5 min read.
Scaling, Learning and Talent
Having started with $55,000, initially with a small team, and growing it to nearly 800 employees now, what has been the biggest challenge for scaling up the business and building up the team?
Jeffrey: There are many challenges. First, to grow a company in a hyper-growth mode is a big challenge— growing a company from 10 – 20 people, to 100 people, to 1,000 people, which is where we are now. The management and leadership, as well as operations and processes required are entirely different for each stage. For example, when we were 10 people strong, I could easily grab dinner and drinks and share my vision directly with them. When it came to a few hundred employees, it becomes hard to get to know every individual and even remember everyone’s name! Therefore,the way I managed the team, the way I conducted the business, and the way I communicated our company’s vision to everyone, changed. That alone was not easy, and we had to do it within a short time frame of a few years. There was a period of growth when we doubled our headcount almost every year.
In addition, we are global. We started in Singapore, then China, London, and now Toronto and Japan. We cover almost all time zones. For myself, I tend to meet my colleagues more at night (Asia time), so that I can meet our colleagues from the Eastern time zone and Europe. Added to this multi-geography and multi-time zone is multiculturalism. I grew up in an Asian family and came to realize that my British and German colleagues celebrate a different culture. All these added to the complexity on how we run our global operations.
How did you maintain your company culture as you grow aggressively?
Jeffrey: We are still learning and I am still trying to do better every day. To me, the key point is with hiring the right people, especially those in the leadership team. We have experienced changes in the leadership team over the past few years, but now we have a team that truly shares my passion, mission and values.
As Patsnap is a fast-growing company, we need people who are entrepreneurial. Being entrepreneurial is a trait, it describes someone who is resourceful, can hustle and is able to operate in a chaotic environment. My friends who worked in established companies like Apple and Google also value this trait very much. For people that I will be working directly with, I require them to either have started their own business before, or worked in a start-up for some time previously, or have a family member who has started a business. I have a few colleagues whose parents are business owners and they showed empathy in face of difficulties and challenges.
We have seen a big movement, particularly in Western markets, where they are looking less at formal education and more at the work experience and tangible skillsets of the individual. Is that something that Patsnap is doing as well?
Jeffrey: From my own experience, I find that work experience and formal education are important, but the most important aspect is people’s attitude and values. I have not seen people’s attitude or values change significantly after they joined the workforce. Do they have a growth mindset? Are they willing to accept change? Are they open to new information? Are they persistent? These are the aspects that are more important than formal education and work experience.
Do you have any words of wisdom to share with entrepreneurs who are also scaling?
Jeffrey: Yes, many lessons. I made many mistakes and I learned. I would say that at the end of the day, the two most important things are about the people and about yourself. As the leader, founder or CEO of the company, you set the tone and standard of the company.
While you can gather a strong team, it ultimately boils down to you as the founder and your leadership style. You must be able to galvanize everyone, make everyone believe your vision, trust you and follow you through ups and downs. As an example, I had one personal growth journey back in 2014 and that was when we were trying to raise our Series A. We went all around the world and spent one to two months on the road pitching to investors. We did not get any funding and went back to Singapore.
I could not recall the exact moment, but I remember both of us were in office. We had a heated debate. Our angel investor slapped the table and said that I was not fit to be a CEO because I wore my face on my sleeve. He said I was not confident enough not only when talking to investors, but also when I was talking to my peers and teammates. He said that as the CEO, you need to always act confident and be the one who knows the best. His words got me thinking and it was a setback for myself, because he was someone whom I had great respect for.
I tried to digest and took the feedback. One thing that helped me in my career tremendously is appreciating that everyone has his or her own leadership style. In a start-up environment, you, everything you do, or what you believe in will always be challenged. There is much uncertainty and you may even doubt yourself along the way.
Fast forward about two years later, I noticed that my slightly more introverted and authentic leadership style could better relate to the other side of the party and build more trust. After realizing my own leadership style better, I continue to build a strong team. So coming back, I think it is all about the people and your personal growth.
It sounds like the investor gave you some tough love. It is a little hard to hear, but you were able to digest it and make the necessary changes.
Jeffrey: I reflect a lot. It took me quite a long time before I did have more confidence and conviction in my own leadership style. It also helps to be able to see clearly where the company is going, whether it is generating more revenue and whether we are obtaining more validation from customers. It is like what Steve Jobs said, you connect the dots backwards.
Into the future
How has Covid impacted your business and what do you see as the outlook within the next year?
Jeffrey: We were fortunate; this pandemic did not affect much of our business and in fact, our business continued to grow. One thing I learned in entrepreneurship is persistence and hard work, but sometimes, there is some luck involved. Our customers are in R&D and be it a good or bad time, they will continue to invest in R&D, especially for the big companies, whose R&D horizons are at least three to five years. In fact, because of this pandemic, more companies want to find opportunities to innovate, so it did not really impact our business.
We did make some changes that helped us to grow during this period. This pandemic first broke out in China in late January, so straightaway in Q1, we decided that for our China market and operations, all our products and services would be made free. We did the same thing for our US and Europe market in Q2 as well. This helped us generate more leads to our business, because more people could try our software for free. This also generated goodwill, because people appreciated our effort to make our products and services free during an uncertain and challenging time.
“I made many mistakes and I learned. I would say that at the end of the day, the two most important things are about the people and about yourself. As the leader, founder or CEO of the company, you set the tone and standard of the company.”
What about the trade tensions between the US and China, including issues on intellectual property?
Jeffrey: So far no, in fact, we had some positive impact. Because of the US-China trade war, many of our Chinese customers became more aware of the importance of intellectual property (IP). They sensed an urgent need to build up their IP portfolio. That helped our business in China grow even faster.
Are there other markets that you see around the world that could potentially become like what China has become? Maybe in South America or Africa?
Jeffrey: Yes. We provide intelligence information to our customers who want to innovate; we help them understand the whole innovation landscape, know who the main players are, who has what type of technologies and how they can either partner with some of them to co-develop a new product using some of the technologies, or maybe even try to mitigate the risk. If someone else already has the rights on that technology, then the new player entering the space might need to find ways to avoid infringing on the incumbent’s technologies and patents.
Most of our customers are located where there is sizable R&D investment. Geographically speaking, the US is number one. Every year, the US invests about 500 billion in R&D. Then comes China, followed by Japan, Germany, and so on. In terms of industry, our customers are mostly from those that are R&D-intensive, for example, life sciences, pharmaceutical, automotive, semiconductor, advanced manufacturing and so on. With that, in the next few years, the US, China and Europe will likely be our main markets. We do see countries in South America investing more in R&D.