Developing effective local teams for cross-border companies

Janio co-founder and CEO Junkai Ng lets Insignia Review take a peek at the key people management practices behind operating a regional logistics ecosystem.

Key takeaways 

  1. Set up the local team by building top down AND bottom up.
  2. It’s not about finding the ideal employee, but bringing together the ideal colleagues.
  3. “People managers” act as conduits for seamless product implementation across diverse markets. 

While startups in Southeast Asia often figure out product-market fit and develop their defensibility in an origin market — usually the country where the founders are based — it is inevitable that these companies grow regionally in order to thrive. That not only comes with building an adaptive product but also an adaptive organization, one made up of teams in different localities catering to different market needs. 

Janio Asia co-founder and CEO Junkai Ng shares how they set up their local teams, find talent for a fast-growing startup in a traditional industry, and manage product implementation across different markets. 

Set up the local team by building top down AND bottom up

There are generally two ways to go about setting up a team in a new market. Either HQ can hire a local as head of country first or send people to do the initial setup. 

It is too much to expect that a fresh local team would be able to lead country operations with 100% cultural and direction alignment. They may be able to move faster, but they would operate with their own agendas and SOPs. If not handled carefully, this can have severe consequences down the line. On the other hand, sending over a team to a new market trades off speed for alignment. The team’s acclimatization can weigh heavily on the company’s runway. 

Janio got rid of the tradeoff problem and did both approaches.  

“What we do now is station folks we trust in Singapore overseas for three to six months, and give them a fixed set of agenda to achieve within that period. Once they hit those milestones, we build a secondary local team below them who can inherit those roles. By then the culture has set in, and is closely aligned to what Janio represents in Singapore. Imagine in Southeast Asia you have six or seven offices across the region. If every country office has a different culture, you’re screwed. That’s something that we are very cautious about.” 

This approach does not apply for all countries they operate in, however. Given Janio’s adaptive approach to cross-border logistics, full service hubs, or countries with strategic value in terms of import and export, receive more attention in terms of human resource development. 

Pure origin markets have less functional requirements, and tend to be more commercial heavy than operational. The culture is still there, but it doesn’t have to be as strongly ingrained as a full-service team with many moving parts.  

It’s not about finding the ideal employee, but bringing together the ideal colleagues 

Finding top talent in the logistics industry to work for a startup is tricky. On one hand, experience is necessary to implement at industry standards and more efficiently talk to incumbents. At the same time, the desire to build hands-on is not something seen often in veterans. In Indonesia and Singapore, the industry doesn’t have a lot of young blood. 

The true gem for a logistics startup would be to find the rare individual who understands the industry well and also wants to get their feet on the ground. But a startup can’t scale talent on a pursuit of rarity. The key here is for startups to pull talent into the company by giving them the opportunity to work and grow with the right people. Instead of finding the ideal employee with grit and experience, Janio built their team to reflect this mix.

“Functionally, we see this mix through our team. My teammates have twenty years in the logistics space. We complement each other. The majority of our company does not come from the logistics industry. The ones who do come from the logistics industry serve as advisors or mentors while the rest, mostly product guys and developers, have the freedom to build something they believe is valuable based on everyone’s input and feedback. They go back and forth with each other to figure out how to innovate within boundaries. This frees us from the baggage that comes with being in the sector for a very long time.” 

Weave in “people managers” for seamless product implementation across diverse markets

Going through the process of building a local team with a top-down, bottom-up approach and pulling in talent that works is all for nothing if the product can’t be rolled out effectively across markets. For Janio it’s all about placing the right conduits — channels for HQ to validate and communicate product development issues.  

“When the country team reaches critical mass — for example recently in Indonesia we hit 20 people — we’ll get a people manager, someone who is very international but at the same time understands the locality they are assigned to. Oftentimes, the local teams are not very vocal about problems with implementation. With strong interpersonal skills and local language ability, these people managers are able to extract the essence of the problems, and translate that to the HQ so we can target those issues.” 

Janio is hiring across Southeast Asia! For more information about open positions visit https://janio.asia/careers/.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *