Calvin Chu: Social Innovation, Consulting vs Startup Experience & Knowing When To Walk Away - E149

· Founder,Singapore,Start-up,Popular,Podcast Episodes English

The courage to do what you feel is the right thing to do came along for me as one testing point or moment of truth- quite late in the process. Starting is not difficult. Starting is actually fun, starting doing a business plan or doing your credentials, it’s actually very fun, helpful exercise. It is when the stakes are high you are well into it and you have to walk away that it was a good test for me to know what I stood for.- Calvin Chu

Calvin Chu Yee Ming is Managing Partner of Eden Strategy Institute, an award-winning strategy consulting firm that specializes in social innovation. Over the past decade, Eden has advised corporations like Bell Labs, General Electric, and Samsung; multilateral organizations such as UNDP, UNESCO, and UN Women; as well as governments in Singapore, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia co-create sustainable value propositions, develop strategic roadmaps, and assess the impact of their interventions. Passionate about the interplay between businesses objectives and societal impact, Calvin is also Associate Lecturer in Strategy and Organization with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He has served on the boards of Biofourmis, Conjunct Consulting, Credence Labs, Rotary Club, the World Toilet Organisation, and as President of the Chicago Booth Alumni Club of Singapore. He was inducted into the International Who’s Who of Professionals in 2009 and recognised as a NetImpact Changemaker in 2014. Most of his free time these days is spent exploring nature trails with his two young children.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hey, Calvin, good to have you on the show.

Calvin Chu: (00:32)
Hey, Jeremy, thanks for having me.

Jeremy Au: (00:33)
I’m really excited for this episode because Calvin has been an incredible mentor and friend, one of the earliest supporters of Conjunct consulting, also an incredible entrepreneur and leader in the sustainable innovation space. Really excited to share your journey, Calvin.

Calvin Chu: (00:50)
No, no, no. I’m so happy to reconnect with you after you’ve been gone for so long. It has been a privilege for me also to be part of your Conjunct journey. Such a joy to be here.

Jeremy Au: (00:58)
For those who don’t know you yet, how would you introduce yourself professionally?

Calvin Chu: (01:02)
Well, I am managing partner of Eden Strategy Institute. It’s a strategy consulting firm with a specialized focus on sustainable innovation. This is a company that I founded about 10 years ago. We’re just spreading our wings to different countries right now as a consultant and social innovator. In my day job. Another big part of my identity is also being a husband and proud father of two young children.

Jeremy Au: (01:22)
So many fun things that I would love to talk about from how we first got to know each other as well as your fossil collection and so many other awesome things.

Calvin Chu: (01:33)
It’s scary when you recall how many years we go back.

Jeremy Au: (01:36)
Over ten years now. Can you tell us how your path for sustainable innovation first came about?

Calvin Chu: (01:49)
I actually went into consulting for the first eight years of my career, so I was with a market intelligence firm just doing things like market sizing, value, chain analysis, competitive analysis, and I really enjoyed the time there just learning about different industries, different functions, different countries, and as with many consultants, out to a certain point, your career, for me, that was maybe 6-7 years into it. While I was enjoying the range and variety, I think many consultants very naturally want to ask ourselves where you want to focus on what’s your next step and this specialty that you should pick up. So at that time I was often billed by the company as an expert in different industries, but honestly, that’s just the consulting game. Very rapidly, you will stack up a bunch of experiences and then you will say oh, you are telecoms expert or credit card expert, but for me, what really resonated when I look back at many of my past experiences was really a couple of projects that I had the chance to work on bringing business into the nonprofit space. Helping UNICEF, for example, to do fund raising across the region when I could see the power of business to be able to lend and create social impact that way, it felt to me like something quite new. Again, this was back probably in 2005, 06, words like social enterprise and investing and things that were not really so flavorful. It’s just charity, right? And so I thought. I would like to do a lot more of this work, but at the same time working in a public listed company, you essentially had to do whatever came along. It occurred to me that maybe in order to focus on this, I need to do two things. One I needed to get hands on implementation experience and that’s why I went into the Stock Exchange SGX wells VP strategy for and innovation to actually bring about innovation, market development work and subsequently after a couple of years of doing that, I felt a bit more ready to start off my own company Eden Strategy Institute and I think the great blessing that I have is that every day I get to do just this kind of work, I get to only do this kind of work for the last decade plus and to surround myself with like minded tribe of people who also believe in the same change, making kind of cause. I guess that’s been the impetus for the journey. Of course, if you go into the journey, there are many ups and downs of just starting an enterprise, starting a consulting business, trying to challenge the norms of what the consulting industry is about. A 130 over year old industry and as an upstart, how do we anchor ourselves and how do we create value in a different way? That’s also another story we can go into as well.

Jeremy Au: (04:00)
Yeah, and I think what’s interesting was that around this time is also when I first met you. You just started Eden Strategy Institute and so you’re very much quite early in your game as well. I’m so curious. What was it like to decide to set up your own consultancy?

Calvin Chu: (04:22)
Yeah, thanks. So when I first started, I guess we were very fortunate because when I went around to some of our past clients to just bounce off the idea. That time the word MVP and custom validation wasn’t really quite invented yet, but I say intuition. I went to some past clients to say I’m thinking of doing this. What do you think? And I was very fortunate that I had a couple of clients who were very supportive to say, hey, OK, you’re starting this. Why don’t you come and bid for a project? I’ll open the door for you so that that was an interesting story where, as I recall, I had just gotten married, I just finished paying off my MBA, so I was pretty broke. Honestly, the first client was General Electric GE and a former colleague of mine was working there open the doors. He was doing some regional work, but he was not the decision maker. The decision maker was in Japan and so this was a piece of work to bring healthy imagination into Japan. So I had to actually fly on my own to Tokyo to pitch to the Japan office there and with no insurance that I would actually get the piece of work, pitch against Japanese competitors. Japanese culture is a bit more comfortable working with indigenous tongue and language and culture. That was an interesting experience going in and I was very fortunate to have actually one piece of work and that started us going right from the very beginning. So before I even had a website up or brochures or pamphlets, I had a piece of work already, so I’m just focusing on delivering value for that client and then that led onto three or four projects one after another in different markets. So we’re quite fortunate that way. There is a story later when we talk about this topic of bravery, and then I’ll come back around later talk about what happened with this whole incident, but I guess something that wasn’t too difficult. Subsequent to that, I think when the company grows at each stage of evolution when you have two employees. When you have five employees, when you’re 15 employees, each one is very, very humbling journey. All the time, we are figuring out how we develop leaders. How do we secure the pipeline? How do we try to grow our brand and create a greater impact? So it’s been a journey every day. We continue to learn and evolve

Jeremy Au: (06:09)
It sounds like a crazy time to fly to Japan and bid for that piece of work. Was it scary? I mean, I guess I would just go straight, you’re talking about bravery and sounds like it you got a story to share. Tell us more about it.

Calvin Chu: (06:21)
So with that client subsequently evolved into many different other markets and at one point time after maybe two years, we’re still working with this client and we were focusing on another market and there was an incident where one of the client team members was quite keen to, in a way, perceive data in a different way from the way that our research had turned out and go into that. You can imagine this payroll to account for. It was two years into the business. It was more or less our single client. We had some difference of opinion over what to do with this data. I had to choose to walk away. I had to choose to tell the client no and go into the vast unknown. So actually the courage to do what you feel is the right thing to do came along for me as one testing point or moment of truth, quite late in the process. Not really as I hear when you started. Starting is not difficult. Starting is actually fun, but starting doing a business plan or doing your credentials. It’s actually very fun, helpful exercise. It is when stakes are high you are well into it and you have to walk away that I think it was a good test for me to know, actually what I stood for. To close that part of the chapter I was fortunate also that because of the body of work that we had created for the client, several missions by then we had a bit of a reputation, so then we managed to find a couple of other clients and then things continued again. So that was fortunate in a way, but scary at the same time.

Jeremy Au: (07:33)
It must’ve been a tough decision to make, especially when this is like your key account.

Calvin Chu: (07:39)
That’s actually our only account.

Jeremy Au: (07:42)
I guess your only account is a key account. The most key of key accounts. Bad as well that decision making and I think what was interesting is during this time also. In retrospect. I don’t think I realized back then, but I first got to know you back in 2011, 2012 and for those who don’t know, people asked me about the founding story of Conjunct Consulting. Always times like, I used to work at Starbucks at City Hall, and then I’ll meet clients at Starbucks and then they’ll be like, wow, you’re on time because I was there the whole day. Then I would finish the meeting at Starbucks and walk around to McDonald’s. Get my lunch or coffee and after work back to Starbucks and continue working there. But then the second part of the story is that I went to Calvin’s place and I moved into his pantry. There’s a second phase we had a bunch of people that were helping out and we worked out your kitchen so your team will walk into get some coke or whatever.

Calvin Chu: (08:39)
It was good memories of that time and I remember actually reading about you in the papers. Wow, these guys are doing something so innovative and so interesting and quite aligned to what we are doing, but in a different way. I think you’re much more creative for me. Starting the company initially wanting to help nonprofits turned out to originally be cross subsidy model. Will do pro bono work for these guys and sustain ourselves with the corporate stuff that is self evolved by looking at you guys. So actually if you got a beautiful model to use students and truly scale up help many many charities. Our first meeting was at Club Street or something and we were talking about it with Conjunct. It’s been a nice ten years I think.

Jeremy Au: (09:13)
I think if it wasn’t for you loaning out your pantry we wouldn’t have had a good story. I think it was a very critical period of time for us to figure out a space. There’s no garages in Singapore, so this is the kitchen. So those are times, yeah, and obviously you’ve continued helping out by being on the board of Conjunct which was tremendous as well and I think one thing that you talked about was actually this interesting dynamic between the corporate side, the social sector and of course the government as well. I think you are one of the few people in Southeast Asia who’s a true leader in understanding all three spheres and how they work well together. Obviously social sector. We know quite a bit about what they focus on, but I think one of the interesting things I think about is you’re talking about corporate and their leadership and social innovation. And it’s always a bit of a tricky thing because it feels like at one level, corporates are like, you know, these are the profit goals we’re chasing and then two is like OK. People want to really help and figure out sustainablility or positive processes, and also there’s a fear of getting labelled as greenwashing. They are like just being hypocritical being seen as hypocritical and so I think you have this interesting dynamic in stewardship helping corporates figure out that next phase. What are some myths or misconceptions about how like helping corporates really kind of like interface and work well in terms of social innovation, and working with non-profits and governments?

Calvin Chu: (10:34)
Just understanding why corporations do what they do is important and take a single dimensional view as to their motivations let’s say regulatory pressure, others do so because it’s an employee retention tool. There are others who see it as an innovative strategy, fundamentally because it’s more long-term, it’s more inclusive, takes into account more stakeholders, leverages more partnerships. It makes for a fundamentally better strategy. We’d like to help them at their core strategy. Think about how they can come up with products that can have an environmental, social, and governance type impact. There’s something interesting happening in the last year or so. COVID started awakening people to how improbable threats can be very likely. Climate change has truly picked up investors and the banking community have truly changed. In the last year or so, we have seen more ESG type behaviours – green bonds, social impact bonds, things like that. That is now encouraging people to think differently. That’s partially compliance and partially because there’s investments and new investor classes coming in. I guess the biggest myth is if we have a single lens, we believe that doing social impact work is just about that. However, if we can leverage all different forces into proper value exchanges, not just within the company but across the entire ecosystem, we are then able to sustain and turn this into a sustainable service. We rarely work with CSR departments, there are some that truly commit across their organisation, but there are companies that can see there’s a better way of doing business.

Jeremy Au: (13:02)
I think you’re selling yourself a little short here. You angel invested in 2016. How did you spot Biofourmis?

Calvin Chu: (13:15)
We were judging a healthcare competition. We were doing our rounds to get to know them a little bit. I observed how the COO was talking to his colleagues. I pulled him aside to give him some advice to say from a management standpoint, maybe work on it this way. We grew them around their business fundamentals. They ended up winning that competition and fundamentally, although they pivoted their business on a couple of rounds since then, the IP that they have, the mission that they have was something that resonated very much with us. They hit a point where they were burning through their runway. We hosted them in our office in their early days. We tried to add value looking at their business plan, helping to connect them with VCs. We’re just so proud of them. With organisations like that, one of the things I’ve learnt is that I’ve had a chance of engaging with hundreds of startups and social enterprises over the last decade and it’s once in a blue moon that you see everything fitting together. So, it's been nice to ride along with their success as well.

Jeremy Au: (14:40)
That’s amazing. You heard it here first, Calvin’s kitchen is a special garage for startups. It’s an interesting dynamic. A lot of people like what you’re doing. One thing a lot of people think is – Why should I talk to the angel? Why shouldn’t I go to a seed VC now? Do you have any thoughts about that?

Calvin Chu: (15:14)
Yeah so I would say that of course the level of readiness before you go to a proper VC is very different. This area you know much better than me. The size of the ticket level of traction you have to show is very different when you talk to an Angel. In addition to that, I think, at least to me. I also speak from the perspective with my Business School angels network where every quarter or so, we’ll bring a bunch of startups in and then we will look at the Business community to try to see if we can capitalize on investments. A lot of times I find that angels’ motivations are very different, there is an element of financial return. Of course, the risk appetite is much greater, but more than that, I would say that the motivations of an Angel probably 60/70% of them are actually more of wanting to just be of service as well, where they. Find an entrepreneur that they want to bet on. Then they want to spend time actually with entrepreneur lending their expertise, lending their social networks, lending their experience as well to see how they can help them along the way. I don’t know if it’s fair to characterize it this way, but I believe that VCs have tremendous networks and capability but in a way I would maybe argue that because it is their core business, it becomes almost a business transaction where you start having quarterly targets and chasing your next round of funding and things like that. For us as angels, we sometimes our investors need patient capital. They need time. They need to make mistakes in just in time to be also a bit more forgiving and I think in that sense we just want to. Its OK also from a risk appetite standpoint and most are not so big that if it really amounts to nothing. You can still write it off, so I would say that probably a big chunk of difference is in the nature of how flexible and accommodating that we want to be. Again, I haven’t been on the formal VC side, so I only know half of the story. You can also give your view, Jeremy.

Jeremy Au: (16:48)
I think you’re pretty much spot on. VCs are more formalized structure. They’re investing capital as an agent for someone else.

Calvin Chu: (16:56)
That’s other people’s capital. You got to be very careful about that.

Jeremy Au: (16:59)
Exactly. The goal was purely there and the best VCs have that duality where they’re acting as a financial agent, but also as a human person helping. I think the term portfolio construction is a nice way of saying this is what the range of outcomes should be within 20 investments, but that’s pretty much the parameters for the relationship whereas as an angel, you’re investing your own capital. For a lot of angels, the money is a way to keep score and an early conviction.

Calvin Chu: (17:35)
One thing I found to be interesting is also as an entrepreneur. Whether your fund raising or you’re looking for your first client, it’s very important for you to demonstrate that somebody else had believed in you first. You might have seen that video of the Penguin jumping in? Being the first Penguin to jump in is always a difficult one, but the moment you start leading in the pack, all the other guys happy to follow suit. So we’ve been thinking about it for myself as an entrepreneur when I started up I could talk about the many, many experiences that I’ve had in the past. But actually clients will be asking you. But as as your company as Eden, what have you done recently? So ten years ago it was not easy. It was a lot naivety starting up, and I think with entrepreneurs is, fund raising is very much the same where the next VC will always be asking who’s believed in you already so far, and in some ways I’m not sure about this, but I think having our support and endorsement, financial and otherwise, I think maybe also helps some of these companies that we support.

Jeremy Au: (18:24)
I love that. The first penguin. That’s the perfect way to describe being a founder, early supporter, an angel.

Calvin Chu: (18:35)
Absolutely, you need people to believe in you, right?

Jeremy Au: (18:37)
Thank you for being the first penguin, I guess, for Conjunct and Biofourmis. The scary thing about being the first penguin is that the water looks very cold and full of predators. Does it feel stupid sometimes because it feels like everyone is going to jump in, but everyone is waiting for the first penguin to jump in. What advice would you have for people who are trying to decide to be the first penguin or wait for someone else to be the first penguin?

Calvin Chu: (19:09)
That’s a great question. It goes back to one’s life experience in two forms, firstly how ready you are to take the plunge. I had my team, I had my client roster, I had my P&L, I had my skillset. Starting up didn’t feel as intimidating as I was doing something new. I was just doing almost the same thing, but now it’s my own vehicle. I think getting yourself some degree of mastery of a particular domain helps take out that risk, I think that’s important. The other part of the story is also how strong your stomach is which is your conviction in the cause and in yourself. If you’ve grown up leaning towards being very risk-averse, very nervous, and you’ve had negative experiences everytime you took a risk, then you’re not willing to do that. Conversely, if you come from a fairly stable and loving middle class family, while I’ve had my share of ups and downs making mistakes over time, I can look back on my own ability and resilience to get out of my mistakes and then create a conviction of self-belief even when no number of market analysis or cashflow projections or financial models, they can tell you so much. At some point in time, the lead of the penguin is jumping into the unknown and how do you know if you will be able to swim or drown is really a function of your skillsets and your self belief. That’s how I think about it. Of course, if there’s a heavy mission from an impact investor standpoint, even if financially it goes nowhere, at least you took the chance to create impact intrinsically, even if extrinsically you don’t get the rewards. That’s also another motivation for some impact angels, if there’s such a word.

Jeremy Au: (20:54)
Amazing, Calvin, so I’ll paraphrase the three big themes that I heard from this conversation today to wrap things up. First of all, just thank you so much for sharing your early journey, being a consultant and how you ended up making a decision to build your own company and how you guys already another small movement associated with that which is really nice. The second thank you so much for being thoughtful about. What bravery looks like. I think bravery in terms of founding the company bravery in terms of being able to. I think stick up for what you think is the right set of answers and deliverables that need to be delivered, and being able to walk away when needed. Even though that was your only/key account. So that’s a big one to make, and I think it’s a tough one for a lot of people. And then thirdly, of course, thank you so much for talking a lot about dynamics of being an early support in terms of being trendsetter for sustainable innovation but also being an early supporter of Conjunct Consulting and Biofourmis as well as I’m sure many other startups that are going to come out as well that you helped along the way. So, thank you so much.

Calvin Chu: (21:50)
Thank you so much, Jeremy. That’s a great summary and it’s been so rewarding as this conversation has. Thanks for your fantastic questions, it’s nice to catch up.