If you’re in a large company, there’s usually a hierarchy of people. For better or for worse, different people’s opinions hold different weights, so if you can get the actual users to champion your ideas back to them and channel those back to the stakeholders, it makes a lot more sense. So just to give a very concrete example, if you have technology telling management and stakeholders what they should be doing, that usually doesn’t end up really well because usually technology’s distance to the stakeholder is the management. But if you have the users telling management stakeholders, this is what we want to use, then that usually goes well.- Aaron Lim
Aaron is the co-founder & CEO of Privyr, a mobile CRM built for salespeople who work off their phone and use apps like WhatsApp, SMS, and iMessage to interact with their customers. He's a third-time founder across Silicon Valley and Singapore. Prior to starting Privyr, he built and launched CRMs at the world's leading financial institutions, as a Vice President at GIC and APAC CRM Lead at BlackRock.
Aaron graduated with a BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) from UC Berkeley. He was born in Singapore, raised and educated in California, and has been back in Singapore for the last 13 years.
Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hi, Aaron, welcome to the show.
Aaron Lim: (00:32)
Hey, Jeremy, thanks for having me. Excited to be here.
Jeremy Au: (00:36)
I’m so excited to see another UC Berkeley alum, founder, and corporate executive out here, Aaron, and I’m so excited to share your story.
Aaron Lim: (00:44)
Yeah, GO BEARS!
Jeremy Au: (00:45)
Yeah, go bears! Whoooo. School pride! So, Aaron, for those who don’t know you yet, how would you introduce yourself professionally?
Aaron Lim: (00:55)
My name’s Aaron Lim, I’m the cofounder and CEO of Privyr, we’re a startup based in Singapore, with customers globally, working in the CRM space for people who work off their phone and use apps like
Jeremy Au: (01:06)
So, what were you like at UC Berkeley, were you a party person? Were you one of those engineers stuck inside the grounds?
Aaron Lim: (01:12)
I was definitely a combination of both, so I did electrical engineering and computer science. So definitely a lot of time spent in the lab, but I also lived on frat row. I played on the ice hockey team at Berkeley. I partied a lot, played a lot of video games, college was one of the best times of my life, especially at Cal.
Jeremy Au: (01:31)
Hopefully not the peak. So, what games were you playing back then?
Aaron Lim: (01:35)
I played a lot of Halo, we had four TVs set up in my dorm room and my friends would come around and we would play non-stop.
Jeremy Au: (01:44)
Oh, man, 4-person LAN Halo. That must’ve been amazing. So much fun. I remember playing a lot of Halo as well. I like to pride myself that I was the best on my floor.
Aaron Lim: (01:59)
Yeah, the internet was extremely good at the time.
Jeremy Au: (02:01)
Yeah, that was a beautiful time. So, why did you decide to become someone who’s studying computer science.
Aaron Lim: (02:09)
So this was actually not something I consciously did. When I applied to college, I applied as an engineering undeclared, which meant I knew I want to do engineering. I knew I want to do something math related, but I didn’t know exactly what it was and my parents, friends were suggesting, oh, why don’t you do ECS? Doing engineering and computer science? And I thought that was all for people who had built computers when they were 12 years old. You hear all these stories of people who are very tech savvy early on, whereas my experience with computers is basically video games and PlayStation up until college. So, I went in. I actually thought that I would be doing mechanical engineering ‘cause very hands on, very builder-esque type of role. But my first year at college, we took introduction to computer science classes. I really, really fell in love with that and just went deeper and deeper and then I think by the second or third year I had declared as electrical engineering computer science which I totally love. It was a bit of an accident, but I guess life found its way.
Jeremy Au: (03:13)
Life found its way. That’s very Jurassic Park all of a sudden. So, as you were doing this, and we were both in the Bay area, right? So, is that were your love for engineering and startups bite you, or how did that happen because the first job you did out of college was to work in a startup.
Aaron Lim: (03:30)
Yeah, so that was actually a complete accident, so unlike many other responsible college students who were taking internships and thinking about their futures, I spent a lot of my off time and summers just playing video games and doing things that I liked and one of the things that I really loved was playing this video game called Everquest, at the time. One of the first big MMORPGs and I became like a GM, gamemaster, there on the server, and I helped build their websites and like these character profilers and that's where I started building things people wanted. At the time, this was about 2006, 2007. Facebook started allowing people to create apps on their platforms, so I started creating apps on Facebook as well. I didn’t see these these as kind of career decisions, it’s just let’s just build something and see if people would use it. But being in the Bay Area, people start to notice and recruiters start reaching out. People were asking leave college, quick, drop out and join their startups and just so happened, in my third year, a CEO came to campus and found one of my best friends and myself and asked us to join this company first as interns and then later as full time as the first two employees. So, that’s kind of found me, again. I wasn’t looking for it, but I didn’t know it was…this was an actual job. I thought jobs had to be in a large corporate sitting and doing mundane work, and that was kind of my first introduction to entrepreneurship and it’s just building stuff that people use, and that’s how I first discovered that this is an actual thing.
Jeremy Au: (05:03)
What was it like being, at the time, the director of engineering at a startup in 2007/2008?
Aaron Lim: (05:09)
It was actually really interesting, so I was actually still in my last one to two years of university when we started that company, and one of the most memorable things was, of course, I was still a student, so sometimes we would go to these conferences. I’d actually have two badges, one as a student and one as a representative of company. And one thing that we actually did, I actually haven't told anyone this, but I would go to competitors with this student bench and because they're recruiting, they'll just pour out all the secrets and tell us all about their technology and everything. Then I come back and tell the CEOs like, yeah, ours is way better. So that was really interesting to see both sides of it and also not to have to think too much about like responsibilities and career because I was still a student, so everything else that I was doing was just experience picking up on then. But that was super fun.
Jeremy Au: (05:59)
So, is that where you got bitten by the startup bug? Is that where you were like okay, now I’ve done this, I want to keep doing this?
Aaron Lim: (06:05)
Absolutely. That’s where I fell in love with engineering, fell in love with computer science, fell in love with startups. I did deviate from that, later on, but that was absolutely where I got bit.
Jeremy Au: (06:17)
Can’t wait to talk about some of those deviations. What’s interesting is that you also made that decision to come back to Singapore to serve out your national service where you eventually rose to the rank of captain. What was it like, making that decision to come back from UC Berkeley and the Bay area back to Singapore?
Aaron Lim: (06:36)
It was definitely not an easy decision. So, I left Singapore, I was born in Singapore, I left when I was four years old. I came back right after I graduated when I was twenty. So I spent 17 years of my life and basically all of my memorable life. My life was there, my friends were there, all my stuff was there that I had accumulated and I didn’t actually think about it too much until graduation and my parents just showed up at my front door and knocked on the door and said, hey, here’s your plane tickets. Pack your stuff. We’re going in two weeks. So even though I saw it coming, it was still a bit of a shock. Had to say all the goodbyes. Had to move everything back, but I knew that it’s something that had to be done. Resisted event as a young and naïve kid would. Yeah, I knew that my family was here; at the very least, I’d come back and serve my duties to the country before I make any major decisions and then after that I could do what I wanted.
Jeremy Au: (07:32)
For me, it was the opposite. I did my military service before UC Berkeley. So, I arrived on campus as a 21 year old freshman who’s very popular because I could become a dealer of alcohol on our floor.
Aaron Lim: (07:45)
Jeremy Au: (07:46)
And, of course, it was interesting where I was just very focused and disciplined at school because I was very much focused on that. Yours was the opposite because you went into national service and so, you’ve finished college as well, so what was that like?
Aaron Lim: (08:00)
That was a huge culture shock. There is multiple facets that were a shock. One is just Singapore culture in general outside of army, not just the culture but the language, the food, the weather, of course, after growing up most of my life in Southern California and then Northern California and then the other aspect was the army specifically where I’m coming in, I’m college educated. I’ve been independent paying on my own living on my own for four plus years, and now I’m in this situation where kids younger than me are giving me orders and asking me why there’s dust on my bed and making me do pushups and stuff. So that was an extreme culture shock, just all around, especially in basic military training, BMT bootcamp, the first three months, but after the first few months I kind of got the hang of it, kind of was able to adapt, kind of change the way that I spoke so people can understand me and after that it was quite good. I struggled for the first few weeks. I literally cried to sleep in the bunks, but after that, it was good and I enjoyed my time.
Jeremy Au: (09:05)
Yeah, I would say every Singaporean male cries in national service. Everyone just hides it for two years…and then ten years…it’s a tough time because, like you said, it’s a new culture for everybody as well and, obviously, it’s very tough, physically and mentally as well. There you are and you did your two years. I’m just kinda curious, were there any benefits you took away from the experience?
Aaron Lim: (09:26)
Definitely. I would say doing national service, aside from obligations and serving the country and defense, etc, one of the main things that I got, personally, was the diversity of people that you interact with. Growing up in a small town in Southern California, everyone’s kind of similar to yourself. I was one of the only Asians people would know they would see my mom at a grocery store and be like “hey, you’re Aaron’s mom” because we’re like the only Asians around, but everyone is kind of in the same area, background, socioeconomic status, etc. Going to Berkeley. You get a little bit more of that diversity, but you still have a choice in terms of…I don’t wanna say choice…but you’re still around people who are similar to you in terms of major, in terms of taste in life, etc. But, in the army, everything is just completely turned upside down. You don’t get to choose who you’re hanging out with, at least for the first few years you just put in this group of people who may or may not be similar to you, and you just need to understand who they are, so that really gave me an opportunity to understand all the different slices of society, good and bad, and not just socioeconomically, but in terms of education, in terms of upbringing, in terms of values, in terms of priorities, I’d say that was probably my biggest takeaway and understanding not just Singapore but the Asian region, which I hadn’t spent a lot of time in before.
Jeremy Au: (10:49)
And so there you are…and you leave…and you decided to join the world of finance at BlackRock, right? But, of course, in a technology-ish role. So, talk to us a little bit about that.
Aaron Lim: (11:02)
Yeah, so, by the time I finished army, my first startup had finished raising its Series A. It was on the verge of getting acquired. Ended up getting acquired by good technology which was later acquired by BlackBerry. So that’s not BlackBerry work, but so much had changed in the time that I was in Army and there was so much opportunity that I saw in Asia that I decided alright, let’s stay in Asia. Let’s stay in Singapore, my family’s here. Let’s try something new. I can always go back to the US later on since we’ve already made the shift, let’s just stick around for a bit. I looked at the tech scene here, the startup scene here. This was about 2010. It wasn’t too mature and I also didn’t really have a network of people because all the people that I knew were now going to university. They aren’t looking to start startups so I didn’t have a network, especially in the tech scene. So, I looked around at opportunities. I found this role in BlackRock. And although BlackRock is a very large institution, especially in finance, there are very different to me because, one, they do invest extremely heavy into technologies, so they actually sell their technology externally and it’s a billion-dollar business. And the other thing was the role that I was looking at, specifically, was very unique in that it was launching technology across Asia where there was no existing team. So I was the only one in the region to actually do this. So, this would have a lot more autonomy than a normal corporate role. So those are the things that really attracted it to me. Of course, Blackrock’s a great company. Of course, financially, it makes a lot of sense, so I thought if I’m not starting my own company here, let’s do this to really see what tech could be at a large enterprise, what it looks like at kind of its peak in a more mature stage, and then take those lessons later down the road to transfer into my own companies.
Jeremy Au: (12:51)
And that’s what you did, right? Because you went from there to become a founder, your first time founder at Tea Towels. So, tell us more about what it was like, was it scary?
Aaron Lim: (13:01)
I would say it was a lot more exciting than it was scary, especially that time. So the first company, I wasn’t the founder. I was Director of Engineering, but because we are joined as the first employees, it really felt like we were founders. But yes, it wasn’t completely on my own. When I was at BlackRock, I had an amazing time there, but the whole time I had in the back of my head, I didn’t get to see the first startup through to the end through to acquisition into maturity. So I really wanted to get back into that. So the second time I thought, alright, let’s do this. I consider it to be my second startup, although it’s absolutely the first one that I’m doing on my own, I completely underestimated it because you don’t notice when things go well and you don’t learn as much when things go well, so the first one went pretty smooth, at least the time that I was there. CEO and the team did an amazing job and I was shielded from a lot of the nuances as to what actually happens in a company. So this time was a bit of a shock because I came in thinking that I already had one startup under my belt. But starting from complete scratch in a new environment without a team that I knew, just on my own, was a lot harder than I thought.
Jeremy Au: (14:13)
Yeah. So, sounds like there’s a lot of learning there about how hard it was. Now that you’ve many more years of wisdom, what would you say is the difference between being an early employee versus being a founder, the first time founder?
Aaron Lim: (14:26)
As a founder, you have to decide what you’re even going to do and it’s just completely open ended. As an early employee, we had a direction that was set, we had investors already. The job was pretty clear, so, as long as we did this particular job, the job was, of course, challenging, but, as long as we did the job, at least, on role, your success was very certain. Whereas, as a founder, I realised that even if I did everything right…not to say right in the grand scheme of things, but everything as I had planned, as I had desired, it may not get you anywhere, you can still be in square one even though you did everything that you had thought that you had set out to achieve.
Jeremy Au: (15:09)
And how did that work out for you, over those two years that you worked on it?
Aaron Lim: (15:13)
So app it did not work out well. The site still live today, but I realized that I had invested way too much in product. I’m a product person, I’m an engineer. I spent probably 90% of my time just coding and building and making features. Honestly, some of the features in that are probably more mature than the startup that I have today, which is much bigger and better than that one. But I just completely overbuilt so that really helped me realize that building a product is one thing, but really getting the customer side of things and getting it out to people can be done extremely effectively even without a perfect product so that really helped me with my current startup.
Jeremy Au: (15:57)
So, there you are, you spent your three years there and that’s when you transition into another brand name, which is the GIC as the VP, Knowledge and collaboration. So, what was that transition like? So, obviously, part of it was the push where your startup wasn’t working and as a sort of I guess to some extent some pull. But what was that transition? What was the thinking behind it because he feels like maybe you could’ve gone straight into tech instead, you could’ve gone to Google. There’s a lot of different places you could have gone to as well.
Aaron Lim: (16:26)
Yeah, that’s a really good story. So as my second startup was winding down, we kind of saw the writing on the wall. We did see a path to potential success. But that required me to do something I wasn’t very passionate about, which is create content nonstop on my platform to kind of show to the world or show to the local ecosystem how the platform should work. And I wasn’t ready to make that commitment. So I looked at other jobs. I was looking at Google. I was looking at Facebook. I was looking at a number of other roles in more tech centric companies, but I realize that for most of these companies, the tech centers aren’t based out of Singapore and most of the time it’s not based out of Asia at all. So the product decisions that product ownership wasn’t really here. Asia was more of an operations hub at that time for a lot of these tech companies. Whereas when I was actually referred by one of my Army mates to this GIC opportunity, and at that time I looked at it and said okay, I know tech. I know finance, I didn’t think that I was going to go back into the finance space. Yes, they pay well, but it’s not typically what you think of a tech focused startup, entrepreneur, type of mindset. But when I looked into this role, it was a brand new department that had been set up - the data analytics department. I met with some of the recruiters and managers there and realize that this was actually extremely open-ended opportunity for me to not just launch, but build things from scratch. So, BlackRock, there was a CRM client relationship management platform that was built in Seattle that I had to launch throughout Asia, so I wasn’t as involved in the actual building, but I was very involved in the launching and the onboarding and engagement across Asia, whereas in GIC these systems weren’t even built yet, it’s still being conceptualized, it’s still very open ended, so I saw this as an opportunity to take this different perspective of when we go from scratch and we talked to all the different stakeholders and the different teams. What does that process look like of building it from nothing to getting people to use it and then launching it? So I saw that as a very exciting opportunity. Again, probably a bit more unique in the financial space compared to what people usually think of, but yeah, I saw that as like the mini startup or mini entrepreneur path within a much larger organization.
Jeremy Au: (18:49)
This is pretty interesting because there you are, serving as an…intrapreneur…as in someone who’s an internal entrepreneur. That’s a tough role, right, for any other large organisation, let alone GIC? So, what would you say accounted for your ability and success in serving that role?
Aaron Lim: (19:13)
I’d say direct access to the stakeholders. So I did a couple of projects there, some big, some small, but the most successful ones we would always have direct access to investment professionals, the stakeholders that are actually using it. So in any sort of corporate set up, one of the big issues that happens is that you have stakeholders who aren’t users and they’re giving all of the requirements. They’re telling you what you should build, what you shouldn’t build, and you have to listen to them because they’re the ones I make the decisions, and, oftentimes, you build something, they’re happy with it, and then you roll it out and no one actually uses it and then they’re not happy with it anymore. But I would say, for the successful projects, the things that really made the difference were where we’re able to cut everyone else out and just focus on. Here’s the people that are actually going to be using it. Here’s the people that are going to be championing it. They have no agenda or thoughts other than how am I going to be using this on a day to day basis and we just cut through everything else; all the translations, all the different stakeholder opinions. This is what you want. This is what we’re going to build, and it’s no surprise to anyone when we actually launch it that it’s actually being used.
Jeremy Au: (20:26)
Still feels tough. I mean, feels like a lot of meetings.
Aaron Lim: (20:29)
Yeah, we had a tonne of meetings. But the most successful ones were the ones where it was just one layer and here’s the actual users and here’s the product and engineering team and it’s all just one layer. Most of the time, there’s quite a few layers in between, especially in larger organisations with multiple departments, multiple teams, multiple stakeholders. So, the ones we’re able to cut and streamline the most, I personally felt went the smoothest and were the most successful.
Jeremy Au: (21:00)
What advice would you have for these meetings, these alignment meetings where you have stakeholders who are users, which feels like a normal meeting, and then you have stakeholders who are not users as part of that meeting as well. So, what advice would you have for people who have that meeting?
Aaron Lim: (21:14)
If you’re in a large company, there’s usually a hierarchy of people. They are, for better or for worse, different people’s opinions hold different weights, so if you can get the actual users to champion your ideas back to them and channel those back to the stakeholders, it makes a lot more sense. So just to give a very concrete example, partially hypothetical example, if you have technology telling management and stakeholders what they should be doing, that usually doesn’t end up really well ‘cause usually technology distance to the stakeholder is the management. But if you have the users telling management stakeholders, this is what we want to use, then that usually goes well. The issue is most of the time the users just know the problem that they have that they don’t necessarily know the best way to solve it, which is what technology is able to do and a good product manager, a good product team, is able to provide. So what has worked well in the past is you get the users to share their problems directly with technology, technology and product, then shares and comes up with various approaches and test those using common startup methodologies and then sells those/pitches those back to the users. When the users are happy with it, the users then pitched that to management, so it’s actually technologies idea floating up to management, but it’s coming through as a user’s idea, so management is typically a bit more open to these suggestions rather than hearing directly from technology, whereas the common stereotype is that technology doesn’t understand people and engineers don’t get how people work, so their words aren’t taken as seriously. That’s the unfortunate reality across most companies. Of course, it’s not always the case, and there’s a lot of teams that handled it well that I came across - GIC and BlackRock, but that’s a common setup, so usually funneling all the ideas and all the feedback through the users, but having technology and product kind of implant those ideas and concepts and work those out with the users directly before floating it up.
Jeremy Au: (23:19)
And there you are, you successfully deployed a couple of systems and deployments and then you decided that you want to go build again as a founder. So, talk us through that and eventually chose a growth for your EF as well, Entrepreneur First.
Aaron Lim: (23:33)
Yes, so that was not an easy decision and I’ll be completely honest that I thought that my startup days were behind me, at least for a couple of decades. So after my second startup, my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, said you have this much time now. Go get a real job. Let’s start a family. Let’s get married. Let’s do all these adult things which we did when I went to GIC. At the end of 2017, we had bought a house. We had gotten married, just gotten married. My wife was not working and it was not a good time for me to start a company. It was not even on my radar. I knew it was something that I wanted to do. But I assumed that it would be something that I would do 20 years time when my kids have gone to college and I’d be a bit more financially free. But EF, Entrepreneur First, reached out, they sent a couple of cold emails. I thought they were just complete scams at the time, but then I actually read one of them and it seemed pretty legit. I replied, I met up with them. It seemed interesting, but of course it was still a really, really big risk given financial commitments, again, my wife wasn’t working at the time. We had a mortgage, etc. So I met up with them. It seemed pretty interesting and we were actually able to arrange for me to take a sabbatical so that I could limit risk instead of just leaving. I took a six month sabbatical from GIC, they were very kind to offer me that and I went to go through EF in the beginning of 2018 and the deal was look if it goes well, great. At least we’ve derisked a lot. We can look at continuing if it doesn’t go well then just take it as a short break and we go back to normal life. So that helped to mitigate risk a bit, but it was something that I take no credit in discovering on my own. EF gets all the credit for pulling me out and again I guess just fate deemed that I should be going after another startup.
Jeremy Au: (25:28)
Yeah, and there you are as an experienced founder and you decided to go with Entrepreneur First which is very focused and I’ve been part of that program as well and I remember asking you for advice and I’ve found that you’re experienced, but for the benefit of everyone listening, I’d love to hear about it. What was your experience like going to Entrepreneur First as an experienced founder?
Aaron Lim: (25:48)
So EF is very interesting and I think they’ve proven that their model works. They recently just had their first billion dollar company that was born out of the program and I see a lot of successful companies coming out of it as well. For me, going in as an experienced founder, it was a bit different because my priorities were not necessarily aligned with what most people. Most people, when they go to, if they’re thinking I’m a first time founder. Maybe I’ve served my life in academia or maybe I’ve served my life in the industry. I need someone to kind of show me the way of how to start a company so that we can make it successful. Of course, they help you find a co-founder. They’ll do the funding and all these types of things. But a lot of the attraction is just help me start my first startup. I’m coming in and my co-founder was in the same situation. We’ve done startups before. We didn’t really value or we weren’t looking for that aspect as much, but the two things that really stuck out to me and that turned out to be the most valuable was one finding a cofounder. Being able to be in a room with 100 plus extremely ambitious qualified risk taking entrepreneurs who are not just all of those things but ready to start a company right now. Timing is always an issue. You always have friends that want to start companies, but I can maybe let’s do it in six months. Let’s do a year or two years. There’s always a different timing. So one part I was looking at was just finding a cofounder and the second part was just having an extremely defined structure for if this is working or not. As founders, we are, by nature, optimists. We always hope that things will work out and that’s why we start startups despite the odds. But the reality is sometimes you just have to pull the plug and you need to set a timeline and we’re not great at setting those ourselves. At least, I’m not, but with the EF structure, that was kind of at three months, you’re either passing the investment committee and getting further investment, or you’re not. At six months, you’re either raising a seed round or you’re not, and that was very important to me, and even more important to my wife to help mitigate some of the costs of and risks associated with starting a company when we had a lot more financial responsibilities and real life things to consider.
Jeremy Au: (27:59)
I think one of the questions that people always ask and this is something that you had done twice by then was find a co-founder right? Which seems to be like a tough question all the time. And what’s interesting is you did the first one where you found your co-founder yourself and the second time was to some extent match made as well. So tell us or walk us through what the difference is and what are similarities are?
Aaron Lim: (28:21)
Yeah. So, I would say the most important thing when finding a cofounder after going through all of these experiences is really finding someone that aligns with the vision of what you’re trying to build and why you’re trying to build it. People start startups for many, many different reasons. A lot of people see starting a startup as a quick way to get something nice on the resume so that they can apply to an MBA program in one or two years, some people see it as a way to fill out gaps in their time when they can’t find the perfect job in corporate. Some people just think that it’s very exciting and they think that they’re going to exit, sell for a couple million dollars in two to three years where some people see it as I just want to build this product introduced into the world and money and all this other stuff, yes, hopefully it comes, but that's not the main driving factor. Now there's nothing right or wrong about any of those answers, but making sure that there's alignment within the cofounders is extremely, extremely important, because if you're mismatching between those two things you run into a lot of issues. The other thing that I would say is, especially with EF, when you have so many people to choose from and you can just go through all their different profiles and see this is their backgrounds, this is what they’re good at, this is what they’re not good at. We tend to actually over optimize first things on paper. We start to think about - this is the idea that we have and I just need this one missing piece and we try and find someone to just fill that gap and I personally feel that that’s not the best approach. Yes, you may find a co-founder that you think fills in the gaps that you’re missing. If it’s the co-founder, then it should be someone that you’re sharing the vision with and they’re contributing to overall company. Rather than filling a gap that you had, that’s more of an employee that you’re filling the gap with, so I always tell people going into EF, have an idea of the problem that you want to solve. You can have ideas of like skill sets and gaps that you have, but instead of trying to find someone to fit that, talk to everyone that you can about the problems and see how they would sit and see how they would approach it. And maybe their approach is so unique and novel, taking their extremely unique backgrounds and experiences that when you combine those two together, it's something that both of you truly own, is something that most people in the world wouldn't even think of doing. And it's something that I think the most important thing is like both of you have ownership over it. Both of you are excited by the vision rather than it’s your vision, and someone else is kind of helping you build it.
Jeremy Au: (30:50)
That’s a tough one, right? Which is feeling that equal yet complementary dynamic. It’s a tough one to get. I think a lot of founders find themselves in sub optimal situations right now. Like unequal but complementary or equal but similar. So how should they think about it? I mean, what advice would you give you find someone who’s kind of is in that situation.
Aaron Lim: (31:12)
I’d say if you’re looking at something where it’s unequal but complementary, a lot of the times it’s unequal because of the way that you’ve set it up. If you say this is my idea and it’s going to work exactly and XYZ manner and I just need someone to do X, then you’re coming in with the mindset that company is actually already more or less complete in your head and this person is just filling in that gap. And, of course, in that situation you’re going to feel that it’s unequal because it was your idea. You’ve come up with the entire concept. You validated various parts of it and this other person is coming in and they’re not contributing as much to it. But if you’re truly looking for a cofounder and I appreciate that this isn’t always possible, but if you’re truly looking for a cofounder and you’re in their early stages, really starting from scratch, you can have a problem in mind, you can have some approaches in mind, but really, having both cofounders build up the idea that approach the product vision. All of these things together that inherently removes this concept of unequalness because you’re really building it from scratch rather than plugging and playing someone else into it. So that’s my personal take. I know it’s not always possible, but if it is at all possible, if you’re just starting from scratch, if you’re still in college or, you’re just thinking about starting your startup, I would highly suggest that as a way. It may be a bit harder in the short term, but after your first six months or so it just makes life a lot easier and it will create a much more truly differentiated product and company than if you just had one person.
Jeremy Au: (32:48)
And I think there’s something that you talked about, right? Giving advice to other founders and everything. What’s it like feeling like a second time founder ‘cause we get a lot of folks that we meet who are first time founders or they’re starting very young right after college or in college and these whippersnappers are out building it. Any thoughts about how or what advice you normally would give them?
Aaron Lim: (33:09)
I’d say, obviously, starting a company for the second time or third time or a fifth time, you’re taking in a lot more lessons. You’re starting a little bit further. You starting with a bit more experience in. I would say in no way is that required. Of course we see a lot of amazing companies being started by first time founders, so people shouldn’t ever be afraid of starting their own company, some people say, oh, I want to work for another startup or I want to work for a larger company so that I could experience in doing it, but nothing will ever prepare you for starting your first startup, even starting your first startup won’t prepare you sufficiently for starting your second startup. There’s always going to be that learning curve. Everything is always going to be different, so I wouldn’t say be scared of starting your first company, I’d say it’s you know this what you want to do. Just get it out of the way as soon as possible. This is just start just do something. But of course the more startups that you either start or even work for, or even if you work for a large company like Google or Facebook you always can take different lessons into it. I’d say always keep your mind open. You never want to be the smartest person in the room. You never want to think that you have it figured out. I’d say starting my second startup, I felt a lot more lost than I did my first startup despite having gone through it multiple times, and I’d say that’s probably the bigger thing which is going in knowing that no matter how much experience or how many startups that you’ve worked at/first founded previously, there’s still a lot more to learn and not getting too complacent over thinking that you’ve figured out how to build a product or you figure out how to fundraise, or you figured out how to do any particular thing. It’s always going to be different. Don’t worry too much about it, but at the same time, always look at the lessons of other founders, of podcasts, of books, YouTube videos, etc, and just soak in that knowledge.
Jeremy Au: (34:57)
Yeah, that’s a lot of wisdom there. Speaking of wisdom, could you tell us of a time when you were brave?
Aaron Lim: (35:04)
I think probably the bravest moment was just leaving GIC. Things were going very well there. The team there was fantastic. The bosses were fantastic. Of course, it’s a great company. Things were going really well, again, I just bought a house that I definitely cannot afford now. My wife was not working. Basically, I had made up all of my financial plans and decisions and life around assuming that I was going to be at GIC for at least 5/10 plus years. So, taking that leap was huge, not just for me personally, but for friends for family. There’s a lot of speculation that happens over, like, oh, why would someone do this? Like did you lose your job? My dad literally told me people don’t start companies because they have options. People start companies because they don’t have options. He has started companies in the past, not in technology, but he comes from that sort of mindset. I guess. Dealing with all of these different perspectives, I wouldn’t say I was brave, but I was absolutely uncertain was this the right decision to make, but end of the day. For anyone out there that’s thinking about starting a start up at the end of the day. Life has unknown ending. We’re all just going to be at the end of our lives one day, and the specific decisions that we make may not play a huge part in where that actually ends up so. Just knowing that no matter what you do, it’s going to be alright. So if you want to take a risk, there’s no better time than now. That’s kind of what kept me sane and helped me with bravery. No matter what happened, we’ll be okay. We’re in Singapore, what’s the worst that’s going to happen?
Jeremy Au: (36:41)
And speaking about something that’s really interesting because from the outside in, it is a very brave action that you left your cushy GIC job with your assumed lifestyle that’s built on the assumption that you were at GIC for a couple more years, to build a startup. So, from the outside in, it is brave. But from the inside out, you’re describing it as something there’s uncertainty, that you didn’t see yourself as brave, but you felt confident in your own way. So, I’m just wondering, what do you think is the difference between the outside in view of that bravery versus the inside out where you seem confident enough to do it and make the call while discussing that with your partner and leaving the job and the lifestyle. So, I’m just kind of curious how you think about it.
Aaron Lim: (37:23)
Yeah, I think one of the things that helped me was, I mean this is very engineer of me, but I literally took out a spreadsheet and I didn’t say like how much money am I going to make her any of that stuff, right? That’s completely unknown or it’s known in the corporate path, but it’s completely unknown and most of the time if you’re starting a company, you’re not ending with a better financial outcome thing. After the probability distribution, it’s not a better financial outcome than if you were to just stay with corporate. But what I actually did was, at a high level, I plotted out what would be the difference in my life with the various outcomes. So, there was a few different outcomes, but I realize that even in the worst case it wasn’t going to ruin our lives. Maybe we would have to sell the house. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to have kids as early. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to eat out as much. May be life wouldn’t be as comfortable, but in no situation was it we’re going millions of dollars into debt, in no situation are we sacrificing huge parts of health. Of course, I don’t count gray hairs and lack of sleep as huge parts of health, but in terms of disease or any sort of that long term things aren’t really sacrificed and that gave me comfort that no matter what happens, as long as we are logical and go about it, in a good way, there’s a floor to how bad it can get. Especially if you’re in a country in a situation like Singapore where worst case that happens, you’re still in an alright situation. So, I think those are the things that gave me comfort, not the day-to-day lack of giving up small perks in lifestyle, but more of knowing that these types of decisions aren’t going to affect super long term health or super long term longevity or family or anything like that. That’s what really helped me reconcile those.
Jeremy Au: (39:20)
Wow thanks so much Aaron. So, I just kind of want to paraphrase what you just shared, just to wrap things up here. The three big themes that got from you was, I think first of all, thank you for sharing about what you were like as a college halo playing, beer drinking student, doing computer engineering, and it’s interesting to see how that your early anecdotes about how you were as a professional at startup and how you caught the bug was a fun ride, and two who you are and how you got started in the technology world. The second thing I really appreciated, of course, was the entire discussion about what was it like in terms of the chronology of switching or toggling between the army to startup and then to corporate and then back to startup again. So definitely some interesting dynamics here around what you’ve learned each time around, and I think the tips around being that intrapreneurial person within companies, but also tips around being the entrepreneur and founder when you’re doing your own startup, and I think that’s a really just set of compare and contrast dynamics that most people don’t really have. If anything, it’s nice to have you shared that at a high level. And lastly, I think thank you so much for sharing about, I think, the concept of risk and derisking like what’s the worst case scenario you mentioned a couple of times along the entire interview, what’s the life that you want to live, and I think that was a very thoughtful way of saying how should one be a founder in that sense, but also the intuition to just go and be a founder, and I think that’s not an easy debate. Let alone have one with yourself, but it was nice to hear how you went about approaching it and making it easier for yourself.
Aaron Lim: (41:04)
Yeah, I hope it was useful
Jeremy Au: (41:06)
Thank you so much, Aaron, for coming on the show.
Aaron Lim: (41:08)
Yeah, thanks so much, Jeremy, for having me.