In our recent podcast with Pinhome founders Dayu Dara Permata and Ahmed Aljunied, Dara brought up that one of the things she had learned (or more precisely, unlearned) over the course of building Pinhome into Indonesia’s largest full stack, end-to-end property transaction platform is “the art of letting go.”
“Previously for me, it was all about doing it all myself. I feel like I’m best positioned to do things, but then I realized that as the business grows and scales, we cannot do everything ourselves. We cannot be everything to everyone. So letting go of positions, letting go of execution, letting go of control and reporting, letting go of some opportunities that we have to deprioritize. I think that’s been one of the biggest things I learned as a founder.”
And this “art of letting go” as a key learning or un-learning reflects a broader pattern we have picked up from the sharings of founders and founding team leaders as their businesses mature and organizations become more complex.
In this article, we lay out similar sharings from founders across our podcast, and identify what exactly founders have to let go of in order to grow, leading to some ideas and practices that run counterintuitive to prevailing startup wisdom or notions of what hypergrowth looks like for a venture-backed startup. And this counterintuitive nature of the learnings from growth-stage founders is what makes this discussion of “letting go” all the more compelling.
- Letting go of emotions with set processes and systems and a data-driven approach.
- Letting go of opportunities with relentless prioritization, disciplined resource allocation, and having a strong team and pool of supporters aligned and bought in on their singular mission that has remained unchanged.
- Letting go of the work from product efficiency in the early-stage as the company tries to unlock market value to capital efficiency as the company begins to rake in cash (both from the business and investors) and has to regulate and optimize its use for the growth of the business.
- Letting go of maximizing headcount size by leveraging technology as expressed as much into the organizational structure as it is in the customer experience.
- Letting go of impatience as the company becomes more complex as an organization and there is more at stake for the business.
- Letting go of presumptions about how to operate was crucial in unlocking the “blessing in disguise” that having a distributed team accustomed to operating efficiently remotely brought to the picture.
- Letting go of habits and biases by allowing leadership styles to be disrupted and leveraging technology to fill inefficiency gaps.
Letting go of emotions
Ahmed Aljunied, CTO and Co-Founder of Pinhome, shares on our latest call with him how he leverages (1) set processes and systems (acknowledge -> empathize -> gain understanding -> contextualize -> look for relevant applications) and (2) a data-driven approach (each feedback is a data point, and not all data points are equal) to sifting through the noise and getting the feedback that matters.
“Because there are sources of feedback, many internal sources and many external sources. And what I found helpful was to treat each feedback as a data point, remove emotion from it, and process them systematically. So acknowledge it, empathize again, gain understanding about that feedback, contextualize it, then look for relevant applications. I found that this was really important, because it’s too easy to be [swayed] by a few data points that really need to be qualified.”
Letting go of opportunities
In a capital-scarce market and socio-economic landscape plagued with tensions and uncertainties, companies are forced to sink or swim — and swimming means having that relentless prioritization and knowing when not to do as much as knowing when to do certain things for the business.
Ahmed contextualizes that data-driven approach in the previous point into this idea of disciplined resource allocation.
“We have to introduce feedback loops throughout our processes. We need checkpoints so that we regularly step back monthly every two months, step back, review the data and make changes to how we plan and we have to do that regularly to keep up with our own growth. That can be painful, but so far we are always better for it. And just looking back at the discussion that we just had around going through the pandemic and the various economic challenges, it has taught us to be extra mindful and deliberate in how we allocate our resources.”
This mindset and practice stems not from pure knowledge or advice but having gone through several storms themselves and having to operate and grow in survival mode, as Dara Dayu Permata, CEO and Co-Founder of Pinhome, shares. She also ties the value of being disciplined with costs and cash preservation has enabled them to stave off any “worst-case” choices that involve workforce streamlining thus far.
“We have the capabilities and the resources where we have to activate survival mode. So thinking about pulling out completely from a certain unprofitable segment even for a promising even promising market, cutting unprofitable products, cutting variable costs or COGS or cost of revenue, customer promotion incentives across the board. [We are] always cognizant of costs, surgically looking at the different OPEX, payroll, and marketing costs being the biggest driver.
And so far, luckily that’s been enough for us. So we never had, for example, had to make that hard decision looking at our workforce and streamlining our workforce. We have been continuously growing our workforce now to a strong 450 people team. But that’s said extreme cash preservation has been the biggest learning for us, safeguarding balance sheet, because cash is king.”
Even with having these staunch defensive measures, Pinhome has also balanced that with an offensive approach to generating cash (profitability) and accumulating cash (e.g. rising non-dilutive capital) amidst a market where the cost of cash keeps rising, as Dara shares.
“In economic downturns, cash is king. And that also means in a situation, especially like now where, cash could be extremely dilutive, looking for ways to raise capital that’s non-dilutive, let’s say, debt, to finance classic ROI, like positive ROI product lines, that was a really big learning for us.”
Apart from the business and financials, Pinhome has been able to focus on relentless prioritization with the help of having a strong team and pool of supporters aligned and bought in on their mission, as Ahmed shares.
“Personally in building Pinhome, it’s been constant education since inception. And what I’ve learned is appreciation. I really appreciate our team, our leaders, our investors, our customers, and our supporters, family included. I’ve learned that we have to relentlessly prioritize, and by emphasizing on team, that really equips us to deal with challenges that require that relentless prioritization.”
And this singular mission that has remained unchanged has been foundational to knowing what to prioritize and optimize their discipline for, and this is something that both Pinhome founders emphasized.
“Now we look forward to what success would look like for Pinhome last year and between then and now how we define success is quite consistent and coherent…but right now we have a stronger emphasis on profitability because we have evolved and transformed to a scaling stage. We have been aggressively pursuing profitability and that has led us to a clear pathway towards profitability and very happy to share that we’re on track to be profitable hopefully within this year.” – Dara
“Because we need to strike that balance between growth and sustainability, which is extremely important theme nowadays to even be investible. So although there are different expectations at different stages, it’s helpful that we have one constant vision, one constant north star metric that really encapsulates the value that we create regardless of the stage that we are in.” – Ahmed
Letting go of the work
The JD of a CEO is dynamic, and more so is the case for the CEO of a fast-growing company. Typically there is a shift from focusing on product efficiency in the early-stage as the company tries to unlock market value to capital efficiency as the company begins to rake in cash (both from the business and investors) and has to regulate and optimize its use for the growth of the business.
Finhay CEO and Founder Huy Nghiem shares about this shift from product owner to spending more time on fundraising and working with investors.
“Going to this stage of the company, my leadership style has changed quite significantly. I would say this because at least my day-to-day job has changed a lot for me now. So I spent a lot of time being a product owner prior to Series B, but after, I’m spending time fundraising and also working with the new investors and also existing investors, the time for being a product owner has been reduced.”
Another shift in focus for the CEO is also to bring in more leaders as the organization demands complexity and evolving expertise. Huy shares the example of hiring Finhay’s chief investment officer.
“So during that time, I started to be like, “Now we need to look for more and more top-notch players to join the team, to not just be a product owner, but also in different departments, for example, investment.”
So we recently onboarded our chief investment officer. So he had really long extended experience with a very popular investment firm in Hong Kong and Korea as well, so really glad that he became part of Finhay. So instead of focusing on measuring the team, my role now changed a lot being more of a headhunter myself and trying to get more and more talent to join the firm.”
The change extends beyond letting go of certain role priorities but also conversations with management as they become more high-level and strategic, as Huy shares.
“And the conversation with the other C-levels in the team has shifted a lot as well. Prior to that, it was more of a product [conversation], because I was taking a lot of time being a product owner, but now it’s changed to conversations about what’s the strategy. If we have more talents coming in, how the person can fit in and onboard them quickly.”
Letting go of size
Part of the intuitive visualization of growth for a venture-backed, hypergrowth startup is to have as big of a team as possible spread across many countries. While this may apply to business models that require a certain level of offline operations, for a company like Carro that has found its stride on top of plugging “AI and machine learning in every facade of the customer experience when trying to buy or sell a vehicle,” total headcount is not a variable to maximize, as Carro CEO and Co-Founder Aaron Tan shares.
“Internally, we are almost a thousand people now, across mainly four countries, but…as a tech company that is really driven by machine learning, and data science…half the company, if not more, should be data scientists, programmers, engineers, and we want this to be a platform whereby it’s scalable using machine learning and tech. And we think by far we definitely have the best team and the best pedigree to be able to achieve with something like this.”
And this AI and machine learning DNA, expressed as much into their organizational structure as it is in their customer experience, has contributed to their company being EBITDA positive since 2019 and marking profitability in FY 2022.
“So in fact, for the last two years, we’ve been EBITDA positive. And I’m always glad to say that, we’ve been able to achieve it because of the fact that we don’t need to spend as much as our competitors do…And it all has to do with the fact that it’s machine-learning driven…It’s primarily two things. Number one, I would say again, “What is the business case? What’s the cost savings?” Now if it’s not cost-saving, then the question is as simple as, “How much money would that make me?” That’s how we prioritize it.”
Letting go of impatience
Another part of the intuitive visualization of growth for a venture-backed tech startup is the idea of getting results right away, and there’s certainly benefit to driving results fast, especially early on when the company is structurally more nimble and its competitive positioning less defined.
But as the company becomes more complex as an organization and there is more at stake for the business, patience and not compromising on quality at scale is important. Many companies have crumbled under their own weight reaching a certain scale precisely because of impatience.
Flip CEO and Co-Founder Rafi Putra Arriyan shares his learnings on patience leading a fintech company in Indonesia.
“…patience is the most important thing, especially if you are coming to an industry that is really competitive like fintech, there are lots of people doing lots of things. The industry is very noisy. And when you want to make a dent, if you want to make a big impact, for sure, it will take time.
It rarely happens that you are doing something, and in the next one, two or three months, you are getting results. It will take some time and for sure on the journey, you will face ups and downs for me, at least, in facing this journey until now. I believe that’s the biggest lesson that I’ve gotten so far.”
Before, I was really a rushy person. I wanted to see results fairly quickly, but somehow it does not work at our scale. Lots of things will need time. We need to do lots of iterations. We need to hear our feedback when the feedback is not really good, and we need to accept that and improve and move on. All of these things require very high patience.”
Letting go of certainty
The afterword of the book Backing the Bold talks about venture building and investing as a “dance with uncertainty”:
“With the region’s digital economy just coming off a record year of funding and valuations bolstered by the pandemic-induced digitalization wave narrative, the first half of 2022 saw a near-180 in the fundraising climate, driven by inflation and supply chain strains first hitting public market valuations, then drying up private market activity as well…one can think of this market impact in Southeast Asia as the market dancing at the bpm of an EDM song then having to slow down to a ballad in a split-second. Add in the fact that many of those dancing to the EDM song have not experienced what it’s like to dance to a ballad…Of course, dancing to rapidly changing beats is easier said than done and implies that many of the factors that have led to the challenges in this bear market are actually rooted in decisions made during the bull run.”
This change in beat materialized in Southeast Asia most prominently in 2020 through COVID, and Tianwei Liu, Fazz Deputy CEO and Co-Founder, shares how this impacted his company Xfers’ merger and integration with Payfazz to form Fazz on a people level.
“So, one thing I think we both learned on the fly is that after this whole merger, COVID happened. So to this day, a lot of the senior management to this day I have not met in person. Like we would have been just doing calls and we know each other, almost by talking to each other through the number of calls [we] do. It’s quite often, but we actually haven’t physically met besides me and Hendra, and some of the key founders we have met before, the second level managers and senior leaders, a lot of them are just purely remote.”
Letting go of presumptions about how to operate was crucial in unlocking the “blessing in disguise” that having a distributed team accustomed to operating efficiently remotely brought to the picture.
“And that has become a challenge but also a blessing where you can see that things have to continue evolving. People have had to treat things as a new normal, and [getting] used to being able to operate in that kind of environment and not expect like we can do this later. The later will not come; we don’t know when [we] will eventually evolve out of [this]. We have to work as though this is the new normal. And that has actually been a huge challenge, and at the same time, an interesting thing that happened to us.”
Letting go of habits and biases
Southeast Asia can’t be painted with a single brushstroke, so we often write on Insignia Business Review. This truth is probably most highlighted from the perspective of founders from other markets who had to adjust to a Southeast Asia market, as Konvy CEO and Co-Founder Qing Gui Huang shares.
“In the very beginning, when I came to Thailand, I couldn’t speak Thai. And Thailand is, very different from Singapore or Philippines or Malaysia, where a huge population of the people in these countries do speak English. So I was trying to hire people that speak English.
It was really difficult. And I’m trying to host meetings in English, but a lot of the brand owners do not even speak English, and even for brands that are big, their business heads couldn’t speak English too. And I was thinking that literally, my new year resolution is that the biggest challenge for me to grow this business is me having an effective way to communicate with my staff and the brands.
I just put this as my biggest goal for myself, because I think that it is directly linked with the business, even though its also to my personal benefit, but linked with the business directly and being able to do so, I was being able to start communicating with staff that has been working with me for four to five years.”
In order to build a successful business, in some cases it’s not about disrupting first but allowing oneself as a leader to be disrupted and adapting to the market first. Qing Gui lives this experience of “personal disruption and evolution” every year in the form of retreats that shape his management style.
“There’s one period every year that I’m just gone, at least 10 to 20 days, and people don’t know where I am. And I’m just taking that time to myself to finalize what should be my next year’s focus and I come back very differently, with a very different mindset.
Whenever I come back, I host a meeting with all the management levels and I share with them that this year we’re gonna be this and I’m gonna be very different. Please expect that there will be some difference in my way of managing. I might be able to sit with you to discuss your family problems in the past, but now the business is a couple of hundred people. Now my time for you might be very limited. We used to have five heads. Now we have 30 heads, even if I give each of you 15 minutes per week, that would mean a few days is gone. So I have to rearrange my time to focus on where I should be. So I’m evolving and my leadership and my management style have to change as well to adapt to how the business is.”
This adaptive leadership extends beyond language barriers. Qing Gui also had to adapt in terms of the workplace culture has come from a culture that highly contrasted with the culture he was now building a company in.
“So working seven days a week is a norm for me. The 996 sometimes is not 996, maybe a lot more like 9-11-7. And as you know, the pace of ecommerce is really fast we still had to work after midnight all the time in the very first few years. I had huge trouble working this with my staff and every time we ran over double-digit promotions, there was a huge turnover. There’s a huge turnover.
And I try to understand, one of the questions that I ask my staff when I interview them is that, “Why do you work?” I ask them these questions. They say they want to find a place that can give them a happy environment. It seems that happiness is why they work and this is kind of different from what I want.
Even being in a fast-moving industry, we have to take into account that that culture is much, much more laidback than what China is doing or what Silicon Valley is doing. What you want might not necessarily be what they want, and you have to find a balance in this. You want to win this market and you have to take their culture into consideration and slow down sometimes.”
Adapting has meant not only just letting this be, but also thinking of how to leverage tools and technology in order to bridge gaps between, in the case of Konvy and Qing Gui, the need for efficiency and still catering to the workplace needs of the company.
“So we have a trip every year, and we need to respect that there are so many holidays in Thailand. I cannot just say if there’s a holiday that I just want to work. I cannot do that. So it’s about finding a balance or in some way we are investing heavily into technology, as another way to complement this situation. Let’s say everyone is going on holiday but who answers the customer service? And people in here, sometimes you’re paying them triple or quadruple and they don’t even want to work. So now you need to start thinking about what about bots. What about other alternatives? What about having a remote work environment for customer service? And that’s what I learned about this culture.”
Paulo Joquiño is a writer and content producer for tech companies, and co-author of the book Navigating ASEANnovation. He is currently Editor of Insignia Business Review, the official publication of Insignia Ventures Partners, and senior content strategist for the venture capital firm, where he started right after graduation. As a university student, he took up multiple work opportunities in content and marketing for startups in Asia. These included interning as an associate at G3 Partners, a Seoul-based marketing agency for tech startups, running tech community engagements at coworking space and business community, ASPACE Philippines, and interning at workspace marketplace FlySpaces. He graduated with a BS Management Engineering at Ateneo de Manila University in 2019.