5 lessons on running a startup in Asia for 6 months (that you can apply too!)

(10/07/2018: DRAFT, updated version will be here soon!)

6 months ago I took a one-way flight to Jakarta.

After running my company in the Netherlands it was a totally new experience for me. Aside from cycling to work in a sleepy town of 50,000 habitants to beating the traffic each morning in a city of 20 million, much bigger changes happened to me: I learned a lot about leadership, but also about scaling a company from 0 to 30 employees in 6 months in a country with a different culture than mine.

I summarised all my learnings in this blog post, let me know if you have had the same experiences and how you overcame these problems!

1. How to ensure your team is aligned (the most important job of a founder): Explain and clarify the vision and ensure communication flows.

As a CEO you constantly sell.

You sell your company products / services to your clients, you sell your vision to investors but the most important people you have to sell to are your employees.

Having a clear vision helps your employees understand their role as part of a bigger picture, something greater than them. It helps makes them innovate and see how their work contribute to making the company bigger.

Some examples of things we did:

1. Wrote roles and responsibilities for each of our team members
2. Set up an all team meeting of 15min on Monday. This team meeting is an opportunity for people to say: “Look what I have worked on, and why and how it will lead to our high-level objectives“. It is also when all of us try to be as inquisitive as I can: “Why did you do this? What was your thinking behind it?
3. Created an induction day where the first day is only about learning about the company.

2. How to keep your team happy and engaged: Create “Aha” moments for your team. 

Today I walked to the designer table (our office is an open office) and I saw frustration in the eyes of one of our designers, Dina. I asked her “What’s wrong?“. She told me “I just can’t be inspired (…) I have to translate that client concept into an illustration  and got no idea how to do that“.


Employees hate to be frustrated or confused about their job. On the other hand, employees love to be challenged with a difficult task, find a solution, and have this adrenaline rush that flows through their veins and create an “Aha” moment to them. Try to guide employees through overcoming obstacles and they will feel as empowered as ever!

Some examples of things we did:

1. Created open office hours. Each day at 2pm, all team leaders are free to talk about everything.
2. Set 1-on-1 with each team leader where they focus on removing obstacles for their employees.
3. Do not over schedule yourself with tasks. The best that worked for me is to have a lazy schedule and a deep, focused work schedule (like writing this blog post)
4. Ask often how the work is from the employees by asking stuff such as “Are you bored?”. If they are not bored, then it is a good sign the work they do motivates them.

3. How to do get things done (without having to do them all yourself): Show the way

Here is the typical mistake I did: I explain a project to the manager and the vision, tell them how great it will be and then ask them “Come back tomorrow with this“. Most of the time this does not work.

Some examples of things we did:

1. Show the way with new projects, get your hands dirty at first. Doing the work at first vs. explaining it might also make you realise you have “grey spots” in your idea.
2. Anticipate any obstacles a project may have.
3. Do not get too friendly: The work must be done and employees must reach (or exceed) their objectives. Make sure to remind your employees on this.

4. How to communicate (don’t): Connect instead

Perhaps one of my biggest learning running a company here in Asia is that connecting is more important that communicating. If you do not connect, you talk AT each other rather than to each other. In addition, communication is highly contextual here in Asia: Focus on how you deliver your message and explain projects, and what is not being said rather than what is being said.

Finally, I have also realised that we often feel as westerners that we have a superior form of communication. Just accept you decided to do business here and that you have to adapt to a different way of communicating things.

Some examples of things we did:

1. Seek to connect first by talking Talk about off work thing that happened (but be genuinely interested about it)
– Learn some of the local language
– Focus on what i
– Help people understand you as a leader. People must feel they are close to you.
– All hands meetings.


5. How to set values: Do not impose values, embrace them into old ones.

Declaring a company value won’t override a lifetime of cultural conditioning.

The first thing I did in the company is think of some values I thought would be good. However, you have to go one step ahead: Try to integrate those values into values that your team mates already share in their country.



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