Dom Clonen: Tech Talent War, Hybrid vs. Remote & Selecting Recruiters - E169

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

A startup is any company that starts up from nothing. They don’t have brand equity in the market, they don’t have an employee or value proposition. They probably in the early stages rely on how convincing the founder is like how can he get these individuals to believe in his vision and obviously those early employees you can incentivize and should incentivize with shares and ownership. That’s really important that people that come in early stage, they have to feel a sense of ownership and in terms of what you’re doing because it's difficult and it helps smooth over the inevitable bumps - Dom Clonen

Dom Clonen is the Founder and CEO of TechBridge Market, a tech-enabled recruitment services company Headquartered in Singapore. Their mission is to reinvent traditional recruitment services. Instead of charging large commissions for a role, they have developed a highly optimised talent acquisition process that guarantees predictable hiring outcomes at a fraction of the usual cost.

Dom is from the UK and graduated from the University of Oxford with a Bachelors in Modern History. He spent the better part of 14 years as a Managing Partner for MICE companies, developing and commercialising niche technology conferences and exhibitions in the US, Europe, and Asia Pacific. After moving to Singapore in 2006 he co-founded a global peer-to-peer community for leading enterprise technologists before becoming the sole Founder of TechBridge Market.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hi, Dom, really excited to have you on the show to hear your journey and insights. You’re a founder tackling the talent shortage in Southeast Asia.

Dom Clonen: (00:47)
Thanks, Jeremy, pleasure to be here.

Jeremy Au: (00:49)
So, Dom, who’re you?

Dom Clonen: (00:50)
I’m Don Clonen, the founder and CEO of TechBridge Market. We are a Singapore headquartered recruitment services business that operates across most regions in APEC and the Middle East.

Jeremy Au: (01:04)
Awesome. Thanks for sharing. Why tech talent? Is this something you’re passionate about?

Dom Clonen: (01:16)
I think with a lot of my career it was somewhat circumstantial. It didn’t come, I guess for my long seated passion for the recruitment industry or indeed the talent or the candidate market. I’ve been somewhat of an opportunist when it comes to businesses. I tried to identify gaps in markets where things can maybe be improved and I saw that in recruitment services and then, of course I’ve been in this market now for five years and like anything when you spend a huge amount of your time working in it, working on it, do you develop a passion and an interest in it. It's obviously a very dynamic space especially right now and seeing the evolution even over the course of the last 18 months under COVID has been really enlightening for me as an entrepreneur and I found something that we could really help in, I guess.

Jeremy Au: (02:04)
Why is there a technology talent shortage in Southeast Asia?

Dom Clonen: (02:10)
Well, I mean, it’s just purely a supply and demand issue. The demand for tech talent is increasing exponentially. It has been my entire career. I ran pretty traditional businesses early on in my career and the evolution of those businesses was always around how you could provide proper, how you could build more technology into more traditional, maybe more service oriented business. So across the entire spectrum that this is not a new trend. Of course, everyone understands that COVID has rapidly accelerated that reality in certain business. Here is web based businesses, last mile delivery businesses, whatever you may call it, they’ve been having to exponentially scale the amount of tech talent to meet the increased demand and that talent just isn’t there. The universities and in Southeast Asia, for example, just aren’t able to spit out enough talent quickly enough to meet the demand. And once you factor in the restrictions on the movement of labour, the way you would typically see people coming in to Singapore, for example, from India, that is obviously being shut down and when you’re looking purely at your local candidate pool, it is purely just supply and demand.

Jeremy: (03:16)
What do you think that trend will look like over the next ten years, better or worse?

Dom Clonen: (03:21)
I expect it’s going to get significantly better. Businesses are innovative organizations. They will make changes to their processes. They will make changes to the way they hire to adapt so that they maintain value, they maintain their profitability and shareholder value. So that will always drive innovation. And I think we’re lucky enough here in Singapore in particular. To have a government as well that’s doing a lot to facilitate this. And then I think there’s a lot of creativity in the wider Southeast Asian community about how do we build more funnels of new talent in the tech arena and how do we get them into the market. You know, I receive emails all the time from coding schools in Indonesia and coding schools in Vietnam and these great entrepreneurs that are teaching people to code in 1/3 of the period of time versus a university degree or computer engineering degree because they understand that we’ve got this talent that needs to come into the market more quickly and so on the basis of a helpful government, of these great entrepreneurs and businesses having to work it out, I have no doubt it’s going to get easier. And hopefully our business is helping in that as well, but it might get worse for awhile. I perceive that, but ultimately, it’s going to get a lot better.

Jeremy Au: (04:31)
I agree that there would be more demand for tech talent as more technology goes out, but what you’re saying is that supply would get better as the economy starts to orient towards technology. I think that’s a fair belief in thesis.

Dom Clonen: (05:01)
Yeah and to add to that, there’s the economic component as well. You look at markets like Singapore, Hong Kong, for example. Even markets in the UK that suffering a huge tech talent shortage right now. They’re starting to look elsewhere and COVID is kind of helping to streamline the process of looking for remote talent. And when you look for remote talent, you open up candidate polls that you’re not previously accessing, right? So there is that untapped demand now that will ultimately not be enough supply just in that and of itself. But what’s happening when these big tech companies are hiring in Vietnam and Indonesia, it’s increasing the salaries of tech talent in those markets we see that’s been happening in India for a number of years. Definitely happening in the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and that will then in my mind anyway, attract a lot more school leavers and university graduates from those countries into those roles because they are seeing that it pays extremely well versus other options in their market. And I think that as well, we really enhance the supply. It will take a few years, but I think it’s positive.

Jeremy Au: (06:03)
Yeah, for people in the Philippines, they’re now getting remote job offers from Singapore and from America, actually. So, that’s interesting competition for the best talent as long as you’re willing to work the time zone difference and being competent in English. This also brings up the issue that a bunch of us were discussing – it may be good to plug in these talents quickly, but you’re growing and training these talents in someone else’s country. In the long run, it might be better to have them in your own country to bring their social networks, their in-person spending, their expertise and their brain. What do you think about that, Dom?

Dom Clonen: (07:22)
Yeah, it’s a very interesting topic. It’s also one that’s quite relatively controversial in terms of people having very different opinions on this, but I think there is just a certain reality, I think it was your guys, Monks Hill Ventures who put out, an infographic about what percentage of the engineering workforce the likes of Gojek and Grab are hiring offshore and it’s a significant proportion and if you can’t find it locally, you have no choice. And I think, conversely, if governments after COVID continue to make the immigration standards harder, then that will just perpetuate that reality. I think there’s a huge number of people around the region, who would love to move into Singapore, work in Singapore. This is still the hub. This is still where a lot of the brains are, whether the big business has a headquarters they were like to be here. But if that’s not feasible and it’s very possible that it won’t be, they will be hiring and supporting economies that out outside of yours and that’s just an unavoidable reality, I think.

Jeremy Au: (08:25)
There’s a lot of tension around highly desired tech to move and immigration policies hindering that. How do you think policy makers should think about that tradeoff?

Dom Clonen: (08:40)
I should imagine it’s very hard for them to balance that and square that circle. On one side you have to focus on your own economy and how you develop your own sort of manpower equity within your economy, but also, you need to facilitate business and if you do have a supply demand crunch, you have to leave enough gaps in the borders, if you like, to allow the best tech talent to come in and fill those roles if needed. When we talk about tech, I think everyone has a tendency to think software engineering, but there are a lot of, let’s say more technical type roles that do involve people being in rooms with other people, being on premise, being at a facility or factory, for example, and technology covers all of that spectrum broadly. And, so, you have to still be able to facilitate that. That still needs to be possible, otherwise the economies and businesses will suffer.

Jeremy Au: (09:33)
I agree and think that right now there’s a shortage in technical talent, but without these great engineers in Singapore, then non-technical folks lose the opportunity to work with talented people, get cross-trained and know what a great engineering team looks like. That reduces the long term engineer potential and training that people could have. What do you think the future would look like? More remote, higher regulation on borders?

Dom Clonen: (10:09)
No, my thesis is that border regulations will ultimately relax. I think the threshold for markets like Singapore, Hong Kong and others will go up. I think that’s a natural evolution now, but I think there’s still going to be enough flexibility for the right talent to come. In terms of 100% remote, I’m still sitting on the fence on this one, I think certain jobs or job functions can absolutely be done very effectively 100% remote. I do worry a little bit for those who are slightly earlier in their careers. You can learn a lot from the peers that you are working with and I think you know in person environment, it’s a lot easier for someone to share experiences and share knowledge with one another. And I think if you’re coming into the last 3, 4, or 5 years of your career as a software engineer in sales, whatever you are doing, I think it’s really tough to expect somebody to grow in the speed that say you and I didn’t. The only parts of our career, Jeremy, without that sort of dynamic around us sitting in a bedroom by themselves, I just…conceptually, that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to me. So I think there needs to be a very strong hybrid. Think, inevitably, must give the flexibility now, otherwise they’re going to lose people. People are talking about this great resignation and that’s going to happen over the next quarter and people, it’s already happening, people leaving jobs, having asked to go back. And I think that’s maybe a step too far. The hybrid model must be the way forward.

Jeremy Au: (11:28)
Are you saying the hybrid model is what the employees want and the employers have no choice or is that what the employers want too?

Dom Clonen: (11:38)
Yeah, I think the employer is stuck here. There is growing power amongst their employees to say, look, I don’t want to come back into the office. I think companies, some, really don’t like that thing. Most will get used to that and know and understand how to maintain productivity in that environment. But I think the other thing that gets forgotten is that a lot of people really can’t work from home. To look at Southeast Asia, for example, a lot of people live with big families in relatively small accommodations, and it’s all well and good for certain people to be posting on LinkedIn from their penthouse condos about remote is the way forward. But if you are got three brothers and sisters and it’s a noisy house, you wanna go into the office, right? You want that space away, you want that ability to collaborate with your colleagues and so on. So companies that don’t offer any on premise I think will struggle in those domains as well.

Jeremy Au: (12:28)
That’s true to people in countries without the infrastructure, I’ve notice where they struggle with internet speeds and work environments. So, having a choice and space to get work done is important. There’s also the awkward reality that most companies in Southeast Asia are already hybrid because of COVID. Everyone is already forced to be remote or have already been remote.

Dom Clonen: (13:26)
Yeah, that’s correct. And I think you know that reality is kind of being reflected now in what a lot of the coworking companies are doing there. They’ve changed their commercial models. You see a lot of these kind of coworking membership apps springing up where you can have one subscription and you can work across 10 coworking companies and F&B outlets that will open up Internet and power plugs to you and so on. So I think it’s just about giving employees an option to be outside of the home. If they want to be in the home, great, they want to be outside of the home, equally great, even if it isn’t in the traditional head office type environments and central business districts.

Jeremy Au: (14:02)
I love that. What do you think are other trends that founders should be aware of or thinking about when it comes to talent because there’s a talent war going on. What should founders be thinking about or improve on?

Dom Clonen: (14:38)
Well, I mean, retention, basically. A huge amount of investment has gone into improving employee retention. Whether you’re looking at it in specific software and platforms and technologies that help companies do that or whether you’re looking at better soft incentives around healthcare or wellness, gym memberships that that sort of stuff. And I think companies, good companies, whether large or small, realize it’s way more expensive to acquire talent than it is to retain talent, and that’s going to continue to be a real driver in the market. This is in short supply, companies tend to be a little bit more cognizant of this reality and what’s needed to be done.

Jeremy Au: (15:16)
Yeah, retention. That’s important. You spend so many months looking for this person and their spot is not filled, then you don’t retain them. That has not been a good, strong conversation topic amongst founders and only emerging as a topic. How do you think founders should be thinking about retention?

Dom Clonen: (15:48)
I think earlier stage founders put this on the back burner a little bit because they’ve got other things to focus on and they’re trying to raise money. They’re trying to build a business. They’re trying to make money. They’re trying to be profitable and HR and talent acquisition kind of does come a little bit later in the journey than, say, putting your Salesforce together or getting partnerships in place, but it is really critical because it’s even harder to acquire good talent for an early-stage company. It’s one thing if you’ve got an amazing set of VC's on your cap table, you've got $100 million in the bank, but that’s just not typical of the vast majority of businesses. At startups, I think people have very narrow idea of what a startup is like. A startup is any company that that starts up from nothing. They don’t have brand equity in the market, they don’t have an employee value proposition. They probably in the early stages rely on how convincing the founder is like. How can he get these individuals to believe in his vision and obviously those early employees you can incentivize and should incentivize with shares and ownership thing. That’s really important that people that come in early stage, they have to feel a sense of ownership and in terms of what you’re doing because it's difficult and it helps smooth over the inevitable bumps. Then it really is a case of ensuring that all employees feel valued, but it’s very hard for smaller businesses. Big companies have invested a lot of time and money and teams in this and in smaller businesses it’s very hard and we try to do what we can to help as well.

Jeremy Au: (17:27)
How should a founder go about thinking of recruitment; do it themselves, get an external recruiter, get one in house?

Dom Clonen: (17:45)
In the beginning, I do fundamentally believe that the founder or founders should be the ones doing the recruiting ‘cause you don’t really have much at that point. You know, as I say, not a lot of brand equity, maybe not a lot of revenue or a lot of customers. So you really have to bring so many on that journey and they’re gonna have to believe in you. And once you get past that stage and you’ve got ten employees in your building. From there, then you should be looking at having somebody within the business who can focus on talent acquisition. It doesn’t make a lot of sense at that stage to be outsourcing things necessarily. You need somebody in HR or acquisition, at least to process candidates that will come from an external vendor. For example, you can’t just go to a vendor and expect them to solve your problems. And I went from there. I would also always recommend that companies do build out some acquisition function for us in terms of what we do is we essentially build out a talent acquisition engine that can be bolted onto an existing talent acquisition process. And so when you think companies look at vendors, they should be looking at different types of vendors. Not everyone in the market is the same and there are actually quite a lot of businesses out there right now. They’re very creative in trying to lower the costs for startups for professional recruitment services or becoming more than on demand augmentation of their talent acquisition functions. So we’re not talking about these huge 20-25% fees, which would really just be unsustainable and even for business that’s raising significant amounts of money. Yeah, Jeremy, you’re a VC. I’m sure VC’s aren’t necessarily huge fans of these sort of their money being spent on these sorts of fees. So I think there’s always a middle ground, I think vendors can be very useful, but there has to be an internal strategy in place already that that could be augmented by that external vendor.

Jeremy Au: (19:34)
Spot on. If the founding team can’t sell why you should join, no vendor would be able to support. That being said, how do you go about looking for the right vendor?

Dom Clonen: (20:29)
Finding good talent acquisition people is becoming increasingly difficult. Even if a startup does want to go with 100% in-house talent acquisition strategy, it is actually quite difficult to staff that right now. Salaries in that function are going up quite quickly here in Singapore and they may not necessarily have enough hiring needs to justify the inflexibility of that headcount on their books. You might feel for early stage founders, it’s a bit of a luxury thing to have. So if you want to go outside, I think my honest answer is it’s very difficult for businesses to determine which vendor is going to be best for them. I think it depends on the company you are. We are talking now in the context of startups. I think you need to be looking for partners that work primarily with startups. I think some of the really, really large global recruitment businesses, I think a few of them do it well. But ultimately they’re recruiting high volume for enterprise businesses that have huge amounts of brand equity sorted out, can pay top market rate for salaries, that doesn’t necessarily translate that startup hiring needs are very unique. And if a vendor has had track record successfully hiring for startups, that’s really what you should be looking for because it’s a different job on so many levels.

Jeremy Au: (21:46)
How would you know if someone is good or not?

Dom Clonen: (22:11)
I think obviously testimonials and customer reviews are very important. I think there’s not much up online that compares recruitment business. For pretty much everything else, you can go online and you can see hundreds of reviews and five or six different platforms that do that. So that might be quite a good idea for somebody. Actually I think somebody is working on that, somewhere, if I recall. So I think the answer is maybe to look at the model and then try to derive what motivation comes from that model. So if you’re looking at a partner that purely does contingent recruitment and charges 25%, essentially the correct candidate is their commodity and it is their job to sell that candidate into your business. It could be the best candidate potentially in the market. But is it the right candidate for your business right now? It’s extremely important for startups like do they have the right motivation, culture of it, and so on. If you look at models that maybe remove the incentive to oversell candidates and ones that are more aligned to the part, then becoming a partner to your business and growing with you and sharing your experience and augmenting your strategy out in the market on your behalf as a partner without it charging exorbitant fees or in fact not charging any fees at all. Then I think that kind of shows a different type of intent, if that makes sense. So there I think there were some signals I think the best is to do your research. But it is difficult.

Jeremy Au: (23:35)
What failsafes should companies have to ensure that both sides are happy working with each other, vendor and founder together?

Dom Clonen: (22:11)
Difficult question. Pick one that is prepared to be flexible enough to be your partner from day one, that kind of try before you buy and it doesn’t necessarily need to be a free proof of concept. But I do think recruitment is most effective between end customer and vendor when there is an opportunity for each party to learn one another’s ways of doing things and methodologies. So many hiring managers have expectations, for example, that are fully misaligned with market realities, right? Any recruiter will tell you that you get these astronaut type JD’s which just aren’t recruitable. And that’s because the hiring manager doesn’t have the access to the data. In the market, for example, so I think that’s one easy way for a lot of recruitment companies to start building relationship is to say hey look, this is what we know about the candidate market, this is the data that we have and that we’re going to start advising you a little bit more to make your JD’s more recruitable based on what we know and what you don’t have. And that doesn’t have to be very expensive. It doesn’t have to be committal. It can be a good way and then hiring managers and recruiters and HR teams. Recruiters get to know one another and the recruiters start to understand how do they work and what kind of their ideal candidate looks like, the outcomes are inevitably going to be better. It’s very tempting for companies to a let me try 7 contingent recruiters. I’m not going to pay them anything, if I get a win, I get a win. I have to pay through the year when I do, but I haven’t lost anything up front. That’s my way of trying and I think that’s not necessarily smart all the time. Getting partnerships in place is going to be more viable and we have better outcomes in the mid to long term.

Jeremy Au: (25:31)
Awesome, Dom, all the knowledge you’ve shared. Could you now share with us a time where you had been BRAVE?

Dom Clonen: (25:36)
Yeah. I think COVID, really, and I think many out there are far braver than I. But the reality is for our business and many in our sector. When the hiring freezes came in March, April last year with the onset of COVID where there's still a lot of uncertainty. People really didn’t know how serious this was going to be how it was going to look and companies went into conservative mode and our revenue dropped hugely and very, very quickly. By that point I had already built an extremely strong team and a team that I’m incredibly proud of. It was a question of do we keep them? And I think this is a question that founders go through at some point in their in their careers for sure. So there. Well, then the question how long do we keep them? How long do we wait for the market to turn? And I couldn’t. We’re a bootstrap company. We don’t have a lot of VC money in the bank we can burn. So it was about making a judgment call based on what we could see in the signals we can take from the market. This is going to be six months or it’s going to be nine months. And we have enough affordability to keep our team because replacing that team as we covered earlier in our discussion is extraordinarily hard, right, like a huge amount of my time early on went into getting people on board and selling them my vision and that’s not sustainable when a business is growing. So I think the bravery came in the way of just let’s hold. And it got quite close, but ultimately it did come back in time and we were able to continue and actually grow and thrive. And I’m very pleased. And so I don’t think it’s bravery in the traditional sense, but I think it’s more a reflection of the type of risks that CEO’s have to be prepared to take. It’s not brave like facing a lion or saving someone from a train track, I don’t see it that way at all. I think it’s just about holding and just having enough balls, I guess to take that risk when others would have gone a different way.

Jeremy Au: (27:33)
Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Dom, for coming on the show. I’d love to paraphrase the three big themes that I got from this conversation.
The first, of course, is thanks so much for sharing your expertise on what I called the Tech talent war across the region, where that’s obviously a dynamic between technical versus non-technical talent company versus company and country. I think there’s an interesting play where we see this shaping up, not just over the short term in terms of COVID and pandemic dynamics, but also the medium to long term over immigration and other dynamics.
And the second thing that I really did enjoy was you sharing a lot about hybrid versus remote. I thought was an interesting discussion about how we see preferences of employees versus employers are shaping up and how it interplays with local hiring and employment decisions.
And lastly, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge around how to select the right recruiter, whether that's you or not. But I think there’s a lot of good advice about making sure that you really nail and get the references, get understanding on how they recruit and who they’re recruiting historically for and making sure that there’s a set up for a good working relationship, especially making sure that you already have a good strategy up front as well as a good retention strategy in play as well. So thank you so much, Dom, for coming on the show.

Dom Clonen: (28:53)
Really enjoyed it. Thanks for the opportunity.