Charmain Tan: Student Founder, Sales Lessons & Faith Over Fear - E185

· Founder,Start-up,Women,Purpose,Singapore

Today, the metric I track is no longer just the revenue per client but the lifetime value per client. Because I realise what is more important for sales is actually keeping the customer. So the question I have now when I ask the customer is how sustainable is it and how scalable is this? Can I scale with this customer or not? Even in qualifying, I look for growth oriented kind of businesses, those that can grow and we can grow with them. - Charmain Tan

Charmain Tan is the Founder & CEO of QuickDeskwhich provides one-stop digital sales and marketing solutions as well as digital training for SMEs and business professionals. She made ForbesAsia’s 30 Under 30 list for Enterprise Technology in 2019 and Singapore’sinaugural top 100 Women in Tech List in 2020.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)

Hi Charmain. So excited to have you in the Brave show. You are a female founder tackling Enterprise SAAS, and you have an interesting story around how you pushed up your company to where you are today as a CEO founder and so I'm excited to share your story today. Charmain, please introduce yourself professionally to everybody here.

Charmain Tan: (00:50)

Hi, everyone, I'm Charmain, the founder and CEO of Quick Desk. So, what we do at Quick Desk is really using the blend of education and technology to really help businesses, sales professionals, marketing professionals to drive more sales.

Jeremy Au: (01:04)

Awesome, Charmain, so how did you first start becoming a founder? Like when did the entrepreneurial bug first bite you?

Charmain Tan: (01:11)

The entrepreneurial bug bit me when I was 14 years old. So when I was 14, thankfully, I was in a school whereby we could actually every class in my school became a company and we were selling…I'm not sure if you guys know, like design technology D&T like home-econs product. So I was the home-econs rep and I got the opportunity to really be sort of that CEO of that little project.

But it really got me excited. Oh wow, we could make a quiche and sell $800 in 30 minutes. After that, I came home, I told my dad. Hey, Daddy, I want to sell cheesecake. My dad was against it, but I guess since then, the fire of entrepreneurship started.

Jeremy Au: (01:49)

Wow. Amazing. And what's interesting is that you went to university and very quickly you actually started building your first business, actually, could you share more about your first company that you built?

Charmain Tan: (02:02)

Yeah. So I guess I've always been very inspired by entrepreneurs speaking on stage and I was like, one day I want to be like them. When I was 20 years old, I remember writing an entrepreneurship boot camp in Sweden, so I was part of this programme called NUS overseas college. In that programme itself, I actually spoke to this 17 year old boy and I said, Hey, you know, what are you doing now?

And he said, Oh, I'm running a mobile apps company. We're making about million a year. Then that bug came back and said like, Hey, if he’s running his businesses at 17, what are you waiting for? When I turned 21 that year, I said, I'm becoming an adult. I need to do something different. I said hey what about building a glove that can allow you to use your iPhone and iPad out in the cold? So, it started as an idea going to sell to all my friends in Sweden, hey guys it's minus 20 degrees Celsius, it’s really cold, right? Isn't it very challenging to swipe your phone with your nose? I have a solution for you guys. What about having this gloves that is conductive that you can use your phone while you're out in the cold and many of them are very intrigued and excited by the idea and they say like, okay, if you build it, I buy from you. So with a vote of confidence, I decided to start a business. What I did was I flew straight into Turkey, which had a textile fair and I went to talk to all the manufacturers and learn about textiles.

I got my friends to join me in this project in design manufacturing, just to make this gloves come alive. So turning 21, I started winter gloves for touchscreen devices.

Jeremy Au: (03:37)

You got to tell me, how old were you again here?

Charmain Tan: (03:40)


Jeremy Au: (03:41)

21, then, when you first started that. Wow. Okay. And you flew to Turkey just to do that because you were inspired by this 17 year old. Okay. That's kind of bonkers. A little bit because I think I got to 21. I wasn't doing any of that. What was it like flying out to Turkey to learn textiles and all this stuff. What was it like building out this first venture on your own?

Charmain Tan: (04:02)

That was quite crazy. I remember meeting a few Singaporeans in Turkey and they're like, Are you here alone? Yeah, I'm here alone, what’s wrong? It’s so dangerous, Charmain. I think I'm fine, I think God is protecting me. The experience, as you say, that was bonkers. It's really that I went to textile fairs and I had to pretend to be this I manufacture apparel. I’d like to learn more about your yarns, your threads, and I had none. I was literally like smoking my way through, but just carry on because I only had one object - three days trip, I need to learn everything of textiles from yarns making, the weaving, the knitting and showing that by the time I end the trip fair I've learnt enough to know how to build my own gloves.

Jeremy Au: (04:44)

So you pretty much started this when you were a junior in college?

Charmain Tan: (04:48)

Third year uni.

Jeremy Au: (04:49)

So was it like being a student founder? Doing classes on one side and then you're like one of the few bonkers people because back in 2011 it wasn't that popular to be a founder as well. Because I remember that time very few people who were out trying to be a founder as well, it's pretty uncool. So kind of curious how that felt.

Charmain Tan: (05:07)

I guess when I was in NUS overseas college, I would say that I'm very blessed. My cohort, there's ten of us. Out of ten of us, eight became entrepreneurs.

Jeremy Au: (05:16)

I see. So within this subgroup it was cool.

Charmain Tan: (05:18)

The majority is entrepreneurs, I think now got six or seven are still entrepreneurs. So it didn't felt like I was the oddball. And also the second thing was the moment I came back to Singapore, I did felt out of place, for a while, because what I did then was that year I was very blessed, so I signed up for it and stayed in N house.

So most people there are entrepreneurial. Conversations were really around like, Oh, I'm around this business, how do I go about running it? It didn't felt like I was alone in this journey. But when I go to school, oh no, I'm like one year behind everyone. I don't have any close friends to study with anymore. That part was quite awkward. But the interesting thing was this - I became a full time entrepreneur, part time student. My grades got better because I just became super focused to make sure I got my grades and keep the promise to my parents to get a degree.

Jeremy Au: (06:11)

I like that. So there you are obviously focusing on building out it and getting it to market and distribution. At some point you decide to make a decision to transition from textiles to enterprise SAAS. So what was that transition like for you? A lot of founders, they obviously start out as student founders. And they say there's so much energy to build and then they make a decision to build something else. So what was that transition like for you?

Charmain Tan: (06:35)

I guess the thankful thing, I think a few gratefulness. It's because I was juggling school and apprenticeship, I wrote into the dean and said, Hey, I cannot complete in half a year. So I split my six modules into two semesters. So I only had to complete three modules per semester. The only challenging part at that point in time was the fact that gloves are an international product.

I manufacture in China, I follow China time zone for manufacturing, I sell to North America, North Europe, Mongolia, Japan. So these are countries around the globe. I literally had no sleep. So I guess the transition was really knowing how to manage my time across different time zones. My health got affected that I became very unproductive. There was one day I went TCM and the TCM said you're like 22, but your body's like 40 years old.

Yeah. So I guess really learning how to manage my time and therefore my health was something I need to learn about.

Jeremy Au: (07:32)

And there you are. You keep pushing on for the next three years building up. And so at some point you decided to build up to a certain point and then you say, okay, I want to do my next big thing, whatever that is, which is beginnings of where you are today at Quick Desk. So what was that?

Charmain Tan: (07:53)

My first company was venture backed and I'm very thankful for having a VC who has entrepreneurial mindset. So my investor was Lesley from Red Dot Ventures and he was an entrepreneur before. He always understood what it means to be an entrepreneur. And that year, they’re asking me to study all the technology in A Star and see what technology I could build a product from. I told Lesley straight, I'm a kind of person where it’s hard for you to give me a technology and to build a product out of it. It’s easier for me to build a product out of a problem I believe in. It needs to be a problem that is significant enough for me to want to solve it. And so because of that, it's not about the sexiness of a product that matters. It's about the problem that I want to solve. So there were three significant selling points. First was when I look back and I ask myself, hey, you know, I've been running startup for three years now. If there was one thing that I would like to do differently, what would that be? The answer was sales, because honestly speaking, I think the glove business didn't have to end if our sales numbers were good, we could have evolved to something else. But simply because the sales numbers were not good enough, we had to evolve and pivot. The second thing that I look around me, so there's always this one theory of out of ten startups, nine die and I really see it with my own eyes. We were incubated in an entrepreneurship space, so we had different startups in this little bungalow.

Every quarter, you see startups leaving and I keep wondering like, what is that one reason why all these startups are leaving? Why can't they stay? Why are they not surviving? I mean, I dig deeper. I realised the fundamental thing was none of them are really focussing on revenue and if we do not have enough revenue it is very hard to move on.

I say sales and revenue is so important. Now the thing that came about with me was this – that gloves company was a company that was seasonal, so we could only make sales every summer because summer is a period where B2B buy for winter, there are a lot of months where you don’t have money and there are months you make money.

A business cannot be like that, it’s very unsustainable. So I need a product that is resistant to any seasons and also something that I do not want to rewind back again and restart. So because of these three things, the biggest problem and the more significant thing is actually sales. The whole idea was how do I build a platform to really help businesses drive sales?

The first idea that came about was online sales training in 2013, because I believe in education. Schools teach marketing, schools teach branding, schools teach consulting. Why sales schools don’t teach sales ah? Very funny, right? And sales is such an important professional skill. What about doing an online sales training programme that allows for that? But I was just too early in the market.

Nobody's going to pay for online sales training in 2013. I think the mission has always been the same, which is how to use the blend of education and technology to drive sales. So then the opportunity came to build tele marketing system with do not call this screening agent integrated within it. And that's how I kick started our product Quick Desk.

Jeremy Au: (10:50)

There you are entering this second venture with those three learnings that you had. Let's not build a company that’s seasonal, let's build something that has a better shot at success in that sense than what you see out there and very focused on revenue. As you started building out this second company, which is where you’re at now Quick Desk, what would you say something’s that you learnt along the way?

Because this is also a very different industry which is enterprise SAAS. So it’s different from textiles and turkey and seasonal. So what were some things that you learnt along the way personally?

Charmain Tan: (11:22)

Yeah, I think the first thing I've learnt it's really that the most impressionable one was in 2018 when the company almost collapsed. Never ever forget the why you start that in the first place and never ever like go back on your principles. Origin story is really are about helping businesses to drive more sales but along the way when we became very aggressive in sales, the way I motivate my sales team is that whatever that brings in that sale, just take it.

But not everybody is meant to be sold to. To me, I will figure out a way out to make it a right fit, and that was because I was absorbed into the whole idea of just keep making more money. So I guess the learning lesson was we started this business because you want it to help businesses, to drive sales through technology and help those that we believe we can help.

So that's one. Second thing, it's really about faith because I can tell you a lot of times I really wanted to give up because it's such a monster because I’m a statistics major. So we had to learn like Java and Java was such a crazy thing, you know, like it's binary. My brain thinks things in a very creative mode.

And I was so fearful of this programming thing. I told, all my friends, I will never run a software company. Now how did I end up in software was really because I wanted a product that is a lot more agile because I didn't like hardware business in the sense that I needed to throw inventory sometimes or discard things. Software business, you can constantly innovate and be agile.

Whenever I felt very helpless and fear the tech. I realised things don't progress. I just get into this circular loop. The fear just circulates itself. Therefore I think if this any learning thing is just keep believing that you can learn it, do not lose hope that you can learn. And then the third thing I say is very significant is being okay to not be okay.

I know it sounds very profound here, but there are a lot of times I'm not okay, but I'm afraid of being vulnerable to my team. And they feel it, what you say versus what you feel versus what you do a bit different. I never really understood until like later in the years I realised that what she meant is I'm not very aligned.

So these days if I'm not okay about something, I'm just very open and talk about it like, hey, we are facing this challenge, we are facing this problem, let's solve it together and entrepreneurs don’t think that the problem is your own. We can solve it as a team. Yeah. So I guess these were the tricky takeaways.

Jeremy Au: (13:47)

And what's interesting is that while you’re doing all these reflections, you are also helping a lot of other companies with their own sales and revenue challenges as well. And obviously you see a lot of them struggling, you see a lot of them doing well. How do you think about partnering or helping them with their own journey as well?

Charmain Tan: (14:07)

Now the approach is very different. It’s can you please tell me a bit more about your business model. What do you sell? What are your sales and marketing processes like? It's very consultative and how I train my sales guys is to know your clients first before selling to them, and the best sales is not by selling to them. It's about seeing how you can help them.

You start diving into understanding their business struggles. Some of them became very good friends of mine, but I don't only journey with them and think up my solution, but also journeying with them in the whole business leadership journey. That came about from this whole fact finding phase in our sales process. Yeah. So how do I help them?

I think there’s three things – those who became friends, I become their cheerleader. Just giving them a verse, a quote to cheer them up. There are those of us from a professional angle, I would give them solutions like hey, you know, our other clients have benefited from this in this way, you want to consider it. One thing that I always tell my guys about what Quick Desk DNA is, is that we are collaborative sales solution.

So don’t see our clients as our clients, they are actually people partnering with us on a journey.

Jeremy Au: (15:13)

And obviously you're seeing a lot of reflections around sales, both good and bad. What would you say differentiates better versus worse sales from your own perspective and also from your clients?

Charmain Tan: (15:27)

So I would say that my own reflections, it's really maybe having a lot of sales. To me, success was just bringing in more money like revenue. Today, that the metric I track is no longer just the revenue per client but the lifetime value per client. Because I realise what is more important for sales is actually keeping the customer.

So the question I have now when I ask the customer is how sustainable is it and how scalable is this? Can I scale with this customer or not? Even in qualifying, I look for growth oriented kind of businesses, those that can grow and we can grow with them. Therefore, if the flip side, is that maybe I will not follow after as pure opportunistic sales.

They just see the very short term. I think this now I just promote to you but I don't really care for in the long run or as the kind of sales people that sometimes not align with, it’s sales people who just think about the commissions without thinking about how they can value add to the customer. As long as we are not constantly value adding, we will lose them.

And there was one talk that I went to in 2019. It really hit me really hard. So we're playing this thing called the money game, the event’s called money and you. In the money game, any money without value adding is like stealing. It was a really big statement because it's true. If you really want to make money, make it with the right values and really value add.

That's the whole purpose of currency. Exchange of value.

Jeremy Au: (16:51)

Sales without value add is stealing. Awesome. So, starting to turn the page a little bit. Could you share with us a time that you have been BRAVE?

Charmain Tan: (17:01)

A time that I have been brave was a story when I found my first co-founder. So I had to manufacture the gloves and I can't speak Chinese. So I had to find somebody who was working in China to do the speaking to the suppliers and manufacturers. The moment I arrived in China to work with him, to talk to the manufacturer, I lost my luggage and I had to meet all the factories the very next day. Thankfully, the NUS Overseas College committee is very good. So, all the girls came together and said Charmain, we piece up your wardrobe, and at point time, all I could think about is really standing up and being very confident about yeah, I'm a small business right now, but you should give me the MOQ I need.

That's when my first test of bravery happened because I just need to make sure that the gloves are manufactured in the quantity we need. Because you don't have enough money. I can’t do beyond 500 gloves. So that was the first and I guess for Quick Desk, I have zero tech knowledge, I can’t code for nuts. I went to School of Computing, this developer’s programme, it’s called CS 321, software engineering for computer science students.

So, what I did was I printed a name card in the shape of a computer because I wanted to stand out from the rest, my prototype was made using PowerPoint slides. This is how an online sales training platform is, this how you change the world?

We will all be the next computer for everyone. Yeah, it was quite crazy because I literally had to come out of my comfort zone and sell myself, sell my idea, and have the developers believe in me. And thankfully I found someone to help kick start development on Quick Desk.

Jeremy Au: (18:38)

And obviously we talk a lot about fear, these like experiences that you just mentioned over here. And I think at the start of the conversation, you mention a big phrase, which is about faith over fear is a big part about who you are and about how you are able to push through the fear. Could you share a little bit more about what that means to you?

Charmain Tan: (18:55)

Yeah, innately, I’m always a very fearful person. I fear failure, I fear rejection, I fear aloneness. I fear not being able to be at my best. And I also suffer from something called the imposter syndrome, which I believe is not uncommon to a lot of entrepreneurs, even though the world may say you are doing great. But honestly speaking there’s really that inner demon in me that you wish to shut the voice but the voice is just there.

We are building the future. You are building things that you cannot see right now, but you have to have confidence and assurance that whatever you believe in the future will happen and that’s faith, believe that you can make it happen. So more than 80% of the time I wanted to give up is only 20% of the time that I could talk to myself and say, just have faith. It will work out.

I thank God for my faith in him. He really showed me that this is the path for me. In 2013, I drew up a blueprint about online sales training platform connecting sales people, bring sales people the right online tools, getting them from traditional digital sales, automating certain sales processors and these were all I dreamt about in 2013 and I went to tell all people and it is like five businesses in one is impossible to do it but down the road, five years later, it turned out well.

I started doing education for digital sales. I'm building automation for communications to drive better sales productivity. And if there's one thing that really led me to where I am today, I don't think I'm smarter than anybody else. I personally think I’m very ordinary. But the only thing that makes me a bit different. It's faith and perseverance to push on to make what I cannot see now happen.

So I guess that's something I hope the listeners can...whoever who is an entrepreneur wannabe, have faith.

Jeremy Au: (20:38)

Let's kind of like bifurcate that. So one is the fear side, which you acknowledge the reality of and obviously how you push through that. So you talk about imposter syndrome and kind of like that's the demon that you have. How common do you think that is because you volunteer with entrepreneur’s organisation and you also hang out with so many founders since then NOC and I'm also part of a lot of founder circles as well.

So I'm just kind of curious from your take how common do you think that is and why.

Charmain Tan: (21:04)

I guess maybe I don't want to be gender specific, but I feel that imposter syndrome exists a lot more in females than in males, in my observation. I wouldn’t say everybody has that. I know of a lot of entrepreneurs who are confident they can make things happen. But there’s this other group I would do my best for you.

So there's two different kind of responses you normally get. But I guess if there's one thing that I've observe is, over time, people grew out of it, even for myself, I grew out of it. And even like yesterday I was giving a talk and the speakers were like managing directors of Food Panda, Ubisoft, and a minister and I was thinking to myself, how am I here in the first place?

I’m so small and they’re so big. But then you can't give up. You already committed. The only thing I could do is I better do the best of what I could. Do the best I can to make the best positive impact for them.

Jeremy Au: (22:19)

You observe that people grow out of it and that you, yourself, have grown out of it. So what factors contribute to growing out of it from your perspective?

Charmain Tan: (22:31)

The grow out of it means being able to manage it. I think that's what I mean. I think a few key highlights that happened when my company almost died. I had depression and I couldn't deal with a lot of things. And to me, like ending life is an easier option. That didn't happen. In that whole journey of seeking self and finding myself and really surrendering to God, you know, I just want to do my life the best I could for him.

In that whole episode, the few things that stood out was one, when I went to Myanmar, I had a dream to build an orphanage, so I took a leap of faith. I just flew to Myanmar wanting to help the kids. During that period of time I saw that the kids had really nothing, but yet they had so much love and hope.

Why should I feel small by myself. Honestly, I think being a Singaporean itself, we are already very blessed, blessed with opportunities, funding, lots of good education. So whenever like the imposter syndrome hits, I would just tell myself, hey, I'm blessed, be thankful every minute spend being negative, which is being imposter syndrome of me.

It's every minute last from being positive. So choose positive. So I guess that's really how I grow out of it by managing it. Awareness is the first thing. So when those little voice comes in, it’s here. The next voice come in and I stopped it.

Jeremy Au: (23:53)

Choosing positive and seeing so much love in Myanmar, the kids, and then seeing that in contrast to your own company struggling, you were struggling and then you saw that versus other people struggles. It's tough. So now they've also gotten a chance to also hang out with other founders who are also going through similar struggles as well. And now that you've got a chance to share your journey with them and be supportive of them, and also you're supporting them at your debt structure, how would you recommend, I guess, friends, or peers of founders to be supportive to founders who are struggling with their company either because the company is a wind down or the company is struggling or going through a growth time or crisis. How would you advise people to support founders?

Charmain Tan: (24:38)

I guess maybe I'll share how I have benefited from EO. So EO have chapters globally and I’m part of a forum. The culture is like a family that we share our highest highs and lowest low. And the first thing that we always remind each other is trust and respect and nondressedup means like, don't judge. We’re still entrepreneurs, we struggle too.

And I think not judging it, but always showing our love and care for the other and just being there for them. Everybody needs help differently. Some people needs help by listening. Some people needs help by advice. Somebody needs help by coaching, everyone is different, but whichever entrepreneurs which are struggling, always find a community that you can find trust respect for.

And you know very clearly that they don’t judge you. Once that is cleared, be willing to be vulnerable, be willing to dig deep because a lot of times, problems exist, they are symptoms that could be a deeper root or problem if we want to also be able to help somebody else. I think we need to not just see the surface.

I think seeking to understand first and seeking to be there is the first, fundamental, most important thing and always seek to help from a place of love. Be there and people feel it. I remember I always tell my forum, I said, even though every time I'm down I know they are there. I know they could be the sounding board, they couldn’t give me the answer, but by talking to them itself, sometimes I find answers myself and also really understanding what is the best way to help that person by understanding their personality.

Jeremy Au: (26:07)

Thank you so much, Charmain for sharing self-awareness actually, and therefore sharing a reflections that came out of that self work. I’ll love to paraphrase, I think, the three big themes that got out of this discussion. First of all, thank you so much for sharing how you began as a student founder, as a third year and how you were able to find your tribe where you were the majority and felt cool being a founder somehow managed to keep that fire going. Even though you became the minority back in school and managed to push on to finish academics as well as push on with the company and doing some crazy things like fly off to Turkey and pretending that you are legit textiles, building out that glove company and then using those learnings to then go off to build your second company, which is Quick Desk today and your learnings around kind of company you want to build, taking those lessons moving forward.

The second, of course, thank you so much for quickly exhibiting your domain expertise in sales, both the personal as well as the industry dimension. Obviously personally, from what you learnt about making sure that you sell on a more consultative way instead of more product-oriented way over time, yet also making sure to also sell on the way where you're targeting the customers that fit your product and that you want to build for them, rather than taking on anybody who could potentially be a customer. And then going on to talk about saying that sales without value add is effectively stealing some really good sales lessons that you shared.

And lastly, I think thank you so much for sharing so much around what you said at the start of the conversation, which is faith over fear, which is about fighting the inner demons, imposter syndrome, the reluctance to step forward, putting it all together in terms of how you see not just yourself, but also other founders grow and mature over time because of their own self work, but also to support and peer groups like EO as well as friends and family. The beautiful moment of you going out to Myanmar during the company's potential failure, being able to contrast your own struggle. And I want to say thank you so much for sharing all your thoughts over the years with everyone today.

Charmain Tan: (28:19)

Thank you. Thanks for having me here.