STYLEGUIDE breaks bread with David Chin, Head of Relations of CIO Academy Asia, to talk about conquering mountains and winning big.
STYLEGUIDE: Tell us about your journey with CIO Academy Asia and how you got started as an entrepreneur
David: I was not recruited into CIO Academy Asia by chance. When I was a JC student, I joined NTUC’s Youth Entrepreneurship Symposium. As part of the Symposium, I ran a project that was subsequently monetised, which gave me a glimpse into what running a business was like, including the challenges in managing people and generating revenue.
The experience also allowed me to meet a lot of local entrepreneurs who became my mentors, such as Soon Loo, a very successful entrepreneur during the dot-com boom who later went on to become a notable venture capitalist in Asia. I met Elim Chew as well, who founded 77th Street, and her journey gave me a lot of insights on the hardships an entrepreneur would face.
I started my first business before I entered National Service called the Marketplace Ministry – it was a design and merchandising e-commerce platform. I was one of the first few locals to use Alibaba as a marketplace. I also partnered with Carousell to become one of the champion merchants, and in turn they would market my business. I would like to think I am one of the pioneers of local e-commerce partnerships! The Marketplace Ministry grew from 100 followers to 5000 followers within six months, and we recruited designers from all over the region to scale the business. That was a crucial experience in scaling a business, growing a community and getting people to buy into a business vision.
Subsequently, we pivoted the business to do more consulting work and design, branding and marketing campaigns for clients like Forbes and Fortune Magazine. And this was how I got to meet my biggest client, Glen Francis, the current President of CIO Academy Asia, who eventually became my boss. Glen wanted to start an academy for C-suite leaders in technology from across different sectors. The academy would fill a gap in Singapore and the region. Frankly, I did not really understand his idea, and all he wanted me to do, as his design consultant, was to create his company profile. Gradually I found myself more involved in a rapidly growing business, and I joined CIOAA as a full-time employee as I wanted to focus on growing it. My responsibilities have changed over time, though I am as passionate as ever about CIOAA and its prospects.
STYLEGUIDE: What piqued your interest in entrepreneurship?
David: My dad was the first entrepreneur whom I encountered. I saw first-hand the fruits and hurdles of entrepreneurship, such as raising funds to start a business. Growing up, I knew that I did not want to be a doctor or lawyer, and I thought dabbling in business would be fun.
I am grateful to NTUC for the opportunity, resources and support to start projects and eventually turn them into scalable businesses. We were given a bounty of resources despite our youth and inexperience! And that stint was the cornerstone for my career. I sometimes joke that I became an entrepreneur by accident; I was no Elon Musk and did not start with a grand dream.
With Gary Vaynerchuk and friends
STYLEGUIDE: What are some key lessons you have learnt from starting and growing businesses?
David: A business’ first priority should never be to make money; it should aim to help others make money, fulfill a passion or see a vision come to life, and in that process develop a profitable business model.
Hard work is crucial; long hours and zeal are necessary to start and sustain a business. When I first started at CIO, I had no idea what enterprise technology was. I burnt a lot of weekends reading up on the topic. Meeting seasoned entrepreneurs like Soon Loo and Elim Chew also convinced me that I had to put in the hours to create an enterprise that solves a problem which I am passionate about.
STYLEGUIDE: How do you get people to buy into your business vision?
David: By looking at the bigger, more strategic level of transacting, rather than just focusing on immediate gains within the quarter. When I meet potential clients, I want the discussion to be strategic: how can we work together so that they can achieve their long-term goals, while fulfilling short-term KPIs? Can our partnership also provide me with sufficient cash flow? If the partnership can yield win-win outcomes, then it is worth pursuing. This is something I have learnt throughout my career, be it with the Marketplace Ministry or CIOAA. Usually if the partnership is transactional or opportunistic, it is unlikely to be sustainable.
STYLEGUIDE: It is incredible that you are part of CIO Academy Asia while pursuing a university degree. Do you find it hard to relate to your peers?
David: Not for my peers who also believe in maximising their time! I am very intentional with my time, and I always try to maximise the gains from my school projects. For one, I always try to see if I can apply these projects or assignments for a real-life stakeholder. One example is that of a predictive Excel model which I worked on with some classmates for a module. We worked with Mercy Relief to develop this model, which can be used to evaluate and plan responses to humanitarian crises around the region. Together with Mercy Relief, we are exploring ways to implement this model so that the organisation can apply it to real-life crises.
I also refuse to compromise on my studies as well - I am as much a student as I am a part of CIOAA.
STYLEGUIDE: How do you define success?
David: To me, success is fundamentally people-centric. I define success on two counts: first, being able to help C-suite executives achieve big goals with measurable outcomes, second, developing other aspiring young entrepreneurs. I am excited about motivating young people to spend their nine-to-five productively and commit to charting their careers. It is important to maximise learning and growth opportunities.
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STYLEGUIDE: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced so far?
David: Proving myself as a young person in an industry that prizes experience. Being young is no excuse for compromising on excellence. As a young person, I have to work hard to show that I am able to think on a strategic level - one that C-suite executives share - and talk about go-to-market strategies as well as or even better than my clients, who are usually industry veterans.
It gets even harder as the company grows, since I have to manage teammates who are more accomplished. I am constantly thinking of ways to gain more industry insights or close better deals. I also have to keep fighting for opportunities to grow.
STYLEGUIDE: What keeps you going?
David: My motivation comes from building productive business relationships. I am all for nurturing and growing strategic connections, and implementing the best solutions for the right audience.
I am also very competitive - I like winning big and I love challenges.
STYLEGUIDE: Tell us more about your mentors and what you have learnt from them.
David: My bosses and parents are my biggest mentors. My bosses have always stressed that building a credible brand was more important than profit-and-loss considerations. My bosses and I love nature; we sometimes dovetail a hike or trek together with a business trip. Glen and I once climbed Mount Bromo in Indonesia together, which was a great retreat to talk about strategy, whether the business will continue to be profitable in the short run, analyse our competitors, and new ideas.
With Ramakrishna, Deputy CEO of CIOAA, and Glen Francis, CEO of CIOAA
My parents keep me grounded; they remind me to manage my ego, and constantly emphasise that one should not compromise integrity for profit.
STYLEGUIDE: What are some tips you would give aspiring entrepreneurs?
David: Initiative, especially to learning and step up when the opportunity arises. You gain credibility and partners when you have done your due diligence and display a sound understanding of the market.
Network with a purpose. Instead of racking up a stack of namecards, step into a networking event with a project or idea to discuss, or better yet, sell.
Think big and start small. Dream big, but yet have measurable short-term goals. These goals yield small victories that will help to motivate you, while allowing your partners to track progress and buy into your dream.
STYLEGUIDE: What is one burning question that keeps you awake at night?
David: One of relevance and innovation. What technology will fundamentally change the world? What will be the next quintessential piece of technology - much like the iPhone - for the next decade? Will this new ‘iPhone’ render me a ‘Nokia’ of my generation? Like many, I believe that the next revolutionary leap will be fuelled by blockchain technology, AI and machine learning.
STYLEGUIDE: We’d love to hear about your hopes and aspirations - say more!
David: My vision is to contribute to developing a piece of technology that will change the world. Realistically, I am now working towards amassing enough capital to do so.