Article by Rob Bryson, friend of DQ and Managing Director of WeNetwork Asia, DQventures' first portfolio company.
As someone in their mid/late 40s, leaving the corporate world and setting up my own business was obviously a risk. I've been in recruitment long enough to know that, when people reach my age, finding the right job isn't so easy. What's more, for the last 10 years I had a good thing going. I was working for the international recruitment firm, Robert Walters, most recently as MD of Singapore. I was fortunate to work with a very talented team and reported to a fair and thoughtful boss. The position came with a good salary, bonuses, stock options, decent work-life balance (ish), and a short commute.
So why on earth would I leave?
In recruitment, you come across a lot of people from the corporate and startup worlds, who are in the same position as me. They are people who, on the surface, appear to have everything they could ever want, but who underneath, long for something else – a desire to run their own business.
With over 20 years' experience behind me, I thought I had a decent chance of success. Not RW successful, perhaps, but OK. My career to date had seen me progress from junior consultant to the senior ranks. I'd worked in several, very different markets: the UK, Australia, Indonesia, and now Singapore. What's more, I'd seen all aspects of the recruitment business. I'd been a fee earner, built teams, and taken an office from zero-to-one as country manager. Over the years, businesses I had been part of, and led, had enjoyed substantial growth. They'd survived difficult markets, set trends, and coped with their fair share of knocks. If I could help do that for someone else, could I not do it for myself?
I can't remember when I first had the urge to go it alone, but the feeling grew as time passed. Standing in my way, however, was a serious problem.
I had reached a stage in life where "starting over" isn't practical. Forget finding another job if things don't work. My issue was more immediate. You see, I wasn't just a recruitment guy. I was also a husband, a father, a son to ageing parents, a house owner, and a sole provider. Our costs included (and still include) housing, school fees, household bills, groceries, a car, the occasional dinner and drinks, and maybe even a holiday - the classic middle-class scenario. I won't quote numbers, but my monthly outgoings were (are!) significant. I couldn't possibly hope to fund our living expenses from a startup.
I know only too well that this problem isn't exclusive to me. In my line of work, I regularly meet senior professionals who yearn to set up their own business. It's not surprising, but it is unfortunate, that many of them never do. Sadly, this is a fact of life - the older you get, the more roots you tend to put down and more dollars are committed - family, somewhere to live, hobbies, and responsibilities. Roots like these make significant life changes in your forties increasingly difficult.
And yet, angel investors and VCs are forever describing how much the world depends on entrepreneurs. There are myriad examples of people who start and run their own business playing a crucial role in shaping society (I'm not fooling myself that WeNetwork is going to change the planet, but I do believe building a business is the best way to make an impact!). I've also heard experienced investors talk about the importance of "founder market fit", and of others who invest, almost exclusively, in more experienced founders. They tell me they do this because experienced founders have a greater chance of success. Not only do they tend to know their industry better than their junior peers, but also they understand the problems and may have identified solutions. Perhaps even more importantly, they know the protagonists. They've met, and may be friends with, the senior people in their market. These networks are the potential introducers, buyers, employees, and investors upon which a new business so often relies.
Did I start my company out of a sense of duty to society? Sadly not. I set up WeNetwork Singapore for three reasons: 1) the most important of all, I did it because I had the support and encouragement of my wife and family; 2) it sounds simple, but I did it because I really wanted to; and 3) as mentioned above, I believed I had founder-market fit. I knew the business, and had access to people who could help create a company with a chance of success.
Hopefully, in time, the business can deliver a reasonable income - maybe even fulfil my potential as a founder (I'd love to give my family a similar quality of life they enjoyed while I was an employee - maybe better!). Fortunately, this goes hand in hand with wanting to build a business that truly serves its customers, one that enables colleagues and employees to be fully part of something meaningful, and that can become an organisation we are all proud of.
Best of all, as we try to put all this into action, we get to do it our way! Large organisations like RW provide employees with incredible support when it comes to day-to-day work life: training, support, an outstanding back office, deep pockets, a plethora of experienced and genuine leaders, someone to talk to when things get tricky, and so much more besides. Now we have to work out these things for ourselves... which happens to be great fun!
For me, taking the leap into starting a business was exactly the right move. I love it. Thanks to some terrific clients and an extremely capable team, we've managed to grow WeNetwork quickly and been able to expand internationally. Not only have I joined forces with some former colleagues in Indonesia (who launched WeNetwork Indonesia several months before I started in Singapore), we've also launched in Australia, and plan to open other locations in the not-too-distant future. (If you're an ambitious recruiter (or a client!) anywhere in Asia Pacific, we'd love to hear from you.)
I loved my time at RW, but the move to entrepreneurship has been everything I hoped it would be, and more.
So how was I able to do it?
Sure, the fundaments were in place: family support, desire, and the right experience. But what about the practicalities? What about the chasm between corporate pay and founder pay, not to mention understanding the basics of setting up a business, single-handed, for the first time?
By pure coincidence, a friend of 20+ years, James Green, launched a venture building company, called DQventures, at about the same time as I started thinking seriously about breaking out alone. Funnily enough, DQ stands for "don't quit", which was exactly what I'd been planning to do.
James and his partners, Arjun Singh and Oliver Palmer, had invented a new type of accelerator. Its focus? People exactly like me. It was individuals like James, Oliver, and Arjun that I referred to earlier. They're among the investors and business builders who believe founder-market fit is one of the essential ingredients to a new company's success.
To tap into that, they created a program that enables people like me to break free of the corporate world, despite the acute need to keep earning. Effectively they become cofounders, enabling a budding entrepreneur to stay employed, while they set to work getting the basics in place. While you contribute when you can, in your free time, they develop the idea into a business. On one hand, they take care of all the admin of starting a company - legals, incorporation, basic tech, and so on. More importantly, though, they help to validate the idea. Is this really a compelling business? Are you really cut out for being an entrepreneur? Is this a product or service that someone actually needs? Will anyone pay for it? Is the market big enough? Will anybody invest?
In truth, I didn't exactly fit the DQ mould. I had already left my job when they got involved, and I wasn't intending to build any serious tech. Moreover, I wasn't looking for money (DQ has a fund, from which it can deploy capital into suitable portfolio companies). Having said that, I did value their knowledge and experience. I asked them to help me launch WeNetwork Singapore because they removed so much stress. Between them, they've launched dozens of ventures. They know all the things that someone like me, who's been employed for two-plus decades, has no idea about.
DQ remain involved. The team helps me connect with people I find hard to reach, solve everyday business problems, and, perhaps most importantly, provides someone to bounce ideas off. Could I have launched WeNetwork without them? Certainly. Did they make it easier, less stressful, and more fun? Definitely.
The other businesses that played a key role are Robert Walters and Michael Page. Without both companies' training, faith, and belief, I would never have become the recruiter I am today. I will always be grateful for what I learned over the 20 years I spent working with them. For any new or aspiring recruiters out there, you should join either RW or MP. They offer a great blend of training, culture, and are smart, global organisations with great management. They also have an enviable list of long-term clients to work with.
On the other hand, you could come and help us build WeNetwork. It's getting exciting!
Rob Bryson is a co-founder of WeNetwork, a Southeast Asian and Australian recruitment company startup with offices in Singapore, Jakarta and Sydney. WeNetwork works with the best and brightest talent, helping them find positions, primarily among fast-growth companies and startups. They also provide relatd services, including virtual career fairs, diversity tech, and assessments. Find out more or contact Rob here.