I didn’t just leave Ogilvy, one of the most celebrated ad agencies boasting 500 offices worldwide and founded in 1948. I left it to join a company where I was employee number five, with an office so small I could raise my hands and touch the walls on either side of the room.
That was me back in 2013 when I decided I wanted to work with startups. Working for a global company that had its own barista and Friday open bars was so far removed from the early startup bootstrap stories I hear. Back then, Singapore was becoming the Silicon Valley of Asia, full of promise and opportunity. I wanted to be part of it.
One of the first, and perhaps the biggest lesson I learned is this elusive state called product-market fit. When you’re a startup and building a product, you want to know if anyone’s going to pay for it. Our survival hinges on this fact that people are not only using it but are also willing to trade dollars to have their problems solved.
As employee number five (again) and director of growth at an early-stage startup, we saw that the way travellers access data abroad is broken and that a new solution in the form of embedded SIMs is the answer. With the rising trend of 1.4 billion international tourism arrivals, we knew that the travel industry is the market that was going to give us our hockey stick growth.
Then came COVID-19.
Here’s where I learned my second biggest lesson: startups shed their identity like it’s their business. And it is! We have to learn and adapt and then repeat. This process of iterating never stops. Innovation in this regard isn’t always so huge as building the next spaceship to get us to Mars, sometimes it’s in the small, incremental changes that allow us to become who our market needs us to be.
This innovation—while not sexy—is the real work of most businesses. We’re challenged to go back to the drawing board. We’re asking questions and asking ourselves: Who else is buying? Who could be our market right now? Who should we become for these people? Hint: we found another market in the form of an altogether different traveller and we’re changing our messaging in order to speak to them.
This is the life of a startup, and it echoes much of my life as well. It’s what drew me to this in the first place. When I realised I wanted to jump into this world back in 2013, it wasn’t a straightforward path. When I began my career as an agency PR executive, I didn’t just want to offer press releases and media drops to solve my clients’ problems. Sometimes I looked at their business and knew that our solution/service (the product) just wasn’t a fit, but we had to offer them something because we’re on retainer.
So I started doing courses in order to mould myself into a person who understood many facets of startup company problems. Like startups, I needed to shed my identity again and again.
For starters, I joined a creative agency in order to develop skills in producing digital products at scale. Then I realised, I didn’t know shit and needed to pick up even more skills. I learned search engine optimisation, app store optimisation, and inbound marketing. I thought I’d go into product management and learned UX design, scrum techniques, and the agile framework. In 2019, I wanted to design products with words (a medium I was comfortable and good in) and got certified in UX writing. I had to not be afraid to become a beginner, not once but many times. Adapt and learn, right?
Working at a startup, though fulfilling, hasn’t been the rosiest of experiences either. Startup life is hard. Not because the work is hard, but because it brings me face-to-face with all of my insecurities as a person. You know that thing we always want, perfection? Yeah, I might as well forget that word ever existed. Startup life is as messy as real life. I’m going to feel that I don’t know anything even though I have all the experience to tell me otherwise. But this work energises me because product-market fit is about becoming the solution to problems.
Working for a startup means that when they shift and change, that same ability trickles down to me. I may join a company with a certain title and job description for simplicity’s sake, but we are open to adapt and learn in order to fill roles based on what the company needs. I love this. I love it because it allows me to try on many roles. Like how I’m preparing myself right now for grad school to learn analytics, programming and data science. I never have to settle for a role when I’m in a startup. I can choose to shed it if I have outgrown it. I can toss it, or cling on to it. It’s a more organic way of seeing our work and the value we bring versus settling for what no longer serves us just because we have already bought into an identity.