By 2040, Asia’s GDP is projected to grow up to 46% of the global share.1 Companies are taking notice with regional funding pouring into the area. “Multilocal networks” are forming – innovation networks funded by regional capital but customised by local entrepreneurs for local consumers.2 Funding is usually an indicator where growth and innovation are taking place and it is no surprise that around 70% of venture capital funding in Asia is intraregional.3 Advanced Asian countries are fueling emerging Asian cities, ramping up innovation and collaboration, and scaling up the next wave of Asian tech breakthrough. The question now is, how can we scale up properly in Asia?
I talked to Gregory Chang, Head of Sales & Customer Experience at StoreHub in Malaysia, and he shared lessons on scaling culture and sales in Asia. StoreHub is a SaaS platform for omnichannel retail and F&B businesses. They serve 15,000 locations in Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Greg has been with StoreHub since day one and he has seen the exponential growth the organization went through. In the thick of everything, he appreciates it experientially and imparts his learnings on scaling culture, building a strong sales team, and continuously improving for our next set of challenges.
Communicating Clearly and Consistently
For startups, dreaming of our north star seems like a far vision but it is a vision worth striving for. With enough grit, investor milestones, and right product-market fit, startups may find themselves on the momentum of sustained growth, no longer a scrappy cowboy but a smooth well-oiled machine. On the surface, people see the success story. We see the prestige of being associated with the new sparkly unicorn on the block. Looking deeper, we gloss over the history of how they reached their journey thus far. We miss out on a colorful story of taking chances, seizing opportunities, and making sacrifices. Greg, who has been with Storehub from the beginning, underscores the importance of telling his company’s origin story: “It’s really important to bring that appreciation…we are not here due to…our own efforts, but rather on these pillars and the sweat and tears of those who came before us.”
In scaling culture, Greg believes that communicating history and identity has to be clear and consistent. It is being intentional with the symbols and messaging they present given that they are across various markets with a majority still in remote work. Whenever possible, they make sure their symbol is visible, reminding everyone of their culture and the way they do things. For example, one of the rooms in the new office is named after the street where the founders wrote their first code. They also prefer to keep messaging concise, specifically with a brief one-pager which contains their cultural code – who they are, how they do things, and why they do things this way. Aside from consistent communication, it is also about making sure the messaging is reinforced. It is about putting reward systems that affirm more of what they want and showing that they are also walking the talk.
Designing the cultural code and rewards system starts off from the top. The leadership team, including the founders, come together to decide who we are, where we want to go, what are the best practices, and who we want to emulate. Afterwards, it gets documented and HR will continuously reinforce this code and system. It sounds simple but the hard lessons come when it boils down to questions of authenticity and honesty: “Some of the turbulence comes from us discovering who we are or who we like to be. I think it’s easy to look at different companies and say, I like that, or I like this, but who are we really and who can we practically become? That becomes a really important question.”
For Greg, writing and re-writing the cultural code is not a free-for-all buffet with a hodgepodge of values here and there. It is about being consistent from the get-go and realistic on where the organisation is. He recalls their journey at the very beginning where they were a bunch of close-knit friends. The environment is casual and informal. They go out for meals together often and their bond is right off the charts. However, a few years later, they start hitting milestone after milestone and the organisation grows into a 300-strong company. Things obviously needed to change. They have evolved from being cowboys and pirates to growing into a pro sports team. The cultural code had to be revisited and re-written if they were to be consistent and authentic about the inflexion point of the organisation. As the organization matures, culture evolves alongside it. These moments invite reflections and candour. Greg shares, “It’s important to take stock so that we reflect on ourselves, who we are, because you’ll be quite disingenuous to say, no, we want to be this, but it doesn’t reflect who we hire and what we practice. I think that was the main struggle when we got to the point where we were really clear who we are or should I say people with similar values can pretty much align with each other and we can move a lot faster.”
Finding the Right Fit
Moving through inflexion points, business needs will change over time. When it happens, we observe that there are people who fit during a particular period but may opt to be elsewhere during the next. For Greg, he opens these people to honest conversations and invites them on different stages of the journey. He recalls a particular shift the company underwent during their startup days when they wanted to grow their first hundred customers. They hired friends who were willing to wear all hats to achieve goals for the company. When they started growing, they recognised the need for processes and expertise. The struggle lies in evaluating their resources and capabilities to determine their needs to reach the next milestone. He remembers having these tough conversations and presenting what they needed. He gave them space to recalibrate and assess where they are and how they see themselves personally on the journey. For Greg, it was about acknowledging that the company was growing and it needed to go in a different direction: “There’s nothing wrong with just saying at the end of the day, whoever we invite on this journey of growth…that perhaps that journey could end right there…I love the whole fact that…a small group of people and I get to experience, try out many things but over time when we start to specialise a little bit, obviously the opportunity is much less.”
Similarly, in scaling sales teams, we identify the right people with the experience and propensity to get the job done. Greg observes there are people who fit better during the scale-up process while there are those who perform better during go-to-market initiatives. A caveat for the scale-up process: provided we have built core products, successfully entered markets, and found the right product-market fit, we just need to do more of it. We invest more people and budget into it to make sure the machine runs better. We put the right people who know how to scale or manage big teams. On the other hand, there are new initiatives and ideas that need testing which concurrently happens as we grow. Greg recommends hiring or re-inviting people with a natural tendency for starting something up. They are comfortable with ad hoc tasks and do whatever it takes to get something going.
From an operations mindset, Greg recognises these two buckets, and invites or re-invites them in the journey: “…present the opportunity and invite them along [the] journey, and be clear on what is required and where their journey leads…getting them to think about that lift and throwing the ball to them and let them decide whether they want to join this journey or not. We give it a go and any other day, if it doesn’t work out at least we tried.”
Iterating for the Next Versions
Maturity in the organisation means being sensitive to its needs and spotting opportunities to fulfill them. The work is never quite done. Environments change; people will come and go. To respond properly, we iterate for the next versions of our company. The pandemic was a catalyst of change. It left all of us reeling from our best laid plans and caused us to re-examine and reflect about our people and processes. In this new unprecedented environment, we ask ourselves how we can evolve again.
For Greg, the goal was simple - basically, to survive. Serving specific markets heavily dependent on offline activity, that was the baseline. In preparing for a potential rebound in economic activity, Greg thought of his next steps and asked how he could find the right type of people moving forward. Pre-pandemic Greg would have reverted to the usual suspects – recruiting people from other startups. He admits the pool is not as wide and it is usually a merry-go-round of familiar faces. During the course of his travels during the pandemic, some pilot tests, and learnings from other companies, he spotted an opportunity in hiring more hospitality people to better serve their food and beverage business. These are people who do not quite fit the startup mode but they truly understand the market they are serving. The hospitality industry is one of the hardest hit and people there are looking for something new. When he shifted his perspective in hiring, it opened his mind. He saw the valuable knowledge and expertise hospitality folks can transfer to his team. He experimented with this and found that it brought tremendous success.
Greg prefers not to rest on his laurels. Even as he successfully built a powerful sales engine, he sees himself a work in progress – constantly exposing himself to global best practices and benchmarks. The buck stops with him. He shares this tidbit passed on to him from his founder: “Your team will only grow as much as you grow, so you are the ceiling.”
In scaling up organisations, it is crucial to understand its core values, identity, and current needs to continuously sustain its momentum.
- Communicate company history and identity clearly, concisely, and consistently. Make sure the messaging is reinforced.
- Identify the right people with the experience and competence to get the job done and place them in roles that fit them best.
- Be open to constantly evolve and iterate for the next set of challenges.