultures. I also had lunch with Warren Buffett in Omaha before graduation after annoyingly emailed his secretary for two years.
4) What brought you to Jakarta?
When I was working for my last company, I had this paradoxical feeling of pride and guilt. I proudly drove the successes of our game to achieve record-breaking revenue months after months, but internally I felt worse about myself for emptying people's wallet as soon as possible. So, when I decided to leave, I told myself I would only work for something that brings real values to people. Plus, I have been looking at moving somewhere closer to home.
Frankly, I didn't put Indonesia on top of the list. I was looking into Hong Kong, so I reached out to Michele Daoud at Monk's Hill who was then based in Hong Kong. She connected me with a list of startups, including Kulina in Indonesia. Only then I started reading and looking more into Indonesia.
As for Kulina, it was when I got a chance to meet my co-founders, Andy Hidayat and Andy Fajar both of whom are very successful serial entrepreneurs. Andy Hidayat lead one company to IPO before, and Andy Fajar has run multiple successful culinary ventures. When I spoke to them, we knew I was the missing piece on the product management, data and technology part. It was an easy decision.
5) What do you notice about the different tech/working environments between US and Southeast Asia?
I had a couple of internships in Thailand and Singapore, and am now working in Indonesia, so I have a little bit of overview in the region. It was kind of a cultural shock when I moved to Indonesia. I have never really managed a team in Southeast Asia, so my working style is very American. For most companies I worked at in the US, people would hate you if you told them what to do step by step. They preferred to be given freedom, and took care of their career to fulfill their dreams. Most are not afraid to speak up regardless of their seniority.
In Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore to a certain extent, power distance still exists. Culturally, the languages force people to be respectful that way. When my team started calling me “Pak” or Mister, I usually told them to stop because it created the barrier. The seniority is one of the challenges for truly open communication and meritocracy.
People in Indonesia also treat colleagues pretty much like their friends, which could build a strong bond but also prove to be difficult in discussing performance issues. Most people were not trained to think about their own future because everything has been determined by either parents or society. My conversations around what people want to do 2-5 years from now often put us in awkward situations because most people don’t think that far out. Not because they are not ambitious, but most people don’t even know what’s possible.
However, I do see this trend is changing as more and more technology companies become successful. People are now given an opportunity to determine their own path. More and more SEA turtles (Southeast Asian talents who are returning back home after studying/ working abroad) are using their knowledge and skills to help develop the tech ecosystem in the region.
6) What's the most exciting thing about building a startup in Southeast Asia?
The opportunity to not only build a startup but also to shape the direction of the ecosystem. Aside from Singapore, the remaining countries in Southeast Asia are still very early in their startup ecosystem journey. The success and failure of your startup will have an impact on your respective countries. I have had so many exciting opportunities to contribute to both ecosystems in Thailand and Indonesia, and could see the impact beyond my startup. That coupled with how fast we’re changing is what pushes me to do better and be better every single day.
7) What has been the biggest lesson you learned since you started building Kulina?
I have led and managed a team but never led the whole organization with two successful serial entrepreneur co-founders. I am fortunate that they trust me in making decisions and leading the company to the direction I envision. It always comes back to the people in your organization, especially in the emerging markets. People you hire, promote and fire will determine the course of your startup success or failure. I am spending more than 50% of my time on recruiting and coaching people. Afterall, I am now building not just a product but a company.
8) What do you do to stay on top of relevant news/ trends in the startup world?
There are mainly three main topics I follow, startup news, leadership and product management. For latest updates, I follow Techcrunch for Western news, Technode for Chinese news, Tech in Asia for Southeast Asian news and Techsauce for Thai news. I also subscribed to a few email newsletters to keep my skill up-to-date in addition to reading books.
9) What piece of advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
I often told people there is no one path to be a successful entrepreneur. Not everyone has to dropout of school to build companies. I think it's about finding that one thing that bothers you every single day if you don't do it. My friends used to ask me what I would rather be doing now if I can choose? My answer is nothing else because I chose what I do now and I wouldn’t trade anything for it.
Entrepreneurship is not only about finding an idea and starting a company. I wasn't the original co-founders of Kulina. Some of my team members are more entrepreneurial than most founders and CEOs out there who just do this to ride on the bandwagon.
Find that problem you would be excited to wake up and work on days and nights, and choose people you want to be spending time solving it with. It's going to be a long journey but it will be a worthwhile one with the right people.
10) If your life was a book, which book would it be?
It would be an unfinished book and a lot of blank pages. Everyday is a new journey. It might be up and down but I am the one deciding how I am going to react to it. But if you ask me what the title of a book I might end up writing in the future, it would probably be "Want to be exceptional? Be the exceptions." Looking back to my career, it is a lot of impossible things or things that most people don't do. I always find the exception to the rules, and I guess that’s why I am running a startup now.