Highlights “We believe in growing not just the number of users, but also growing in our culture and values is also important to create sustainable growth over the long term.” “In our stage of a startup, we really need to reinvent ourselves every month and look for something that fundamentally moves the needle […]

L-R: Giacomo Ficari, CEO of Lifepal, Theodoric Chew, CEO of Intellect, and Huy Nghiem, CEO of Finhay

S03E05-E06: Sustaining the pandemic’s 10x digitalization with Lifepal’s Giacomo Ficari, Intellect’s Theodoric Chew, and Finhay’s Huy Nghiem

Highlights

  1. “We believe in growing not just the number of users, but also growing in our culture and values is also important to create sustainable growth over the long term.”
  2. “In our stage of a startup, we really need to reinvent ourselves every month and look for something that fundamentally moves the needle and getting clarity on which are the few actions that really move the needle and remove yourself from the noise is actually really important.”
  3. “One key thing is how do I learn as a leader to start delegating and trusting my folks around me…As a founder, how do I learn to let go and take a step back and focus on the bigger picture ideas?”
  4. “We are on the track to find a third PMF and I think it’s getting harder and harder compared to the first and the second ones. For example, for the first one we can fail, and it’s no problem at all. But at the scale that we are on right now, if we fail our third PMF, then it’s really hard to get back on our feet because we’re going to lose momentum and not to mention that branding will be damaged.”
  5. “So how do we create a culture of growth in the company where growing 30, 40%, or maybe 20% a month is actually normal, and that people accept that, we need to always look for new ideas, new structure, and new initiative?”
  6. “We invest a lot in personalization as well. Within the core app experience, a big part of mental wellbeing and therapies is really the nuance of the cultural context.”
  7. “As a founder, I do take a step back and assess what are the biggest gaps in our team right now. What are my ceilings? What are my co-founders’ ceilings that we’ve kind of reached and crossed…And then there’s a lot of gaps that I can’t handle myself as well. So that’s one key piece of how we get people that can fill the gaps that myself and my co-founders have, and then, really grow from there as well.”
  8. “In 2017 and 2018, it was more about building awareness, building trust, and building a community for Finhay users. And because of that two years of preparation, it just helped in 2019 and 2020 when we launched our saving product and it was a product-market fit first and it just helped to drive the growth there.”
  9. “But something else that really, I’m realizing is that we had the first inflection point of Southeast Asia tech, maybe when Lazada did the first exit when Shopee came with the IPO, but I feel we are facing really soon a second inflection point, like a second wave, Southeast Asia tech 2.0, that is coming now with the IPO’s of many companies or tech unicorn in our region. This is fantastic because it will create more angels. It will create some more startups, more founders, but it will unlock founders to start and will raise the bell also to receive [funding] internationally and LPs as well.”
  10. “I think the one which encompasses what Huy and Giacomo and Theo are doing is actually the 10x digitalization, caused by COVID. So mental health, wealth management and even insurance selling. Those traditional industries have all been ossified for a long time by [outdated] technology and new platforms have really allowed this to take it to the next level.”

Back in March we set up our first Clubhouse session with founder-CEOs from three of our portfolio companies that experienced a huge boost in growth over 2020 and talked to them about how they plan on sustaining that growth this year. We got a lot of great insights and we’re sharing them on this episode. So in this episode, we have Giacomo Ficari, CEO of Lifepal, Indonesia’s leading online insurance marketplace, Theodoric Chew, CEO of Intellect, a Singapore-based mental health technology company with an app that hit a million downloads in its first six months, and Huy Nghiem, CEO of Finhay, Vietnam’s leading wealth management platform.

Timestamps

Episode 5 (Questions for all founders)

01:23 Factors of growth apart from the pandemic in 2020:

07:00 Strategies for sustaining growth from 2020 coming into 2021;

13:04 How fast-growth influenced leadership approach for CEOs;

17:56 Challenges in finding the next product-market fits;

Episode 6 (One-on-one questions)

01:33 Lessons for Lifepal on Managing Hypergrowth from Lazada;

05:55 Building Intellect’s mission-driven global team for global scale;

11:23 Finhay’s secret sauce and expanding into stock investment;

14:42 What excites the founders and Yinglan about Southeast Asia;

Transcripts

S03E05: Beyond the first product-market fit

Factors of Growth (Tailwinds) in 2020

Paulo: Hi, Giacomo, Theo, and Huy. Thanks for being with us on this Clubhouse session.  So I’d like to start by asking you, since you guys come from different industries and come from different markets, one of the commonalities that you guys have is that you’ve had a very remarkable year of growth over 2020, right? And so one of the things I think many of us are curious about is apart from the pandemic as a direct factor in your growth, what are the other factors you would say when it comes to your specific market or specific industry that influenced the kind of growth that you experienced over the past year?

Giacomo: Clarity is something that took us a few months. But once we got it, we saw that we were actually helping better the customer and converting. So the business was really getting there. And that’s I think something really important like it’s too expensive and complicated to focus on the one customer in the audience, and educating some people are really for the big group.

The second driver was for us to understand how to convert. And we realized that the market like Indonesia that is really massive is a little bit easier to get to the top of the funnel metric, it could be traffic, active users but they are not paying, but it’s much harder to convert them and to monetize them. So for us, understanding that conversion has actually been kind of like a fulcrum of last year.  And it’s something that we also bring as a legacy in 2021 —  we’ve had good impacts on the business.

Paulo: Yeah, I’d say it was probably great timing for you guys, just at the same time that you guys were discovering sort of new things about your customers and how you could probably know how you could properly engage with them. How about you Theo? What are the factors that sort of influence your growth over 2020? I mean, you achieved 1 million downloads in the first six months since you guys launched. What are those factors that helped propel this growth apart from the pandemic itself? 

Theo: Yeah. So I think the first thing for sure, and we won’t go too deep into this but I think there have been clear tailwinds in the mental health space around the world where it’s a big issue that COVID really shined this big spotlight on. The issue that mental well-being needs to be solved for. But one thing that actually, when we started this, we believed was that it was this thing that’s going to happen sooner or later. COVID quite strongly accelerated the pace of how people adopt mental health by a good few years. In Asia, I kind of think of three to five years of acceleration. But one thing that’s for sure it’s that it was sort of the, I mean, people call it like the unspoken pandemic and then it gets out there it’s the mental pandemic, which is years in the making where one of the biggest issues across Asia is that the taboo in place where people struggle, high-functioning cities like Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong. People will leave high-pressure jobs, but nowhere will they turn to solve this issue. There’s this problem, so that’s the first piece.

The next piece it’s really similar to what Giacomo mentioned earlier, really understanding how to reach the audience in Asia, unlike in the US and in the West, where a lot of people are much more open to the concept of mental wellbeing. In Asia, it’s something that people don’t even want to address or talk about and people instinctively think about things like schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, panic attacks, and these are things that are important to solve for, but not what most people are going to need.

So one story that I like to share is that before we actually started or built anything Intellect back in our early days, in the middle of 2019. We spent quite a number of months really validating the issue. My background being in growth marketing, we did a lot of experiments, different landing pages, different messaging, different pain points, that we are trying to solve. And basically, one thing that cuts through is that people struggled but they didn’t want to acknowledge it as a mental health issue. They kind of broke it down to daily issues and that’s kind of how we went about it, solving from the core issue of the user, firstly, and the last piece very briefly is that we always build from day one, even though we are serving enterprise clients today, big companies, individuals as well, we build in mind to actually solve for the end-user, making sure that people actually love the experience. We’re are where Netflix, Spotify, and games are. So a key thing is actually really to engineer experiences that people actually are delighted to use so that it can be used as more of a sticky, everyday tool for them as well. 

Paulo: Yeah, thanks Theo again, another case of doing these experiments at the right time, and Huy, for you, what was your experience in Vietnam and with wealth management over the last year? 

Huy: I think apart from the two stories I think we do see the similarities at Finhay. And apart from the COVID pandemic. So at Finhay, during late 2019, and early 2020, we started to see the insights of the clients in Vietnam. And that was a point in time that we tried to look at different products to offer to our clients.

And during March and April, that was the time that we offered a new product called a saving product. And it just hit the market straight away. In the first two weeks, we saw traction, and I think that was the time that we found product-market fit for Finhay. Initially, we offer it in micro-investment, into mutual funds, but then the Vietnamese love saving and then we offer the savings product. And that was a changer. It helped you increase the traction base and also the number of users. So yeah, product-market fit and then understanding our clients. So even though we started in 2017, we always looked at investing in mutual funds, but turns out, you know, people love saving. And then when we actually offer that particular product, it actually helps drive business. 

I would say apart from that dynamic, I would say right timing would also be important. I think to give a bit more context, during March and April, that was the time when the state bank of Vietnam, actually reduced the interest rates of the country. We were lucky that when we offered the savings product, we actually went into agreement with banks and fund managers to lock into pre-pandemic interest rates. With that particular product, we can offer a higher yield to our clients and it helps to have really strong and unique selling points to the end-users.

Sustaining Growth into 2021

Paulo: Yeah. Thanks, Huy. It sounds like for all of these stories shared so far, it’s really a combination of these external market tailwinds plus acting on those opportunities that came up over the past year. So I think now the logical question is what happens now in 2021, how do you guys approach sustaining this growth that you’ve achieved and then building on top of it? Let’s mix things up. Maybe Theo can start first.

Theo: Yeah, for sure. So I think one big thing in our first year of going live, it’s really trying to find PMF. So that’s a key cycle of any startup. We got quite lucky and really had a whole core piece embedded early on when we developed the whole app experience. So that’s the first piece. 

And the next thing is how to actually scale and sustain this growth. So a key thing for us within the space of mental health and that’s one thing where we always focus on how we activate and retain our users much better cause that’s one of the biggest challenges for any company, and definitely more so one of the biggest things that mental health apps need to tackle as well. So for us this year itself we’ve crossed as you shared earlier, a million installs and users over the first six months. We’re now at about 2 million users. So it’s really exciting. Also, one key thing is how do you constantly grow and innovate. We’re adding different pieces that really doesn’t just serve as a self-guided tool, but how do we actually the end to end mental health care system in Asia, where it’s quite underserved, you’ve got a lot of great tools and platforms that do mindfulness apps, chatbots and things like that. But I think what’s really missing in the space is quality access to live, strong support, something that people can kind of get at the right time. So for us this year, it’s really building on the product sprints that people really like and love and making sure that we can find that core fit as we grow and scale as well.

Paulo: Thanks Theo. Huy, how about you?

Huy: And for us in 2021 will be slightly different to 2020. So 2020 we see the growth in traction. But during that time we also went into trouble; our operation did not scale accordingly. So we believe in growing not just the number of users, but also growing in our culture and values is also important to create sustainable growth over the long term. That’s the reason why in 2021, as part of the operation, we want to nurture the culture in the company so that when we grow the number of team members, we’re all on the same page and we all want the same customer and client-centric [experience] for our customers. Back in April, when we saw that growth skyrocketed literally everyone in the company became customer service representatives. And during that time, we didn’t have enough tools to serve clients. We didn’t have enough admin panels and accessibility to all team members to actually solve cases for the clients. And it turned out to be, even though we had a hundred thousand users come into the app, we lost easily 20, 30,000 simply because we couldn’t serve them on time. That created a strategy for 2021. We grow in the number of users, but we also need to grow sustainably internally as well by nurturing culture and values. 

Paulo: Yeah. Theo mentioned continuous innovation in product discovery, expanding their lineup of services as well. And then we talked about culture and really focusing on how internal operations are being done to handle the growth. So now, Giacomo how are you approaching 2021 with Lifepal?

Giacomo: Yeah, I think when it’s a matter of growth, I agree with what was being said, I think it was Theodoric that has said to really focus on product-market fit first. And I know lots of founders have really this urgency of scaling from day zero, but you need to really understand, are you building something people really want, and is your product the right one? So you need to be able to go patient there. For us, definitely, it was really about because you get really stressed as a founder, like, do I have product-market fit and do I have it like 10%, do I have a 20% or do I have it, like in full? The reality is you’re never having full [product-market fit], but you’re getting closer enough to that. For us, the thinking was more of, are we inventing something significantly new in the market? Or maybe are we selling something that is already existing in the market? And we are just doing much better. So we kind of got confused at the beginning. In our case in insurance, we were trying to really reinvent the entire insurance where we just realized actually the market is already big and is growing. So we just need to do it a lot better and serve customers better. So that understanding, I feel took us a while. And I think now we get clarity. 

And then another point is for us, what is the operational framework that we use inside the company to generate the growth? Like what’s the type of execution that we want to have. And I like to say that there is always a baseline and there’s a sentence I like referring to that the record of today is the baseline of tomorrow. So how do we really build something solid then sustain it, that we can kind of rely on and be relaxed that what we achieve is not going away. And to build a good baseline we should never abuse vouchers, subsidies, or maybe don’t rely on the last-minute partnership to hit the target, but just really think about what is something solid that we can rely on that is self-sustaining. 

And then there is this incremental path that is not obvious for everyone, especially people that come maybe from corporate, that every single month you need to do something fundamentally new. And that is not something you did the month before. And this is, I think for people in corporate or consulting or banking is not [as familiar], because you kind of try to polish the processes and be smart about it. In our stage of a startup, we really need to reinvent ourselves every month and look for something that fundamentally moves the needle and getting clarity on which are the few actions that really move the needle and remove yourself from the noise is actually really important. This noise we call it fake work. And I think I’ll also have a founder or manager try to escape and go to Facebook because it’s more fun because it’s actually easier and they try to go away from what is the real challenge that is hard. 

So for us, when we look for incremental action is, “Are we every month fundamentally introducing new strong action. And are we protecting ourselves so we can stay away from fake work?” And that’s an exercise that I’m personally trying to do with the team. And I would like the team to be more educated about this, anyway, we are getting better there, but I can see it was not straightforward for everyone.

How fast-growth influenced leadership approach for CEOs

Paulo: Yeah, thanks Giacomo. You said a lot of great things there, “The record of the day is the baseline of tomorrow,” for example. And you also made a great point about fake work. So you mentioned trying to adjust yourself as a leader to continually adjust to the growth and then to change the company as well. So I wanted to dig a little bit deeper into that. So how has your leadership approach changed as a result of the growth that you experienced, did you have to change the way that you manage your employees, your teams, or even in terms of hiring new employees, or it sort of influence Lifepal’s decision not to hire as much over the past year? So maybe you could, you could tell us a little bit more about that.

Giacomo: Yeah. In hiring, we always try to say, don’t throw people to problems, try to throw technology and automation. Of course, there’s one point you need to hire people, especially when it’s more professional leaders or managers but always try to automate. In terms of things like COVID and kind of how it affected us I think for us, it’s not easy to keep the team motivated and to keep that extreme discipline in the processes and kind of obsession for the metrics. I feel we kind of lost it at the beginning with COVID, especially on more junior and new joiners. And I don’t think it’s easy and maybe other people solve it, but for us it was a challenge. As a leader, we need to communicate more often. And communication for leaders is never enough. You can say things a hundred times as someone doesn’t know it, but during COVID you don’t meet them face-to-face. It’s really more important to have simple and strong communication. And there are things we do. We actually have the people coming to the office 50% of the time. I still don’t think it is enough, but it’s definitely much better than like once a week or even when they’re not even coming. So better communication, I would say. And you see your people really to motivate them face-to-face. At the end of the day we are human, so especially because [building] a startup is really hard, the emotional part is really important.

Paulo: Yeah, thanks Giacomo. Huy or Theo do you relate to what Giacomo said about having this emotional connection and motivating your employees. Huy, go ahead. 

Huy: I can totally agree on this. That this is a part of the culture-building that we have been implementing at Finhay. For example, two years ago we had only 11 to 14 team members. It was a really small team and everyone could go together. But now we have 52 people and communication has been much tougher for us, especially from me to another team member from different teams. I normally work in the product team and also the finance team, but then, to talk to everyone in your company, even that is really, really hard.  And communication across teams is getting much, much harder. And so for me as a team leader and building a new skill set is really important and to be more organized. I’m not sure about other entrepreneurs, but, for myself I used to be really not organized. But now I have to get into shape and be more organized and be more disciplined in working with others. So I think I can totally relate to Giacomo’s story and also agree on the point that improving the skill set and leadership has changed when our company grows.

Paulo: Yeah. How about you Theo? Do you relate to anything that Huy or Giacomo said?

Theo: Yeah, for sure. So I think both things a hundred percent, I can relate. I’ll add a different spin where probably a bit more of as a young founder in my own journey here. I think one thing when we were getting started, as a small team, it’s always easy to have periods where you can get your hands into every single thing from the product to the business model. I think one key thing that I had to learn as well as we grew in scale. The team right now is definitely not as big as Huy’s team, but we have grown about double or triple that the team size [is now] about 15 people. So I think one key thing is how do I learn as a leader to start delegating and trusting my folks around me. I think that’s a big part of being able to get to the next stage. I think that’s always tough training for any young founder to kind of be able to let go and trust that people you hire can do your job as well, if not better than you. So I think the first thing is, how can I trust and delegate? From there, really focus on the bigger picture stuff; I’m taking a step back from the day-to-day work.

And I think the next piece is on hiring as well. So one thing that’s been quite impactful for us and a big learning curve is how we hire as well. So we are a mental health company. So I think having a good work culture it’s something that I try to embed within what we do. But always we try to make sure to spot and avoid such things where we’ve [met] really [type A] people, but we know because they cannot collaborate as well that’s the moment we sense a red flag. We always like to welcome people that can collaborate well, are smart, are eager to learn, may not always have the most experience in the field, but eager to get their hands dirty. That’s kind of how we’ve been doing it. So I think there are two things. As a founder, how do I learn to let go and take a step back and focus on the bigger picture ideas? Of course, at this stage, we have to get our hands dirty, but I think it was trusting the leads that you bring on. And the second thing is just hiring quite intentionally as well, it’s a big factor that I try to do myself.

Challenges in finding the next product market fits

Paulo: I really like what you said, Theo, about not just picking A-talent, but also finding people who can work collaboratively, people who fit the culture, and who can really work towards the mission that you’ve set. I think we’ve often mentioned, you know, that you should always hire A talent, but there has to be some nuance there I’d say. So I’d just like to go back to what you guys talked about earlier in terms of approaching 2021.  

I was in a room earlier today with Ben Horowitz from a16z. And he was talking about a lot of founders really focus on the first product-market fit, which I think all three of you guys have achieved remarkably, but then the challenge really comes in when you have to get to that second PMF, that third PMF, where you have to come up with new products and new features. And some of you guys already touched on it, but I just also wanted to ask, what are the challenges that you foresee in terms of the market and the industry that you guys are in as you approach creating new products and trying to hit new PMFs in the future. So, maybe Huy yeah, please go ahead.

Huy: Yeah. Sure. So I think I can start out with my case and story first. We are on the track to find a third PMF and I think it’s getting harder and harder compared to the first and the second ones. For example, for the first one we can fail, and it’s no problem at all. But at the scale that we are on right now, if we fail our third PMF, then it’s really hard to get back on our feet because we’re going to lose momentum and not to mention that branding will be damaged. For example, we are working on a digital bank solution. And typically, if let’s say this is our first PMF, that it might take us three months to launch the product and we are okay if there are still bugs, but now it’s really hard for us to have trouble because we’re dealing with [financial services] and we try to minimize all the bugs and all the mistakes that we don’t want to deal with, so it costs us more time to actually launch the product. So it means we have to be more careful. So I think that’s one of the most difficult parts when trying to find the product-market fit.

I think the other difficulty will be how we position our product with our clients. So for now we are a micro-investment platform, and we started to offer a digital bank feature. How we communicate that story and message to our clients will be a challenge for us at the moment. And we’re still thinking on how, so I think that’s a bit of the difficulty that we are actually experiencing in 2021 for Finhay in finding new product-market fits.

Paulo: Yeah. How about you Giacomo do you agree with what Huy said, that as you produce more features and services that finding a PMF just becomes more and more difficult to find and hit correctly?

Giacomo: Yeah, You can see that with having multiple product-market fits or the way I illustrate is like, you get a baseline that is probably your core product-market fit. And then how do you keep growing incrementally on the same line of business or in the same maybe category so that’s how I approach it. So business as usual plus incremental action that we need to do. So as I was saying before, the challenge for us is how do we create that mindset that every month we need to do something new. I like to say to the company that the startup is like a video game, that every time you go to the next level, it’s much harder and you need to do something new. You need to train yourself, you need to spend hours to train yourself in order to finish the level and to go to the next level.  We have a baseline of the first part of market fit.  And then how do we keep innovating and growing there? So kind of that duality the business as usual plus incremental is a challenge. 

And this brings me to a challenge that we are facing now that we are starting to grow, where we are hiring more people, the topline is growing, and everything’s getting bigger. The challenge that we are facing is like, how do we create a culture of growth in the company that is embraced and accepted by everyone. I realize that’s not straightforward, cause it’s not human to grow 30, 40% every month. This is what the company does per year. So not everyone is used to that. So how do we create a culture of growth in the company where growing 30, 40%, or maybe 20% a month is actually normal, and that people accept that, we need to always look for new ideas, new structure, and new initiative. This is something we are working on. And I realized that now that we are growing and building a management team and leadership team, it’s something I need to spend time on, really building this culture of growth. And I’m quite interested in also how the other guys think, or maybe this deserves another session in Clubhouse, building this culture of growth, this obsession for growth.

Paulo: Yeah. How about you Theo? I mean, your company is a bit younger than Huy’s or Giacomo’s, but are you also finding yourself facing similar challenges or having the same questions?

Theo: Yeah. So I think for us, it really starts from the core mission. So what we want to do from day one and it will stay for the years to come, is that we want to make mental health care a lot more accessible, easy to get, affordable for everyone. So for us, the medium is secondary. It starts with this core goal — how do you help people who need support and get access to care? I think that’s quite similar to whether it’s Huy’s company or Giacomo’s company. So I think that’s the main thing. We started off and like you mentioned Paulo, we are definitely much younger in life-cycle, so we got our first PMF. We are now doing our second with new features, instead of a self-guided app. We now have telehealth involved as well. So it’s this whole core piece of how do we get the right stickiness and aha moments. 

So for us, the big challenge is it’s two-fold. Finding the product-market fit for the product itself. And the other thing is how do we actually shift the narrative for mental health in the region as well? Because that’s just one other piece that we have to spend a good amount of time educating that mental wellbeing for everyone. A core part of it’s really getting the right messaging to the audience that we want to reach as well.

It’s important because I think sometimes some founders or entrepreneurs who are new do think that once you get the first PMF, they’re kind of done. I think that’s really not true. So a story from one of our product advisors, he used to be one of the senior guys at Skype, a couple of years back when it was still doing pretty well, and they foresaw this coming and they foresaw more frequent mediums like Snapchat picking up, but in their own metrics, so they were indexing for hours spent. So what they found is that people actually really liked using Skype for calling family or grandmothers, and they spend really long session durations. And so on that metric, it looked really good. But what you’re missing is that they weren’t having frequent engagement.

So this whole thing of how do you stack up against the current innovations coming into the space like Snapchat now, Clubhouse, any of the new tools are coming in. You constantly need to innovate, otherwise, you just die, right? Kind of where Skype is today, they’re still doing fine but not at the top of the market. So it’s one piece that we’d be quite cognizant of that we need to constantly iterate on what we do, test that we’re not indexing the wrong metrics. And being quite cognizant that we’re not just analyzing competition, but making sure that we can stack up to what the current needs of the markets are as well.

Paulo: Wow. Oh yeah. So the guy from Skype that you just talked about, he works for intellect right now, right? 

Theo: He’s our product advisor. He’s currently a professor. 

Paulo: Whoa. Okay. That’s pretty cool. I think we hear a lot of stories about sort of the number ones, the winners, but it’s always really interesting to hear the perspective of those who didn’t quite make it.

S03E06: Building a growth culture

Lessons for Lifepal on Managing Hypergrowth from Lazada

Paulo: So I think we’ve had an interesting discussion so far hearing our founders and sort of their perspectives and how they’re similar in terms of how they’re approaching and sustaining the growth that they’ve achieved over the past year. But now I’d like to shift things a bit and do a bit of one-on-one with each of our guest founders here onstage.

So I want to start with Giacomo. We talked about the podcast when you were a guest about your past experience in Lazada and how it helped you transition to becoming a founder of Lifepal. So I’m just wondering if you sort of experienced the same thing in Lazada in terms of this hypergrowth. And then what are the lessons specifically in that regard and in terms of managing growing pains and all of that, that from Lazada that you’re bringing into Lifepal?

Giacomo: Well yes, there’s a lot of learning and mistakes. So when you have growth, you actually need to start managing it like maybe a horse that is too strong for you to really ride it. So you need to really organize there. And so you organize your processes without limiting the team because sometimes you want to bring order, but you actually restrict the growth cause you want to have everything perfect. But then you remove the creativity, the innovation from the team, or that mindset of taking risks. So it’s really a fine balance between understanding, is it a time to optimize and do a good process, as a consultant, or you want to maybe keep the mess, but let the guys really grow and scale. And it takes maturity to understand that.

The other one is to try to act before you are required to. So anticipate the action that you have to do. And I will say to the team when you realize that you need something, probably the tsunamis on top of you and it’s going to crush you in one second later. So try to understand what is the target or the target that we aim for the next three months. And try to really work backward and build it because startup moves so fast that when you need it to achieve it, and you haven’t really been doing the incremental action, it’s probably too late for you. And by the way, we made mistakes all the time. I mean, all of these things, so it’s not that easy.

And then the last one, going back to the previous topic, I was saying before about creating a culture of growth, it’s really about teaching people to accept growth. So to accept the high targets to believe in it and actually have the conviction to fight for it. And this is something that I can say Lazada has been doing really well. They really make you believe that the target is actually high, but it’s definitely over achievable. You definitely believe you’re going to do it and you’re going to fight with all your life. So that kind of conviction and confidence. It’s something that I think as a founder, you need to inject in your team, maybe artificially because the target sometimes is really high. But then how do you build this culture of growth by letting your team really believe it and it’s not easy, to be honest. And we are doing this but we need to definitely improve it.

Paulo: So a follow-up question is how do you manage people I guess who aren’t able to adjust in that way in terms of hypergrowth. Do you try and make sure that a hundred percent of them are willing to adjust from the get-go or is that even possible?  What do you do when you have sort of employees who are unable to adjust?

Giacomo: It starts a lot with recruiting and everyone makes mistakes. We did as well. Sometimes we try to hire people that are smart, but not necessarily the right people so really try to think, is this the right person for the role or is this the smartest that we got? Sometimes we get people with McKinsey, Harvard and you think, wow, those are really smart people and they are really brilliant people but are they right for this role in this market? That’s actually the right question so let’s hire the right person, not the smartest person.

And second is trying to hire people that have been working for a startup or a fast-growing startup. So naturally, they already experienced that and they feel that it is perfectly normal to grow under the pressure. But let’s say that you hired a guy that is not there yet, but potentially could do it, so what can we do once the person is hired? I think it requires a lot of training and education and handholding from the manager. And anything starts with awareness, right? So there has to be a conversation on that. And it’s about communicating that the pressure, the intensity that the startup gives you is actually normal. Everyone is doing the same. And then guide the person. 

What I try to do is to give less responsibility first and try to let the person catch up so less focused, but helping to succeed and build up the confidence, not try to burn out the person too fast. So an error that some people do and we did it is you hire these brilliant, smart people from Harvard, you think they deserve a good, really fat ESOP and you’re a general, you want to give it all. So you want to believe [in them] as well, [and] then [when they get] a big title and big role, [that’s] when you realize that [they’re] not ready and you just burned them and you burn a candidate. I think we all made this mistake. I think in Lazada we did as well. But there needs to be awareness about this challenge that not everyone is wired or trained at first to work in a fast-growing startup.

Building Intellect’s mission-driven global team for global scale;

Paulo: And then I think we have actually one of our analysts from our investment team Linh, who’s focusing on healthcare. I think Linh, you have some questions for Theo.

Linh: Yeah. So I think one of the things that make us super excited about Theo and Intellect is the fact that the product is launched here in Asia. And it really attracted global reach for the users as well. So, maybe two questions from me, for Theo is how did you manage in terms of reaching and growing beyond just one region. And the second part is now as you’re in the stage of a global product, how do you structure the team internally to cater to such growth.

Theo: The first one on how we actually managed to kind of reach a global audience and actually resonate with them. That’s a big one for us that again, from day one, it’s really embedded in the product. I think one common trend that we managed to hit pretty well is what’s the core, it’s more of a network and a psyche within individuals. Everyone struggles in some form. It may not be the same thing, but everyone has their own demons and troubles. They want to overcome be it the bad habits, be it their, certain chips on their shoulders, right. So for us, how do we actually reach that piece with users? So that’s the first thing here and in the space where we are at, the language of how we actually embedded within the product is really, really key. So that’s one key thing here.  

Our team is quite diverse as well. So we do intentionally hire quite a diverse pool of people, even though it’s quite a small team in Singapore, and my co-founder is based in India. A big part of the team is in Singapore, but we have a diverse pool of people. So I think we’ve got about seven, eight nationalities out of a team of like 10 plus eight different people. So that’s one thing that does provide a lot of diversity and different perspectives. 

And another key thing is that we invest a lot in personalization as well, right? Within the core app experience, a big part of mental wellbeing and therapies is really the nuance of the cultural context. So when we address a market and say Singaporean and a person in the US right, there are nuances that are quite different. What triggers each person is quite different and what they resonate with is also quite different. So how we personalize that piece is a key thing that we’ve spent a lot of time really developing a product to do. So that’s the first part on a high level at least.  

The second thing on how we actually scaled the team. So we are quite lucky to have got on really smart people who are joining us for the mission. In the space that we’re in, we’re able to attract those that have passion. And they’re not just in it for the money itself. There are many things that attract people to startups. But we attract people in two core things: that we are solving a very big problem that people can rally around, the mental health issue, and the other thing is that we are also quite fast growing as a company as well. So these two things are where we’ve managed to attract people from much higher places that they’re taking a step down to join us or take a pay cut for example to join something that they believe in. 

As a founder, I do take a step back and assess what are the biggest gaps in our team right now. What are my ceilings? What are my co-founders’ ceilings that we’ve kind of reached and crossed, right, and I’ll give you an example from the start. For the first 12 months or more, I was the PM, I was the product designer, I did the UI, did the copy and it kind of reached a ceiling. We did pretty well, but until a certain point, I don’t have the bandwidth to do it, shouldn’t do it. And then there’s a lot of gaps that I can’t handle myself as well. So that’s one key piece of how we get people that can fill the gaps that myself and my co-founders have, and then, really grow from there as well. So when we hire as well, we try to hire what’s the best fit for us and for the next 12 months to 18 months, rather than thinking of going for the next, like the most senior person. So I think that’s something I have to learn the hard way. So those are a few things that we try to do in these two points that you mentioned.

Linh: Yup. Thanks for sharing. I think that’s very helpful. And one more question from me is that I think even before we made the investment, in a lot of space and especially in this part of the world, mental health is sometimes considered a little bit early as a space, right?

So I would wonder, and also Giacomo mentioned earlier on the fact that you must inject the culture. You must inject the belief in the culture of the company to each of the employees. So I wonder for Intellect, particularly, would you say that when you recruit people into Intellect from day one, are they already very mission-driven and aligned with the fact that they buy in mental health can change the world, or do you think that you grow and inject that vision in them as the company grows?

Theo: That’s a good question. Again this draws back to the point that I mentioned earlier, when we hire, we try to hire quite strong for culture fit as well right, not just the fact that they are collaborative, but also what the motive is behind when they join a company. Is it for a stepping stone to the next big career in the next few years, or is it really trying to solve an issue? So again, we’ve been quite lucky here in the space that we’re in, with the attention that we’ve been getting as well, we get quite a good amount of interest from people that have two things, right?

It’s number one either they have a strong case and passion for mental health as a whole. We’ve got about a good one-third of our team that has strong journeys on their own with their mental wellbeing. They’ve been through therapy, myself included — I get this quite often that why I started the company, it’s because I’ve been through therapy, I’ve had anxiety and I’ve seen the benefits of it. And I think a lot of people can benefit from it as well. But one thing is we definitely can’t expect to find [patients] in every hire we make as well. So the other thing is that we try to find people that have a desire to make an impact in their own way. Be it reaching people to benefit them or just trying to reach a scale that can have some form of impact. Whether it’s the health space, whether it’s finance, whether it’s insurance. I think it’s just impacting people in different ways. They don’t see it as a job itself, they have deeper inertia that drives them to stay the extra hour to kind of do this or wherever they’re needed. That’s a key piece that I think we have on our side with the space that we’re in.

Finhay’s Secret Sauce and Expanding into Stock Investment

Paulo: Yeah, thanks Linh. And thanks, Theo. I really like how we’re tying together a lot of different things that were mentioned over the past hour in terms of hiring culture and innovating products, now for Huy I think Russell from our investment team has some questions for you as well.

Russell: Hi Huy, thank you so much for being on here. So I’ve just got one question. So I’m just a bit of background. Previously, when you were on the Insignia Business Review, you told us previously that in the first two years it was a learning curve, in terms of user acquisition but over the past year in 2020, you have had incredible traction. So my question is how has the playbook for user acquisition changed since the coronavirus and looking back, what do you think has been your secret sauce?

Huy: It’s a really good question. I think I will say the first thing was we were lucky we were in the right timing during the pandemic. Earlier I mentioned that during March and April, we saw the state bank of Vietnam reduce the interest rate. And prior to that, we actually went to an agreement with our bank partners to lock in a fixed interest rate that we can offer to our clients. And with that momentum there, when we offer our saving product to our end clients, it actually grew traction, in 2020. But prior to that, you know, in 2017 and 2018, it was more about building awareness, building trust, and building a community for Finhay users. And because of that two years of preparation, it just helped in 2019 and 2020 when we launched our saving product and it was a product-market fit first and it just helped to drive the growth there. I will say that would be not really a secret sauce, but more of the right timing. And a bit of luck first when we launch the product at the right timing.

Russell: Right, absolutely. And yeah, one thing I realized is that, you’re really positioned yourself, you know, pre-COVID to really tap on the rising demand. So really good on that. Thank you so much for answering my question. Paulo back to you.

Paulo: Yeah, I have actually one more follow-up for Huy, which is, we’ve been seeing a lot more public investors, retail investors going into the public markets in the US and in Indonesia, for example, since you’re in wealth management and investing, are you seeing the same trend in Vietnam as well? And do you guys have any plans of going into that segment of investing? 

Huy: Definitely. So we actually do see this similar traction here in Vietnam when the market went up and a lot of retail clients in the country actually went to open up their trading accounts. And recently in the last few months, the exchange system in Vietnam went into trouble because we have a lot of transactions coming through the system. And we have days that you cannot load your transactions in, just to emphasize that we have growth in Vietnam retail trading. That is also one of the plans for Finhay as well in 2021 when we actually acquire a security firm and so that we can allow our end-users to actually buy and own direct stock via the Finhay platform. And Vietnam is similar to the US so the index also increased significantly during September and October because of the F0 traders actually entering the market, and creating additional trading volume in Vietnam.

What excites the founders and Yinglan about Southeast Asia;

Paulo: Yeah, I think it’s really great to see that there are a lot more individuals getting into investing in the public markets, even in Vietnam, and really excited to see how Finhay capitalizes on that in the coming months. I think we’re a bit over time already and just to wrap things up, I have one more question for all our guests. And it’s about Southeast Asia. I think most of our listeners aren’t from Southeast Asia and some of them have woken up quite early to actually come in and listen to you guys. So I just wanted to ask you, what are you excited about with Southeast Asia in particular, from your own industry where you’re looking in and from your own market or country, what excites you about the region moving into 2021? Giacomo, you can start.

Giacomo: Yep. Yes, sure Paulo. Overall I’m super bullish about Southeast Asia. I saw it from when I came here in January 2012, that it is just growing and it’s not stopping every year. And when we were in Lazada, we couldn’t believe how much the market was actually helping us. But something else that really, I’m realizing is that we had the first inflection point of Southeast Asia tech, maybe when Lazada did the first exit when Shopee came with the IPO, but I feel we are facing really soon a second inflection point, like a second wave, Southeast Asia tech 2.0, that is coming now with the IPO’s of many companies or tech unicorn in our region. This is fantastic because it will create more angels. It will create some more startups, more founders, but it will unlock founders to start and will raise the bell also to receive [funding] internationally and LPs as well. They want to come directly. So we are really close to a second inflection point. That means for startups like us that are starting and growing, there’s going to be more capital. There’s going to be more talent to grab. And I think for all you guys for investing, there’s going to be more founders, more angels, so maybe more deal flow as well. So we are really getting to the second inflection point and it’s super exciting.

Paulo: Yeah, I think you really benefit from having been in this space for quite some time, since you were part of the founding team of Lazada. Theo, how about you? What are your thoughts? What are you excited about in Southeast Asia this year? 

Theo: Yeah. So just spinning off Giacomo’s point, I think for sure the Southeast Asian market, it’s growing rapidly. And in our space in particular as well. What’s exciting for me and our company is the mental health space in Asia. It’s very, very nascent and most of the players are quite young, most have been quite early in fundraising as well. So that’s number one, it’s nascent, but the fact that it’s rapidly growing as well. We see a rapid pickup in the US and Europe, and now in Asia, where we are in. So how do we actually really capture this gap that the market now rapidly needs across the region? How do we scale our operations fast enough to cover the region and effectively do what we do really, really well. So the Southeast Asia market for sure, I think it’s huge, be it Singapore, Indonesia, or anywhere within the region.

Paulo: Thanks Theo. Huy, how about you?

Huy: I would like to reinforce Theo’s and Giacomo’s points as well. I’m also bullish in the Southeast Asia region especially after COVID when things get back to normal. And prior to COVID, we talked to a lot of American investors and they actually pay attention to the Southeast Asia region, even the investors from Europe. And I think that just shows the side that people from other parts of the world will actually pay attention to this region. And the traction is there and the growth is there and Giacomo made a good point that there will be IPO’s in the next few years. And it will create more angels, which create more funding for new startups to come out. And for Vietnam, the local market as well has been doing really well in the last 24 months. And we have seen startups also there, and many are doing quite well. Tiki and many others have been performing quite well in the country as well.

Paulo: Yeah. Thanks Huy, for your take on the Vietnam market, moving into 2021 and to close things off.  We have Yinglan here on stage with us, do you have anything that you like to share that you’re excited about in Southeast Asia this year?

Yinglan: I think the three interesting areas that we still like a lot, it’s the intersection of commerce and logistics. We have a fairly big presence there. Second one is the unbundling and rebundling of FinTech. We also have a couple of interesting companies and I think the one which encompasses what Huy and Giacomo and Theo are doing is actually the 10x digitalization, caused by COVID. So mental health, wealth management and even insurance selling. Those traditional industries have all been ossified for a long time by [outdated] technology and new platforms have really allowed this to take it to the next level. So I think we can look forward to more innovation from the region.

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