Featuring Xinwei Ngiam: Government Policymaker turned Start-up Business Strategist

I’m really excited to share this interview with Xinwei, Director of Strategy at Grab (formerly GrabTaxi), a ridesharing platform in Southeast Asia. She is also Regional Head of Grab’s social ridesharing service, GrabHitch, which beta-launched in Singapore in late 2015 and has since expanded to Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Bangkok. Prior to joining Grab, XW worked at the Boston Consulting Group and the Singapore Ministry of Finance.

In this wide-ranging interview, she shares her biggest lessons in her journey from policy-maker to consultant to start-up director, where she wants to see technology applied more aggressively, advice for companies looking to expand into Southeast Asia, and insights for both policy-makers and technologists from both sides of the fence. Besides being a good friend, Xinwei is someone I admire deeply for her work ethic, depth of thought and calm under pressure. Definitely someone to watch 🙂

xwngiam

1. How did you make the transition from Government to Tech? What’s it like working in a start up vs in a more traditional industry?


After I left Government, I joined consulting for about 2.5 years, and 
thereafter joined Grab, where I’ve been working now for almost 2 years.

I would recommend consulting for any generalist who is looking to learn at hyper-speed about the business world and about the region we live in. While at BCG, I spent at least half of my time in Indonesia (if not more), and it’s benefited me greatly now that I work in and manage teams in our Jakarta office.

Joining Grab opened my eyes to start-up life and culture. I’ve loved this way of working from the beginning – the juxtaposition between the casual team culture but incredibly intense pace of work; the tension between wanting to reach for the stars but having to ruthlessly prioritize based on your current resources and capabilities; the ever-present low-level existential crisis of not quite knowing whether you’re flying or falling. It’s a thrilling place to work, but with that thrill also comes stress and increasingly blurred lines between work and life (my husband will not hesitate to confirm this last point).

For those who are seeking to move from more traditional industries to start-ups, you have to be prepared to let go of some of what you know; but also have confidence that you’re bringing an expertise and knowledge base about how companies work that is very valuable to
start-ups. Some tips:

 

(a) Learn to embrace uncertainty.

Uncertainty will exist in all aspects of start-up life. The type that seems to affect people most is professional uncertainty. In a startup, it’s not uncommon to experience frequent reorganizations, to see the team you joined dismantled, or to undergo several title or portfolio changes in a few months. Then there’s business uncertainty – how do you know whether to invest in a new vertical/market/business or not? When choosing between two ideas that could 10X the business (or send it into a downward spiral) how do you choose? There is no playbook for what startups typically do, and that can cause a lot of anxiety.

There is no perfect remedy for this, but it helps to take a philosophical view that no matter what happens you’ll live to die another day. Channel all your nervous energy into obsessing about your business and outserving your customers, put aside your personal anxieties and just enjoy the ride.

 

(b) Execution is what makes good ideas great

There are two common pitfalls (that I have personally experienced many times now). The first is to overestimate your ability to execute, which results in jam-packed workplans where items are checked off the list, but not done in a truly excellent way. The second is to underestimate the need for excellent execution; this usually comes hot on the heels of a great idea where one is seduced into thinking that the awesomeness of the idea will carry the day.

The truth is that good ideas are everywhere, especially in fast-growing startups where everyone is obsessing over big questions such as how to win market share, how to serve customers better, or how to leapfrog the competition. What makes an idea truly great is elegant, flawless execution that delivers outsized results.

I don’t have any big secrets to share on how to execute well – I’m still very much a student in this journey – but I think a big part of it is about disavowing silver bullets and instead being very deliberate about tracking and measuring any intervention you make in your market. You want to get to a point where you know how best to deploy every dollar based on what channels you have at your disposal and what your objectives are. The tradeoff of course is that learning takes time (not to mention failure), and in a startup, time is often the one thing we don’t have. But our job is to walk that tightrope.

2. What is one problem in society today that you think we can solve more aggressively using technology?

I would really like to see how we can use technology to facilitate elderly lifestyles and caregiving. I think the amount of thinking and consumer research done in the field is simply not commensurate to the tremendous need and opportunity. In fact, elderly care has many similar themes with infant care (ranging from personal hygiene products to food to mobility solutions), but the two sectors are worlds apart in terms of customer-centricity, product variety and innovation. One reason is that elderly people aren’t as tech savvy as younger cohorts, nor are they constantly connected to the internet via smartphones – but that is changing very quickly.  I think there is another deeper reason, which is that elderly care fundamentally faces a brand image problem – we associate it with the end-of-life, the loss of dignity, and diminished versions of ourselves, rather than simply a challenging stage in life where we have different needs and require more support and help than we used to.

I would love to see innovations in areas that facilitate independent living (mobility solutions, health monitoring and remote caregiving of some sort, seamless chronic care), reduce the burden on caregivers, and that use the internet to create active communities or learning opportunities for the elderly.

3. What’s one thing you wish your friends in Government knew about the tech sector, and one thing you wish your friends in the tech sector knew about Government?

That no one is really in this only for the money. There’s a common misconception that everyone in the private sector (and especially in tech companies) is out to make a quick buck. Of course, there are always going to be companies that fit that stereotype. But in my experience, the most impressive and successful entrepreneurs never quite set out to make big bucks. Rather they became obsessed with some crazy idea that they thought could deliver huge impact, executed on it and managed to bring the world along with them.Making money is a necessity for businesses (at least once the growth capital runs out) and so it’s unrealistic to expect companies to behave like charities. But just like the humans who found and build them, companies have their own personalities, culture and DNA. Of course, there’s a limit to how nuanced our regulations and economic policies can be, but if governments see that many businesses come from the same starting point of wanting to make a positive impact on society, then it paves the way for more open and productive engagement.

Another misconception – which, like the first, isn’t restricted to people in Government – is that what makes a tech company great is solely dependent on how good their tech is, and nothing else. The companies that we consider great “tech companies” – Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, Google – certainly had and continue to build superior technology; but what sets them apart is clarity of focus, a winning business model, and the willingness to fail and pivot.


I recall a conversation with a friend who was trying to understand how Didi beat Uber in China, and a sticking point was whether Didi had any original tech or whether they simply copied ideas; or whether Didi had superior tech which allowed them to win. There are many versions of this story, but what’s fairly clear to me is that technology was merely table-stakes in the Didi-Uber fight; these were two giants at the top of their game and a more finely-tuned surge algorithm was not going to be decisive. What Didi had was incredibly efficient and locally rooted ground operations (back to execution and the ability to deploy every dollar more efficiently than the competition), excellent and often viral marketing, and deep integration with China’s all-pervasive mobile payments network.

In terms of what I wish the private sector understands about Government – I think it’s that the current system of rules and regulations was constructed for a reason and changing it does require time and deep consideration. There’s a general impatience among the private sector with governments, and especially so in the tech sector given that so much of what we do challenges status quo norms and systems. But just as we wish governments understood that we are just trying to serve our customers the best we can, they too need to do the required diligence to make sure that this is the right thing for society as a whole. So the approach shouldn’t be to try and disassociate ourselves from government or brazenly disregard regulations, but to build bridges and try to align our interests. If you’re in it for the long haul, then engagement and trust is the only sustainable way forward.

4.     You work extensively in Indonesia and Kuala Lumpur. What are they key differences in how you operate in these contexts? What advice to you have for companies looking to move into these regions?


One gradually exploding myth about Southeast Asia is that it is a coherent region; in fact, Southeast Asia is extremely fragmented with clusters of countries sharing some common cultural history while others are relatively unrelated. I’ve found that Singapore and KL feel 
culturally very similar, for obvious reasons. Indonesia, on the other hand, feels quite different, more so the further you travel from Jakarta. As my CEO likes to say, Indonesia is a continent, not a country. The energy and vibe is quite different from what you’ll feel in Singapore or KL. The war for talent is far more intense there. We’ve seen some really impressive tech companies come out of Indonesia in the past few years.

If you’re looking to expand to or start something in Indonesia (or really anywhere outside home ground), I think the most important thing to do is to spend time on the ground and learn the language. There’s only so much management you can do from afar, and most of these markets are intensely competitive. There is no substitute for being on the ground and experiencing your product and services in the local context. You’ll learn things that no management report could adequately describe.

 

5. Some of our readers are interested in entering the field of tech. What is your advice for them?


First, if you are currently in a non-technical role but would like to become a technical Product Manager, a software engineer or data scientist, then some formal training is required and there are tons of great options out there to acquire those skills. That aside, I believe that in every company will be a tech company in the future, in some shape or form. It will become increasingly meaningless to think about entering the “tech industry” because every company will have to adopt relevant technology to stay ahead, including how to use the internet to distribute services, understand their customers and facilitate payments and other transactions.

So I would encourage anyone keen on “tech” to first ask themselves what real-world problem they are trying to solve, or what business vertical they feel best fits their interest. Once you’ve figured that out, then go in search of a company that you think is harnessing tech in the right way to solve that problem. Otherwise you put yourself at risk of becoming an unknowing participant in “innovation theatre” in a company that’s just using tech as a marketing tool.

ngiam and tay
XW and I at CES2017, speaking about the potential and challenges of the sharing economy in transport
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