Zelia Leong: Founder Humor, Pandemic Pivot & Regulating Yourself - E153

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

It’s getting to a point where if you can’t pay rent, feed your children, I would not say “Hey just go for it” because it would be irresponsible of me to say that. So take a check at all your commitments. And whether you can scale down what you need to survive on a daily basis. If you want to bootstrap. And of course there are also a lot of people who say the first thing I want to do is raise. My advice is don’t raise before you actually get any traction and idea of what you’re doing or what you’re raising for.- Zelia Leong

Zelia is the Co-Founder of PraisePal-The Peer Recognition tool for companies with global teams to grow employee engagement and build stronger culture. No matter where or how their employees work.

She also co-founded travel curator Anywhr, which was part of Google For Startups' Blackbox Scholarship and Google Demo Day Asia.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hey, Zelia, I’m so excited to have you on the show.

Zelia Leong: (00:32)
Hey, Jeremy, thanks for having me.

Jeremy Au: (00:34)
I’m amazed because you have such an interesting founder story, you have a wicked sense of humour as well based on your LinkedIn posts. I’m excited to hear your story.

Zelia Leong: (00:52)
Thanks, sounds great.

Jeremy Au: (00:54)
Zelia, can you tell us about yourself?

Zelia Leong: (00:55)
Right now I’m the co-founder of Reward Nation we are remote team productivity tool but I started my journey not in tech. So I worked in HR for a couple years, did my diploma in HR and psychology actually and thought I would die doing HR but things took a turn a couple years into the role and I decided to do something different so that was more about a decade ago and I didn’t know what to do, so I did what every sane person would. Quit my job. Got a one way ticket, flew to the furthest cheapest possible destination, ended up in Sweden and that turned out into a couple months. Around Europe, around Asia, going to places I never knew existed, doing couch surfing, work holidays and just figuring out along the way. So I did stay in a cabin in the Arctic Circle, the Swedish Midsummer celebrations ended up in Ukraine and Poland and a couple other crazy adventures along the way. And when I came back, I realized that I didn’t want to just go back into HR again, but I still didn’t know what to do. So that was when I did a Masters at NUS and it was a module in NUS on venture capital. Totally regret that now that I learn about the world of startups and how it works. Was basically a team getting together, making a difference, building things and making sure their results make an impact. And I thought, hey, that sounds like it’s really for me and that’s how I started my journey at Rocket Internet. So I ended up at one of the ventures. Awhile later ended up being the head of marketing and that was where I met my now co-founder Felix, who was head of operations and we were just talking about random startup ideas as friends having dinners and drinks. And everyone has some random idea for an app, so a few random ideas later I said, hey, why not we send people on holidays. And they don’t know where they’re going and to the airport. So that was how Anywhere, our startup happened, we started planning surprise trips, sending people to off the beaten track places. Then it got so popular that travelers said, besides just surprise trips, I want you to plan all my other holidays. So we started doing general personal trip planning curation. Customers from all around the world. From Europe, America, Singapore, Asia, of course. And that was when COVID happened a few years into the start and we decided instead of just hibernating, we want to improve our current resources. We want to grow the company so that when COVID is over three months later, like what everyone thought, we would have everything and we are ready to go. So we hired a huge remote team because now that everyone is remote, why not take advantage of the talent around the world? Why just limit to Singapore? So we had a team of freelancers, part timers from different states in USA and Scotland, India, Vietnam and so on. Things are going really well, however. Every other team and company we face the challenge of keeping them motivated and connected. We can’t meet in real life. We tried Airbnb experiences online, we played virtual games. We send food to each other. But the human connection is just missing and everyone is just so different. So for example, we tried an activity on SlackBot that asked you to send a photo of what you did over the weekend to the group, and it was interesting, but we just give a reaction on slack and emoji and there’s nothing else to connect like, hey, OK, cool. You did this. But So what? I don’t even know you. And then I realized one day that what binds all these random different people together is that we want to learn. We want to contribute and we want to make an impact to the company and it’s the company that makes us the same or connects us. So we started as an experiment channel on Slack to let employees recognize each other. So all team members can send recognition messages and give little points and they can use those points to redeem gift cards from me. So super random, we hacked this out and I was so surprised because the interns started using it, recognizing the head of engineering, the engineer started recognizing the marketers and wow this really works. And as the boss, I don’t have to force you to use it and you’re just using it on your own. Something must be special here. Worked really well, our team got very connected. And all of these were public on the Slack channel, so I could see what’s going on. The social dynamics and people just started getting much closer and working together. Productivity motivation increased. Then when I shared this with other friends, founders, managers, they say, hey, I want this too as well. And then a while later it became a full on pivot to Reward Nation to what it is. Now, yeah, that’s the long story.

Jeremy Au: (05:48)
Could you share about those early days. You switched from HR. What triggered that move?

Zelia Leong: (06:03)
I would say it’s my personality. I’m not good sitting behind a desk. I realised also that I was ignorant to everything going on like I did not know what the marketing team did, what the sales team did. I only knew what my job was or what I studied. I decided to learn more things, see more people and fell into startups and tech along the way.

Jeremy Au: (06:39)
You fell into startups and tech. What was your first day, first week like?

Zelia Leong: (06:52)
It was foreign and intimidating and exciting. Coming from traditional corporate, stepping into the office, there were no cubicles. It was just desks and four walls. The team just started here working hard and trying many different things, chatting, having different ideas. I was foreign to all these, yet, very excited because this was what I read and my VC module taught me and what I signed up for. Intimidating yet exciting.

Jeremy Au: (07:31)
So, that was growing at that time. Any fun stories from then?

Zelia Leong: (07:37)
Yeah. So when I meet a few of my friends and I from startups who have gone to great heights now, we all seem to have the same story - started off giving flyers in the CBD it’s like a rite of passage that we did that like flyers outside. And I’ll pass them out outside along Orchard Road. And I speak with folks who were the early employees of startups like Grab. They do that too. So I guess. Everyone has done just giving Flyers thing that somehow I don’t know whether it works or not, but pretty fun and interesting experience to look back on.

Jeremy Au: (08:08)
It sounds like you were learning about technology because you said you were doing preparation work versus being in it. You eventually transitioned into becoming a founder of your own. Tell us more about that transition between technology operator to becoming a founder.

Zelia Leong: (08:32)
So I have never intended to and again it was a random idea over drinks and it happened and somehow we just saw it through. So I remember the days of planning for it. We were just at the food court after a long day of work that sometimes ends at, you know, 10/11 PM. We were just sitting in an empty food court that’s close writing out a basic plan and MVP. Creating the website and not even sure whether we will have any customers. And somehow we had customers, we had traction and things that are growing and it just snowballed from there. So it wasn’t planned, but definitely not uncalled for.

Jeremy Au: (09:11)
Were you working this on the side or did you quit your job in advance of it?

Zelia Leong: (09:21)
The idea and the planning came while we still had our jobs. When we really had customer traction, that was when we quit.

Jeremy Au: (09:34)
When you said traction. What was enough traction? Could you share with us how much traction was that?

Zelia Leong: (09:40)
I can’t remember exactly, but we had a healthy amount of customers and we realised we had to make this work because people were trusting their travels, their lives with us and we can’t focus while having a full time job that’s really demanding. We just decided to quit and make it work.

Jeremy Au: (09:59)
So…10 customers? 20 customers?

Zelia Leong: (10:03)

Jeremy Au: (10:05)
Lots of people become a founder while working a side hustle. What advice would you give for people thinking about it?

Zelia Leong: (10:27)
I guess it always depends because for me, I’m privileged not to have any financial commitments or responsibilities, so I was able to do that. But I’ve heard of founders not being able to pay the bills, support their family and kids. So that is also pretty irresponsible because it turns out that the company didn’t workout and that person has to then find a job. It’s getting to a point where if you can’t pay rent, feed your children, I would not say hey, just go for it ‘cause it would be irresponsible of me to say that. So yeah, take a check at all your commitments. And whether you can scale down what you need to survive on a daily basis. If you want to bootstrap. And of course there are also a lot of people who say, hey, I want to go. The first thing I want to do is raise. My advice is don’t raise before you actually get any traction and idea of what you’re doing or what you’re raising for. There were also some folks who say I have a job now and I have a startup idea, and now I’m going to raise.

Jeremy Au: (11:26)
Let’s talk about that because I got a call today where the person said they want to raise 2 million dollars. I was like – do you have any traction and what’s the user test? He’s like – I’ve done no user testing, but the research paper say that this should work.

Zelia Leong: (11:40)
Oh wow…are they an MBA student?

Jeremy Au: (11:48)
No. I wish it was an MBA student. It was not an MBA student. I was like – are you amazing? Are you someone who has successfully raised and exited before? He’s like – no. I’m like – okay, here’s an awkward conversation we’re going to have which is like I think the idea’s okay, yet, I’m not sure if this fundraising strategy is going to pan out for you. What do you think about that?

Zelia Leong: (12:14)
It works for many different people differently, but my take would be to do an MVP and find at least some form of validation. There’s someone I spoke to as well who told me the exact same thing. Instead of talking of the business all he said was – oh, so, my mentor put me in front of this VC, I was connected to this VC, who are your investors, can I talk to them? I’m like – oh…but he doesn’t even know what is product market fit. I’m not kidding. I asked – have you found product market fit? He asked – what’s that? He was asking me a few sessions later what is customer lifetime value. So, before you speak with investors, all these things should be taken care of first. But sometimes people fail to see how the steps should actually look like.

Jeremy Au: (13:04)
Yeah. I think people are just excited and I think fundraising is the most visible side of the startup because that’s what you read in Tech In Asia which I call the Dreams Page. These are all fundraising announcements and not necessarily business announcements. What advice would you normally give to your friends who didn’t understand about lifetime value and the unit economics and, more importantly, product market fit. What would you think about that?

Zelia Leong: (13:39)
I’m not an expert or genius myself, like you said, I’ve not exited any startups yet. I would always recommend a few key books that have really helped me. Some books don’t really work, but through a lot of reading and lurking around Facebook groups, I found one that stopped me on the first chapter because I realised that there’s a lot for me to work on already on the first chapter and they talk about product market fit. It’s called the startup owner’s manual. That really helped. The High Growth Handbook was really helpful as well because it has all the notes I wished I knew earlier.

Jeremy Au: (14:53)
You built out this company in the travel space and then COVID hit. What was that like for you, personally?

Zelia Leong: (15:14)
It was very emotional and taxing. We had to let go of team members, we were in the midst of exciting stuff and we had to drop all of that. Even today, we have people messaging the Anywhere platform asking if we’re still planning trips because most of our clients are in America and Europe and travel is resuming there now. People are asking when are you coming back and they take the effort to email us. Emotionally, it was quite heavy for us. However, as RewardNation gains more and more traction, it also makes me very excited. Today, we’re working with a lot of large enterprises instead of startups that we thought we would. As they continue engaging and sending messages sharing with us what they’ve been recognising each other with, it also gives me a sense of fulfilment and excitement.

Jeremy Au: (17:09)
Let’s do a compare and contrast. In the middle of COVID, how were you taking care of yourself?

Zelia Leong: (17:39)
Yeah, it sucked for everyone. I’ll be lying to say I did a great job of taking care of myself, but I was lucky to have a good support system. I live with my husband, so it’s just me and him. That was even before we got married and we were both working from home. We’ve managed to find a healthy balance. One thing that actually helped was actually cooking. We made our own meals at home. Simple meals and felt a lot healthier and more wholesome…and life just changed. A lot of cooking, talking about food, that boring stuff that made us find a balance that made us feel like we’re taking care of ourselves and each other. Until today, we’re still making meals at home which has improved our lives quite a lot.

Jeremy Au: (18:50)
That’s so sweet. What’s your favourite set of dishes now that you’ve learnt to cook during the pandemic?

Zelia Leong: (18:56)
We got a hack that’s super aunty. We got an instant pot and that changes your life.

Jeremy Au: (19:31)
Founders struggle with carving out enough time for hobbies. How should a founder think about hobbies or carving time for their family?

Zelia Leong: (19:54)
I’m not sure ‘cause. I don’t think I’m doing a good job myself. Like you said, the guilt. So the cooking thing is sustenance as we need to eat. So no choice. We have to cook. But I have picked up a couple hobbies over the years and none of them has been really sustainable. And I’m not sure whether it’s because of work. It could be, but it also could be many reasons. Being distracted or using work as an excuse not being able to compartmentalize. So I would say try to regulate your thoughts. So this is what a friend of I have been discussing both of us to suck at it, but we keep telling other people in each other that regulate your thoughts, regulate your emotions. Because sometimes when a great thing happens at work you get super happy and excited. Then when something disappointing happens, you became rare, Moody and it affects everyone at home as well as yourself, so yeah, regulate and let me know if it ever manage to do it well.

Jeremy Au: (20:49)
Any tips on regulating yourself from personal experience or tips?

Zelia Leong: (20:55)
It might not be the most encouraging, but This is why I tell myself when something good happens. Like OK, don’t get too excited so that when something bad happens, then I try not to get too upset as well. I’m not sure whether it’s the best because then I prevent myself from feeling excitement and motivation.

Jeremy Au: (21:13)
We’re all still figuring it out. It’s also very zen and Buddhist. They call it equanimity, freedom from desire. I think there’s a phrase – this too shall pass. Good times, this too shall pass. Bad times, this too shall pass. What’s your support network that you have from a founder’s perspective?

Zelia Leong: (21:51)
I’m lucky enough to have a very strong, small but strong support network, so it’s from a group of our investors, so they’re always there for us to reach out to them anytime via WhatsApp, even or for quick calls or whenever we have a blocker or something. I can’t wrap my head around. So a group of them have been super, super supportive and I can’t thank them enough even for personal things like one of their recommended therapist. Oh, cool. Yeah, which I saw. So that was very, very amazing. And then of course, friends, people knowing what you’re going through and understanding. So they might not be experiencing the same thing, but they understand enough to know the support to provide and the things to say and not to say ‘cause instead of hey. Don't stress. That doesn’t help anything. It’s like asking people to calm down when they’re really angry. So the people there are just saying I’m here for you. It’s enough, just laughing at each other’s pain together. It’s also fine.

Jeremy Au: (22:53)
One thing I notice about you is that you’re funny. Tell us about how you started being funny or being witty.

Zelia Leong: (23:07)
They always say the more trauma you have, the more it contributes to you being funny. I think that’s the best answer I can think of.

Jeremy Au: (23:21)
I’ve been so traumatized as a founder that’s why I’m so funny now. Tell us more. How does that help you cope or think through things? Do you ever laugh at your own jokes?

Zelia Leong: (23:40)
All the time. I was quite proud of my trolling. Some of the LinkedIn stuff was because we need to be B2B now, we need to post serious content. I realised that I sucked at writing serious content, it’s boring, it’s not me and I feel trapped doing it. Like what am I going to write about? What research am I going to do or what research papers am I going to share. It’s boring, I hate it, and I don’t think anyone would care as well. We tried a couple and it’s really not me. They say the founder’s personality is the company’s branding. So, one day, I decided, why not just post stupid things. I shared some jokes, it went viral, I got a shock. That was what spurred me to say I can just keep doing this. It can be my personal voice and I can share without expectations of anything, it’s just for everyone to have a laugh.

Jeremy Au: (24:52)
I definitely did. It definitely caught my eye, seeing some of the content. Could you share with us something that you found funny recently?

Zelia Leong: (25:05)
It’s all memes. Something funny that happened today. I’m taking care of a dog and she started having the most foul farts while sitting next to me. It was so gross. I thought that was really funny. She was sleeping, turned around to stare at me, farted, then went back to sleep. I took her for a walk, she had a poop and it was okay. That was funny in real life, nothing through a social feed.

Jeremy Au: (25:35)
That was a situation that could have gone and have many different reactions. You could have felt irritated, angry, confused. What’s interesting is that you found humour which is an interesting dynamic. I personally find it’s a great way to cope with stuff. Is that how you cope and when did it start for you?

Zelia Leong: (26:11)
Definitely. I’m not sure, I think it just came and I realised it worked. Maybe also my group of friends and that’s how we talk about ourselves or connect. We get together and start talking about our pains and start laughing about it. It’s a great coping mechanism, honestly.

Jeremy Au: (26:39)
When you think about humour and everything, do you feel like it’s a good coping mechanism?

Zelia Leong: (26:44)
I guess it depends on the person. Some people don’t understand then I realised this is my feed and if they don’t like it, too bad, it sucks for them.

Jeremy Au: (27:00)
Which is true. Worst case scenario, just read something else. For those who do like it, they’ll pay attention. You talked about being authentic in terms of content creation and being worried about people not liking what you’re posting. How do you think about it?

Zelia Leong: (27:23)
The thing about being authentic posting things that I resonate with, I guess I have no choice because when I tried to do typical B2B content, I can’t bring myself to do it. I just can’t. So, I decided to post what I like and feel is real to me. I also don’t have a boss to say you have to write a topic on this, it’s me. I just say anything I want and I like it.

Jeremy Au: (27:52)
That’s the way to do it. I would recommend people to follow you on LinkedIn to follow your humour on workstyles and founder life and everything to do with remote productivity. Zelia, could you share with us a time when you were BRAVE?

Zelia Leong: (28:09)
I think the time was when I decided to take the leap and do my masters in NUS because I broke my leg during my travel so I had to come back to Singapore and my plan was once I recovered, I was gonna travel around Southeast Asia so I had a huge plan like Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and when I got acceptance from NUS, I didn’t expect it. Because I only applied to one and my plan is I did my best, then forget it. I’m just going to travel again and I made plans with friends, people that I would love to travel with. Then I had to make that decision to forget all about it, cancel my plans and do my masters. So that was a big leap for me and something I never expected to do. But I knew that was best for me because when I got the news, I was hanging out with one of my friends at his place and I opened my email and I was actually really excited and naturally high fives came out. So yeah, I go in and after that I said I’m not doing it. So he said if your reaction is so positive, then I think you should just do it. I will always remember that moment and when I thought about it, I look back. I wonder what could have been if I did my traveling and how things turn out. So that was a pivotal moment for me.

Jeremy Au: (29:28)
How do you think your life would have been different if you chose that different path?

Zelia Leong: (29:32)
Maybe still in HR? It’s not bad…just not for me. Maybe working somewhere or even starting the company as well since I was travelling.

Jeremy Au: (29:47)
Looking back on all of that, what do you think made the difference? Why do you think that was a fork in the road for you?

Zelia Leong: (29:59)
I would say because I never intended to and I never saw myself as someone who will go do a masters and be really studious ‘cause I just want to get out of school as soon as possible. So that was a tough decision and I had to be mature when I was introspecting into it because the travel was the plan and what seemed the most exciting and natural and real. I’m just gonna do it. I don’t have to think, but forgetting it and bring it must as I had to really think about it, that the long term plan how I felt with my friends, it makes sense as well and maybe deep down I always knew that it would be good for me.

Jeremy Au: (30:37)
You often talk about friends being someone that you turn to for strength, also for advice in almost every anecdote that you shared. Why friends? Friends as an employee and as a founder, how does that flavour change?

Zelia Leong: (31:07)
It’s similar for me because the personal friends have always been there or there, not for work context. We also meet people throughout the context of work, but a few of my close friends now I think I met via LinkedIn randomly message me. I message them and we just started having coffee and became really good friends. And then from there we got to know each other and one of them lived in the same building as me, so we hung out. I think it’s the same. It's all about human connection. Yeah. So pretty much the same. And the things to talk about with different groups of friends and the founders they’re like so when I was working in company for a boss then you also have peers. So now the peers are just different or working in different roles.

Jeremy Au: (31:55)
I’m curious. I often hear this voice about what you’re going through and what you’re thinking about the advice at the end of the day. What advice would you normally give founders?

Zelia Leong: (32:19)
I will always say product market fit, MVP’s, it never changes because they shaped both of our businesses coming up with things like that. And that is the only journey I have experienced. So which is what I always share with them, especially early stage founders and reading up on resources. Don’t rush into things. Don’t rush into fund raising. Yeah. Making sure it works and having a system to figure out a way on how to make it work even though it doesn't seem that it's working right now.

Jeremy Au: (32:52)
If you could go back in time, would that be an advice you would have given yourself?

Zelia Leong: (30:18)
Probably not because I hadn’t started the company then. 2011, I would just say travel as much as you can because ten years later, there’ll be a pandemic and you’ll be eating instant pot everything.

Jeremy Au: (33:17)
I think everyone’s having that same realisation as well. Thanks Zelia. I’m going to paraphrase the tree big themes I got from you today. The first is thank you so much for sharing about, I think your professional history obviously about how you incidentally became someone in technology after so much travel to becoming a founder. And I think it was a fun way to hear that story. I think it was also very interesting to hear what I call the pandemic pivot, which is dynamic where you set up one startup and then you went through the COVID and it sucked and you figure out how to make lemonade out of lemons. I was gonna say lemons out of lemonade, which also pretty cool as well. And I think it’s an interesting dynamic there. The second one was thanks for sharing what I call humor and self regulation. So just thinking true about how humor is helpful and how to think about it from a content creation perspective, but also is something that you have swapped and shared with your friends and used to help self regulate as a founder and look on the bright side of things and be mindful where you are in the successes and be mindful where you are during the losses. Lastly, thank you so much for being frank about I think the different choices and the psychological states, I think, of building and being a founder over and over again. So thank you so much, Zelia.

Zelia Leong: (34:41)
Thanks for letting me share my story and the opportunity to be in your podcast.