PV Spotlight: TalentTribe

Turning down a prestigious job offer to help other fresh grads

Protégé Ventures (“PV”) is dedicated to investing in exceptional student founders who possess a set of differentiating qualities that set them apart from other young founders. While there isn’t a rigid checklist of qualities we apply in our assessment of founders, we do place a high value on vision, ambition and strong leadership abilities, all of which imbue us with confidence that these founders will be able to bring their startups to new heights.

In our PV Spotlight series, we feature entrepreneurs who we think clearly fit into any of our three theses — see here for information on PV’s core investment pillars — and dive deeper into the experiences and lessons that have shaped their startup journeys.

Our first PV Spotlight features Sharon Yeo from TalentTribe, who graduated from Singapore Management University in 2016 as the valedictorian of her class. She had landed a full-time offer from one of the most prestigious consulting firms in the world, which she rejected for an opportunity to help job-seekers find a career they love and employers access the right talent.

We first discovered TalentTribe in an AMA session — Sharon and Stephenie were pitching in an investor speed-date-like environment — and were immediately fascinated by how both founders were able to respond to every question fired at them with not only confidence but insight too.

As we further engaged with the founders in our due diligence process, we were impressed by how thoroughly they had thought through their current strategy and how they would attempt to build their business. In addition to reading up on marketing and business models, Sharon had also spoken to numerous stakeholders, from students to business owners in need of branding services. Thus, TalentTribe did not fall victim to some of the common challenges that other young student founders face; its founders knew exactly what problem they were trying to solve and had a go-to-market plan — a business model, commercialisation plan and estimated financial projections.

Nonetheless, TalentTribe has not had a straight, smooth-sailing path from its inception, like most — if not all — early-stage startups. However, the founders’ resilience and willingness to learn from past mistakes and continue taking bold risks are among the key characteristics that define them as exceptional entrepreneurs. Initially established as “Protégé” (coincidentally — or maybe it was fate), they started with an employer branding business model; but they eventually pivoted to its existing model: a career discovery platform providing unique insights into the general company culture, “vibe” or working environment and the day-to-day life of employees.

While we have observed that many founders tend to be fixated on their initial solution and “see it through to the end” — potentially due to the sunk cost — we admired the TalentTribe founders’ flexibility in making the necessary changes to their business model in finding their existing niche and sweet spot, though it may have resulted in a 180-degree pivot.

Furthermore, their enthusiasm and unwavering dedication to this idea, demonstrated by their jumping into the startup full-time after graduation — with Sharon even giving up a prestigious job offer to work on developing TalentTribe — strengthened our conviction that the founders were serious about the problem they were solving and that we, as potential investors then, could trust them to execute on their shared vision.

Full excerpt of the interview we had with Sharon, which covers topics from the key characteristics she expects her core team to possess, to what she looks for in an early-stage investor during the fundraising process:

TalentTribe was founded in late 2016 after you graduated from school. Take us through your company’s journey during these three years. What changes have your startup undergone and what has remained the same?

The core problem we’re solving at TalentTribe remains the same. We’re still excited to be on a mission to help jobseekers land a career they’ll love, and help employers get to the right talent. However, how we’re solving it evolves over time.

TalentTribe started out in 2016 as a jobseeker-driven problem. Jobseekers struggled to find out what a company was like to work at; visualise what the role involved; and what the company was looking out for. Hence, we started testing quick prototypes of our vision for TalentTribe with jobseekers: videos, photos and bite-sized content that showcase an inside look into the company’s culture, office, people and day-to-day work life.

But the big question mark then was “Will employers pay for this?”

We put together a target list of 100 great companies we wanted to onboard, cold emailed them and pitched our vision of the TalentTribe platform to them. We then realised that employers were finding it increasingly difficult to connect with a new wave of millennial jobseekers, who had different mindsets and were looking for very different things in their careers. These employers were looking for new ways to better attract and hire the right talent. In fact, companies were starting to create a whole new job function of “Employer Brand Managers” to build their employer brand and better attract the right talent. We then positioned TalentTribe to be at the cusp of a growing macrotrend of employer branding, and rode that growth to be one of the key players in this space that enables both employers and jobseekers.

After growing organically through revenue for the first two years, we decided to build on our expertise and existing client base to develop a more scalable, tech-driven solution. TalentTribe still remains focused on helping employers better attract and hire the right talent, by building their employer brand and showcasing an authentic inside look into their company.

Through this journey, as the way we solve the problem evolves, we’ve also grown the team, evolved the business model, sharpened our perspectives of the market and users, developed the technology, and brought investors onboard.

What characteristics do you look for in a person when you assemble your core team?

The first five people make your culture, so we’ve been really intentional when assembling our core team. Here are four of the key checkboxes we ensure must be ticked:

#1: Alignment with TalentTribe’s vision

This is definitely the most important. No matter how solid the individual is [in terms of technical skills], he/she needs to be fundamentally aligned with our vision, and resonate with our purpose. Some of our best ideas come from team members who were jobseekers that personally struggled in their own job search process. Having a strong identification with the pains our target users are facing and identifying with the information gap allows amazing ideas and conversations to flourish within the team.

#2: Hire people who are smarter than you

We’re always looking for people who can help the company level up. Hiring people with talents and strengths we don’t have is something we value, because that’s how we can make ourselves and TalentTribe better.

I read this piece of advice from Mark Zuckerberg: “You should only hire people to be on your team if you would work for them.” I’d want to work for someone who’s brilliant and isn’t an asshole — and that’s exactly who we look out for.

#3: Good culture fit

Does the person’s attributes gel well with how we work, interact and make decisions? We’ve previously turned down people with solid skills and experiences, but just couldn’t integrate well with the team.

#4: Strong growth mindset and independence

The coupling of limited resources in a startup and ambitious goals means that each person often wears multiple hats, and there’s no capacity for hand-holding. It’s critical for each individual to be able to develop whatever skills necessary to get the job done well.

For example, our Head of Growth dropped out from junior college. However, he raised $500,000 at 18 years old to build his first startup and hustled his way to his last-held position as Chief Marketing Officer of a Series A startup backed by the National Research Foundation, under the Prime Minister’s Office; all completely self-taught.

This is a solid example of resilience and learning whatever is required to get the job done well.

I count my blessings every day to have the core team we have today. They never fail to amaze us – even from day one. In fact, one of our core team members turned down another job offer with a Y Combinator alumni startup to join us. He even requested for us to pay him less so that we can reduce our monthly burn rate.

What were the key challenges you faced as a young founder, and how did you manage and / or overcome them?

Every founder faces many common challenges. They deal with limited resources; wear multiple hats at once; need to attract the right team; get to product-market fit; make sure there’s money in the bank, etc.

But I think the key challenges that stand out as a result of being young are:

#1: Lack of network

We’ve met many founders who have had decades of experience in the industry, and were able to tap on their contacts to close sales deals or investments. As a young founder, we had none of that and started out by knocking on cold doors.

The early days when we were converting cold leads into clients made cold outreach one of our strengths. As part of Accelerating Asia’s startup accelerator programme (selected from 200 teams across Asia), we got the opportunity to visit San Francisco, in which we tapped on this strength to schedule meetings with some of the best minds in the Valley at really short notice — which turned out to be an incredible learning experience for us.

#2: Lack of capital

When we first started the business, we were fresh graduates and didn’t have savings we could pour into the company. But we used this lack of capital strategically, and made conscious decisions to pay ourselves minimal salaries and delay full-time hires while we iterated and learnt to move towards product-market fit.

We also learnt to see this not as a constraint, but an opportunity to drive us to think creatively about how to best achieve our goals with limited resources. That enabled us to bootstrap and grow using organic revenue from day one, to get to where we are today without any dilution.

When we started our fundraising journey, it was also very heartening to find out that investors appreciated startups who have bootstrapped and generated revenue before seeking any investments. It also sends a signal that you’ve built a habit of stretching the resources you have — instead of splurging it on unnecessary expenses once the money is in the bank.

#3: Lack of experience

Nothing prepares you for running a startup better than running a startup itself. Starting fresh from school means you have no pre-existing work experience to tap on and have to build up expertise on different verticals of knowledge in a short span of time. Due to this, we’ve built a strong learning culture at TalentTribe, and are always looking to learn from the best.

At TalentTribe, we are always thinking of how to turn constraints into opportunities. Given the nature of our business, we were able to strategically turn some of our challenges into strengths. Many employers were keen to work with us because of our intimate understanding of millennial jobseekers. Also, because we didn’t have years of human resources (HR) experience which anchored us on existing ways of doing things, employers shared they found our approach to hiring very refreshing.

Recently, you went through the process of raising your pre-seed round. What made you decide that it was an appropriate point in time for TalentTribe to seek investment from third parties, rather than continue growing via bootstrapping and organic growth?

When we first started TalentTribe, we got a lot of advice to avoid fundraising if we could. This was exactly what we did for the first two years where we bootstrapped and grew organically through revenue.

We built good traction among employers and jobseekers who loved what we do, and felt it was the right time to do more. We were already working with clients like Singtel, Philips, BreadTalk to build their employer brand before we were ready to leverage the expertise we had developed over the past two years to develop a more scalable tech-driven solution. That was the key reason we decided it was an appropriate time to seek investment from third parties.

Even then, we didn’t jump into the fundraising process; we prototyped our solution and tested them with employers and jobseekers first to make sure that if we brought in investment, it would accelerate us in the right direction.

Here’s an excerpt from the book Scaling Lean by Ash Maurya that really stuck with us:

“It is best to think of money as an accelerant … Money only lets you do more of whatever you are already doing … If you’re building more features or hiring more people but you don’t yet know what you are doing, you’ll probably just get lost faster.”

How did you decide which investors you wanted onboard? What are the key attributes you look for in early-stage investors?

We’re huge proponents of bringing in smart money. We firmly believe that at an early stage, it’s not just the money that you need. It’s the domain knowledge, industry networks, sphere of influence, strategic thinking and more that investors bring with them.

One of our advisors recommended that we be open to bringing in angel investors who were interested but could only write smaller cheques, because what you really need at an early stage are advocates.

There are three main categories of investors we go after:

  1. Investors with a background in the recruitment space. Two of our angel investors build & own recruitment firms, so they have relevant expertise and networks we can tap on.
  2. Investors with experience growing startups. These could be ex-entrepreneurs or professional startup investors. For example, one of our investors is the managing partner of a late-stage venture fund who’s had a lot of experience working with founders to scale their ventures. He personally invested in us because we were too early-stage for his fund.
  3. Investors with strategic networks or domain expertise we need, such as technology, data, platform strategy. One interesting example is Protégé Ventures. Millennial job-seekers are our core target audience, and Protégé Ventures — being a student-run venture fund — had a deep understanding of the problem we’re solving and could help us deepen our footprint within the local student communities.

You graduated as valedictorian; there must have been many great opportunities awaiting you in the corporate world. What made you choose the life of an entrepreneur over a more stable (and better-paying) corporate career?

When approaching graduation, I was very fortunate to have been offered a full-time job offer at one of the big three consulting firms and I had two weeks to decide before the offer deadline. It was quite a dilemma for me and I spoke with many different people — including consultants who left to be entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs who joined consulting.

I had always been interested in entrepreneurship as I felt that enterprises are one of the most sustainable ways to create a positive impact on the world. When I thought about where I saw myself in 10 years, I didn’t see myself climbing the ladder in a corporate job, but running my own business.

The next question was what’s the best way to get there, and I learnt from the conversations I had that there are two schools of thought:

  1. Build up your networks & capital in a corporate career, before leveraging that to start your own company.
  2. Nothing better prepares you for running a startup than running a startup itself, so you should just start now.

I eventually went with the latter, but it was a difficult decision at that point in time (although I’ve not had any regrets since) and a confluence of different factors:

  • Not wanting to have any regrets and “what ifs”, because we saw the opportunity and right timing for TalentTribe at that time — it was now or never.
  • Having the least financial and family obligations and most time and energy to drive a startup now, than any future point in my life.
  • Having a family who was very supportive of my decision, whichever path I chose.
  • What felt right in my gut.

What is the most unique and inspiring piece of advice you have received during your journey as an entrepreneur that you would love to share with other aspiring student entrepreneurs?

This was a quote by Steve Jobs that I used on my desktop wallpaper for a few years during my university days, which inspired me a lot at the beginning of my startup journey.

“Everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it … You can change the world.”

As a student, I think sometimes there is the subconscious limiting belief of “I’m just a student”, “People won’t take me seriously”, etc. However, setting your intention changes everything, and if you truly believe that you can mould your world, it doesn’t matter if you’re a student or someone with experience.

In fact, use your student status as an advantage because it’s the best time for you to take action, fail, learn, experiment. There are always student deals on startup events, products, software, etc. and people are always happy to meet with students and offer help!

What’s next for TalentTribe?

We’re growing our team and hiring! If you’re interested in joining our team either as a full-time or intern position, feel free to check out the roles we’re hiring for here.

Our team is laser-focused on building a product our users love. We believe that you can and should find a job you love — and be successful at it. And we want to help make that happen for millions of jobseekers across the region.

If you’d like to follow or be part of TalentTribe’s journey, sign up for a TalentTribe jobseeker account here.

Editors: Grace FunTheodora Boo