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Angel investor: Singapore must liberalize talent inflow and maintain open, balanced immigration policy

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Ben Chew photo

To describe Ben Chew as a busy man is an understatement. The co-founder of Startup Jobs Asia and current managing director of Strategia Ventures has a broad spectrum of business interests: he’s a business owner, entrepreneur, and angel investor.

A graduate of Ngee Ann Polytechnic with a diploma in electronic and computer engineering, Ben is also a Chartered Certified Accountant and Certified Accounting Technician.

After stints in accounting and the sale of accounting IT solutions, he kicked off his entrepreneurial journey with TBC HR Consulting in March 2000. In December 2012, he incorporated Startup Jobs Asia and Strategia Ventures.

Startup Jobs Asia is a jobs and HR platform serving multiple Asian nations, while Strategia Ventures is an equities trading and investment holdings firm that acts as a private co-investment fund with venture capitalists, working with them and matching their funding in early investment rounds.

We caught up with him to learn more about his journey and current plans.

Where and when did you get your start in entrepreneurship?

I actually started by doing recruitment as a freelancer for an HR company in Singapore. I worked on a commission basis for them. However, as I saw no support for long-term operations in the firm, I felt that I could do better. So from 2000, I started TBC HR Consulting. TBC stands for ‘Thinking Believing Connecting’.

How did you get involved in founding Startup Jobs Asia?

I happened to meet Grace Chng, a senior editor at the Straits Times, who knew about my recruiting background and is quite interested in the startup scene. She asked me what could be done to help the startup ecosystem here, since many startups face challenges in talent acquisition.The thing is that recruitment consulting has some very high fees and can burn startups. It’s not sustainable nor advisable for a startup to engage in that sort of exercise. So I ended up developing Startup Jobs Asia. I wanted it to act as an HR portal, to ‘sexify’ jobs in startups.

When I was doing angel investing in a personal capacity, a lot of of company founders approached me about talent acquisition. The majority of jobseekers tend to join larger MNCs and want jobs in banks and other financial services. I made the decision to establish Startup Jobs Asia as I realized it was also the easiest and fastest way to boost the local startup ecosystem. Currently, Startup Jobs Asia has no full-time staff under a payroll.

Where does Strategia come in?

Strategia Ventures’ role is to finance Startup Jobs Asia. Right now, Startup Jobs Asia has very low costs. It also serves as a co-investment partner for VCs. We work with them by sharing deals and other information as well as investing with them in different funding rounds. We currently don’t have the staff to carry out the due diligence and other work that VCs engage in.

What are the future directions you foresee for Strategia Ventures and Startup Jobs Asia?

For Strategia, we’re interested in maintaining and boosting the startup ecosystem here. It’s looking to invest in B2B, HR and recruitment options. As for Startup Jobs Asia, we’ve facilitated about 35 successful hirings to date for Singapore-based startups. We’ve also seen some success in Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan – where they hired someone for expansion in China through us.

As long as there is traction, we’ll seek to make partnerships with parties in overseas markets to strengthen our overseas positioning. So it’s basically about growing traction in Singapore and overseas.

Are there plans to enter any specific foreign markets?

Strategia is looking at Vietnam with great interest. As for Startup Jobs Asia, we intend to grow our traction in Singapore and make Startup Jobs the voice for hires within Asia through continuing our partnering strategy.

Are there any particular areas you’re interested to invest in?

Strategia is basically looking at HR, recruitment, B2B and possibly mergers and acquisitions, if it adds synergy to our current portfolio. These are currently the niche areas for us. If it’s B2C, we won’t look at Singapore but at locations overseas with larger domestic markets, such as India, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand.

To date, which do you feel are the most promising investments made by Strategia Ventures?

We haven’t had any investments in our portfolio that have exited or entered either Series A or B of funding rounds.

What are some of your considerations as an investor when evaluating a startup?

Well, I’d be looking at the people. I’ll be evaluating the founders and the management team. Having the right talent is critical. Similarly, I’d look at whether the idea is both scalable and sustainable.

In what ways can the startup ecosystem in Singapore be improved, in order to compete with other global startup ecosystems?

In a nutshell, it’s the ability to open doors to foreign talent to come to work for startups in Singapore. We’ve also got a small population of five million, and only a very small minority of the workforce is open to riskier employment in early-stage startups. So when scaling, startups eventually need to hire talent in order to manage the escalation. In general, funding is sufficient given the recent government move to inject cash into the ecosystem.

What we really need is to liberalize the talent inflow and maintain an open and balanced immigration policy. In my opinion, policymakers need to realize that a robust, balanced and open approach is necessary to bring in talent, especially for startups. Even established MNCs and SMEs are facing the same problems. It’s just that startups have the added disadvantage of being less able to compete for talent due to limited resources. Even MNCs and SMEs are frustrated by the tightened labor laws.

What do you foresee happening in the startup ecosystem in Singapore within the next five years?

I think we’ll see more success stories and more exits.There’s a growing awareness of the startup ecosystem. If we have more of those, the general workforce will be more willing to risk joining a local startup. The trend over the last six months has been more exits, like Viki. More exits tend to attract more talent to work for startups. When I first started Startup Jobs Asia, I didn’t expect the response I’m seeing now. I thought maybe 0.5% of the workforce would be willing. But now, I’d put that figure at 1%-2%.

Whats your opinion of the government injecting public funds into the startup ecosystem here?

I think that the government direction is to grow local enterprises that generates jobs. However, there isn’t the right balance of successful SMEs emerging from startups to show an equivalent balance of the public money being invested.

Do you see the HR situation improving and more local recruitment?
Not really. We’ll just have to cope.The situation won’t change with current labor laws, and it will be the same for the next one to two years unless there’s a change in policies. Founders and business owners will just have to come up with measures to cope with the situation and get the talent they want.

As an entrepreneur, what has been your greatest challenges?

Seven to eight years ago, when my business was growing, I found it difficult to balance profitability growth with maintaining good cashflow.This was back when funding options available now weren’t present. The other one is attracting and retaining good talent.

What would you consider satisfying moments as an entrepreneur and investor?

I’d say that it’s growing my business year-by-year and reaching new ground in ventures such as Startup Jobs Asia.

What is your advice as an entrepreneur and angel investor to people who are about to embark on the journey?

Believe in your convictions and be very persistent from an early stage, because that’s the toughest part. Also, get the right people on board with you. There’s a tagline that I like to use: “Hire the right talent for the right job at the right time”.

(Photo credit: Startup Jobs Asia)

(Editing by Terence Lee)



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