Why not run a tech startup?


The Labour Movement wants to reach out to professionals-turned-entrepreneurs like Daniel Chia and Cynthia Siantar. Photo: Call Levels

Benjamin Chiang
Aug 18, 2016

“In the world of trading, when you make a profit someone else makes a loss”, mused Daniel Chia, 36, a financial professional who had been managing money for hedge funds and sovereign wealth for well over a decade. The man sounded dismayed at corporate life. “I research and build systematic strategies that finds biases in the market to make money. It’s exciting, but soon you start to wonder – what are you doing with your life? Does your work add value for yourself? Does it make an impact on others?”

His business partner, Cynthia Siantar, 30, is an ex-investment banker. As she rose amongst the ranks in the male dominated financial and tech industries, she reveals a love of being in places where no one ventures.

When asked why she chose to quit her job to build a start-up from scratch, her answer: corporate politics. Working in a large corporate (bank) means you inadvertently end up with bureaucratic throat-cutting. More time is spent on unproductive politicking rather than work that is meaningful for the client.

“I was feeling like I was losing the spark. The fire in the belly. I wanted that back”, recalls Cynthia.

The tech duo are the minds behind the app Call Levels. The investment tool sits on your phone and alerts you when your stock hits the target price you set. Call Levels had such tremendous potential that ex-Head of Commodities for Forex and Short Term Interest Rates in sovereign wealth fund GIC, Timothy Teo, sank USD$100k into the development of the technology.

Corporate burnout is affecting more and more young professionals. More are ending up with medical problems, including insomnia, depression and hypertension, as well as all-round dissatisfaction with their work.

The benefits of running your own business is a calling that can be hard to ignore.

What goes into a great idea?

How do we get going? Is it sheer hard work, or would a great idea see a project through to fruition?

“The great idea is just but the first step. The rest of the magic is in how you execute the idea. Case in point, when Facebook and Google came about, there were already similar platforms. The idea wasn’t unique. How they executed it was. If you comb through the billion dollar apps, they weren’t just about ideas”, said Cynthia.

“I’d say its 99% luck”, argued Daniel. Here’s the reason he gave: you need the right mix of energies to meet the right people at the right time. It doesn’t matter if luck follows work, or vice versa, you need it.

You need to work very very hard to get the odds slightly in your favour. Things will happen and things might snowball, but you have to keep working at it. And then, you can try to get lucky.

Ok so what about if I had a great idea, but no money? Is there such a thing as the zero dollar start-up?

“I was in Harvard when Mark Zuckerberg started. Even that wasn’t a zero dollar startup, they had to raise money right at the start. They had to work very hard at their project. Work for free,” Daniel recalled.

It couldn’t be absolutely zero dollars. Even at the initial stage, even if the founder himself/herself can do everything on their own, there is still opportunity cost.

Even then, as you grow, one person can’t do everything. You had to pay for the right mix of people to work for you, even if it means outsourcing to other vendors.

“You can’t be stingy on manpower and talent. To attract the right talent for the company, the compensation must be competitive or in the start-up world, offer opportunities for growth and upside through equity”, reminded Cynthia.

“It also helps if the boss is hot”, joked Daniel.

Are you thinking of quitting your job to start a business now?

If you do, both of them advised against jumping into any project if your only fuel is passion and faith.

“But I’d say, if you really believe in it, just do it”, said Daniel with conviction. “If you really believe in something, there is no risk too big. If you have tremendous conviction on something, you have to be bold and go for the jugular.”

Everyone wants to be a business owner but the caveat is – you must understand and be willing to accept the consequences of failure. Go in with both eyes open. Not just a fluffy feeling of passion and faith.

“I have a safety net, even if I fail, I still have a home to stay in. I have a good track record and I can get employment. Be aware of the consequences, don’t spend the rest of your life paying back a mistake,” warned Cynthia.

After some thought or actual experience, you may discover that entrepreneurship may not be your cup of tea. It is OK. Many have gone through the process of setting up businesses, failed and subsequently climbed higher and further in the corporate world.

Lessons learnt and business skills adopted would have added to your collective experience and will certainly have practical application to your working life.

The business world needs talent with an entrepreneurial attitude and an entrepreneur’s motivation.

The Labour Movement will be By Your Side

Our unusual Labour Movement – the highlights at a glance. Infographic: NTUC

Our unusual Labour Movement – the highlights at a glance. Infographic: NTUC

On a national level, Secretary-General of the NTUC, Chan Chun Sing shared similar views. At May Day Rally 2016, he described the modern business cycle as “becoming more frequent and intense” and workers are changing jobs more often and moving between industries.

Chan discussed the needs of young workers, amongst which include career development opportunities, training programmes and opportunities to network and to work beyond Singapore. These evolving needs show a labour force in transition and it is also a test on how the Labour Movement will adapt to the changes. Already the Labour Movement is growing its network to reach a new profile of workers, such as freelancers, self-employed, SME employees and other professionals.

As a Labour Movement, their intentions are simple and clear – to help workers get better jobs, better pay and better lives – but they also need to be sensitive to any changes in the work landscape. As mentioned during NTUC’s May Day message in April this year, “The interests and needs of our rank and file, professionals, managers, executives, part-timers, freelancers and even the self-employed are all different. Hence, our services for them must be similarly diverse.”

If you have a robust plan, an exciting idea and a fluttery feeling in your guts that it just might work, why not give it a go and give it your all? At the end of it, if it doesn’t work out, there’s always a job there for you and with the new skills you have gained – you won’t be any worse off.

The writer is a full-time unionist who crafts stories pertaining to labour issues.