Yuying Deng: Overcoming Entrepreneurial Failure, Second-Time Founder Learnings & Parenting Reflections - E211

· Purpose,Founder,Start-up,Southeast Asia,Failure

Entrepreneurship is a very lonely journey, especially if you're a solo founder or if you're having some kind of co-founder conflict. So, knowing a lot of people who are going through the same journey as you, being able to reach out to them for advice or just have a coffee chat, I think that that's extremely helpful.- Yuying Deng

Yuying Deng is the CEO and founder of Esevel. Esevel is an all-in-one IT platform that helps companies with distributed teams manage their people, devices and applications on one platform.

Esevel helps clients on/offboard employees, procure devices and manage and support their teams’ IT needs across 8 countries in APAC. Yuying started Esevel during COVID, and together with her team, grew revenue 36x within 9 months. In her spare time, she spends time with her 3 kids, husband and their Havanese dog called Marvel.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hi. I'm really excited to have you to show. I think you are a tremendous founder doing something that's really important for the region. I would love for you to introduce yourself in a minute.

Yuying: (00:39)
All right, sure! Hi, Jeremy, and thanks for inviting me onto the show. My name is Yuying. I'm the founder and CEO of Esevel. So, Esevel is full stack I.T. platform where we help companies with distributed teams manage their people, their devices, their applications across eight countries in the Asia-Pacific.
So, we basically do the grunt work that many people in companies do not want to do, which is that on and off, boarding your employees in another country, getting their laptops repaired, getting laptops set up for them, and redeploying this to somebody new and managing the applications as well. We do this in a way that's really cost efficient, flexible and provides a great employee experience.

Jeremy Au: (01:17)
Amazing! Obviously you have had a really interesting resumé and track record. How did you first start becoming entrepreneurial?

Yuying: (01:30)
Yeah, so it was a really long route for me. I would say that my parents are my inspiration. They are both entrepreneurs themselves. They started a nursing home chain in Singapore in the 1990s and this was because my grandmother had dementia at that point in time and they just couldn't find a good nursing home for her.
I was with them. I was a brooding teenager back in the 1990s, but I saw how they built the business up from a ramshackle like army barracks in Changi to a chain of like seven private nursing homes here in Singapore and Malaysia. So, I used to accompany my mum to the Institute of Mental Health, so I'm very familiar with that hospital where I waited for her while she made calls to the nurses.
So I saw what it took to actually build a business up from scratch and it really inspired me to build my own business. I didn't really have a timeline in mind, so I went into corporate law. I was a corporate lawyer doing IPO, M&A sales at Baker McKenzie. Had the privilege of working in Hong Kong, Shanghai and London as well.
And then what happened was that in the 2008 financial crisis, the firm did three rounds of layoffs,I didn't agree with the way that longtime employees were being treated, so I decided the law wasn't for me to be and I was fortunate that I actually got in after B-school. I actually joined my parents in the nursing home business and it was a very critical point in time for them.
Lot shareholders in the company wanted to buy out minority shareholders at an undervalued price. My parents had a very strong ethical principle and they didn't agree with this even though they could have benefited. So, long story short, it was basically two years of legal battle and finding a seller, finding a buyer for the business and we eventually got it sold to P.E. fund that a very fair valuation for everyone.
So, I had the battle scars by that point in time and I felt that time was right for me to settle and do my own business.

Jeremy Au: (03:22)
Amazing! You said that your parents are entrepreneurial, you were inspired by them, and then you became a lawyer.

Yuying: (03:33)
The simple answer is maths? Mathematics. I just wasn't doing very well in that. And I had this misconception, I must say, at a point in time that business was all about adding and making sure that sums actually make sense and so on. So, I decided to go into my strong suit, which was like languages, and decided to become a lawyer.
Also I wanted to explore Hong Kong and China as well. It was an area that really excited me, but I went to school and I had to do corporate finance, so the maths part is not up to scratch.

Jeremy Au: (04:04)
Yeah, amazing! I think a lot of folks, they have seen their parents or relatives be in business. I'm so curious, what did you take away from watching your parents have a business? Were you like, “I will never do it the way they are doing it?”, “These are things I respect about that”, what do you take away from watching them?

Yuying: (04:24)
I think the biggest thing that I took away was that building a business is actually a marathon. It is not a sprint by any measure. They took 20 years to actually build a business up to a point where it could be considered successful, very sustainable business. Everybody would want to buy it. I could just see that it took a lot of effort and the effort cannot be underestimated because at any point in time you could encounter an obstacle. You just had to find a way forward no matter what your face. That was what really came home to me from looking at my parents to their business.

Jeremy Au: (04:59)
What's interesting is that you did what every filial child is supposed to do, that as a family business, which just went out, wondered about it as far be it, go explore your law, so out a geography and then come back and help out with the family business. I think I actually do that quite often. I think there's a lot of folks who feel beholden to some extended family business or some family obligation.
So, how was it like, I guess going back in, did you have to negotiate? I assume you did have to tell them what time you're coming home and all those things. But, you know, I'm sure there's that division of being like a relative as well as being someone who is a business operator that is helping. So, how do you define that or do you have any advice for folks who had the situation?

Yuying: (05:42)
Yeah, I must say it's not easy. It's not easy at all. And if you speak to any second gen who have gone into business with their parents, they would tell you it's not a piece of cake. My parents tried their best to have a division between work and family life and to a large extent it was quite successful as to why I actually went in to help them.
I think part of it was also because of my skill set. So, at a point, as I mentioned, they were facing this critical juncture where there were legal troubles, they were trying to
sell the business as well. I mean, litigation in the sense that we were trying to get the business sold. So, I had experience in the law firm and I also wanted to build up my experience in business as well.
So, it was like the perfect opportunity for me to come in and help them. Jeremy Au: (06:28)
Any advice for people to actually be happy that our folks talk about having a division within and a cheat code or words or language or framing that you use to get there?

Yuying: (06:42)
Try as much as possible. I think to ask your parents what kind of outcome they would like out of your participation in the business. I think that it is very similar to starting a business with a co-founder like the vision has to be the same. The outcomes that you want have to be the same. And that should probably also be a kind of rule book for people to follow whenever disputes happen. That should make for a good outcome for any family business.

Jeremy Au: (07:11)
What's interesting is that you're wrapped up with helping them close the transaction and all these other things, and then you've moved on to begin your own entrepreneurial journey as well as to later on do that MBA of yours. Can you share more about why you decided to do your own thing first and then we'll talk about MBA later.

Yuying: (07:29)
I actually did my MBA before I went into the family business, so I did my MBA before I went into my family business. And then I did my own thing after the family business.

Jeremy Au: (07:38)
So, why do the MBA?

Yuying: (07:40)
So the reality about an MBA is that it's really about not just the knowledge that it gave you, although that was very useful for me because I came entirely from the legal sector, had no experience whatsoever in finance or like the faintest idea of what it would take to actually build up something big and successful. But, it's also the network of people that you're with as well and the kind of exposure that you get.
So that was extremely helpful for me. Even to this day. I'm still in very close touch with a lot of my classmates from INSEAD, and they have been extremely helpful both in providing advice as well as the network, which has really helped me in my business and in my own learnings and journey.

Jeremy Au: (08:19)
What's one thing you don't get from an INSEAD MBA? MBA will solve everything for me, you know, make me an amazing person, you know, which has found my life, which I found in my business career. Who shouldn't do an MBA? Why shouldn't you do it?

Yuying: (08:35)
I think if you're very certain as to what you want to do, there is really no need for you to do an MBA. You're better off investing that tuition money in that thing that you actually want to do instead. That's a much better use of your resources. I think an MBA is useful for people who are still discovering about themselves or for people who do not come from a traditional finance or business kind of background.
And who wants to get your feet wet before they actually plunge themselves into it?

Jeremy Au: (09:04)
I see. So law and you discover yourself. Then, want to help out your family business and then after that you use that to the conflicts that your own entrepreneurial journey from there. You went off to built this company in, which is your first independent venture and obviously has its own chapter. Could you share a little bit more about that chapter of your journey?

Yuying: (09:43)
Actually. Business never became very positive cash flow generators and COVID basically destroyed what the business was because all factories were in China, so there was a lockdown in China. We could no longer manufacture the products, even though they were all disparate and all shipping rates basically tripled overnight because of the supply chain issues. So we just couldn't make the business viable anymore.
That was why I decided to shut it down when I shut down the business on the day that I actually did so, I took out Evernote. I listed down all the mistakes that I had made in the business itself and what I would never do again if I were going to start a new business. It was a very, very painful thing to have to do.
I cried. I was depressed for days. It really helped me to close a chapter and to start anew again. I think if I had not done that, it would have dragged on in me, if you know what I mean. I think that there were many things that I had learned and I apply those learnings to the new business.
I think this has helped me to avoid many of the mistakes that I made in the first company.

Jeremy Au: (10:56)
What was on that list of things not to do?

Yuying: (11:01)
All right. So there were two big things which I really applied to, Esevel. The first is to be really, really close with your customers. You have to really listen to what they want. You have to be on the ground with them. And by listening, it just doesn't mean what they're saying, but it's also what they're not saying as well.
So you have to empathise with them, understand your pain points, and develop a solution and get the buy-in to that. So I'm very proud to say that for Esevel before even writing a single line of code, we actually had very intense customer development calls with 20 to 30 customers who were extremely kind with their time with me.
What do they wish they had? Like if there was a solution like that? I was really listening, so I would credit them really with like 80% of what the platform looks like today. It was really due to them that Esevel is where it currently is.
The second lesson that I learned from my first company is that it's very important to know what to focus on at the right point in time.

Yuying: (12:00)
There are many things that an entrepreneur can focus on. So we all know of entrepreneurs who are on the speaking circuit trip or who are like LinkedIn thought leaders or who spend a lot of time minting NFTs or something like that. But the point is that you only have limited time in the day to do something. You only have a limited runway and you have limited funds to do something.
So what is the right thing that you should be focusing on to bring your company to the next level? So, that is a question that I ask myself actually every single morning
before actually starting work. And then I reinforce my thinking by speaking to people who are smarter than myself to make sure that I have really gotten it.
Then I focus on that to the exclusion of other things. So those are the two lessons for me. I mean that many other lessons as well. Jeremy If you write to me with lunch one day, I might share my Evernote.

Jeremy Au: (12:53)
We should trade notes. Every time you wrap up the company. Successful, successful. I think there's always a grieving process. I think in part because, you know, so much the identity of you. So much of your time.

Yuying: (13:07)
So much of your time. Yeah, so much of your money. So much of your self invested in that.

Jeremy Au: (13:14)
As you did all of that, you made a decision to build another company. Yuying: (13:18)
It wasn't intentional.

Jeremy Au: (13:19)
It was intentional enough to keep going. Oops, I accidentally started a company, built it, skilled it and fundraised for it and built a team and get customers. Oops. So tell me more like you entered this process, you didn't feel like you performed to expectations, anybody's learnings, and then you're like, I want to do it again. Why?

Yuying: (13:37)
So why it was purely true, my customers, I think that it came about because we had various customers at a point in time and they were sharing their pain points with me. Basically when COVID started. So Esevel actually started on the same day as lockdown in Singapore. So this was back in April 2020. At a point in time we were thinking about what we could do, like around the company.
What I was thinking was that I had a background in corporate real estate, AI, Bitcoin furniture and Iot furniture and so on. And so I started to see, okay, could I subscribe to some of the furniture that I bring in from China. And so we started that. We got
pretty good customers. But then what happened was that the customers started buying IKEA furniture after a couple of months.
And I thought, that doesn't make sense. I'm basically a BNPL buy now, pay later business. So what happened was that I started talking to my customers and I was hearing a lot of pain points from them. They were telling me instead of tables and chairs, can you help us get those laptops in Vietnam? Can you help us get laptops in Indonesia and India?
I wanted to find out more like, why are you having problems getting a laptop? I was thinking from the point of view of someone who has lived only in cities, that it would be quite easy to get one from the Apple store or to order one from Apple.com. And they were telling me that we actually want to set up the laptop, swamp people.
So we have been trying to ship them out of Singapore or we have problems getting credit cards to pay for Vietnamese laptops and so on. And that was when I really discovered that there was this huge pain point for companies that are distributed, an APEC of which there are actually many in trying to get I.T devices to their people and trying to get IT devices set up for them.
And in trying to help the people be productive with those I.T devices. That was when I realised that there was an opportunity over here. But more than that as well, there was also when I started to realise that there was actually a bit of a social angle behind what we were doing, because I started to realise when remote work started taking off, distributed work started taking off, that actually there were talented people everywhere in the Asia-Pacific.
There were talented people in Pakistan, there were talented people in India. So there was talent everywhere, but opportunities were not. So I wanted to be part of that movement to really help good jobs, go to people in places that employers may not automatically think of to hire from, like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Cambodia and so on. And that was really ambition that resounded with me.
That was why we decided to bring Esevel forward. But with I.T support in I.T. services, this is our angle.

Jeremy Au: (16:17)
With that experience, do you feel wiser now the second time around because you built it a second time or do you feel like that different challenges have come up because it's a different in some ways category, also a different approach that you have and my face, what do you think about that?

Yuying: (16:36)
That's an interesting question. So in my list of 20 plus mistakes I made, I'm certainly not repeating those again. But I have been making new mistakes. And I think that the day that we stop making mistakes and the day that we stop learning from our mistakes is probably the day that we did. Definitely. I have been making new mistakes.
I've been learning from it, but I've also been a lot more comfortable with the fact that that is going to happen. And that is what I realise about business. There has to be a certain comfort level with ambiguity, with a certain level of chaos. And then the question is, how do you then react to that and react quickly to that with guiding principles in mine?
That's how I have reconfigured my approach towards making mistakes and learning from them.

Jeremy Au: (17:20)
Was that your hobby? Now is spending time with three children as well? I think a lot of founders are also parents, but you kind of struggle with that. So do you have any advice for folks on how to be thoughtful about that balance or that approach?

Yuying: (17:36)
So like you, my kids are pretty young. They are three, five and ten respectively. You will never be able to find balance. And I think that is just something that entrepreneurs have to be comfortable with. I think that that's the right time for everything. So there are certain points in time where they maybe need more attention. You give it to them.
There are certain points of time that the business needs more attention and you give it to the business. You just do your best, the best you can, and you just get true every day. And I think the thing is, my kids insist that I have boiled it down to certain basic things that I want for them and from them.
Those outcomes which are very important to me, which may not be the same for every parent. For example, I do not require my kids that they get great A's all the time. And I certainly do not put an effort into tutoring my kids to make sure that they get grade eight. So that's how I get my time back.
But what I do require of them is that I do require that they learn how to feel, that they have grit, that they dare to ask for things that they think that they should deserve. And I try to build those characteristics into them instead. Basically, that frees up my
time. I do spend a lot of time with them on weekends and in the but it also frees up my time as well and mental space to actually focus on my work.
And what's interesting is that you shared at the first part of this episode about what you learned from your parents, watching down the entrepreneurial path. And now you have children who are all looking at you for entrepreneurialism. So how do you think you're fairing right now is not great.
I mean, I just to share with you a couple of months ago, my ten year old came up to me and she said, Mommy, when I grow up, I have decided that I want to be a housewife. And I'm like, why is she saying that? Here I am, a hard working entrepreneur. Why does my daughter want to do something different?
Maybe she can aspire to be a teacher or something. Is that although being a housewife is a pretty difficult and good profession as well? So I was like, okay, what am I doing that may not be providing her with an example? And so I ask her why? Why not be an entrepreneur and maybe be a professional? And she said, Well, Mommy, if I become a housewife, I can pay attention to my children when they ask me questions.
That was when I realised that she was making a snide remark about me ignoring her. When I'm on a conference call dealing with my work, she's trying to ask me some questions about maths or science on the side. So I wouldn't say that I've been fairing extremely well as a mother, but I'm willing to let that slide.
So I think when you're balancing business and children at the same time, you have to be able to let certain things slide at certain points in time.

Jeremy Au: (20:29)
Mad as like as well as like a X-Wing dropping a cookie. It's just like I did that. I got it done, and looked at it. Did you feel like your parents were not giving you space?

Yuying: (20:46)
I did. I did, actually. I did. My mom was she went from being a housewife to being a co-founder with my father. And I remember asking her, like, Mom, why aren't you able to fetch me home from school? Why are you spending so much time in the office? Why do you have to go into the office on the weekends?
Yeah, she would say because it's required of me. And that's something that all entrepreneurs do. You do what's required of you at that point in time. So I went through the same experience as a child as well.

Jeremy Au: (21:14)
So an idea has a lot of truth there. Intergenerational transmission of knowledge and role modelling. It is interesting here how you channel those decisions in your own career as a parent. Could you share with us about a time that you have been brave?

Yuying: (21:28)
I was thinking about this question because I knew that it would come up and I would say that the bravest thing that I did goes back to what I said to now, which was that on the day that I realised that my first startup was not going to work out, I actually sat down and forced myself to write out with full honesty and frankness the mistakes that I had made, and it made me feel terrible.
I have done crazy stuff before. I like life like great white sharks, good, various other kind of crazy things. But nothing compares to the pain that I felt when I actually had to write down this critical self-reflection of the mistakes that I made, the opportunities that I missed, the time and money that I had spent doing all these things.
So that was the bravest thing that I have done, but it paid itself over manifold as well because I realised that I learned from the mistakes and I realised that I would never repeat that again. I may make new mistakes, but I definitely will not repeat the mistakes that I made for the first company.

Jeremy Au: (22:34)
That doesn't sound common here. I look at failure sitting down, reflecting. I like to believe that every founder has failed and founders are doing that sort of reflection. Now. Recap doesn't feel like a common behaviour to me for some reason.

Yuying: (22:51)
Yeah, I don't know what it's common, but for me I think it's about. I felt that I could only move forward if I owned the mistakes. I could only really grow if I owned the mistakes that I made. And I acknowledge that these were due to decisions that I had made at that point in time. So it's more for myself rather than anyone else.

Jeremy Au: (23:11)
What tips do you have for founders who are going through this decision to wind down or push on as well as self-awareness/ learning cycle? What advice do you have about founders? Well, going through that maelstrom and hurricane and tornado.

Yuying: (22:51)
It is very difficult, I think that deciding to wind down the company to stop doing what you had spent years doing and what you had spent a lot of money doing and what you had invested a lot of other people's money and time in doing it is very difficult. I would advise them actually to talk to somebody who has done it before and that was also what I did as well.
It really helps to provide some perspective on what you're going through and within a couple of years time or wouldn't even within a couple of months how it would be better that a decision was made then I think you have a gut feel as to whether or not you should continue striving on something, but it's going to continue working out.
And I would say listen to your gut on something like that.

Jeremy Au: (24:14)
I think the problem for all our founders is that there's not a lot of people to talk to, maybe this co-founder conflicts. So you can't all your solo founders, they can't talk to your co-founder, you can't reach all your investors because you're winding down and maybe employees over know what's going on. How or when? Where should founders talk to someone?

Yuying: (24:32)
I'm part of a couple of entrepreneurs network and I think that that has really helped because what we do is that we have forums, we have experience sharing with each other, and they do not give advice in a forum kind of format, but they share the experiences which they encountered in similar kind of circumstances. So I had that kind of outlook for myself when I encountered these issues, and I also knew through my network, as well of our founders went through the same thing that I did, so I could reach out for other people, I think, look for the same kind of network.
Entrepreneurship is a very lonely journey, especially if you're a solo founder or if you're having some kind of co-founder conflict. So, knowing a lot of people who are going through the same journey as you, being able to reach out to them for advice or just have a coffee chat, I think that that's extremely helpful.

Jeremy Au: (25:23)
From your perspective, obviously you've seen a lot of different generations of founders. What would you say are the things that you've seen better indicators of future success? I guess on whatever terms said the personal, professional vs things that you see less correlated or maybe even adverse to personal and professional success.

Yuying: (25:44)
This sounds like a question for a VC. If I had the answer to that, I should be doing investments. Okay, but from my perspective, I actually think it's about the market more so than personal characteristics or whatever it is. If you have founded a business in a market that is growing, that is moving, and that you have a needle moving kind of solution in that, then even if you are an average kind of founder, as long as you can execute, you will be there, you'll be ahead.
You could be an exceptional founder of an exceptional team, but if the market that you're in is just too small or is not moving or is shrinking, then no matter what you do, it's going to be very hot. So I do think that the market, the industry that you're in is actually more important than any kind of personal characteristics.
And of course, there's some baseline that you cannot go below. So things like ethics, grit, and the ability to sell those are very important. But I think that the most important factor, probably 80% of the success will boil down to which market you are in.

Jeremy Au: (26:52)
One just thing about that is you made all these decisions by yourself. These are things you want to do and these are things you change about the way you do it. Yet the biggest determinant of that is not what you do, but the market. So is that contradictory?

Yuying: (27:07)
That's why it's so hard to be an entrepreneur. Jeremy, as you know, because it's not just that the market has to be right. Even if the market's right, you still need these things to help you to succeed.

Jeremy Au: (27:19)
You got to do both. The market has been great and you have to be great. Yuying: (27:22)
You gotta do what you are in VC in the VC world. So you need to have the market and you need to have the founder and the team as well.

Jeremy Au: (27:30)
And if you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself back then? If you had a time machine?

Yuying: (27:36)
Right back when I was in school, I was still fresh off the mindset of being a lawyer. And I think the thing that you know with lawyers is that we're quite conservative people. We make money by being right more often than we are wrong. I would tell myself at a point in time to embrace failure and rejection and to be fearless, basically, to have courage to be fearless in terms of what I'm doing, what I realised over the course of being an entrepreneur, of going out, selling my own products and all that, is that 100% of the times that you do not try is 100% failure.
But if you do try, maybe you have a 10% chance of success. So it's worth trying just to get a 10% chance of success. If I were to tell myself this like ten years ago, I would have gone out to try more things probably felt faster and probably make more progress faster as well.

Jeremy Au: (28:30)
What's interesting is that it also feels like you've also achieved some personal success on your own front. I mean, despite obviously the kid crossing you, your relationship, you have a family. How do you feel about all of that? Do you think you envisioned it ten years ago?

Yuying: (28:45)
My husband and myself, we actually planned out our life on a spreadsheet. But it's so unromantic. It's so consultant, like, as I'm sure you agree, we did plan out a life on a spreadsheet. I remember in Shanghai in a café, like when we decided that we were going to be together on the family front things have worked out as we planned and I'm very grateful for that because it could have gone so many other ways.
But at the same time, I don't take things for granted as well because you never know with life, every single day. I do give gratitude for what I have. I make it a practice to actually write in a journal at night. The three things that I'm grateful for, for that day. I try to remember this like every single day.

Jeremy Au: (29:33)
Thank you so much for sharing. I really appreciate all of that you share. On that note, I love to kind of recap the three big themes that came out from this. The first is, I think we thank you for sharing what it means to overcome entrepreneurial failure. I think there were a lot of reflections there on why you thought being a founder was about but also what you learned during it and the mistakes you felt like you made, and also how the process came about to reflect and learn from that.
And I also appreciate your honesty about going to your second company. You've helped avoid a lot of mistakes, but you've also started to make new ones. So, I think that was a really interesting set of advice on how to overcome the feelings and the process of failure.
The second, of course, is thank you for sharing about your learnings as a second time founder. So how you think about building a business, your reflections of the market and what success means in terms of the tailwind.
Lastly, thank you so much for this unexpected set of thinking around parenting as yourself, as a child, learning from entrepreneurial our parents and why it meant for you to eventually come back and help them with family business and defining on your own terms, but also you becoming a parent of your own and how you are modelling entrepreneurial behaviour and whether you define a successful or not.
But some very real insights about how you planned it with Excel and some of the micro moments you have with your children. Thank you so much for sharing that set of reflections for other founders who are exploring parenthood or parents who are exploring being founders.

Yuying: (31:07)
Thank you so much for having me, Jeremy. So I do hope your daughter gets to the age where they start to roast you as well, and then you have to tell me what they see.

Jeremy Au: (31:14)
But before that, I think I should tell them dad jokes. All right. Thank you so much.