We’ve shared the stories of many founders and companies that thrived on having local DNA. In this episode, we flip the script and hear from a market launcher who went on the ground in Indonesia to tap into the market’s social commerce opportunity. Albert Ho, Chief Strategy Officer at RateS, the cross-border social commerce platform enabling Indonesians to thrive as resellers and microentrepreneurs, talks about what it’s like to build an SG headquartered and Indonesia focused company and develop that company culture on the ground in a relatively unfamiliar market.
Albert’s past professional experiences lie in consulting, venture capital, and startups in New York, Singapore, and Jakarta. Thanks to these experiences, he is also an active thought leader on startup growth and e-commerce. Nowadays he has been driving growth for RateS in Indonesia, and personally also has been diving deeper into the local market and culture.
This call was recorded 3 November 2020.
1:21 Outlining Albert’s role as Head of Strategy at RateS;
3:17 Initial experience having to expand operations to Indonesia;
4:34 Biggest learning from exploring Indonesia startup landscape;
6:03 Developing culture in Indonesian team;
8:07 Hiring and talent retention best practices in Indonesia;
11:04 Advice for foreign founders looking to set up in Indonesia;
14:35 Advantage being a foreign founder focusing on Indonesia;
16:41 Rapid-fire Questions: Recommended books, ways to learn Bahasa Indonesia, place to travel in Southeast Asia, etc.;
Paulo: Yeah, I think you have some very unique experiences, in the sense that coming from Singapore you’ve started operations for Rate in Indonesia, but first things first, can you share with us how you came to that position you’re in now, how you came to lead strategy and growth at RateS and what exactly your role entails?
Albert: Yeah, sure, sure. So I started with managing operations and finance. So I was brought in as the country manager for — previously it was still RateX in Singapore — as the country manager because this is way back in early 2017.
So then we already have plans to expand to Indonesia so I was put in as country manager previously. So then, I worked on a few key areas. So I worked mostly on strategy, operations, and growth. So in terms of strategy-wise, it’s actually working with our CEO Jake on fundraising, on synthesizing the different plans, looking at the competitive landscape, coordinating different teams together, and basically strategizing how best to hit the next fundraising goals, strategizing on what is the vision for RateS three years down the road, five years down the road, ten years down the road, whether we can take any inspiration from what we saw in China, what we saw in the US, and what we saw in India, and basically imagining how RateS can be like a localized in Indonesia, itself.
So another big component that I do is also operations. So, I used to do a lot of operations work myself. But now the team has grown so I kind of oversee the cross-border logistics team, the inventory management team, local procurement, and customer success also. But of course, we have individual managers as well. So I just mainly provide the context for them to effectively do their work.
In Indonesia growth is a bit different. So we actually focus a lot on our offline sales processes and then we hired an overall country manager for this salesforce so I’m not doing as much so mostly managing strategy, making operations, right now.
Paulo: Yeah. So you know, even if you mentioned you’re not doing as much now, I still think that your presence was, I would say pretty crucial in laying the foundation for Rate’s operations to really get off the ground in Indonesia. And so what was that experience like, especially initially when you were assigned to this task of building out the presence of Rate in Indonesia?
Albert: So, I think that’s a great question. So, we really only explored expanding to Indonesia in mid of 2018. So, I was sort of tasked by Jake to start really scoping out what to do in Indonesia, what to expand in Indonesia, how to change RateS, and how to localize RateS in Indonesia.
So we started looking at different companies that work. So way back in 2018, we actually have no idea how this whole expansion project will be like, So, I guess for us, we also were quite lucky because we do have a lot of connections in Indonesia itself, connections such as our friends from college, our investors’ network, their portfolio company.
Even when we reached Indonesia itself, we already lined up several key interviews with the key potential employees of the company, at least for the Indonesian operations. So I would say initially it was pretty tough because you have no network, you have no connections, and so forth, but once you take a step back and you look at all these connections that you have, and then you can piece things together. Then from there, we hired our first employee, I think in February 2019, and then we started slowly expanding our team, having a proper office, and so forth.
So I would say initially it was pretty tough because you have no network, you have no connections, and so forth, but once you take a step back and you look at all these connections that you have, and then you can piece things together.
Paulo: Right. And one thing I found interesting about your answer was that you got to talk to a lot of different companies in Indonesia and really get to know the landscape. What’s the biggest learning coming from your perspective when it comes to the Indonesian startup scene?
Albert: There are so many different components within Indonesia. For instance, one big aspect is that Indonesian companies and startups are huge just because of the sheer scale and how big Indonesia is, right?
So [in Singapore] it’s very common for companies to have like 50 people, 100 people are considered quite a large company, but when you actually talk to different portfolio companies in Indonesia, then you actually realized that the team size is actually huge. They do have different sales forces in different areas.
They do prioritize a lot on the personal touch. That’s where they actually have their offline salesforce to maintain relationships with the different users and customers and so forth. So that is one big aspect that I see very different, the size of the team.
And then I guess the second main reason that I actually observed is that I find that in terms of culture-wise Indonesians typically are a bit more hierarchical than Singaporeans usually are, at least in my company perspective. Because in Singapore, we often want to build a startup culture. So things are actually flatter and actually more fluid. But I guess in Indonesia, the culture it’s a bit different because we have to have a bit more structure, a bit more processes, as the team gets bigger and bigger. These two are the two biggest differences that I actually see.
…in Indonesia, the culture it’s a bit different because we have to have a bit more structure, a bit more processes, as the team gets bigger and bigger.
Paulo: And I just wanted to get a little bit more into what was the process of — was there a process in terms of how this company culture was developed? Was it more organic and how did you drive that company culture to exist within RateS in Indonesia?
Albert: So how we actually did it was, before we actually concretized our culture. So I would describe our company culture in five key values, first is to be trustworthy to our resellers, to our company, to shareholders, to each other.
The second is to have shared ownership. The third is to create a safe space to voice your own opinion. And the fourth is to have a growth mindset and the fifth is to do impactful work. So I would say we previously had very vague ideas on how to have culture, but then we realized that not thinking hard enough about our culture and not being able to put it into words is actually quite detrimental because it affects how we recruit new employees, how we actually retain quality employees, how we gauge and judge the quality of our teammates.
So we had about five people in June 2019. And then by the end of December 2019, we had around 25 people. And then right now close to the end of 2020, we have about 60 people in Indonesia itself. And then when you look at like how to actually scale the team you need to have like proper processes right there, then you can actually allow like the HR managers, the recruiting managers, the different managers to follow these values, so they can actually operate on their own and then they don’t have to keep seeking your opinion.
So I would say we were kind of forced to actually have concretized this company culture in Indonesia because the team scaled and we realized that there were lots of gaps here and there. Of course, this process is not like a top-down approach. So we actually had a very consultative process with the different managers with the different team leads in Indonesia and Singapore to firm down on these five values, that I think would best encapsulate our culture.
…we realized that not thinking hard enough about our culture and not being able to put it into words is actually quite detrimental because it affects how we recruit new employees, how we actually retain quality employees, how we gauge and judge the quality of our teammates.
Paulo: It’s really important what you mentioned about pinning down those values and communicating it to the team is really important for you guys to attract and retain talent. and that leads me to my next question, which is sort of your approach to hiring and retaining talent, apart from putting together these values and communicating them are there any other best practices that were specific to RateS in Indonesia that you discovered or developed over time?
Albert: Another big difference that I see in Indonesia compared to Singapore. Usually, it’s easiest to actually link in potential other new hires and then invite them for a coffee chat. And they are often very open to actually talking about potential new job offers. So this is why for us, especially, it’s very important to actually retain talent and hire new talent.
So I think for our approach with regards to hiring talent, I think it’s two values. So we mostly sell our vision, because our vision is really to empower the resellers, the digital entrepreneurs as we call them, with a way to actually gain income, which is actually increasingly more and more important in this pandemic situation.
We do believe very strongly in it. And then for many of our employees, they do come from areas that are not in Jakarta, that’s not in the city. They do come from all around Indonesia, but they work mostly in Jakarta or Surabaya. So that’s why they see a lot of value in our vision, especially targeting more rural areas. So that was the initial I would say hook and the vision and mission that we use to attract talent.
Then the second path to hiring great talent is actually using our own employee retention. So by this, I mean that actually most of our hires are actually referrals from our existing employees.
So in Indonesia especially, I would say informal hiring networks are strong. There are a lot of informal WhatsApp channels for you to broadcast jobs to a selected group of. professionals. So let’s say in FMCG, in e-commerce, in logistics. So you really have such informal professional networks.
And then most of our key hires actually came from other previous companies like Shopee, Tokopedia, Grab. We managed to hire them. And then from that, we managed to hire more and more talent.
And then with regards to retention, I think our main value was that we know that we are not Indonesians. We know that we are not locals on the ground. So we make sure that we hire the right and the smart people and then we let them figure things out. We know what’s our strength, right, we do have connections in China especially doing cross-border e-commerce and cross-border logistics but we are very conscious of what we lack which is the local connections to local networks.
So we do hire people who are in these areas, and then our main job was then to hire the right people, let them figure things out and then give them enough context, enough empowerment to do things properly. And then for our case, it’s really just to make sure we constantly work on the company vision, the overall business model, gel everything together. That is our main approach to hiring and retaining talent.
We know what’s our strength, right, we do have connections in China especially doing cross-border e-commerce and cross-border logistics but we are very conscious of what we lack which is the local connections to local networks.
Paulo: And having been able to grow your team to, as you mentioned earlier, 60 people now in Indonesia, it took a lot of, as you’ve detailed as far, you know, it took a lot of work and it also took a lot of help, I would say. In terms of finding people to help you actually reach out to the best data the market, From that experience, what are some of the lessons and advice that you could share with some of our founders in the audience who are not Indonesians, not locals, but are interested in setting up operations or focusing their business or company on Indonesia?
Albert: I would say the first lesson is the most obvious lesson. So it is hiring the right people. having the right connected and experienced folks. It’s very important because if you spend time to hire the right people, you actually can get things done way more efficiently.
So I guess one example is let’s say we hired a sales manager, overall country manager, and then she is experienced, and then with that, she actually helped us to expand to different areas. She proposed the budget. She has the local connections. For me and Jake, we just have to approve the budget.
Tell her the rough direction of the company and what we aim to achieve. So that part is already settled by her. Because we did spend time to properly convince her, talk to her, find the right people, and provide her certain guidance, that is the most important thing.
The second lesson that I actually have is to have the proper incentive structure and, the KPI compared to Singapore, in Indonesia we definitely need a bit more processes, a bit more structure. So, let’s say, what are the goals that you have when you hire someone? So I believe having these proper goals are important.
And then in order to incentivize people to achieve these goals then you have to have the proper incentive structure that rewards them for hitting the goals. So this is especially important and we actually really like this because we found that, it’s not that easy to properly set up the right goals and the right incentive structure because there are a lot of cultural differences that we have to take into account.
And then we rely a lot on our own HR team to properly educate us on the cultural differences, educate us on, the so-called, like the unspoken rules.
The third thing for us is, for the Singapore team, we actually try to make sure all the managers actually start learning Bahasa Indonesia properly. It doesn’t mean you actually have to take a course and so forth, but we set up a proper informal community within our company in the Indonesia office and Singapore office, so the Singaporeans learn Bahasa a bit more and then the Indonesians, we try to practice more English with them. And then now we are also trying to expand our learning of like Mandarin, because we do have China operations.
So that is three big lessons. So the first is definitely, you must find ways to hire the right people who have the connection. This will really accelerate the growth of the company and allow you to do a lot of new stuff because in Indonesia there’s a lot of things that are informally done in different WhatsApp groups and so forth.
Then the second thing I would say is to, really, think through the process and have proper company goals, proper team goals when you hire and then proper incentive structures, and then make sure that you do occasional audit checks on the goals, on the results.
And then I think the third is that we encourage all the Singapore teams to actually learn Bahasa Indonesia. I think you might not need to master Bahasa Indonesia, but if you can understand a few words and show that you care enough that they’re actually learning their language it is actually very good for the Indonesian team and to encourage more cross-country bonding within our company.
So the first is definitely, you must find ways to hire the right people who have the connection…Then the second thing I would say is to…have proper company goals, proper team goals when you hire and then proper incentive structures…And then I think the third is that we encourage all the Singapore teams to actually learn Bahasa Indonesia.
Paulo: As you’ve been telling me about your experiences expanding operations in Indonesia, there have been certainly a lot of challenges. And something that we often say at Insignia is that local founders, they tend to have greater unique advantage versus foreign players in Southeast Asia given the diversity of the region, but on the flip side as well when you talk about Southeast Asia and especially Singapore, I would say, cross-border expansion is inevitable or part-and-parcel of a Southeast Asia startup’s growth story.
If you want to grow your startup and really grow to a large size you inevitably need to go cross-border and need to build operations in other markets. So what would you say are the advantages for you as an “outsider” coming into Indonesia and growing operations for RateS?
Albert: Right. So we definitely agree with the two points, local founders definitely have a unique advantage, both because they know the language, they grew up there, they know the small intricacies and they have their own networks and so forth. But likewise for us, so we do think and reflect on this which is why we do need to have a proper team as well to compliment our gap in knowledge and lack in local context.
But for us, we also know what our advantage is. We specifically targeted cross-border social commerce because we are able to have the advantage that local founders cannot have in Indonesia, which is knowing Mandarin, which is having connections with China, which is being able to bridge the China to Indonesia gap.
So Indonesia is, typically as they always say, is always 5 to 10 years behind China, in terms of e-commerce, in terms of development, and so forth. And China is so developed in e-commerce already, in the product itself the finished product. And even right now, most of Indonesian, imports are still, I would say, a lot of the finished products, the plastic products, are still mostly from China, so that’s where we sort of bridge this gap to bring what has developed in China so well over to Indonesia, which is just starting to develop So our real key advantage as sort of an outsider here is to know Mandarin, have a Chinese connections, being able to fly to China very easily having the prior background in cross-border e-commerce to actually bridge the gap.
And then I would say the main challenge, having no networks, having no command of the language, all this can be mitigated by learning Bahasa, by having the right team, by being very active to tap on your networks, talk to your investors, talk to the portfolio companies and always talking to your colleagues to, you know, help you bring down the gap in knowledge.
…local founders definitely have a unique advantage, both because they know the language, they grew up there, they know the small intricacies and they have their own networks and so forth…But for us, we also know what our advantage is.
Paulo: Yeah, it’s really interesting that you mentioned one of the advantages is, that linkage towards China. And I think with more capital and tech companies from China, trying to expand their operations in Southeast Asia, not just Singapore, I think it’s going to be even more important to have that kind of bridge.
That wraps up our conversation today, but, to really close things off, we always ask our guests to share some of their favorite things in our rapid fire question round.
Favorite book on leadership / marketing or entrepreneurship:
High Output Management by Andrew Grove
“a very good book for startup managers…how to improve that managerial leverage and output…”
Turn the Ship Around: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by L. David Marquet
“…it is a book about how to build a more empowering culture. And it changes the definition of the leader. A leader shouldn’t be a leader like the ship captain, shouldn’t be the one commanding, but instead should take a step back, allow their other managers, employees, and their teammates to actually see more ownership and more empowerment.”
Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight
Favorite movie, movie scene or movie character on leadership / entrepreneurship: Coach Carter
How Albert learns Bahasa:
- Learning on a course by NUS
- Duolingo on the train
- Watch travel videos on Youtube on Bahasa (with English captions)
Favorite destination in Southeast Asia: nature areas in Indonesia
Favorite activity to de-stress: Exercise
Paulo: Finally, is there anything you’d like to plug? How can our listeners reach you?
Albert: Linkedin! Always interested to chat about startups, technology, bridging the gap between China and Southeast Asia…
Paulo: Great! Thank you Albert for sharing your experience as a Singaporean growing a social commerce company in Indonesia. RateS is hiring! Check out our career page career.insignia.vc for open roles and you can reach out to our talent acquisition manager Agatha Esther at email@example.com for more inquiries on these roles.
About our guest
Albert Ho is Chief Strategy Officer at RateS, the cross-border social commerce platform enabling Indonesians to thrive as resellers and microentrepreneurs. His past professional experiences lie in consulting, venture capital, and startups in New York, Singapore, and Jakarta. Thanks to these experiences, he is also an active thought leader on startup growth and e-commerce. Nowadays he has been driving growth for RateS in Indonesia, and personally also has been diving deeper into the local market and culture.
RateS is actively hiring in Indonesia! Check out career.insignia.vc for more information on our open roles: