Pivoting isn’t Plan B- It’s part of the process. That’s what many people feel like, "Oh, I need to change - like I’m pivoting, like I failed. I was doing something wrong. It’s Plan B and I need to go the other way" That mindset is a bit dangerous because then you feel like you’re a failure where actually, in reality, it’s just all part of the process.- Nellie Wartoft
Nellie Wartoft is the CEO and founder of Tigerhall, a social learning platform that helps professionals — regardless of their backgrounds and circumstances — achieve their career and life goals by learning directly from Asia’s most successful people.
As CEO, Nellie is responsible for planning and executing the overall strategic direction, growth and expansion, leadership and future vision for Tigerhall. She also works closely with C-suite executives and people leaders to develop their leaders and propel their teams to new heights. Tigerhall is currently supporting organisations such as HP, Cisco, P&G, IDEMIA, Bank of Singapore and more in their leadership development and digital transformation efforts.
Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hi, Nellie, welcome to the show.
Nellie Wartoft: (00:32)
Hey, Jeremy, thanks for having me.
Jeremy Au: (00:34)
Well, I’m so excited to see you because you are not only a founder, but a four-time founder and I can’t wait to unpack all the learnings…I mean, I learnt a lot. There’s a difference between me as a first time and a second time founder. So, you being a four-time founder is probably like squaring that and squaring that again. So, I’ll love to unpack some of those insights.
Nellie Wartoft: (00:54)
For sure, I’m looking forward to it.
Jeremy Au: (00:56)
Nellie, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Nellie Wartoft: (00:58)
Definitely. So, I grew up in a small village in southern Sweden where there’re more cows than people. I really love the countryside. I was obsessed with Asia since the very young age, since I was about 10/11 and I started doing all my school projects on Singapore and Asia and China, India, Lee Kuan Yew, and everything else and decided very early on that I wanted to live in the capital of Asia. So, I was a bit back and forth. For a couple of years is the capital of Asia, Hong Kong or is it Singapore; how to choose the capital of this amazing part of the world and I think I made up in my head that I decided that the capital of Asia must be Singapore and the skyscrapers and palm trees and sun and low taxes and all of that also helped. So, on my 18th birthday, I went to Singaporeairlines.com, I booked a one way flight to Singapore, packed everything I had in a hockey trunk which is like the biggest bag that you can find in Sweden and pack my clothes and flew across and have never returned since. So I’ve been here now since I was 18. But what I did when I came over was - I was running, as you stated, this is my fourth company, so I had two businesses before this, I started my first one when I was 15 and that was a digital literacy education business for senior citizens. So, I’ve always been one of those troubling students that are questioning the curriculum like why are we learning this? Why are we studying the periodical table instead of learning how to lead a team? Or how a credit card works and similar? So, I started this alternative education business when I was 15, which was teaching senior citizens - how do you use social media, smartphones, laptops, etc and that then developed into a social media consulting firm, which was my second company. So, that was more of a bootstrapped consulting firm. I brought that with me to Singapore when I was 18, so I continued that here and then, long story short, spent a bulk of my career in recruitment. Spent a lot of time with candidates, mid-level managers and people who were really struggling to get ahead and had a lot of questions around those areas, which is what eventually led me to start Tigerhall, which is the business that I’m running today.
Jeremy Au: (03:07)
So many questions I have here. I guess the first question is how were you as a kid, find out about Singapore, and made that decision…do you remember, like what, was there any piece of content or article that made you say I want to be in Asia? What was that process like?
Nellie Wartoft: (03:22)
Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that as well, like what was that turning point? Actually, a few years later, realized that a very big turning point was when I heard it’s a Swedish speaker. He’s called Fredrik Härén, but he lives in Singapore, so he now he’s a bit between Sweden and Singapore, but he was very much based in Singapore. One of his speeches that I saw on I think it must have been YouTube or heard about or my dad told me about it or something like that. One of his speeches is around how in the west you only know Barack Obama, but in the east, you know both Xi Jinping and Barack Obama and in the west you only know Nike, but in the east, you know this and Nike, so that was the point where it’s like Asians know twice as much as Westerners, my simple thesis. I just realized that there is this entire world that has been traditionally so ignored by many and many Westerners, and I went to an Ivy prep so the plan was very much to go to the US, go to an Ivy League school, and we did a grad trip to those schools, etc. I think Sweden as a country has always been very Americanized in that sense or US obsessed or US focused. I was like why are we focusing so much on the US when there’s a whole world out there called China and India, Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines, there’s so much culture, so much depth, so much history which I don’t really find. Definitely not in the US. It’s not a lot of history and culture compared to Asia and you also have this underdog mindset and I spent a bit of time in London when I started in recruitment and I was recruiting for Michael Page and for lawyers in London and they just had this mentality that London is the centre of the world and lawyers in London are the top of the food chain and, in Asia, found this much more being an underdog mindset like people saw the future. They were much more future optimistic. They wanted to get ahead, and that entire underdog energy which we especially have here in Southeast Asia is just something that is massively exciting and energizing for me.
Jeremy Au: (05:31)
Wow. You’ve just made Asia and the Singapore government very happy. You know, especially in the audience.
Nellie Wartoft: (05:37)
Approve my PR, please.
Jeremy Au: (05:40)
Just give her a chance, just like all the other folks.
Nellie Wartoft: (05:44)
If anyone is listening, please approve my PR.
Jeremy Au: (05:48)
Actually, I know two people from the ICO. The interesting thing here, of course, is that you’re not only doing this, obviously, in your fascination and adventure to Asia, but in parallel around this time is also when you started building out your first ever business. What was that like? Was it like because you were getting a speaker? Or how did you kind of like have that bug bite you to build your first business, effectively as a teenager?
Nellie Wartoft: (06:11)
Yeah. So, I think I was always some kind of entrepreneurial kid or the kid who runs around and sells stones to your relatives, that was me.
Jeremy Au: (06:25)
Oh, that scam. The one where they love you very much and you figure out how much they love you based on how much they buy the rock.
Nellie Wartoft: (06:33)
Exactly! You go out and you scout for the most beautiful rocks in your garden and you offer them for 20 cents to your grandmother and they buy it for 20 cents. So, I was always that kind of kid. And then I started a lemonade stall which I had outside of my house and I spotted a spot where people were biking past and running past and I think these people must be thirsty, so I started selling lemonade to them. I think I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship or business. I find that fascinating, growing a business, and how you can grow it step by step and the entire business side was very interesting to me very early. And also started working very early, so I started working when I was 12; people who had been impacted by stroke and helping them in that kind of home was my first job, and I worked in McDonalds for four years from 14 to 18 years old, I worked at McDonalds which was my favourite employer and the best job ever. I think everyone should work at McDonalds, it just teaches you so much. So, I think from those years, I was very interested in how you make revenue and minus the cost, the whole mindset and the sales mindset came to me quite early. I always hated the education system and I hate everything that is the default path like this is what you’re supposed to do, this is who you’re supposed to be when it comes to education like study hard, get good grades, you’re supposed to get into a great college and a great university and then work for the rest of your life in some big MNC. That’s not the life that many people might be happy with and what we’re learning in the academic education system is not what we need when we go out to work. So, I was always very upset with why are we learning things that we can easily Google, why are we not learning things in the real world, and I think that came very much from me working at the same time as I was studying. So, when I was in high school, I was with McDonalds, I was running my own business, and I saw very first hand how what we’re learning is not applicable to the business world. So, I think seeing that problem and just thinking like how can I do something around this is what led me into that track of the first business. When it came to that audience, it was simply that I saw my friends’ grandparents and how they were unable to connect with their grandchildren and how they asked questions around how do I, like even my own grandparents, how do I use my smartphone, how does FaceBook work, and all of these things. There must be so many in these age groups that don’t know how to use these new tools. So, that’s an opportunity there to educate them and, again, go sell some stones and lemonades, but this time, the classes where they can actually learn something instead.
Jeremy Au: (09:10)
I mean, I think that’s an amazing way to learn. I think that childhood entrepreneurial activity’s something that translates so well in terms of skillset, but also, mindset. And I think what’s interesting is that this is an interesting phase because later on you build another three companies, but there’s a phase now where you spent five years, pretty much in Singapore, working as a corporate employee. Talk us through that, were you doing that and did you know in your head that you wanted to be a founder again one day, were you just figuring out the lay of the land, what was that thought process?
Nellie Wartoft: (09:39)
Yeah, I had a very long thought process when I was in university around what I wanted to do after university because. One part, so I was still running my business, the social marketing, very bootstrap, basic consulting business, but it was very good money as a student to be able to do that. And then afterwards I was. I was in two minds, should I…because I wanted to grow the business. Obviously, I wanted to scale it and I was thinking like I didn’t enjoy particularly social media, the SEO, the SEM like doing that work, I was pretty tired of it. I had done that for like five years. I was thinking should I hire someone who can do that? And then I can focus on growing the business? Or should I go out and learn more business development and business growth skills that would help me when I start a bigger business later on. So, I always knew that I wanted to start my own business later on. I’m not one of those accidental entrepreneurs that fell into it, which I think sounds better, but I was always like I want to start my own business and very determined. So, I decided that it’s better that I go get the business skills and then start something that can scale and become bigger because a consulting business is only going to grow so much and it’s not going to scale as much as, for example, a software technology business could. So, that’s why I decided to be an employee in the corporate world and I was very particular about that. I wanted a role that would give me 360 degree exposure to as many of the skills as possible that you need when you start a business and, to me, one of the biggest ones is recruitment. So, you need to recruit and hire people all the time and I always joke that I actually do more recruitment now than when I was in recruitment. Spending time on interviews and head hunting people like that from so recruitment was one skill I wanted to learn. I definitely wanted to do corporate sales and spending time on business development, corporate clients and learning those ropes of sales and growing revenue, and I definitely wanted to learn team management. So, while I had led a team at McDonald’s, there was a shift manager and in my own business that a couple of people helped me, I wanted to be a learn the proper way to manage and run things like performance management, building a team culture, coaching people. All of those basic management skills. I wanted to learn. So, it was a combination of mainly sales, leadership and recruitment that I thought would be the most helpful for me when I started a business, but also running a P&L so running a proper P&L where you have that responsibility for finance. What's coming in? What is the revenue generating? What is your cost etc. So recruitment was one of those fields where I could have that very early on, ‘cause in most of their business you will be very pigeonholed in the beginning and you will have a very narrow view of the company and you will be in that for two three years and you might get promoted, it’ll take you like 10 years before you get to a role where you can actually have a team and P&L responsibilities, but with recruitment I realized I could do that in like 2-3 years if I performed well, so that’s what I decided to do, so I wanted to get to that P&L management, having a team, very much working with corporates, doing B to B sales, learning all of those pieces, I decided that I’m gonna do this and learn all of these skills. I’m gonna save up X amount of money by the time I am 25 and when I’m 25, I’m gonna invest half of that money into a business that I’m going to start. So that’s what I did.
Jeremy Au: (13:05)
Amazing. That saving money thing, that’s a big decision and a very big difference between you and many other folks who think about setting up a business of your own. Could you walk us through a little bit about that financial planning process, about income versus expenses versus how much you need. What was that like?
Nellie Wartoft: (13:25)
Yeah, I’ve always loved those areas, like from like what does it cost me to find a stone and then sell the stone. That’s when I started with a very basic P&L and I’m still obsessed with personal finance and track every expense to the detail and so on. When I was thinking like my first experience in doing that was when I started working, especially at McDonald’s ‘cause that was the first time I had any kind of significant income and I worked a lot. I worked many hours so I made like 2-2.5k a month as a 15 year old which was a lot of money. So, I started making that P&L to save up for Singapore ‘cause no one else were going to pay for my Singapore adventure. So, I needed money for the flight. I needed money for university. Oh my God, this massive expanse called university. So, I needed to save up for that I was very much counting on what is the end outcome that I’m gonna need. Where is the number of…what’s the amount of money and then just into like how much does that translate to every month and so on. What I added to that when I then started with Michael Page was how much money do I need every quarter, every month, to save for this which also meant that how much bonus do I need to make, which means how much revenue do I need to bring in? How much profit do I need to make? So, is very much working backwards in the numbers and then when it came to like what is, what is that money also applied? The investment that I was making in stocks and like index funds and so on. So, I applied that to the process as well, but it was very much working backwards, so I wanted 200k at that point. I wanted to put 100K in the business and to get 200K within a span of four years. I needed to do X every quarter. So, it became very bottoms up or top down and like very methodological in that sense.
Jeremy Au: (15:05)
Do you ever feel weird to be saving like that for that purpose versus your colleagues who were just using it all to do something else like enjoy life or go to Pangaea when it was still around. For those who don’t know, if you’re in like somewhere else in Southeast Asia, it was a very hot dance club in Marina Bay Sands.
Nellie Wartoft: (15:28)
Well, so I still went a lot to Pangaea, but given my gender, I didn’t have to pay for it. That was the benefit of going to Pangaea in those days, but no. I’m very minimalist by nature, like just looking at the clothes I’m wearing now. I’ve had for 10 years like I never buy new clothes. I’m very like happy with what I have. I don’t. I don’t spend all…the only thing I do spend on are my friends. I love spending on my birthday parties, for example, just inviting my friends to a super nice dinner and really nice party. So that’s my annual big expenses when I celebrate my birthday, which has not happened last year and this year, and the pandemic ‘cause my birthday is in June and it was locked down both years. So that was sad. But apart from that, like I, I generally don’t…I have no materialistic cravings and I think that’s been…I feel like that’s a big freedom to not have like I don’t want a car. I don’t need a bigger house. I’m not interested in branded clothes. The one thing I want to spend on is traveling, but even when I travel I stay in very basic cheap places and usually like some remote Airbnb. I’ve never fly business class, so all of these things like I just feel like that doesn’t add any quality to my life. What adds quality to my life are the books that are read, the people that I get to meet, especially through the business and the team that I get to work with every day and it’s more people and conversation and interaction based rather than what I wear or where I go and stuff like that. So, I think I’ve never had those material cravings and that has also really helped in saving.
Jeremy Au: (17:06)
And so there you are, and you take the decision to take the leap, right? Into, at that time, your second company. So, what was that like?
Nellie Wartoft: (17:14)
Yeah, so that’s when I had arrived at where I wanted to be so I had these 200k I want to put half of it in business, which I did. I started a business at that point with a cofounder. So it was the cofounder and myself when we started this business called SafeHere. I would say that it turned more into an experiment for what Tigerhall would become, and I learnt so many things during that very short one year, one and a half that we were running it. One of the things that I did learn was fundraising, for example, which has been incredibly helpful and integral as well ‘cause, before, my first two businesses were both bootstrapped but learning the ropes of fundraising and how investors think and that entire world was new to me and that’s something I hadn’t come across in recruitment either, right? So that was really interesting. And then I learned a bunch of things which really informed the product when it comes to Tigerhall and how we wanted to build out the product ‘cause, for example, so SafeHere was a business that was designed to be Airbnb for education, to put it very simply. So people could host their own events in their own living rooms like instead of having strangers coming to you to sleep, they would come to you to learn. So you would host your own sessions, in your living room. Let’s say I’m teaching Swedish, I could teach Swedish every Sunday at 5:00 PM and I would have 10 people coming to my house and they would buy the tickets on the platform. What worked really well was the demand for that kind of learning, so people really wanted to learn from real world experts and people are doing this at the moment and so on. There are a few things that I learned about the product. Like for example the business model having ticket basis is not great for scalability. Subscription is much better in terms of generating revenue. You also have things like the experts that we had at that point, like they need more help with content creation like authoring tools and like to create their own podcasts and doing live streams and also more support and many people and we were doing this in Singapore and I think this might have been different if we were doing it in the US, for example, but in Singapore very few people want to invite strangers to their homes, and I think that’s something that we massively underestimated that people would like to have a group of 10 strangers at home. We kind of thought that well, people have strangers sleeping in their bedrooms through Airbnb, but I think the financial returns of Airbnb are much bigger than the few $100 they would make on a class, so that’s something that we miss...we underestimated as well. And then just like the type of products that we were limited to advance, so it almost became like an Eventbrite, but for booking meetings with real people who could teach you something, and that’s again where I was thinking -scalability is similar to like changing to subscription, we also changed to being 85% digital products, so podcasts, power reads, livestreams, etc and that gave people a lot more access to it on a daily basis, ‘cause otherwise if people missed the class, they missed the class and people have other things going on, but with a podcast they can tap in anytime they don’t have to miss it. So digital product scalability. Different way of charging and having more support and sharing in different formats. So, it was a bunch of things that I learned that I then took with me when I started Tigerhall after that.
Jeremy Au: (20:27)
That’s interesting because you described a lot of iterations, product market fit, testing, that went through that process. Was there a process behind that set of insights that you described? How did you go about doing it because so many founders struggle with that stage of the company. I think yours is a little bit more explicit between split across two companies and so it’s a little clearer what the staging is, but for so many people, I think they’re struggling with that first year with that clock going on. So, what’s that process and any tips to accelerate that process?
Nellie Wartoft: (25:36)
And we’re still doing it is not like the biggest change was probably from the Sapier to Tigerhall ‘cause it’s completely different business ideas and value propositions and products. But even within Tigerhall there have been many, many times there where we have not pivoted but like changed and improved the product to get closer to what clients are looking for and their pain points, and I think the biggest thing is just listening and listening a lot and doing tons and tons of user interviews. I speak with users every week, almost, and every quarter, I have this like one week where I do intense number of user interviews and meeting clients all the time. That’s one of the benefits of having the sales background that I have. Instead of being, for example, a tech founder is that I’m constantly speaking with clients every day, day in and day out. So I hear very first hand. What are their challenges? How are they thinking? What are they struggling with and I was just doing a short keynote for one of our clients yesterday when we launched Tigerhall to them across the region. One of the things that I was saying is, don’t go after change just for the sake of it like don’t try to change or do what everyone else is doing out there because it’s the latest conference buzz word or go after like AI like anything else that we need to introduce. But just listen very, very closely to our customers. I think what also helped me in that process was I listed down a number of assumptions that I had ‘cause we all make assumptions. We’re all biased, so I listed down all of my assumptions. For example, if we take the first idea as an example, people want to teach strangers and people are financially motivated. People are fine with having strangers in their house. People da da da da, like I wrote down all of these assumptions and then I went by them one by one and just test it. Is this assumption true right or not? Or like sometimes there are nuances. There are variations. For example, people are financially motivated yes, but after $500 not below $500, so I think it all comes down to being very objective about it and not having this like where you think and you come up with ideas on your own, but more like going out and test it as quickly as possible and then just speak with users, speak with customers. And I know that’s a very, very repeated advice and it’s everywhere and everyone says the same thing and I don’t want to repeat that, but it is really what helped us and just listening to users and to customers and still like all the latest product developments that we’ve had. For example, the fact that you can have internal knowledge sharing and external knowledge sharing on Tigerhall, like if your Citibank you can have your senior Citibank leaders also sharing knowledge on the platform together with external people. That’s something that came entirely out of their customer pain point where they were like, oh good, can I also have my internal leaders? And we can have our internal town halls and so on the platform. So I think just listening to customers, listening to users and being very quick to admit where you’re going wrong. I’m changing them and I think also one thing is that I usually say which I again mentioned in this keynote that I had yesterday was that what you want to achieve is your mission and vision and what you want to help people with, right? Like don’t become obsessed with this is my product and this is what I’m selling because then if someone wants to solve the problem that you’re trying to solve in a different way than you would limit yourself from going in that direction. But like in our case, for example, our mission is to allow that everyone can reach their life goals and be successful in what they do, regardless of their backgrounds and circumstances because where you come from should never get in the way of where you want to go, and within that you can do a lot like that doesn’t mean podcasts and live stream right? Like that means a whole load of other things. Just ending my answer with a good quote that I saw, I think it was on Instagram from Forbes or something. It said pivoting isn’t Plan B. It’s part of the process. And I think that’s what many people feel like. Oh, I need to change like I’m pivoting like I failed. I was doing something wrong. It’s Plan B and I need to go the other way and I think that mindset is a bit dangerous because then you feel like you’re a failure where actually, in reality. It’s just all part of the process.
Jeremy Au: (25:03)
Wow. That’s really powerful, what you just said here. Describing how pivoting isn’t plan B, it’s part of the process, not just the quote, but I think the whole anecdote and set of experiences before that. I think what’s interesting about that is you also have that experience now, right? Because when I talk to you, you come across as someone like yeah, you know your stuff, and I’m just curious, when you reflect on the previous three businesses that you’ve built versus where you are today, what would you say has changed the most, in terms of your own outlook on being a founder and the space?
Nellie Wartoft: (25:36)
I’ve changed my views on I think I’m less absolute deterministic, like I’m more flexible now than I used to be. I used to be this person that is determined. I’m going to go in this direction. No one can stop me. And no, I got like how did this is just going to happen very much like how I moved to Singapore when I told my parents, my mom was like yeah, I can’t stop her like it’s nothing I can do, she said she’s gonna do this and I think now I’m a bit more flexible like in the sense of like yeah what we just spoke about with the product changes, pivoting, looking at different markets which is another thing that we are having like now drawn to the US for example we were initially very Asia focus. But then realized that actually a lot of people in the US love the product and we have a much shorter sales cycle, better RI and I was never thinking of the US before. But again customers kind of led us there. And then of course, that’s a very big part of the world. It’s not for us, so I think that flexibility and coming back to that. That’s part of the process. Like you need to change your mind and to look at different things than being more open to changing your mind, I think that's one thing that I've definitely learned. Apart from that, in my outlook I think it was like the view on and this is why I think a corporate experience is good for being a founder. I just have friends who work in startups where the founder has never been in a corporate and similar and I think it’s very useful to learn how the big corporate world works, not for the sense of learning how to do it, but getting the insight that it’s not rocket science. Like otherwise, you would always, I think as a founder, have this view that, OK, I’m a startup and these are the big guys, whereas if you’ve been in that you much better understand their point of view, and especially if you’re in a B2B company, right? If you’re running a B2B product like what we’re doing, you’re much better understanding their part of the like their view and what they’re going through. And when it comes to things like approval processes, internal politics, aligning stakeholders like all of this bullshit that is going on in corporate, just getting an insight on how that works? I think it’s very, very helpful when you’re running a B2B enterprise sales startup, but also just for the fact to know that you’re not missing out on anything that was also part of why I did it to see that okay, this is what the corporate world is, and it’s great in some ways, it’s not great in other ways, but it’s nothing special, so and that makes me feel like it’s not like a startup would be inferior to a corporate, rather the other way around, so I think just having that insight to kind of settle that view a little bit. Not sure that’s a change in my outlook, but just something that I’ve learned through that experience.
Jeremy Au: (28:12)
That’s a tough one, right? Because so many founders are impatient and I think you and I have met them both. Let’s just found right now and then…there’s that debate which is like – is now the right time, are you in the best position to do so versus maybe this person is right and I’m just crazy and wrong and being a super downer. So, and I think you’re more on the prepared camp as you saved money, you planned, you were thoughtful about your career decisions, you made decisions around geography and skillset, even networked to get ready. So, how do you think about that field about patience versus impatience, go versus prepare?
Nellie Wartoft: (28:49)
A bit of a tough one because I’m also very impatient in the sense that I have this intense feeling that my life is very short and like I have to do whatever I can to do good in this world before my life is over, right? I think my life is gonna end like very soon. Very shortly. Maybe I’ll die young, who knows? I have this sense that it's gonna be very short, so I think that is what makes me very impatient, but I can't just chill around. I want to leave this world a little bit better than when I entered it. And how can I do that in the shortest amount possible? But I also think that there are certain things that should take a little bit of time, like I don't think that Tigerhall would have been as successful if I didn’t have my Michael Page experience, for example, so having that background for a variety of reasons on all the skills that I mentioned was just really, really helpful in structuring and organizing a company and the thing that founders underestimate is that you’re very passionate about an idea and very passionate about a product. That building a business is so much more than building a product, and I think that’s where many younger founders or earlier founders that I speak with sometimes go wrong where they think it’s just like, oh I can be Mark Zuckerberg in my dorm room and I have this amazing idea and suddenly it’s a billion dollar business. But actually, that’s like the first, maybe six months that you have that. Like I remember when I started Tigerhall, I spent the first six months like designs and sketches and it was creating the logo and everything was so exciting right? And I had my hands everywhere. But then after that it literally becomes recruiting, selling, investors, and it’s all those business tasks. So, I think one thing that founders, if it’s aspiring founders, for example, listening to this podcast, I think one thing to think about - do you like that business part, or are you a product person? If you’re someone that just wants to build this amazing app, you might be good of having a cofounder that likes taking those business parts because the business parts are going to consume 99% of your time and as much as I love...I love product, like I love spending time on improving the product, thinking of new features and matching that with what our clients want and so on. But in reality, that’s a very, very small part of my time right now ‘cause most of my time is spent on…it’s meetings, it’s clients, it’s team members, it’s investors, it’s excel sheets, it’s PowerPoints. It’s all of these things, so, that kind of drowns that oh I’m so passionate about this idea. So not saying that the passion about the idea is not important. I’m just saying that many founders can also be a bit overwhelmed with like, oh, it’s actually very similar to having a corporate job in many senses.
Jeremy Au: (31:28)
Wow. That’s a lot of truth there. When it comes to that business side and the teaming side, what’s interesting is that you, yourself, have gone through different permutations of teams. You’re someone who’s building out yourself versus teaming up with other folks versus where you are today, what advice do you have on reflection upon that teaming and founding story about having that complementary skillset?
Nellie Wartoft: (31:53)
The complementary skill set is so, so, so important, and one of the things that I’ve learned from my previous businesses to where I am today is don’t optimize for cheap people. I still know a lot of founders doing this and they optimize for who has the lowest salary and like oh this person who wants 5K but this one person wants 4k, let’s bring on the person who wants 4k here. That’s just the biggest mistake. Like at some point, not integral, in my previous business, I used to run a kindergarten like it was literally just like running on interns. It’s really, really, really hard. I would highly recommend having a few super skilled people that are really, really good in what they do. This is a massive difference for you as a founder. Suddenly you move from being...I wouldn’t say like running a factory like a production house, but a little bit like that very, very micromanagement/managing project management kind of style to more leading from a visionary point of view like this is the direction that we want to go and the biggest relief, for the lack of a better word, that you have as a founder is when you see someone doing something better than you can do it yourself, and I've had that epiphany with sales people that I've hired who were pitching better than I do, operations people are structuring processes much, much better than I do. I've made a very intentional decision to hire a chief of staff with a completely opposite skillset to what I have, and that’s been one of the best complements to the team that I’ve ever made and just hiring people who think differently and have a different skill set but not hiring junior people has been one of my biggest learnings and also the second thing I would say is that I focus a lot on when I recruit to find people who would enjoy working together because their relationship with each other is actually more important than their relationship with me because most of the time they will not see me as much as they will see the others in the team. So, I focused very early on getting the team dynamics right so and I know people focus on culture fit, and all of these things, and that's important too, but also, think of the team dynamics and how that group of people will interact and collaborate together. That’s very, very important. And of course, people that you can trust in all of those things. But senior people that have good dynamics between each other is really recipe for a rocket ship, in my opinion.
Jeremy Au: (34:10)
When you think about that and don’t cheap out on people, why is it that it happens, from your perspective?
Nellie Wartoft: (34:18)
I think founders are naturally wired to optimize for costs. I think this is where you need to make a very distinct difference between optimizing for costs when it comes to vendors and marketing budget, for example, like not spending tons of paid marketing like we’ve always had basically zero marketing budgets, but when it comes to spending on people, it’s a much better return on each dollar that you spend in most cases. So, if you think of the difference between someone who said we take like a 3-4k and a 5k, for example, like I’m not saying that the people who are at 5k are naturally better than 3K. Many times, it’s the other way around as well, but if that’s the basis of your decision, then that’s where you’re going wrong in my opinion, because it’s…people have certain experiences. And that’s another thing that I’ve learned. I used to hire much more in personality, so I was making a lot of personality hires and thinking that like I have this natural mind so that anyone can do anything. Anything is possible and with the right mindset you can achieve like that's my natural…how I’m naturally wired and I think it…that was a bit naive and thinking that anyone can do anything because the more I realized when I then brought on more senior people with more experience so they could actually take things and run with it and get it done much, much better than someone who is more junior but had the will, and they wanted to do it and they were so motivated and attitude is great. But this will versus skill and I know that many people say that hire people who just had the motivation and will. But I don’t think that’s true. I think you need experience too, so you do need people who have done it before .So it’s like at least have seen that movie before and knows what they’re getting themselves into, not someone who’s never seen the movie and then coming in and is supposed to be the director, so that’s very much a principle I apply to recruitment that’s given me a lot better results.
Jeremy Au: (36:14)
Seeing the movie, I think that’s such a good insight, actually, because if you’ve never been part of an early-stage startup, it’s very hard to know what it’s like to build it out, and you’ve seen the movie, I guess, four times now. What would you say would be your advice to these employees who are thinking about okay, do I want to go into early-stage or not, how do I get to see the movie, should I see the movie. So, what do you tell to these folks?
Nellie Wartoft: (36:43)
Yeah, I think the first question is what jobs like do you want to see the movie? What you want to see, they would need to think about what other reasons that they’re going in. Many young people would want to work for startups ‘cause it’s hot and it’s happening and it’s exciting. But they also have this idea of that it’s very flexible and work life balance and great culture and this and that, and I think that people sometimes want to have the cake and eat it too. They don’t necessarily think that. OK, this is what I might be getting, but it’s also a lot and a lot and a lot of hard work. I see people underestimating that and there are ways to have a very nice and comfortable life. And that’s to go work nine to five at a big company that is very profitable. Where they pay you lots of money like go work at a Google or Salesforce or PNG or Unilever like all of these great companies that also have great career trajectories, they pay you really well and I’m not saying it’s chill, but it’s definitely hard work too, but it’s definitely not the kind of work that you need to put in an early-stage startup. Just comparing my corporate experience with my startup experience, and I think that people need to be prepared for that kind of work and also the unexpected and then things change all the time, other things happen and so on. But I would definitely recommend go see the movie. It is a great movie to be part of. But all of this romanticizing, and this is where I blame the media a little bit like I’m not a big fan of tech media that makes founders look like heroes or like everything is focused on them, but it makes it look like everyone is IPO-ing and fundraising and everything is hot and fast and I think one of the interviews I like is with the Snowflake CEO that took Snowflake public when he was saying that an IPO is just a blip on the radar, like nothing changes. Like everything is just the same, so I think that you need to be in love with that kind of work, that kind of change and the people that you get to work with rather than aiming for these like oh, I’m part of a Series A company, or we’re going to IPO and we’re growing here like, all of these excitements will maybe happen, but it’s very much a blip on the radar compared to the everyday work, which is a lot of work and very intense kind of work and you’re always dropped in the ocean, but I think that’s another thing where people they want to work for an early stage startup, but they also expect a lot of structure and policies and processes, and I think Tigerhall is one of those companies that we do have a lot of that, again, thanks to my corporate experience in recruitment, and I know that’s important. But you also have a lot less of that compared to in a corporate world, so you need to be prepared to just take it, just do it, just go with it and push it yourself like no one else is going to push you. So, I think those are just some things to consider if you’re thinking of joining an early-stage startup.
Jeremy Au: (39:29)
Romanticism of the movie. That’s so true, right? It’s a lot of the visuals, but not much of the backstage as well. What advice would you give…let’s say early employees, new joiners, what would you say is the biggest gap or the thing to watch out for between the movie as it is romanticised versus the reality of making that movie?
Nellie Wartoft: (39:51)
Yeah, that’s a good question and I saw a LinkedIn post on this the other day where somebody was a founder and posted the realisations that she had from going from a corporate employee to being a startup founder and I think many of those ring true to being an early employee as well. And one of those, for example, was that suddenly there’s not an infinite pot of gold somewhere like the money does end, it’s not like an infinite amount of money that you have to spend, but I think that’s important for early employees to understand. And even if they don’t see those numbers and they don’t see the money, it’s just like it’s not as if you’re in a large company where it’s seemingly is infinite amounts of money, it’s not infinite amounts of money there either, but it’s definitely not in a startup. One thing like from a founder’s perspective that I tried to bring out with my team all the time and which is also a little bit like the anti-romanticise thing is that yes, vision is important, mission is great and all of that is something that that we all need to work towards, but we’re also here to run a business, and I think that’s a very important, especially for young early-stage employees who have this romanticized view that venture capital money will always come. We’re just gonna raise the next round and then we’re going to expand and we can just spend all the money and then we sell the IPO like that’s not how the how the movie looks like, right? Like you also need to bring in revenue. You need to make sales. You need our clients. You need to have happy clients. All of these pieces about running a business. I think it’s very hidden from people who haven’t been in early-stage startup before, so I try to bring that out as much as possible with my team for example, and show them like this is where we stand. This is what we’re spending every month. This is how much money we’re making and this is what we need to get to. Everyone knows what is the revenue and where do we need to get to because some people have like young employees and both in corporate and in startups. I think people that I’ve met have this kind of idea that you know, we’re working for a bigger mission and venture capitalists will always fund it, and that’s not true, like you need to fund yourself as well. It’s not coming automatically, right? So, understanding business understanding the need for revenue and how important revenue is and also understanding the quality of revenue. I think that’s regardless of where you work in a startup, understanding what is high quality revenue? What is low quality revenue? How do we optimize for high quality revenue? Like all of these I would say more like boring business skills compared to speaking about an amazing mission to change the world is that we also need to bring the cash in. That’s a harsh reality that sometimes I think can hit people have seen this romanticized movie but not necessarily being prepared for like oh shit, I need to make 100 cold calls every day. We need to have this many meetings. We need to fish in this revenue like all of those things, I think it’s important to know beforehand ‘cause it will become so much more evident and urgent when you’re in an early stage startup compared to when you’re in a company and if you’re not that kind of person like we need to make money this month, otherwise will die. If that kind of stresses you out, then I would say don’t join an early-stage startup.
Jeremy Au: (42:56)
Wow. That’s dropping knowledge right there, starting the wrap things up here. I would love to like paraphrase the three big themes that I heard from this conversation. I think first of all, thank you so much for sharing us about how the entrepreneurship bug caught you as a kid from selling stones to your grandma all the way to obviously building out your first social enterprise. And then building another three ventures to where you are today. And I think it’s amazing to hear, not just your determination in just having that spirit but also your learnings along the way. The second part that I really appreciated was actually a lot of the deep thinking around how to become a founder and what to prepare. And the actual reality of being a founder. And I think that involve a geographic shift from where you were to Southeast Asia today, but also tackling the global problem with the current venture. But also, I think the idea and the thinking behind personal finance, saving up, preparing, getting the right network and corporate experience. All that is such good advice for so many different folks. The third thing that I really appreciated actually was a deeper set of insights around a bunch of keywords that I really like, around the actual tactics of the business, and I wrote them down here. One is pivoting is not plan B, it’s part of the process, which is such a key power product market fit. I love the one about don’t cheap out on people. That’s a good one. It’s super direct and super true. The money ends sometime. That’s good as well. People forget about that once they start fundraising. And of course, look for people who have seen the movie, it’s just gonna save you a lot of time.
Nellie Wartoft: (44:36)
Jeremy Au: (44:37)
Nellie, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Nellie Wartoft: (44:38)
Thank you. Thanks for having me. It was good to chat with you.