Joseph Simbar: Indonesian Sales Culture, Rejecting Whatsapp & Putting Experience to Practice - E148

· Founder,Start-up,Indonesia,Purpose,Podcast Episodes English

Advice I would give – Don’t be stubborn. I think when you’re young, there are certain ideals that can be good, but also, to a certain extent, might prevent you from learning things faster. I definitely felt that and the one advice I would give. Be open minded and listen to people. - Joseph Simbar

Joseph is a 1x exit founder, serial entrepreneur, angel investor, and a father of a beautiful daughter. He runs his family business that operates in technology, infrastructure, bio-technology, and natural resources industries. He is also involved as an advisor to several startups, as well as launching his own new startup venture in the social commerce space to help non-formal ecommerce sellers sell easier.

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

Joseph Simbar: (00:32)
Hey, Jeremy, nice to see you over the video call.

Jeremy Au: (00:37)
I decided to share your story because you’re a second time founder building out of Indonesia and tackling the SAAS space. Lots of interesting learnings. I’m excited to share your story. For those who don’t know you yet, could you share who you are professionally?

Joseph Simbar: (00:56)
Yeah, my name’s Joseph. I’m the CEO and founder of Sales1. We are a CRM company comparable to Salesforce. That’s basically what I do. I’ve been doing Sales1 for the past 3 or 4 years now, tackling the CRM market.

Jeremy Au: (01:16)
Amazing. How did you first get started in technology?

Joseph Simbar: (01:19)
I graduated from San Francisco. Silicon Valley surrounded just by a lot of tech companies. From the get go, I knew I wanted to build a tech company in Indonesia, but back then, my major was in finance. I was trying to find jobs in finance and banking after college, but then that was around the great recession time. I managed to get a job in Singapore. Over there, you learn a lot about systems, about marketing, a lot about enterprise related software.

Jeremy Au: (02:14)
What was your first day in a technology company like?

Joseph Simbar: (02:20)
It was really scary because it’s not something that’s related to my major. It was challenging, but definitely exciting.

Jeremy Au: (02:40)
Why did you choose technology out of all the things you could have chosen?

Joseph Simbar: (02:53)
Actually, I graduated a year earlier than my classmates. I didn’t get a chance to discuss with my friends where they’re going. I knew I wanted to go to Singapore. It was pure chance that I ended up in that company.

Jeremy Au: (03:19)
It’s funny because we graduated the same year. I knew I would always return to Southeast Asia. What about you? Why did you also decide to come back to Southeast Asia?

Joseph Simbar: (03:45)
Same reason. Primarily because of family. I think that’s the story of every Asian son. What’s funny was two weeks after I came back to Singapore, I got a job offer from WhatsApp. At that time, WhatsApp was this really small company. Professionally, that is my big regret because I had already started a job and I wanted to be in Southeast Asia, so I didn’t pursue that.

Jeremy Au: (04:23)
What do you think your life would have been like had you taken that offer because that would require you to stay on in SF.

Joseph Simbar: (04:35)
I think I’m a firm believer in everything that happens to you happens for a reason so I don’t put much thought into it. I would probably have learnt a lot. But it would have been the same thing because when I came back to Indo, a lot of my friends went into management training in banks. When I came back, I dived into the world of startups, managing everything by yourself. I asked that question years after I started my first startup and then I basically made a conclusion that everything happens for a reason and because I did that, I was able to learn much more than my friends who started out of management training.

Jeremy Au: (05:27)
I can imagine your friends who did management training are listening to this podcast and thinking I should have done technology, it’s so hot these days.

Joseph Simbar: (05:35)
I guess at that time they were talking about it’s so difficult, you have to do this, this, this, and rotations. I was like dude, I have to take care of sales, marketing, legal, accounting, everything; tech, development, at least in the beginning.

Jeremy Au: (05:51)
True. At that time, I think rotational programs were very hot for everybody. Especially for multinational corporations. There you are working in tech for a couple of years also as a founder out of college. What was that like?

Joseph Simbar: (06:22)
If I have to do it again, I think I would have done it immediately. If I could do it again, I would probably taken one or two more years working for someone else for the experience. When I came back, still very young, still with a lot of ideals of how business is supposed to run, but in reality, you do have to make adjustments. It was a huge culture shock, especially coming back to Indo where my Indonesian friends in college haven’t come back yet. I came back with no contacts, no friends because from high school, I had moved to Singapore already. I lost touch with my middle school friends. In Singapore, it was an international school so none of them were in Indo, and my college buddies were still in the States. It was a huge culture shock to come back to Indo.

Jeremy Au: (07:30)
We see so many founders fresh out of college and I just interviewed one yesterday. He was building it during university and then going full time into it upon graduation which reminded me of myself because I too built something right out of college. What advice would you give to people who are thinking of setting something up while they are at university?

Joseph Simbar: (07:56)
I was setting something up back in university. The idea didn’t work out, but I started doing something back in college. Advice I would give – Don’t be stubborn. I think when you’re young, there are certain ideals that can be good, but also, to a certain extent, might prevent you from learning things faster. I definitely felt that and the one advice I would give. Be open minded and listen to people.

Jeremy Au: (08:34)
What made you think about that piece of advice?

Joseph Simbar: (08:37)
My family has a business in tech. They’re in the tech industry as well. When I came back, my dad had a lot of these contacts. Back then, I felt I was just too proud to ask for help when in business, you need as many advantages as you possibly can. The way I think now is different from the way I think 10-12 years ago like I’m too prideful and I can do it without you, dad. That kind of thing. Now that I think about it, if someone can get me a connection if someone can introduce me, why not.

Jeremy Au: (09:20)
True. I remember having those feelings as well. I can figure this out myself. I’m not going to talk to strangers, I’m not going to ask friends because if I messed it up, they won’t know I messed it up. So, there you are, you built it up for two years then moved. What was that transition like?

Joseph Simbar: (09:50)
I did my first startup for around two and a half years. I did it the normal startup route – raised funding, raised several more rounds of funding, and then sold that company two and a half years later. The primary reason was I finally realised something. I thought that you could just simply copy and paste ideas from the US and implement it in Southeast Asia or Indonesia specifically. It took me two and a half years to realise that you can’t really do that because there’s so many factors like culture. I realised that the Indonesian culture is just different. I think in America, people are used to writing reviews, lengthy reviews, helpful reviews, but that’s just not the culture in Indonesia. Even today, if you go into any market place and you go to the review section, usually, the ones in Indonesia, most of the reviews are like “Fast shipping”, “Great response”, that’s it. That’s the primary reason why back then when I had the opportunity to sell the company, I realised it was a good run.

Jeremy Au: (11:25)
How did you process that it was a good run and it was time to start a new chapter?

Joseph Simbar: (11:30)
One, I realised I could return the investors’ money. It’s not a total failure where I had to stop the company or things like that. Honestly, after I sold that company, it took me several months to figure out what I wanted to do next. I kinda did things here and there, expanded my knowledge in the tech world, took more coding classes so that I can understand it better as well before finally figuring out I wanted to do Sales1.

Jeremy Au: (12:08)
Talk more about that transition.

Joseph Simbar: (12:11)
I remember my dad asked me to join the family business, I said I’ll help out and see what’s going on with the family business’ tech division because the business traditionally has always been mainly network and infrastructure. A lot of hardware related things. The software division was very small at the time. I went in and identified a few products that had local principals and were just a distributor. I remember we had this one product which was an automation software. We had a principal who was very uncooperative, but at the same time, his software was nothing special in my opinion. I figured I can do things better. I can build a better system, I can build a better CRM, Salesforce automation software and that’s how I started with Sales1.

Jeremy Au: (13:17)
Amazing. What was it like building it?

Joseph Simbar: (13:20)
The second time around was much easier. The first time around, I didn’t know what the programming languages were. The second time around, I kinda knew what I wanted. I think it took us 6 months to reach our first MVP. We tested it into our existing clients, they loved it and they started migrating into our new system.

Jeremy Au: (13:50)
Now you know what’s going on, you found it easier. What else did you know better on this second time?

Joseph Simbar: (13:57)
I figured out that shit’s gonna happen. So I learnt to plan for as much shit to happen as much as possible and then have a solution for that. My first client, I remember, we had to integrate our software with their ERP system and this is a large company and around 1,000 salespeople within that company alone. So, the system was complex, the integration was complex, but being a salesperson, you would just say we can do it. When we went into it, my programmers told me it’s going to take 3 months. I knew that 3 months is not going to be three months. I knew 3 months was going to be 5 months at least. That was one of the more valuable things I’ve learnt, just being more realistic with reality. Shit’s gonna happen, people are gonna get sick, clients aren’t going to respond as fast as you’d like, for example.

Jeremy Au: (15:05)
It also sounds like you were also much calmer or psychologically stronger compared to the first time. Could you share with us some of the differences here?

Joseph Simbar: (15:31)
I’m a guy who’s always done sales since high school so I’m very used to selling things. In my first startup, when I started to sell things for real, for a product that I built, there’s a different feeling. Maybe your reputation or image is at stake. I remember a cold call to a restaurant. The manager picked up the phone and he started cursing at me for cold-calling him and that really shook me. After a while, you get used to this, the rejections from your prospects. The second time around, as you said, psychologically, I’m more resilient. I realised that if someone says no to you now, doesn’t mean they’ll say no in six months. I’ve learnt that a no doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. It’s not the end of everything, I think that’s the biggest mindset that I’ve learnt.

Jeremy Au: (16:55)
Yeah. There you are thinking about being thoughtful and experienced. Looking ahead, what are you most excited about in the next one year, 2022?

Joseph Simbar: (17:10)
Back when COVID happened, it was a huge shock to all of us, our clients as well. People ask me “was your business affected?” and I said “of course it was affected” because my clients’ businesses are definitely affected. Then in 2021, what I noticed is, especially in the past few months, people are starting to be more accepting of the realities of COVID. What I’ve been excited about for the next year is that we’ve seen an acceleration in terms of the companies’ willingness to invest in remote working technologies because before, it was very much a we can still do it this way, that way, that type of thing. But because of COVID, we’ve seen a vaguely more open mindedness. One of the projects I’m working on right now is with a bank, they had trouble in the beginning of COVID arranging the customer service team because the customer service teams are usually in the same place, it’s very difficult to social distance, and at the same time, it’s a high cost centre. What we proposed to them is we did a robocall solution which is a common solution in US. It’s not so common in Indonesia. Basically, we try to automate the call so that reduces the number of service representatives working in the office at one time, saving them cost, things like that. If COVID didn’t happen, there’s no way they would even consider that.

Jeremy Au: (19:05)
Let’s talk about COVID because it sounds like there was a big shift there for you. How else has COVID impacted the way you think about your business and how it has impacted your business.

Joseph Simbar: (19:15)
For me, personally, for our business, it didn’t really change much because we’re a tech company we’re used to using different software. Slack, for example, or maybe Zoom as well. But the biggest change is in the sales department. Selling through Zoom is very different to selling in person. Convincing someone to purchase your product or your services is very different in person versus over in zoom. That’s the one thing that we had to adjust and just to really figure out what’s the right way to hit that sweet spot, have a serious conversation, but at the same time you’re building this connection, this rapport with your customers and that’s been the biggest change at least our company has experienced.

Jeremy Au: (20:06)
That’s an interesting piece because everyone is selling via Zoom. Founders are selling to VCs over Zoom. Do you have any tips on how to be better at selling over Zoom and the remote world?

Joseph Simbar: (20:24)
Yes. I’ve actually put a lot of thought on this because we just did this workshop internally. One, your camera has to be always on, even if your customer’s camera is not on. Especially in Asian culture where trust means a lot. You can’t trust someone if you haven’t met them or seen their face. I always tell my team to turn their camera on regardless whether or not your customers turned theirs on. Secondly, you have to do more preparation to sell over Zoom than if you’re meeting in person. In person, you need your laptop and a HDMI connector to connect to a projector and that’s it. With Zoom, there’s a lot of things that you have to prepare. You have to prepare your mic, your camera, your internet, your presentation, making sure that your demo is working, that you can open it properly, things like that. In the beginning, a lot of sales people took it easy. They didn’t put more effort in preparation. Third, you do have to connect outside of Zoom. Whether it be a one on one video or voice call through WhatsApp or sending your customers coffee, things like that. You kinda have to replace that personal touch. That’s the way we do it in our company. We try to send little things to show that we care and that we want to build a good relationship with you

Jeremy Au: (22:22)
One interesting thing you mentioned is the Asian culture of facetime and now there’s this whole Zoom culture because of the pandemic. So, if you were to make a bet in 10 years where there’s no more pandemic. What would you think is the mix of remote vs in-person sales vs hybrid. How do you think that would shake out?

Joseph Simbar: (22:45)
In my personal opinion, in ten years, if COVID is truly gone, to be honest with you, the whole meeting in person thing would still be dominant and the main way of doing things and business. At least in Indonesia, in Thailand, Philippines, those countries similar to Indonesia. Singapore would be different, but in Indonesia, people would still go back to meeting in person. For example, I not only sell to enterprise, I also sell to universities. In meeting with universities, they are very reluctant in meeting over Zoom. Government officials, very reluctant to meet over Zoom. If we’re talking just 10 years, I don’t think there’s gonna be much change. In terms of managing things, yeah, maybe, but I think the majority…I think we’ll go back to still being in office, still meeting in meeting rooms, things like that.

Jeremy Au: (23:53)
That’s an interesting contrarian discussion because everyone else is betting it’ll go fully remote. I would take a little more of a contrarian view and feel that there’ll be a group of sales people who are really good at selling remotely and maybe carve out a niche, but it’s hard to tell.

Joseph Simbar: (24:16)
I think it depends on who you are selling to. Our company mainly sells to enterprises. We’re not selling to tech startups, for example. So, it’s very different. I guess that’s why I’ve developed that contrarian view because these types of companies, they really like meeting in person. Did you know, I have this client, a big Japanese conglomerate, whenever I meet them, it would always be a minimum of a 3 hour meeting. Minimum, 3 hours. Several times, it was the whole day I’m in their office. Is it always discussing serious stuff? No. But they just like the company…I don’t know what else to say. I think that’s why I developed that contrarian view.

Jeremy Au: (25:09)
You don’t only sell CRMs to folks, but you’re also helping other people sell to other people. I think you have a good sense of the sales culture. How else do you think the sales culture for Indonesia is different from other countries like Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand.

Joseph Simbar: (25:33)
Indonesia, as we are all aware, is a very large country. Jakarta is different from the rest of Java and Java is different than the rest of Indonesia. The way people sell is very different depending on where you sell as well I know a lot of sales people are still going door to door manually. Also, I think it’s because Indonesia’s infrastructure is still lacking. Around 4 weeks ago, the government asked us to go back into lockdown in the whole Indonesia, especially Java. Once that happened, you can notice a significant decrease in the internet quality at home because suddenly everyone is at home, everyone is using the internet, but the ISP don’t increase the quality, so the quality decreases. Things like that make it very difficult for people to sell online. In terms of differences between Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia. I actually am a firm believer because I do have friends in Malaysia and the Philippines as well. Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, maybe Vietnam, I do think it’s kinda similar, cultural wise. It’s just Singapore that’s different because Singapore is a global hub city so it’s very international, quite westernised as well, so it’s got different cultures, but I think for the rest of Southeast Asia, that is somewhat similar, but I think Indonesia, the selling mindset is very face to face. If you’re asking me in 20 years, it’s gonna be different because in 20 years, the second generation would already probably create a more significant role within the company. So, in 20 years, the second generations who went to college in the US, who is more technologically savvy, they can implement these remote working situations and the patriarch would already retire. That’s what I think.

Jeremy Au: (27:59)
Wrapping up here, could you tell us a time when you had to be BRAVE?

Joseph Simbar: (28:05)
I feel like I do. I have to do it so many times and just ‘cause like building a company, you do have to be brave specifically. We have a government project. I think around two years ago that we were bidding for. Obviously, you know it was an open bid. There’s a few different competitors and if you know the culture, there’s things that people do to ensure that you know they can close the deal, close a large sized project, but I’ve always made it a point not to engage in those business activities. Those types of business activities just because it goes against primarily my faith and that was really difficult. Knowing that your competitors are doing things like that. I told my team. We can’t. I don’t want to do those types of things. When we submitted the proposal, it was very nervous. We had to wait. Thank God we did win the project. Looking back, it's easy for me to tell you this story, but when I was going through it, there was this huge doubt because that was a huge project that we were trying to win, so I think that’s the time, Jeremy. It’s doing things that you know other people are doing, but you don’t want to do because it kind of goes against with your integrity. I think that’s being brave.

Jeremy Au: (29:21)
Wow, that’s a tough decision. I can’t imagine what it’s like because I think so many people in the technology world in Southeast Asia deal with that decision honestly every month, right? Actually I think one thing I remember is just like you know, some people tell me they go one way and other times people tell me they went the other way. Frankly, I don’t judge. It is what it is and I think it’s a tough reality of the region.

Joseph Simbar: (29:49)
It is. It is right. And you’re right, you know I’m in no place to judge. I just judge myself, yeah, that’s that’s all I can do.

Jeremy Au: (29:56)
Yeah, exactly, I think that’s the part I think I people ask me about it. I’m just like you gotta act the way you’re comfortable, right at the end of the day because what are you comfortable with, which is not. I think it’s not the US textbook answer all square and good. But I’m just like, yeah, you know, if you approaching this way and you have target this sector and so forth. But this is the current reality of the field. So if we go in this way, they're going to ask, whereas if you is there a way we can think of another way we can sell differently or target different people etc where you don’t feel like you have to compromise and I think that’s a tough moment for a lot of people in the region, I wanted to paraphrase the three big themes I learned from you that was really helpful. I think the first thing that I really appreciated was of course you sharing about your personal and professional journey from studying in Indonesia to Singapore to SF and back to Indonesia and Southeast Asia. It was interesting to see your choices along those routes as well as the fact that you turned down WhatsApp. So let’s I guess you can write it down somewhere. And I think the second thing I really appreciated was you talking about adding some of the dynamics of how the sales culture is like in Indonesia versus other Southeast Asian countries, but also how you think that will change over the next 10 to 20 years? I think that’s really interesting, especially in light of the pandemic causing a lot of people to wonder about that. And lastly, I think thank you for sharing all the different episodes of bravery, I think. Obviously with the last one thinking about how you intend to go in and pitch, but also how you went off and explore different geographies and verticals and learn a lot between your first startup and where you are today as a second time serial founder and thank you so much for sharing some of that journey with us.

Joseph Simbar: (31:44)
Thank you. Thank you, Jeremy. Thank you for having me.