Daan van Rossum: Navigating Career Shifts, Vietnam Work Culture Landscape & Entrepreneurial Persistence and Trade-Offs - E309

· Founder,Start-up,Vietnam

“One thing that people from outside of Southeast Asia really don't understand is that even though this is a cluster of countries that are geographically close together, the cultures and the levels of development are vastly different. You really have to look at it market by market. There are cultural similarities, and they translate to the workplace to a certain degree. There's a much stronger sense of community than being individualistic, therefore people want to see each other a bit more than in other markets. You see extreme differences where Singapore is mostly hybrid and within a very competitive job market, so it's extremely difficult to tell people they have to come back to the office five days a week, whereas, in a market like Vietnam, that's completely the opposite. 83% of companies are back to the office full time. They just went back to business as usual.” - Daan van Rossum

“Hospitality was a big thing that we focused on in the beginning. We also added this sense of experience. Going back to the hotel analogy, the best hotels aren’t just about the physical building, it’s also about a signature style, scent, and events or activities. We thought the same way about co-working. How can you create an environment that people want to be a part of even the first time they walk in there? It was our mission to build something with all those elements together.” - Daan van Rossum

“After two years of speaking to people who are running companies, there really isn't one solution that fits for everyone. It's dependent on so many factors in terms of what the right mode of working is and today, even though companies have over two years of experience in experimenting with different models, most of them still haven't figured out the final answer because it's still developing in front of our eyes. For a couple of employees in small startups that are just figuring out what to build, they probably want to sit together five or six days a week and constantly collaborate and iterate together, and have the ability to sit around the table and do the work. A later-stage startup doesn't really need that because they have extremely well-defined roles and KPIs, and you don't need to sit in an office to hit your KPI as a salesperson or as an engineer.” - Daan van Rossum

Daan Van Rossum, Founder and CEO of FlexOS, and Jeremy Au discuss and reflect on three major themes:

1. Career Navigation to Entrepreneurship: Daan's journey began with founding Cyberfood, a food delivery startup all the way back in 2000 using fax machines. He went on to become a marketer at Media Highway for 7 years, worked with Ogilvy for 9 years, and moved from Chicago to Singapore to Vietnam. He then founded Bright and later spearheaded the growth of Dreamplex, Vietnam’s top coworking space, and FlexOS, an HR service platform that provides tools, guides, and community events to remote teams. He shares the decision-making process behind each career move and underscores the value of prioritizing goals, understanding risks, and embracing change as an integral part of the entrepreneurial journey.

2. Southeast Asian Work Landscape: Daan shares his insights on the productivity and cultural aspects of Southeast Asian work environments. He explains the stark contrast between working models, such as Singapore's mostly hybrid approach and Vietnam's strong return to full-time office work due to factors like evolving job markets and trust dynamics. Daan acknowledges the gradual convergence of work trends globally, yet points out that certain regions are not yet ready for hybrid or remote models due to their recent transition from manufacturing to knowledge-based industries and the need for foundational structures like trust and KPIs.

3. Personal Trade-Offs and Growth: Daan’s personal experience of facing challenges and making trade-offs to prioritize family time stresses the importance of aligning personal and professional values. He talks about the toll his work was taking on his well-being, took time to delve into underlying issues, and made transformative changes for a more fulfilling life.

They also delve into the challenges and opportunities in remote work, evolving landscape of co-working and office spaces, and the impact of market differences on these models.

Supported by Baskit

Baskit is a company focused on digitizing Indonesia's supply chains. With a focus on empowering local communities, Baskit recognizes the immense potential within the 200,000 distributors and wholesalers scattered throughout the country's vast landscape. Unlike disruptive approaches, Baskit takes a collaborative stance, working hand in hand with these traditional businesses. By infusing technology and providing access to financing, they modernize operations and create efficient supply chains, benefiting manufacturers and consumers along the way. For more details about Baskit and their journey towards revolutionizing digital commerce and supply chains in Indonesia, please visit their website: https://baskit.app/

Jeremy Au: (00:01:17)

Hey, Daan, really excited to have you on the show. You are a serial founder. You're building in hybrid remote work. You're building in Vietnam and you're a funny guy as well. So excited to hear a little bit more about your journey. Could you introduce yourself real quick?

Daan van Rossum: (00:01:38)

Yeah, absolutely. First of all, a real honor to be here since I've seen it on social media so many times. Really great to have this conversation. So I'm done. I'm currently the founder, and CEO of a company called FlexOS. Which is helping hybrid and remote teams. Before that, I worked in advertising and I ran a co-working space.

Jeremy Au: (00:01:59)

Amazing. So, you know, I was kind of doing my research as always with every guest, and it turns out that you were a founder all the way back in July 2000, so over almost two dozen years ago. So I love what you said. You wrote here, I said Netherlands, you co-founded the Pioneer in online food delivery services in the Netherlands.

Unfortunately, we needed more people with the internet who would be comfortable to order food online. They put on a smiley face, so I got to hear the story. Well, that was a long time ago. That's what I was, to be a founder. So talk about it. Yeah.

Daan van Rossum: (00:02:35)

Just one of the many examples where I was doing something at the wrong time. So yeah, for the full context, I was a terrible student. I was terrible at school. I didn't like sitting still. I didn't like being in class. And so at some point, I decided to drop out of school at the age of 15 and get a job. Basically, I had to get just any job and I started working at this ISP, internet provider, and just doing desk work. People would call up and say, my internet isn't working, what can I do? And of course, I would just say, reset your computer, reset your router, and then call back. And then I hope that a colleague would pick up that call.

And then I met someone who was kind of in the internet space thinking about websites. That's what we were talking about at that point in time, 23 years ago, and had this idea that, Hey, why couldn't people order food online? And yeah, we decided to try and build something. We were both not technical.

I knew HTML, I had taught myself how to build websites and like this code basic websites. However, I had no idea how to build something like an online food ordering system. So it was a lot of downloading things from the internet, trying it out. Putting a website together. And the final mechanism was basically I think like a Java library that we used and a tree structure where you could click on what kind of cuisine you wanted and then it would unfold which restaurants in that category we had on the website. And then you could click on that website, on that restaurant, and then you would see in a separate, you remember like the websites where you had two frames basically.

In the other frame, you would see the menu and then you could sort of type in what you wanted and click submit, and then the restaurant would get a fax. So that's how far back we're talking.

Jeremy Au: (00:04:20)

Not a WhatsApp message. Sorry.

Daan van Rossum: (00:04:22)

No. There were no, no mobile phones yet. But yeah, so, so we had found email to fax service online. So the website would generate an email. That email would get sent to the service that would then translate it to effects and effects would then come out in the restaurant, and then the rest would be done by the restaurant. Obviously, there was no online payment back then. There was no mobile payment back then, so the restaurant would just fulfill that as any kind of telephone order and the land deliver the food to you. And yeah, it was just a bit too early, but it was fun to experiment with.

Jeremy Au: (00:04:54)

Yeah, and I guess. What did you learn? I mean, obviously, you learned you said were there not people buying or were there people who were buying? How did it work?

Daan van Rossum: (00:05:03)

No, I think, we stopped early enough that we didn't go, we didn't go too far down the path of trying to make it work even though the market wasn't really with us. But I learned a lot during that time. There was a lot of experimentation that was happening.

And again, putting something together in that case, like building a website and trying to build a product, trying to build a service. Which is very interesting. And around that same time, I was still excited to do more. I was still doing my help desk job. And yeah, around that time, something happened when I was still living in the Netherlands where I'm from that was this like really big fireworks factory that blew up and it was actually like really near a residential area. I'm not sure who had the bright idea to put a fireworks factory in a neighborhood, but anyhow, probably after that happened, they never would do that again. But yeah, so basically this factory exploded and it became obviously a big news story. Definitely, people passing away became a big news story and it kind of dawned that, hey, why aren't we using the internet to find all the news about this big event? Because everyone was talking about it offline. And again, the big broadcasters would have their own news websites.

There were some dedicated news websites, but there wasn't really any place for people to go to find all the latest news. So I just kind of built a very basic website. Again, this is from my time when I didn't have internet at home, so I would go to the library to be on a computer there and basically learn HTML.

So I put together a really basic website where I just edited whenever there was new news that I could find online, I would just add it to that website as another link or another piece of content, and then I would find a service that would provide a messaging board so people could post messages about people that they had lost or that they didn't know how to contact, or has this person been found. And then because I built that website and because there really wasn't much like that out there at that time it was picked up by a lot of new services. So it was on TV and on the radio and people were talking about this URL and unfortunately, this is before Google Analytics existed, so I only had the step counter that you maybe remember from old websites.

Jeremy Au: (00:07:10)

Oh, those HTML, those, little counters. Yeah.

Daan van Rossum: (00:07:13)

We're talking way back. We're talking way back, Jeremy. So yeah, we had a little step counter that would go up, but we had no idea where it came from or whatever. So that was another thing that I, that kind of came right after that. And then, I ended up finding a job at a startup that was doing things around bringing news to the internet, bringing pages around topics to the internet, kind of like About.com, but in the Netherlands. And that's really my first startup experience.

Jeremy Au: (00:07:38)

Yeah. And then you worked for seven years in this online marketing agency, and then you spent nine years at Ogilvy. So that was a long stretch of time. So I was kind of curious like what was going through your mind during this time period?

Daan van Rossum: (00:07:53)

So, the first part where I was working at this company, this startup kind of incubator where they would develop all kinds of concepts that were successful maybe in the US or in other parts of the world and trying to bring it to the Netherlands and just trying to be first in the markets.

So we were doing things like the about.com of the Netherlands and we did a Netflix of the Netherlands where part of my job was literally in the early days, like packaging the DVDs into the envelopes and then sending it to customers and putting it on the scale and getting the stamp and all that.

So I did that for seven years. And the company never really got that big because we would always do it really small and then maybe exit or sell the concept if it was working well. And you know, no offense to my boss at the time, but I kind of felt like after seven years, I wanted a real job, especially as someone who had dropped out of high school.

I kind of felt like I needed to prove that I could do more than just work in this company where this one person decided that I was worth hiring. So I need to prove that through some big brands. So I just applied to a bunch of jobs and I have my internet background. I knew a bit about content marketing, affiliate marketing, about analytics. And so I just tried to find a job and ended up at Ogilvy as a, I don't really know what the title was, but I think like website webmaster, content marketing person and helping brands like Amex and Ford in the really early days of managing professional websites and making sure the right content was on there.

And then eventually went from there into digital media. Then while I was at Ogilvy there was a new CEO who came into the company and he said, Okay, I got to make my mark somehow, I got to launch myself somehow. So he said, what will happen to Ogilvy, which was one of the maybe top three or top five advertising agencies at that time is really dependent on the youth, on the young people of today. So let's find those young people in our company and give them a platform to say what they think the future of the company is going to be. He launched this really big international talent competition where anyone could write an essay about what they thought the future of the company would be, and maybe the future of advertising in general.

And I sent mine in and then fortunately was selected. And they flew 12 people from all over the world to Turkey and basically had a really big summit there where we presented to the global leadership, like the 200 most senior leaders in the company. We basically presented our vision even though we probably didn't know that much that was that interesting to them, but we presented our vision and then, I got to talk to all kinds of people within the company. And I realized whoa, this is not just like some local ad agency. This really is a huge global company.

I really didn't have that sense until then. And eventually ended up talking to someone who ran a group in New York, focused on helping really big global brands with their strategy of doing digital content and digital overall, and basically just persuaded him to hire me. And that's how I ended up moving to New York. And then from New York, I moved to Chicago, from Chicago to Singapore, and eventually to Vietnam, where I still am today.

Jeremy Au: (00:11:01)

Yeah. And that's how also you moved from Europe to around the world and eventually settled in Southeast Asia. So could you walk through a little bit about how that geographic shift happened towards Southeast Asia and what made you pick it, but also what made you stay as well?

(00:11:18) Daan van Rossum:

Yeah, I mean I could put a super positive spin on it. But basically, I'm just like a really restless person, so I don't like sitting still all that much. And even at that point in time, after like a year and a half doing a certain role, I kind of wanted something new, and Ogilvy obviously has the benefit that it has this really huge international network. They have offices in pretty much every country in the world. So it was a nice way to stay within the company. Nine years sounds really impressive, but I moved basically every two years. So I could stay within the same company but then move to other places. The US I really wanted, originally I really wanted to move to Asia.

So when I was at that conference and I was trying to talk to all these other global people from the company, I was really trying to lend a role in Asia, but then, basically, New York ended up happening and I said, okay, no problem. I'll move to New York. Happy to do that. And that brought me to the US and I spent five years in the US between New York and Chicago.

But I still had that kind of dream to eventually live in Asia. And this really came from making a trip to China when I was maybe 17, with the previous company, way before Ogilvy and just realizing that there's a part of this world that is just so insanely different from what I'm used to as a European kid that is just on every level is so different. And at that point, I had traveled to the US and I had traveled to Asia and I was like, whoa, this is so different. I would love to live somewhere that's just so incredibly different from where I am today. And so yeah, even though I had that great role in the US, I still wanted to go to Asia. So when I was working in Chicago I was in a group doing consulting, still around digital and strategy. I took two weeks off and flew to Japan and I told my boss like, Oh, I'm going to fly to Japan. And he said, if you're flying all the way to Asia, why not visit a couple of other places? I was like, no, I just want to go to Tokyo. That sounds really cool. It's like, why not visit a few other places? So I ended up actually visiting five different places in Asia, and every time I would go to one of the places I would try and get a couple of people from the Ogilvy network and try to book a meeting with them and under the guise of, oh, I just want to see what's up and make the connection. But of course, I was out for a job, and then ironically, I didn't get a job in any of those five countries that I traveled to. But I did get something offered in Singapore and that's how I ended up in Singapore and in Southeast Asia.

Jeremy Au: (00:13:50)

Yeah. And what's interesting is that you did about three and a half years in Southeast Asia and then you decided to leave and be a founder again in Southeast Asia. So, I think there's a double decision. One is deciding to be a founder after so many years. That's one. And two, of course, is deciding to build this first company, Bright, in Vietnam as well. So walk me through what was going through your mind.

(00:14:15) Daan van Rossum:

Well, I was probably just young and foolish at that time. Still, in terms of what was going through my mind, I think first of all, when I was doing 23 years ago, that little, I called it building a website, I didn't know the term startup. I didn't understand that there was a world called startups. I had no connection to that whatsoever, right? I was just working with someone to build this food-ordering website. Then I built this like other websites and then I kept building websites. That's how I looked at it. So, when I was in Ogilvy in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, a really big part of, when you're a strategist in an ad agency, a really big part of your role is basically listening to people, interviewing people, being in focus groups, uncovering insights. Our key deliverable is insights. So what is something that, when you hear it makes a lot of sense, but it's totally new and novel. That's why it's such a hard job, or at least that's what people say. So I was interviewing a lot of people. I was obviously in a country again that I didn't know and that I really didn't know anything about. So that's always, for me, the joy of doing strategy in and doing research in countries that I don't know, I get to know new countries, new demographics, new communities and I was doing a lot of research, especially in late teens and young moms because I was selling Kotex, and I was selling Huggies because I worked for Kimberly Clark.

Jeremy Au: (00:15:43)

Though. I got to say like, I got to those. You got to buy, you know?

Daan van Rossum: (00:15:47)

Yeah. Yeah, so obviously when I had a baby, I had to buy Huggies, but then my wife wanted a different brand, and of course who has more influence at the end of the day, right?

Jeremy Au: (00:15:55)

You know, marketing to the mothers at that point in time.

Daan van Rossum: (00:15:57)

Yeah, I could not even market it to her. I had no persuasion skills whatsoever. But yeah, so, you know, again, that was, my role was to just be in focus groups, talk to people, do research, and get to understand them as people, as human beings. You're trying to get to something that's fundamentally true about people and their motivations and their desires and aspirations and ambitions. But then to basically use that and to sell them again, Coke or Kotex or whatever product that you're selling at that point in time. And it was really during one of those sessions where I was sitting in a group of young moms and they were kind of, pouring their hearts out about all the things that they loved about being a mom and all the things that they felt were difficult about being a mom.

And I heard a lot about not just about being a mom, maybe the universal parts about being a mom, but very specifically around what it means to be a mom at that age in Vietnam, in Southeast Asia, and a lot about how their daily life is so different from their parents' daily life and the big gap between them and their parents and the expectations that parents have. Maybe it's no surprise to you, but to me, it was really novel to hear that incredible pressure on people to have babies and to do that as young as possible and to maybe forego a career and maybe forego their own kind of dreams and their own ambitions.

And again, they were not sitting there complaining about the fact that they were now a mom and that they had this wonderful baby, but it did dawn on me that there is a really big gap between what people want themselves, and then sort of what society puts on them. And I decided to dive a bit deeper into that. And again, my other target audience that I was selling to was these late teens. And you heard the same stories obviously in a very different context. But again, they felt like I live in this really cool modern world like I have social media and I have maybe a cool university I go to, or maybe my first job and I live in a big city. But then when they come back home, and especially around CNY and the situations where you're really exposed to your family, the question is like, when are you getting married and when are you going to have your first baby?

And I just could really sense that people were struggling with again, what I want and what other people want from me, and how do I deal with that? Because people still want to be a good kid. We kept hearing that, the term being a good kid, was so important to young Vietnamese. And I basically wanted to explore that further, so I thought, what is the opposite of everything we talked about so far? What will be a way to bring that to the world that is opposite from the fast-paced, digital innovative world that they're living in? So I decided to start a paper magazine, probably again, a terrible idea. Stories of other people who basically, despite all the expectations that were put on them, found their own way. So a lot of young influencers or entrepreneurs or people who no matter what other people set, charted their own path and did what they wanted to do.

And use that kind of inspiration to people to say maybe I want that too. So again, never thought about it as I want to be a startup founder, or I want to create a startup. It was just an idea, a creative idea that I wanted to execute and then eventually when I was about a year into it, I just realized even though it wasn't making money, in fact, I was basically paying to work on that side of things. It was just so much more meaningful to me and it was so much more fulfilling than the day job. And I started saving up to basically be able to stop working and just do me, again, I didn't call it a startup, but basically just do my company, my idea. And that's how eventually I went up to the Managing Director and I said, peace out. I'm going to full-time now, do what I've been doing on the site anyway. And he said, can we announce it as a sabbatical? And I was like, Hey, you can announce it any way you want but I'm out. And then I left and that's it.

Jeremy Au: (00:20:09)

Well, it still could be a long sabbatical. You could always go back to Ogilvy.

(00:20:12) Daan van Rossum:

Yeah, it's been about seven to eight years now. It'll be really funny if I just remember that we said that it would be a sabbatical. I want to come back now, but yeah, I think they're already on their third CEO since I left.

Jeremy Au: (00:20:21)

Yeah. And so there you are, you're building Bright and I think eventually you transition to joining the team, the leadership team at Dreamplex, which is the coworking space at Dynamic in Vietnam and Ho Chi Min City. So walk us through that journey and how you transitioned eventually.

Daan van Rossum: (00:20:42)

Yeah, if we skip over a few minor details, then the broad story is basically that again, this was something that I really loved doing. It was very meaningful to me. It was just never going to make money. I think that's the long and short of it. We were there to inspire people to live happier. But yeah, especially young people in a developing market are not really waking up in the morning saying, how can I spend money on living happier? And I came across Dreamplex because the original co-founder of VietnamWorks, which is the largest job website in Vietnam, his co-founder was my old boss in New York. So actually, when I moved to Vietnam, I mentioned to my old boss in New York from Ogilvy that, Hey, I'm going to go to Vietnam. I know that you lived there for at least some time, is there anyone that I should meet? And so he told me, yeah, you should definitely meet Jonah Levy, who was my cofounder of that company.

And I said, okay, great. So I reached out to Jonah and I think like one of the very first people I met in Vietnam, that was him. And it took quite a while for us to actually end up working together. But from the first day, I landed in Vietnam to when we started working together, probably about five years in between, we kind of just kept in touch.

And at some point, he had taken on the role of CEO at Dreamplex and he said in a conversation, what we're working on, like we're trying to make the workplace more meaningful. We're trying to create a space where people can get more out of their work than just the paycheck. And we want to deliver that through the office experience and that will help us stand out in the market.

You know, maybe there's something in terms of what you are doing and what we're doing that actually could fit quite well together. And we probably still talked about it for another six months or so. Eventually, he hired me as the head of product basically thinking about, again, beyond the space that you're providing anyway, like what could the total product of working in this environment be like. And I joined to develop that product with him and eventually took over as CEO and that was the transition basically.

Jeremy Au: (00:22:50)

Yeah. And what did you learn about building coworking spaces? Because I remember, I know I was part of the first-ever coworking space in Singapore. It was like the Social Impact Hub Singapore. It was the franchise of the Impact Hub network, and I got the title founding member, which means I was the first 10 people who were stupid enough to sign up for a coworking space that hadn't been launched yet, but I was sick of working at Starbucks. So, that's how I first got started. I think that was an interesting time when coworking spaces eventually became conceived. Obviously, they got popularized where we work in the US and they became popular around the world. So I'm just kind of curious, what was it like to build this coworking? I think obviously there must've been not just a space, but also the customer education right in Ho Chi Min City as well.

Daan van Rossum: (00:23:36)

Yeah, definitely. And again, just going back to the main theme of my terrible timing as always. So I joined this kind of, at the height of coworking is going to be the future. WeWork was like charting towards their IPO. They were valued at 47 billion. I just read right before we started recording that they were thrown out of the New York Stock Exchange. This was at a time when this was going to be the thing in terms of how offices and real estate are going to evolve in the future. Obviously, now we live in a very different reality, but I joined, and again, my brief was really, okay, how can we think about this as a product that goes beyond just the physical office space?

Because at the end of the day, that's going to be the commodity. Many people can rent out some space, put some furniture in, and say, Hey, I'm going to sublease this to other people. So the brief was really how can we make it something that is more valuable than that and therefore, gives us some competitive edge, but also, therefore, the work that we do as a team becomes much more meaningful, which is like a really big part of what Jonah wanted to do with the company. And we really found that through, we ended up calling it as a total package, a better day at work. But we really tried to focus on the physical space that you're sitting in. Then blending that with a sense of hospitality in terms of the people who manage that space so that coming there kind of feels like when you go to a really nice hotel and people are really trained on hospitality, it just feels different, right?You don't just go to that hotel. Just to have a place to sleep. It's the total feeling that you get from the team and from the environment that makes you feel, okay, this is worth something.

And, you know, hospitality was like one big thing that we focused on in the beginning. We then also added this sense of experience, going back to the hotel kind of analogy. The best hotels when you walk in there, it's not just, again, the physical building and maybe nicely-designed, but you know, it has a signature style, it has a signature scent, maybe you see upcoming events and activities. And so, we kind of thought about that in the same way about co-working. Like how can you create an environment that people want to be a part of that the first time you walk in there, you immediately get this sense of? If this could be the place that I go to work, this would be like mouse and mouse from a typical office building, especially here in Vietnam. And that was really our mission, to build something that like all those elements together.

And of course, the technology was a big part of that, but all those elements together would create an experience that was totally different from what a normal office looked like. And again, for the context, like most offices here are really, it's like the lowest density, like people versus space of anything in the world. It's really just a place to sit down and do your work. Maybe a little pantry, maybe a little canteen, but that's really it. So we really thought about it from the perspective of, okay, if this is the place where people are going to spend so many hours a day, so many hours a week, a month, a year, How can we make that a place that sort of energizes and that gives people more than just a place to work.

And that was really the mission. And I think we did pretty well, especially in the newer locations that we opened. And the main learning is that again, it's possible, it's just incredibly hard. Because as opposed to digital, which I'm sure a lot of the audiences in digital startups if you don't like something about your app, You could change it tomorrow. I mean, there may be some fees involved or some work involved. But it is very adjustable with real estate. Like when you design a space and you build it, that's pretty much it for the next 10 years. So that's the main difference. But it is possible.

Jeremy Au: (00:27:24)

Wow. And during this time as well, you then transitioned to start building FlexOS, right? Which is about hybrid and remote, and obviously it's also triggered by the pandemic, which has been a big change as well. So could you share a little bit more about that transition?

Daan van Rossum: (00:27:40)

Yeah. So the very unglamorous story is really that I joined the co-working industry. I mean, I had a great time at Dreamplex, but I joined the co-working industry at just at a terrible time. So first of all, I joined at the height of WeWork and this is going to be the future. And then very quickly after I joined like that, IPO went bust. And basically, everyone soured on co-working. We were at that point, fundraising like that immediately was canceled and we were not in a great position. And then right after that, COVID happened which, when you're trying to sell real estate and you're trying to rent out office space not the best time in the world, right? So, we were very fortunate that Vietnam never went into the kind of circuit breaker, like really extended lockdowns that Singapore saw. So we did have only one time, two weeks, and then a couple of months later we had, I think a three to four-month lockdown. So we never got that like really extended lockdown.

Jeremy Au: (00:28:36)


Daan van Rossum: (00:28:37)

Anyway, it was still not a good time because a lot of companies obviously at that time started reconsidering office space and real estate and saying, people who at that point that their contract ended, they were not going to renew, right? They're going to wait until this lockdown ended and then see what they wanted, and we were thinking about, okay, how is this going to change the way that people are going to work, because if this really becomes a thing where companies, because of the pandemic, now have to figure out how to work remotely, does that mean that when the pandemic ends, I mean, I guess it still hasn't really ended, but if the pandemic ends or if the biggest part of the pandemic ends, does it mean that people will stay working remotely?

Does it mean that they will continue to be in this distributed kind of fashion? We started looking around the world and we saw the hybrid model. Maybe you don't have to work from home permanently. Maybe there is some kind of like in-between, in the office and at home. And we said, well, if that's what's going to happen, then maybe there is something that we can do from our experience in terms of what are workplaces people really want to come to so that technically, even though you could work from home, you want to come to the office, which most companies would love for their people to come in, right?

Few exceptions aside, most companies would love for people to be there every day and to have the magic of in-person. So we said, okay, we know how to do it. We know the recipe of, the physical workspace then the hospitality layer, and the experiential layer. Could we somehow package that as, Software as a service that we could then extend to companies? This then opportunistically also finally gets us out of the only way to grow our businesses, opening more buildings, which is obviously extremely intensive. So we saw again the trend that was happening.

We saw what was happening in the world and we overlayed that with, again, what we like doing and what we're good at, and hopefully we can make money with and started building towards that and eventually fundraise for that, got our seat round together and launched it as a standalone company.

Jeremy Au: (00:30:40)

Yeah. So when we are thinking about, say, office and teaming obviously that differences all around the world, everybody is either for remote work, some people are for hybrid, some people are for in-person. It's a little bit of a holy war going on between all these various factions. But from your perspective, what do you think makes sense within the context of, say, Southeast Asia for how organizations should be thinking about hybrid, remote, and office?

Daan van Rossum: (00:31:09)

I am going to give the really annoying consulting answer, which is that it depends, sadly, and this is really the truth. Sadly, and again, after two years of speaking to people who are running companies and having to manage this challenge and having to think about this problem. There really isn't one solution that fits for everyone. It's dependent on so many factors in terms of what is the right mode of working and even today, even though companies now have had two plus years of experience in experimenting with different models, maybe coming back to the office, then maybe realizing that wasn't correct, or maybe saying, as we've also seen after the pandemic or after the lockdowns ended, oh, we don't need an office anymore.We're going to go fully remote. And then kind of like backtracking on that and telling people to come in or the CEO changes and he and the new CEO decide that people should be in the office even after two plus years of experimenting, most companies still haven't figured out the final answer because it's still developing in front of our eyes.

And so, There are so many factors that go into what is the right model for any company. And in our context, Jeremy a really small startup with just a couple of employees who are just figuring out what to build. Yeah, probably those people want to sit together five days, six days a week and constantly collaborate, constantly iterate together, have the ability to, again, sit around the table and do the work where maybe like a later stage startup doesn't really need that because they have extremely well-defined roles, they have well-defined KPIs, and you don't need to sit it in an office to hit your KPI as a salesperson or as an engineer. So yeah, sadly the answer is it depends, and there really isn't one solution that works for everyone.

Jeremy Au: (00:33:01)

Yeah, and what's interesting is that obviously, you're burning this out of Southeast Asia. What myths or misconceptions do people have about working culture or productivity in Southeast Asia that someone may not necessarily know easily?

Daan van Rossum: (00:33:21)

One thing that, I knew before I started this, one thing that people from outside of Southeast Asia really don't understand is that even though this is a cluster of countries that are geographically close together, in certain cases, you can travel by car between those different countries, the cultures are vastly different. The levels of development are vastly different. So you really cannot compare a Singaporean company versus a Malaysian company versus a Vietnamese company. So you really have to look at it almost market by market. Now, of course, there are, at the same time, there are similarities. There are things that we have in common and that are mostly cultural and that does translate to the workplace to a certain degree. For example, there's a much stronger sense of community versus being extremely individualistic. That obviously does translate to the workplace and therefore maybe people do want to see each other a bit more than in certain other markets.

But the markets are really extremely different. So, the report that Monks Hill issued together with Glints around salaries around how people work. One of the aspects that was highlighted in the report was the kind of working models. And there, you see extreme differences where Singapore is really mostly hybrid, and within a very competitive job market, it's extremely difficult to tell someone you have to come back to the office five days a week. Most people have the opportunity to say, then I'll decline the job offer because I have other opportunities and I'll choose a job that does offer me the ability to work from home, which is pretty nice.

Whereas in a market like Vietnam and other markets as well, that's completely the opposite. So in Vietnam, according to that report, 83% of companies are back to the office full time. Not even one day a week at home or two days a week at home. They just went back to business as usual and said, okay, we have to come back to the office.

So if I just look at Vietnam for example, there are really real reasons why no matter what I evangelize or no matter what I tell people, is a better way of working and what aligns better with what people intrinsically want. There are real reasons why you cannot do a hybrid model here, or as Alexis found the Chief People Officer at Home Credit always says, not yet.

Eventually, of course, everything will move towards this because it is a big global world and everything will sync up eventually. But at this point in time, it's just not possible yet. One of those reasons is that Vietnam has only very recently developed into a market where people even have knowledge jobs and where people even have office jobs. So people are just getting used to having people in an office and having knowledge base companies rather than manufacturing companies, which is really what the country was 20, 30 years ago. So all the things that you need to move towards a hybrid model or a remote model or any kind of distributed model.

In terms of there needs to be trust between managers and team members. There needs to be structure in place in terms of KPIs or OKRs. Like, all of that just isn't there yet. And so the market just is unable to move towards that. So again, in stark contrast with Singapore, where the government was one of the first ones to say, we need to embrace this new trend. This is how we compete with the world. This is how our talent competes with talent internationally. And it has all these other benefits, right? If you work hybrid, that means two, or three days per week. The MRT isn't overloaded, and we are going to get some financial activity in the neighborhoods, and we're going to see the activity and the wealth spreading beyond just the CBD and the government was the first one to step up and say, this is the new way of working and we're going to embrace it. And then obviously the companies follow completely differently in a market like Vietnam. So that's one of the main things that I think people just don't really understand that, oh, there, there's like APEC, then there's Southeast Asia, but yeah, there's so many difference between the markets just in terms of how those markets have developed and therefore how the workplace is different between them.

Jeremy Au: (00:37:24)

And starting to wrap things up here, could you share about a time that you personally have been brave?

Daan van Rossum: (00:37:33)

Okay. Well, besides coming on this podcast, right?

Jeremy Au: (00:37:38)

You make it sound like you're walking to the lion's den here.

Daan van Rossum: (00:37:42)

I don't think that I'm a very brave person, but I knew that this question was coming as a follower of the podcast. So I was kind of thinking about this, like, what is a moment that I've been brave? And it isn't really like any typical story of being brave and even the work context.

But a couple of months ago, I went through, even though I've spent my whole last 10 years focusing on happiness and work and happiness at work, I was in a very bad spot. I could just feel that even though I was pushing myself, and again, as a founder, you have a team to motivate you have investors to update and you have to uphold certain things. I could just really feel that it was costing me more and more energy and I think previously, I would have just blasted through it, keep working, keep putting in the hours just kind of ignoring everything that's under the service, but one of the Buddhist teachers, I follow a Vietnamese monk called Han.

He always says that you need to look deeply, you need to look deeply into your problems. You need to really understand where they come from, what is the seed inside of you that's bringing that problem? Don't just focus on what's happening in the service. Focus on what's underneath and I took the time out and basically totally disconnected from my work and from even from family for a few days and from the world and started looking deeply and it's just so incredibly painful because you then really get to the core.

Going decades back what is the stuff underlying your anxiety? What's the stuff underlying what you know is frustrating you in daily life? It's not the things that you think at that moment. It's always much deeper. And I just had to go through it and I had to really look deeply into where the pain was coming from and what could I do to address that pain. And that definitely took a bit of being brave to go through that. But I came out of that understanding of what was it underneath everything that was making me feel this way. And I'm better for it now. So I would say that was my moment of bravery.

Jeremy Au: (00:39:54)

Can you share what were the things you did differently or more things you changed as a result of that time?

Daan van Rossum: (00:40:00)

Yeah, that's a good question. This is happening before that already, and for my podcast, I just interviewed Jennifer Dulski, who is the founder of Rising Team, which is a really great platform we work with, who previously was the CEO of change.org and was like a senior exec at Facebook, at Yahoo. And I always ask the closing question of if there was one wish that you had for humanity, if there was one thing you could put on a billboard, which I stole from Tim Ferriss, what would it be? And she said, focus on what matters. And she had a personal anecdote about why that came to her. And so I had this at the beginning of the year where I think we have one baby that's around the same age, both. And I saw my kid developing and I saw him becoming more of a person versus a baby. And I spent some time with him and I realized that all the moments I'm spending away from him and I'm spending away from really connecting with him and enjoying this very precious time, that's only going to happen once.

That's just stupid. And so I decided to change a lot in terms of where I place my priority, where I place my focus and where I wanted to spend my time. And that really took some very extreme measures to really adjust my schedule. Because one thing to say, I want to spend more time with family, it's another thing to say, I simply cannot be on calls after this hour or on these days. And I was working 80 hours a week. I was working every night. I was working all my weekend days. And you know, especially as a founder, you always have this feeling of yeah, but we're building something and there's something great about it. And that's true, but it's also a bit of an excuse.

And I think that moment where I started going deeper into was I using work as an escape from the underlying issues. So those two together really led me to double down on the decision to really focus much more time on my family. And again, it changed some things pretty fundamentally in even how I run the company in terms of the kind of work that I can do and the kind of work that I cannot do. For example, it's best practice to do founder-led sales when you're an early-stage startup. But founder-led sales also meant that I was spending, many days per week just being on back-to-back. Very first screening phone calls, like sales development, phone calls and again, maybe in a way that's necessary, but I said, look, I got to find a different way.

So I really did adjust my way of working. I really did adjust my schedule where now most of my days are completely free to spend time with my son and with my family. And actually spend time focusing much more deeply on the real work that I want to do. But again, it came at a sacrifice. But that's a decision that I made.

Jeremy Au: (00:42:51)

Yeah. On that note, thank you so much for sharing so much about your personal journey. I'd love to summarize the three big takeaways we got from this. First of all, thank you so much for sharing about your early days, in terms of your career, as a founder with Cyberfood, trying to do food delivery via fax which is incredible and online news. Also, I think your decision to obviously work in marketing across two different companies all the way to Ogilvy was a really interesting hunting journey about the various aspects they had to do to explore new pursuits, but also climb the carpeted ladder.

Secondly, thanks so much for sharing about your founder experience why you left Ogilvy, and also why you decided to build Bright I eventually went on to help build Dreamplex and now FlexOS. So I think really interesting to hear your entrepreneurial motivation how you thought about each jump and the various trade-offs that you had to make along the way.

And then lastly, thanks so much for sharing a little bit about, obviously the productivity, the work, and the cultural landscape of Southeast Asia. I thought it was interesting to hear the various details and I think I agree with you, about Singapore, Vietnam, between Malaysia. I think these are all details that are pretty non-obvious to people who are outside Southeast Asia, but even for people who are in each of these countries themselves, may not be so obvious when compared to a neighboring country as well. And lastly, bonus one I guess is I thought it's kind of nice and very sweet of you to share a little bit about your own personal change that you do. And, you know, kind of like face up to the fact that you have a family and face up that you had to make certain trade-offs in order to prioritize and focus on what you care about. So thank you so much for sharing, Daan.

Daan van Rossum: (00:44:29)

Okay, my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.