Since I haven’t had much time to write (a failed new year’s resolution), I figured I’ll just post an interview that SG Entrepreneurs recently published, after my mentorship at the Founder Institute in Singapore in January 2012.
Before I post my interview below, I want to put up a quick update about what happened in the past few months. I’ve had some of the craziest ups and downs and lessons learned in my startup including i) acquiring another startup / founder, which was probably one of my most regrettable & embarrassing feats as an early stage entrepreneur, although it did come with a silver lining, ii) hiring & firing woes that affect company culture, iii) finally letting go of something that isn’t working, iv) rebuilding a team and a new product, v) learning that PR doesn’t work, vi) being a much better leader and boss, vii) how to be a more metrics-driven company, viii) why having some sort of work-life balance is important for founders (it’s a marathon, not a sprint), ix) how to surround yourself with good, positive people, and a ton more. I’ve scribbled a lot of points on these topics on my notepad and they are waiting to be turned into blog posts. But at the moment, we’re so focused and busy building a brand new, exciting product that’s set to soft launch in April that I barely have time to breathe! Funnily, I’ve been getting daily emails from Timehop.com (a service that tells you what you tweeted, facebook posted, foursquared or instagrammed exactly a year ago) and saw the same excitement and passion I felt a year ago. A good sign. And a nice reminder of what I’m in this for and why I’m an entrepreneur.
Without further ado, my February interview with Joyce Huang from SG Entrepreneurs:
Build a minimum viable product, then test it at a coffee shop
February 15, 2012 by Joyce HUANG
Cheryl Yeoh is the co-founder and CEO at CityPockets, a digital wallet and secondary marketplace for daily deals. Her New York City based startup allows users to automagically import all their daily deal vouchers from various deal sites so they can keep track of them in one spot. They can also sell them if they can’t use the voucher before they expire.
We caught up with Cheryl, who hailed from Malaysia, to get some insights from her trip here as mentor to the current batch of Founders Institute Singapore participants.
In Spring of 2010, she noticed that she’d bought so many vouchers from various deal sites that she lost track of them. The risk of losing money from expiring vouchers made her realise that daily deal vouchers were fast becoming a new form of currency and that led to the inspiration for CityPockets.
“I’ve always believed that the best products are created when you’re trying to solve a real problem that you experience every day, since you can truly understand the pain points and you’re familiar with it. Don’t try to solve a problem that you don’t have or that is not within your domain expertise,” she said.
Hire people who can embrace your company culture
Filled with zest, Cheryl started getting more involved in the tech scene and talking to people about her idea. She had previously met her co-founder, Jhony, at Cornell University but only figured to start CityPockets together when they were re-introduced by her mentor, Ray Lau.
“It just took one cafe meeting, a mutual desire to become entrepreneurs and to work on a “side project” together (we both still had full time jobs),” she revealed.
In Fall 2010, she quit her job as a management consultant and started working on CityPockets full time.
Although raising funds was a challenge at the beginning, people problems became more pressing as her startup matured.
After CityPockets got funded, recruiting and retaining the core members of the company became more crucial. “For an early stage startup, it’s really tough to find the right team member who possesses the appropriate skills at the right salary range and is equally passionate about the product and space that you’re in,” she said.
What she learnt was that hiring for the right personality and culture is more important than pure skill sets.
“Hiring the wrong person into a small team can be very detrimental to the company so it would be wise to wait until you find the right person. It’s like marriage; you don’t want to settle and you certainly don’t want to compromise on your values.”
To start a company, you need a product person, not an operations person
Cheryl also believes that ‘product people’ make the best founders or CEOs at the early stages of a start-up. Particularly because the person who’s defining the vision of the company should also intimately understand what makes their product work for their market.
“In order to be a good product person, you need to have basic wireframing skills and a sense of what makes a good user experience. You should be able to conduct customer development and user testing sessions to determine feature prioritization. At the heart of a good product manager, you need to be metrics-driven and obsessed with data, since anything worth building is worth measuring.”
“You may not need technical skills per se, but you’ll need to have a good understanding of how long it would take your engineer or technical co-founder to implement changes, fix bugs and or introduce new features,” she explained.
For non-technical co-founders, it never hurts to learn some basic programming; however it’s best if founders specialized in their area of expertise instead of taking forever to learn something they may not be good at.
If you do want to get your hands dirty, Cheryl advises to start with front-end CSS and HTML since you can already contribute a lot if you can start making little design changes to the site.
“At the very least, I think it’s very important for non-technical founders to get a decent grasp of the language terminology, be involved in scrum sessions with engineers, and have a basic idea of the site’s architecture ”
To her, the ideal make-up for a startup team in the order of priority would be first a product person, then a technical geek and finally a kick-ass designer, depending on how many co-founders there are in the company.
“Don’t ever be a general ‘operations’ person or have a co-founder as such, since everyone on the team should double up as an “ops” person anyway,” she opined.
Fragmented markets are a major problem for Southeast Asian startups
The fragmented markets will make it tougher for startups based here. Cheryl observes that unlike launching a product in the US where startups are immediately exposed to a potential market size of 300 million people, in Singapore they only have 5 million potential users to launch a product with.
“If you were to launch into other parts of Asia, there are also a multitude of things to worry about, such as language translation, payment gateways, different tax and legal laws and so on. This makes it much more difficult to launch in a different country, resulting in startups here that tend to have a more local focus and ending up with a smaller market than some global investors would prefer.”
er advice? Start thinking more globally and get more exposure to different markets. “I’d encourage startups in Asia to think of a more global application of their product although it’s always tough if you’re trying to launch in a market where you don’t have a good understanding of,” she said.
However, opportunities are abundant and Cheryl urges startups to make full use of them.
“I highly laud the Singapore government for it’s tremendous support and encouragement to startups there. I was really impressed when I went to Singapore to see a bustling startup ecosystem being created. It’s really important to get support from the top early on since it takes years to create a sustainable ecosystem with the right mentors, leaders, investors and startup incubators.”
“Also, I really believe that the Southeast Asian continent is unique in its cultural demographic, exotic spots, diverse food, and so on and you should think about how to leverage that in developing your start-up, ” she said.
Some differences for product development between US and Singapore
Cheryl and her team at CityPockets adopt Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology, which advocates the creation of rapid prototypes designed to test market assumptions and uses customer feedback to evolve them much faster than via more traditional product development practices.
She noticed that while most of the startups she met in Singapore are starting to adopt the lean startup method, some are still reluctant to get out of the building to speak to customers and test their product with visual or clickable mockups.
“Most startups were still pitching their ideas on paper; they should work on building a Minimum Viable Product faster. Always remember that pictures speak a thousand words.”
Go to a coffee shop and start talking to potential customers
The entrepreneur is an advocate for testing your ideas before fully developing them.
“Build your minimum viable product first, even if it’s a paper prototype or just a visual mockup. Then go to a random coffee shop or public area and start talking to potential customers and users to test people’s reaction to your idea.,” she recommends.
To maximize advice from your mentors, get those that you respect and want to learn from and don’t be afraid to ask them lots of questions.
“Trust me, they were once in your shoes and are eager to help budding entrepreneurs too, but don’t expect them to answer questions that you can already find online by doing a simple Google search. Be mindful of their time and ask very specific questions. Think more about creating relationships with these mentors to begin with,” she said.
When asked if she’d return to Southeast Asia to start something one day, the NYC based entrepreneur replied that her focus is on CityPockets at the moment. “It would be great to return and contribute back to the continent that I came from and grew up in. And I actually love mentoring younger startups and seeing them grow!”
We thank Cheryl for taking her time to do the interview and wish her all the best for CityPockets