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  • Writer's pictureRoger Grant

Constant Learning and Evolution

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

Last month, we visited the bustling Ubi area to talk with Ben Tan about his journey from the multinational arena to taking the reins of an ambitious e-commerce start-up.

Ben was a 16-year veteran of consumer products at Microsoft before moving to Challenger Technologies (the largest IT retailer in Singapore) in 2012 as its chief operating officer. In 2015, he founded Andios, an e-commerce marketplace for used phones.

For easy reading, my questions are in Italics, and Ben's answers are in regular.

What ignited your decision to start Andios?

Three billion people have connected to the Internet in the last 30 years, and in the next five years, the next three billion will follow. In an inspiring message by Eric Schmidt of Google, he believes everyone on earth will be connected to the Internet by the end of the decade. For Indonesia and Philippines where large populations have yet to get online, we have the capabilities to provide cheaper handset options to millions and offer them internet access.

Andios is about empowering people and connecting the next generation. As more people upgrade to new smartphones, the market for used smartphones will grow as well.

Many used smartphones - especially the premium models - can be sold for several hundred dollars but they are often left in the drawer to depreciate further. And in the region, many people want premium smartphones but some are not able to afford new sets.

There is a growing demand for the buying and selling of used smartphones, but there isn’t a major trusted online or offline platform for used phones in Southeast-Asia. Therein lies our opportunity.

How did you go about this new direction?

At Challenger, we needed to capture the next generation of consumers. When a dad buys a computer, he will come to Challenger physical store right away, but his son would look online first. We looked to online company founders such as Jack Ma (of Alibaba) and Oliver Samwer (of Rocket Internet) for inspiration.

I believe in what Oliver says - you have to look at the Internet business not just in the short term, but also over the next hundred years. By then, there will be no business that isn’t online. If you don’t do it today, you will lose out in the future.

Going from offline to online is a huge learning curve. Consumers behave differently - at a physical store, consumers tend to make impulse buys. Online, consumers tend to make addictive buys.

We are in such a start-up mode. We pivoted Andios’ business model after six weeks as we learned more about online and offline customer behaviour. We’re constantly learning and evolving. Yes, it is very difficult to change direction but if you figure out how to frame the problem and get the right data, you can figure out how to make the right decision.

Who are your mentors?

A key mentor would be Mr Loo Leong Thye, the founder and CEO of Challenger. He’s a visionary; he detects trends three to five years ahead.

For example, software sales used to be a major driver of revenue in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2009, when the iPhone was launched in Singapore, Mr Loo foresaw the decline of Challenger’s software sales towards convergence devices. Since then, revenue from software has dropped to a very small percentage of total Challenger revenue.

Many times, Mr Loo would push you forward into action, even before you feel ready.

How did your childhood contribute to how you work today?

I learnt from a young age how to survive, to organise and to get things done. I left home at 14 to study in UK. I learnt a new culture, from the cuisine to the way they spoke. It was a great learning environment, during half-term break times, nothing was provided so I had to look for work and bunk at friends’ houses.

I worked three jobs in university as well, painting walls, selling credit cards, and collecting basketball match tickets.

At the University of Portland, Oregon my friends thought I was a freak of nature, I played all types of sports yet I also played chess and loved computers. My geek friends used to say, “You play rugby? Don’t they get hit in the noggin (a slang term for the head) too much?” 

What is work made personal for you?

At work, we are dealing with people and their different motivations. From a leadership perspective, there are three main reasons why people come to work.

First is Success - it is about being successful in your job, or it’s about the job title, awards, or rewards.

Second is Growth and Development, which is exposure to new concepts, ideas or attending training.

Third is what I call Fun and Family, which is making sure people have fun at work and have work-life balance.

These three reasons cover a good 99% of why people are motivated to work. As a leader, you need to know, which of these three, each of your employees is inclined towards.

When an employee signs a contract to join our company, I will send a hamper to their homes to welcome them. This small gesture will engage their family support even prior to them starting their first day of work. With this approach, I have never lost a candidate.

I also do regular one-on-ones with my direct reports every month, and with my indirect reports every six months, focusing on their coaching and development. Each session starts with feedback on how we work together, how I work with them and the people in their teams. I will always encourage them to grow, and offer development ideas, books and other materials.

From your experience, what do you think it takes to join a startup?

You need to know how to deal with the ambiguity. If you have been stuck in a well-structured environment too long, you may not be able to deal with it. You need to be like a guerrilla fighter, you need to think independently and know how to survive; you can’t fall back on existing processes.

When looking for candidates, my favourite interview question for this is “How many people in Singapore wear their watch on their left wrist?”

“How many people in Singapore wears their watch on their left wrist?”

I think some people fear to join a start-up. What they don’t see clearly is the excitement and new opportunities. Since joining Andios, I’ve been exposed to a lot more business opportunities, approached out of the blue for mergers, investments and just new ideas. It’s tempting and hard not to be distracted. You need to stay focused.

Big thanks to Ben for sharing his story!

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