Global Cultures

Reframing Perspectives: Suit To Uber-geek

May 2017

We talk to the risk-takers who quit their cushy corporate jobs to found tech start-ups

Paul Ames
Career coach

The decision to quit a cushy corporate job and found a tech start-up can be the best you ever make, if you get lucky - just look at Canva: the Sydney-based digital design 2011 start-up now valued at $456 million.

But, because 90 per cent of start-ups fail, a gradual transition may be wise.

“The main thing is helping people realise that you don't have to take a massive leap and quit on the spot or re-mortgage your house to make the transition," says Perth career coach Paul Ames, whose stated mission is to help miserable clients find a purpose.

Ames says you can make a successful shift to the start-up space while you’re still employed. “We all have the same 24 hours in a day, so when people say: 'I don't have time to build a business,' I say: 'How badly do you want to change your current situation into doing something you love?'" says Ames.

He’s got some serious career-change form: Ames was formerly a heavy-duty tyre fitter for the mining giant Rio Tinto.

Corporate employees have an advantage with some transferable corporate skills – these include time management, which will help them prioritise the most profitable activity. A corporate career also instils resilience and adaptability, which are vital because every organisation must adjust and iterate in step with demand or trends.

Another corporate workplace requisite - a grasp of procedure - comes in handy when scaling a business by hiring a team, an essential when you reach your peak as a “solopreneur".

Peak pressure

Alas, a salaried career fails to teach the value of risk-taking. To grow, you must put your income on the line and learn that entrepreneurship is a full-time obsession. Forget eight-hour days, Ames says.

Consultant Maria Doyle, who divides her time between Bali and Perth, agrees that wannabes underestimate the pressure.

“And many often realise too late that there's a difference between having great content, products and services that can change lives - and actually having to sell them," says Doyle, whose clients share a thirst to escape corporate grind.

Entrepreneurship also fails to provide the peace-of-mind supplied by the nine-to-five. Kiss goodbye to that guaranteed pay cheque, says Doyle.

Hustle

Survival requires hustle or a steady stream of referrals-based business, which only grows slowly, which can be the last straw, driving some entrepreneurs back to the cubicle.

“They're leaders, they're change-makers, but they're not natural-born salespeople," Doyle warns.

Those who jump ship despite the pitfalls often find themselves in good company; start-up culture can attract the best and brightest.

And who knows? You just might found the next Canva.

Meantime, we meet some select APAC risk-takers who quit their safe corporate jobs to go solo and  build flourishing start-ups through terrific creativity and grit.

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Maria Doyle

James Wakefield
InStitchu co-founder

INSTITCHU - Robin McGowan and James Wakefield, Australia

Founded by two former corporate players, the online tailoring service InStitchu is valued at $10 million. Last year, InStitchu made Business Insider's top-20 ranking of Australia's hottest start-ups.

The service lets you design your own suit over the internet for between $400 and $1000 - a bargain because, as the start-up's founders say, a traditional retailer would charge up to $4000 for the same garment.

InStitchu now also offers the familiar option of entering a physical showroom - in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, or New York. There, each client can measure up, pick a style then place an order, which is then executed in InStitchu's Shanghai tailoring salon.

The boundary-busting start-up owes its existence to two reformed "corporate suits": eBay strategist Robin McGowan and Macquarie stockbroker James Wakefield. The duo met as undergraduates at the University of Technology Sydney where McGowan studied property economics and Wakefield completed a business degree.

The two UTS peers started their online menswear shop in 2012, spurred by the hassle involved in assembling working wardrobes as they began climbing the corporate ladder.

McGowan, weary of brash shop assistants urging him to buy bland off-the-rack fodder, had begun to dread shopping.

Devising a solution to his own dilemma hatched the idea of letting customers design sharp suits to their own specifications, from the comfort of their preferred digital device – and he and Wakefield started their new business as a small sideline to their day jobs.

While at Macquarie, Wakefield, who lists his influencers as Tim Ferriss and Ruslan Kogan, made no secret of the budding side-business that would become a driving passion. Wakefield's candour worked in his favour, because many of his fellow financiers wound up buying InStitchu suits.

McGowan and Wakefield ascribe their success to creativity tempered with corporate nous.

McGowan's eBay stint gave him a robust understanding of Australian online retail, which partly explains the amount of repeat business their start-up gets. The typical client reorders no less than three times a year - every 122 days, according to Wakefield.

Romesh Jayawickrama
BankerBay founder

BANKERBAY Romesh Jayawickrama, Singapore

Singaporean financial services industry veteran Romesh Jayawickrama is the creative brain behind a “dating app for investment banking".

Jayawickrama's app, BankerBay, connects institutional investors around the world to qualified investment opportunities. Speed is the key: the BankerBay app is designed to let users raise capital, trade companies and spot investments in a snap, with transactions taking just three to five minutes.

The nimble start-up yet to register its fourth birthday has raised $2 million in seed funding and is expanding aggressively. Beyond its Singapore base, BankerBay boasts offices in Bangalore, New York and California. Shanghai and London are next.

Meanwhile, Jayawickrama finds time to run a corporate services advisory Amura, which he co-founded in 2005.

Amura began while Jayawickrama was the head of equity sales for Singapore and Malaysia at the emerging-market investment hub CLSA, leaving in June 2005. Earlier, he had worked as ING Securities' director of equities and vice-president of equities at Nomura in London, and he holds an economics and politics degree from the University of Bath.

He founded his smart deal-matching platform in 2013, after years of pent-up frustration. He says that the way that corporate deals originated had changed little in hundreds of years, and was exasperated by the consequent bottlenecks dogging the whole banking sector.

His innovation could disrupt the traditional investment banking space, reforming the deal-making chain by unlocking talent wasted on early heavy lifting.

Less grind would mean more time to focus on tricky transactions demanding complex financial know-how. The result, he reasoned, would be shorter deal time-lines - greater efficiency.

Now used by financial institutions across APAC, North America, Western Europe and elsewhere, BankerBay is touted as the world's largest deal platform.

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Le Hong Minh, "It is a beautiful thing when a career and a passion come together"

VNG Le Hong Minh, Vietnam

Another former financier, Le Hong Minh, runs the Vietnamese internet juggernaut, VNG. In Vietnam, the Monash University-educated tycoon is a legend.

Growing up, like most of his peers, Minh adored Nintendo. He completed a finance degree at Monash, returning to Vietnam in 2001, where he was hired as an investment banker by the financial giant VinaCapital.

Minh’s entrepreneurial bent kicked in early.

After attending the 2002 World Cybergames in Korea, he opened an internet cafe back home, where he locked on to a Korean game called MU Global, which was popular worldwide, but only in English. Keen to make MU available in Vietnamese, he headed to Korea and tried to win the right to license the blockbuster but failed.

Cue a pivot to another viral game called Swordsman, devised by the Chinese software firm Kingsoft. This time, a meeting with the Kingsoft team won him permission to license the title. Distributed by VinaGame, as Minh's start-up which emerged in 2004 was first called, Swordsman gained a million users fast - just after its 2005 launch.

The same year, the canny creative's start-up raised its first round of funding from the finance network IDG. Plus, Minh achieved every entrepreneur's dream, reaping profit in his first year.

Emboldened, he unleashed more games and branched into online entertainment, social networking, and e-commerce. Backers included investment giant Goldman Sachs. In May 2016, VNG bought 38 per cent of the e-commerce platform Tiki for VND383 billion.

Minh has come a long way since his obscure corporate phase that laid the groundwork for his gaming-geared behemoth; his company’s motto - "It is a beautiful thing when a career and a passion come together" - sums up his charmed start-up success best. 

Dream On

Maria Doyle says the post-corporate start-up trend is booming among professionals with niche skill-sets. Despite the discipline that entrepreneurship demands, it's the way of the future, Doyle says, adding that self-employment means a less rigid schedule that yields the same output - forget commuting committed to one employer, she suggests.

Entrepreneurship coach Frederic Chanut, who works across Southeast Asia, says that the start-up field is now thriving, because of tech ecosystem support. Software solutions like Google apps and WordPress let you launch in under a day.

Plus, in Australia and Singapore, admin has simplified: you can register a business and open a bank account in under a day, supported by cost-shaving perks - no fees on your bank account and hosting-company server credits.

Chanut adds that dread of failure is fading, thanks to the glamour that Silicon Valley start-ups radiate. While sites like TechCrunch and Mashable grow mainstream, tech companies top the stock market valuation list; meantime movies like The Social Network spruik the dream of being an overnight billionaire.

“What was once the realm of nerds, dorks and geeks is now becoming increasingly trendy." And it's addictive, the strategist says, adding that if you tank, you can return to the office, fill your bank account then relaunch.

 

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