Former US President Barack Obama once said that “change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek”.
This may have never been more true and yet more challenging.
Organizational paradigms and rise of algorithmic organization
Homo Sapiens are social creatures. Since our origins, we have always survived by organizing ourselves in groups. The way we have organized ourselves has evolved from our hunting-gatherer days to our agrarian societies, to our first multinational organizations, to the rise of the internet and now - to the rise of algorithms.
Each successive organizational paradigm has enabled us to handle more complexity and propel society into ever greater levels of industrial and economic productivity.
Today, every paradigm is still in use and valuable to get specific jobs done. Think of these paradigms like “social technologies” or tools that are still continuously being perfected and improved by an army of academics, authors, business leaders and politicians.
In less than 8 years, analysts expect that the remaining 4+ billion people will be connected to the internet, thanks to advances in broadcasting 5G internet from satellites, suspended balloons and abundant capital from private investors and philanthropists.
All this data will be ingested by our AI algorithms to make sense of the world, and to start managing the world for us - initially with humans making the decisions (“humans in the loop”), and then perhaps without humans in the loop. What is the role of human leadership in a world where algorithmic decision-making takes on a larger role? As AI becomes stronger, will we increasingly have “weaker” human leadership?
These are hard questions to answer.
Strong vs weak leadership
We take a pragmatic starting point to explore this.
We can speculate that AI will at some point in the 21st century have the super-human ability to reason but may not have the ability to be sapient (“feel”) anytime soon. This will leave plenty of room for human leadership to flourish.
The challenge for human leaders will be to have the intellectual and emotional capacity to integrate AI in their workflow and then to adopt the relevant organizational paradigm and accompanying leadership style for the job to be done: meaning-making or consensus (choose the Circle), crisis management (choose the Pyramid), complexity (choose the Organogram), drive collaboration or innovation at scale (choose the Network).
We, therefore, believe strong human leaders will likely remain a fixture in our civilization for some time, still.
And ironically, this brings greater dangers. While AI may not be able to feel, it sure will be able to reason and influence or even persuade human leaders’ decision-making process.
This will pose great challenges to our notion of “human agency”, our capacity to make free choices and to impose those choices on the world. Perhaps never before will we need strong compassionate leaders, who have the courage of their conviction, in the face of strong AI.
2021 is well underway now and we finally managed to take the time to look back at our previous year and capture some of our highlights. Uff, talking about being busy! (Read PART 1 here).
Highlight 4 - Communicating our content and brand
In 2020, we refreshed our external Slash brand: we released a new website (www.slash.co), the HAK blog (www.slash.co/hak) and HAK podcast on the impact of venture building in the world of corporate innovation!
✍️ HAK blog is the place to find engaging content on venture building and corporate innovation. Here, we post articles on topics ranging from productivity to innovation along with in-depth analyses of relevant trends among other types of content.
🎧 HAK podcast, which we launched in December 2020, we speak with brilliant minds in the venture building ecosystem - what makes them tick, their challenges and models, and the impact of venture building on corporate innovation. Every week we release a new podcast. Subscribe here!
We’re excited to continue building a meaningful brand as Slash, to develop our voice as Slash and original content.
Highlight 5 - Many more Client impact stories!
On the consulting side of the business, we thrive on our client success stories. Despite the COVID-19 challenges, 2020 has been rich in stories where we helped solve significant industry problems as an entrepreneurial technology and hands-on transformation partner.
Here are a handful of public highlights:
📌 We completed and deployed the flagship United Nations World Food Program “PRISM” in Cambodia and are now maintaining it as it scales across all of Asia Pacific, from Pakistan and Papua New Guinea to Mongolia. PRISM provides a near-real-time map of the impact of floods and droughts on vulnerable agricultural communities using satellite data and remote sensor sources. Here is PRISM in the news.
📌 After an incredibly intense 12+ months, we completed EedenBull’s flagship QBusiness platform in collaboration with 65 regional banks in Norway. We then helped EedenBull build their in-house tech team in Edinburgh, UK, and over a period of 6 months empowered them to take over the solution. Since then, Edinburgh has been growing from strength to strength with headline-grabbing press releases in Europe and Asia.
📌 For the last 4 years, we have been supporting AXA’s Innovation team with their products and core tech. Several new products have been launched under our watch and it’s exciting to see how our partnership evolves.
📌 We built the next version of Supermom, the largest online mummys' shopping heaven in SEA. Supermom is a founder-led business and has an incredible passion for its mission.
Highlight 6 - Building the Rocket
In the theme of our year, "Building the Rocket", we always intended to make 2020 the year where we would focus less on growing the company and more on building the foundation for Slash to scale to greater heights in the coming years.
In that context, we have been working hard on systematizing the business, with 120+ playbooks to streamline the processes and capabilities of our team across every single area (from finance and HR to software development and product), to assign management roles better, to conceptualize our Slash Experience & Learning Environment, etc. 📚
While more work needs to be done in 2021 to refine these playbooks and get everyone onboard across the organization, we're excited to see "Slash 3.0" as our delivery team’s operating model come to life and deliver consistent value to our clients.
🎓In addition, several members of our team started their AWS Solution Architecture certification and got certified under R3 Corda blockchain. We also joined Google Cloud as a partner. New Year, new doors with opportunities!
Highlight 7 - Our sales machine
We are making good progress in building our Slash "sales machine", from lead generation to appointment scheduling, and closing. 📞
🤝 We find that our Slash value proposition of building autonomous scrum teams (what we call “squads”) is well received by corporate innovators and changemakers. What sets us aside is that we bring experience as serial entrepreneurs and product & tech operators scaling digital products and teams; something that many consultancies or tech shops lack.
In 2021, we are scaling these sales processes and teams further.
Highlight 8 - Tech for Good
We became entrepreneurs to have an impact. This culture permeates through Slash and translates into a variety of community and social initiatives.
In many ways, COVID-19 put this commitment to the test: with our pipeline hit and many communities at risk, could we step up and support where needed? We definitely did! ⬇️
🔥 The online hackathon in Cambodia, HacKH-the-Crisis 💻
Held 3-5 April 2020, this online hackathon united the local community to create unique solutions to the challenges that Cambodia is facing due to COVID-19 to save lives and save businesses.
The initiative gathered 206 participants and 56 mentors (local and from overseas), who worked together on 79 pandemic-related challenges.
HacKH-the-Crisis was initiated by Slash and co-organized by Impact Hub Phnom Penh and the state-owned NIPTICT university. We were supported in this project by Cambodia’s Ministry of Post and Telecommunication (MPTC) and Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MEYS).
Out of the many initiatives that came out of it, one to highlight is the COVID-19 Broadcast Solution to help the Cambodian government speak with a unified voice and disseminate official COVID-19 information across all their social media channels. Slash developed this solution pro bono together with our venture partner Clik.
Other ideas that came out of the hackathon can be found here.
🔥To support regional SEA startups, Slash helped a group of regional VCs (Openspace Ventures, 500 Startups, Cocoon Capital), to launch the Support Startups website across Southeast Asia.
The website’s primary task is to assist startups across Southeast Asia with the release of their promotional activities and discount codes for the customers looking to buy products and services from startups, supporting them along the way with their consumer purchasing power.
🔥 In January, Slash organized and held AWS re:Cap in Cambodia. This event gathered over 100 participants, who arrived to discover the newest and biggest announcements from the largest Cloud event of the year.
🔥 In 2020 we also conceptualized and launched HAK Weeks (URL: www.hakweeks.slash.co or www.slash.co/hakweeks), an online corporate hackathon initiative that brings the best of Slash internal capabilities, paired up with our associates in the innovation strategy and facilitator space, to run high-impact online hackathon programs in “1 week”.
HAK Weeks started off as a social idea to help businesses during COVID-19 pivots and is now a standalone service offered to corporate heads of business units who struggle to get their HQ support to digitize elements of their client-facing and internal processes. Through short rapid prototyping programs, they get clarity, can inform their transformation roadmap and train their team on the key agile and design thinking skills needed to take charge of their transformation.
In 2021, we can’t wait to continue building on our mission of “Teams to Innovate”. We are systematizing every aspect of spinning off venture and engineering teams for our clients and our own portfolio.
2021 is well underway now and we finally managed to take the time to look back at our previous year and capture some of our highlights. Uff, talking about being busy!
Here are 8 highlights of our 2020.
Highlight 1 - Productive year and a bigger portfolio
🏆 Across our portfolio, our startups raised ~US$4.85m in 2020. We have several startups that launched in 2020 (Sharelook, Augmented Tribe, 360 Sports), and others will pilot or launch in the first half of 2021 (Clik, TripTax, Acropolis, Hourvillage). Most of our startups are expected to hit revenue in 2021! Our portfolio of early stage startups is slowly hatching ;-)
🚀 Currently, we have 8 startups in our portfolio:
➤ Sharelook - Netflix for Corporate eLearning. This mobile e-learning platform is designed for trainers, teams and organizations looking to enhance their knowledge through online courses. Sharelook offers integrated live video broadcasting (the only one of its kind to do so now) and course builders with user-generated learning mazes along with advanced analytics, 3D avatars, and more.
➤ TripWorld - The startup develops travel solutions for global conscious citizens. The pandemic might have hit tourism hard, but travel is starting to recover. TripWorld’s flagship, deep-tech solution TripTax, is the solution for travelers searching for a faster, cheaper, and safer way to do tourism tax refund while skipping the queue at the airport.
➤ 360 Wellness - This addition to our portfolio has introduced an end-to-end solution to help fitness & wellness professionals run their business online in a post-COVID-19 world. They can use 360 Wellness to broadcast live classes or coaching sessions, do the monetization & invoicing, put together schedules and follow-ups, retarget, and set up personalized programs.
➤ The Hourvillage - The startup provides a CSR solution for corporates to connect employees with charities & causes. It operates as a social equalizer platform, where one hour equals one hour-time regardless of who you are.
➤ Acropolis - Sell your international properties & land to Asian investors faster in one easy-to-use, unified conveyance platform. We enable digital ownership of cross-border property investments, and the users do not need to travel. The startup also provides a secure & immediately verifiable chain of title, super-fast transactions (~2 days) and cheaper transaction costs.
➤ Clik - This startup has created an award-winning unified payment, credit & loyalty solution for merchants and consumers in the Mekong Region. It is available online and offline, with advanced eKYC/AML-CFT and data-driven micro-targeting and loyalty schemes. The solution’s rich variety of functions includes a seamless consumer experience that also enables lending.
➤ Augmented Tribe - The startup has established a social learning platform for professionals. The app is organized around learning spaces to accelerate the know-how. It comes with structured curriculums, real-time collaboration, and on-demand experts. Augmented Tribe is a joint-venture with global business school IMD, operating in Switzerland/Singapore.
➤ Trust8 - It provides secure risk management & facility management dashboard. This startup’s primary goal is to help companies manage their back-to-work policies during the COVID-19 crisis. Among other key features, Trust8 also enables integration with an ecosystem of secure, trustless, private wallets to handle employees’ health data.
Despite the general volatility of 2020, it was a productive year for our startups. We are already working on a new stealth-mode startup, so stay tuned for announcements in the upcoming months! After this progress in our portfolio, we expect that our startups will be more visible in 2021 and generate more engagement opportunities for the core Slash team.
Here is a number of public achievements our startups recorded in the last 12 months:
📌 Augmented Tribe has conducted a successful first user pilot with the Civil Service College Singapore, the college for government employees in Singapore.
📌 360Wellness.io was founded and launched in less than 9 months.
📌 Clik raised USD 3.6m round and got its payment (PSP) license from the National Bank of Cambodia.
📌 Sharelook closed a major deal in Africa and we helped them build their team in Nepal.
Highlight 2 - Expanding Slash family in Asia and Europe
2020 was a year of growth for Slash. Guided by the commitment to increasing our geographical reach, we expanded in 2020 and entered into 2021 as a larger family with now 3 hubs: in addition to our Cambodian (Phnom Penh) office, we launched our Bali hub and the Armenian outpost by building our initial team in capital Yerevan!
By extending our geographical reach, we access more diverse and deeper talent pools, more time zones and cultural coverage for our clients, and more opportunities for our teams to experience life in different countries. We can't wait to try to get everyone in one place for a celebration!
🌎 The choices for the locations were not random, as we always look for diverse talent pools and more cultural coverage. We are currently attracting the best local talent in each hub.
📌 Singapore is our oldest office and our headquarters. It’s the perfect launchpad for our global portfolio of companies and supports our global clients on the IT consulting side. Our team consists of senior executives and our financial team.
📌 Our first hub in Phnom Penh is significant with its strong L&D environment and community engagement. We have a mature team in the Cambodian office, with 3+ years’ longevity at the company. This impressive Phnom Penh team consists of many senior software engineers.
📌 Our second hub is in Bali (Indonesia), an attractive workplace both for local talent and high-skilled expats. It is also a fantastic place to live and work, as the pictures of our Bali office illustrate clearly! ;)
📌 In 2020, we welcomed a new hub to the Slash family, our third one - Yerevan. It boasts strong STEM talent thanks to the Soviet Union heritage and westernized culture with good English. Its location in the middle of Asia and Europe makes Yerevan the perfect hub to provide support to our Eurasian clients.
Highlight 3 - New services, new capabilities
In 2020, we expanded our Product Team at Slash and decided to start externalizing our product strategy & research and product design services to offer them to Clients. Previously, we primarily focused our Product Team on our own startup ideas.
By externalizing our product capabilities, we now offer end-to-end digital product development services from idea to engineering, and thereafter maintenance & scaling.
In the process, we are systematizing and refining our product methodology and improving how we build our internal ideas. This will also provide opportunities for the Slash team to extend their skill sets.
Part 2 is coming soon!
Our modern routine is full of tasks, obligations, calls and overall a huge amount of distractions.
How do some people handle the stress and stay more productive than the others? The answer is deep work - a process of focusing on one thing without distraction.
A popular book called “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”, written by Georgetown University professor Cal Newport unpacks the methods to develop a set of skills essential for achieving great exceptional results of work through the deep work phenomenon.
The origins of methodology
Newport defines deep work as “Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
The author’s central principle - the deep work, is the kind of research you will need to develop to succeed in your career. He outlines the key reasons why deep work matters:
- The speed of change is accelerating. The hard skills we have today may be useless in 5 years. Deep work gives us a practical method to continuously learn and reinvent ourselves.
- Secondly, deep work helps you produce original work of higher quality. Mediocracy simply doesn’t cut it in a world where you compete in a global playing field.
He highlights 3 major benefits to establish a deep work practice:
- It’s valuable as it enables us to learn new skills more quickly, as well as leverage our existing skill set.
- It’s differentiated because as the world becomes full of distractions, less people are able to go deep.
- It’s meaningful because we get more meaning and fulfillment out of being focused in our daily work.
Types of work
Newport divides work into 2 categories:
Shallow work - Tasks that are logistical or non-cognitive: they are easy to replicate and are often performed in a state of distraction.
Deep work - Tasks that are generating new value and are not subject to replication: they push cognitive capabilities to their limit and are expected to be performed in a distraction-free environment.
Deep work vs Distraction
Deep work is not something the majority of people are able to practise. To become successful in doing deep work, you have to practice a lot.
Unfortunately, in the modern world, there are a lot of barriers preventing the typical employee from practicing deep work. Firstly, we're supposed to be constantly online. Email and corporate apps, messengers make the instant communication, sometimes out of working hours, a regular thing.
There are other distractions that chase us throughout the whole day. Social media is always attracting us with something new and wasting our valuable time, colleagues invite us for an online chat, and eventually, you get calls from friends and family.
Below are a few steps to help you achieve deep work.
1. Ritualize Deep Work
Our brain likes it when we establish a routine. To integrate deep work into your workday, helps to identify the principles of dedication in advance.
The following 3 rituals can help:
- Become very good at agenda management: you need to structure things like the space and the duration of the work you are willing to do. It is crucial to know in advance what exactly you are going to do during your deep work time. With an agenda in mind, you would stay concentrated and proceed to the predefined assignment.
- Finding a place where none and nothing will distract you is essential, as this will help you to stay focused.
- Finally, make sure you have all the tools you need to help you throughout your deep work time. Books, equipment, food, and anything else that might make you happy.
2. Execute Like a Business
Thanks to its effectiveness, deep work allows you to concentrate on the most important: a limited set of goals that optimize your deep efforts. Those targets will demand and inspire you to dig further.
In accordance with this approach, organizations use key performance indicators (KPIs), the main metrics for efficiency. This theory can also be used in your deep work routine as well to help monitor self-productivity.
3. Schedule when the Internet is allowed
Being always online is a constant habit in today's digital world. Very often the internet distracts us while doing an important task so minimizing and controlling when and how long we can access it, can create magic. You should identify a time period when the Internet is allowed. This helps to prioritize critical tasks and get everything done on time.
4. Quit Social Media
Many of us spend a solid amount of time daily on just scrolling down our Facebook or Instagram. Try to stop that habit and instead devote that time to deep work. Whether you are not sure if you need to quit social media at all or partially, just be honest with yourself and ask if spending time on social networks really gives you a sense of fulfillment. If not, then you will for sure find something more exciting and useful.
5. Plan your day by minutes
Part of the reason why distraction is so easy is that we don't have a day structure. The absence of deadlines and restrictions makes us hop from one task to another, without understanding that the result is not satisfying at all.
By planning our day in advance, we need to split it into smaller segments and decide the amount of time each task requires. If there are any unexpected things arising, you can always adjust them to your daily schedule. The schedule planned in advance allows you to value your time and find a right work/life balance.
6. Become hard to reach
Being accessible 24/7 is not always comfortable as the risk of getting distracted is absolutely high. Try to become inaccessible while you are in the deep work sessions. Switch off your phone, your internet, and concentrate on the moment.
Accelerating speed of change
The forces driving innovation are accelerating and compounding. Tomorrow’s speed of change will make today look like we’re crawling. In many ways, the future is faster than we think.
To stay relevant, companies are dramatically shifting the way they innovate from an “innovation by exception” to an “innovation by design” approach where constant experimentation is baked in.
Consider the example of Microsoft with its entrepreneurial roots as a pioneer of the software industry. In the past Microsoft built everything themselves, as famously outlined in Eric S. Raymond's popular book on open-source, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”. Microsoft did run some successful sideline experiments, including skunkworks projects like Kinect that were then brought into the Microsoft Group.
But it’s only more recently that Microsoft innovation strategy embraced the broader innovation ecosystem and looked at building deep relations with the open-source community. In the last decade, Microsoft strategy has been to acquire “networked assets”. Between 2013-2018, Microsoft did 57+ M&A deals. In each deal it bought assets with strong communities that could help it grow into new markets and bring new products into its core offering (e.g GitHub, LinkedIn).
The Shift in Innovation Strategy
Your typical 20th century innovation and R&D departments in a large company, was often found orbiting around the mothership. Far enough to remain creative, but not too close to avoid being entangled in the impenetrable mass of rules, traditions and systems of the company.
Today, innovation is much more looking like building a Startup. Yes, R&D remains crucial. But the ability to quickly get your R&D out in the world and in the hands of users, becomes an integral part of the innovation scorecard. And in order to get your innovation adopted, you need to embrace the “Startup Way”, a broad toolkit of methods pioneered by startups.
An entire industry of new products and services is emerging to help companies make that shift at industrial scale. The startup way is being turned into corporate innovation playbooks with new frameworks for rapid experimentation, such as online corporate hackathons, competitions and corporate venturing.
For the last 3 years at Slash we have been offering rapid prototyping and coventuring services to corporates, using our startup playbooks. We will be exploring those topics in future posts.
Waterfall vs Agile
Imagine you are a builder and you’re tasked to build one house and one city. How would you approach each building challenge?
The house seems straightforward enough. To achieve your goal, you choose an architect, create a detailed blueprint of the house with all the measurements and materials, select the contractors, start the build. When the work is completed, your house is ready to move in.
Now consider the challenge of building a city. Technically you could follow the same process as building a single house. In practice, it’s unlikely you would have an all-encompassing master plan of the city covering all the requirements. You may also not be able to freeze the requirements; each new citizen may have their own wants and needs, a new mayor may come along with its own political agenda etc.
To solve for those different building parameters, let’s consider 2 methodologies: Waterfall and Agile.
Agile has conquered the tech world today and makes the life of builders easier, with its new concepts, philosophy, team rituals and built-in flexibility.
In the article below we’ll talk about the shift from Waterfall and a monolithic approach to software, to an agile world of microservices, as well as our reflections at Slash about the challenges of operating Agile.
The history of Agile
It is difficult to imagine, but the first commercial software has been developing since the early 70s. In 1970, the American computer scientist Winston Royce compiled a paper entitled “Managing the Development of Large Software Systems”. In his work, Royce argued that software development should not follow other industrial processes, such as the automotive assembly line, consisting of many steps, where each previous step has to be completed before going to the next one.
Instead, Royce proposed a phased approach, where all the project requirements are gathered up front. Only after this initial step, the remaining processes are meant to be done.
The paper led to the adoption of the waterfall method for software development, but the irony is that it was one big misunderstanding. Royce was arguing for an agile process where requirements were gathered before each step of development & testing; and each step was “small enough”.
The early 90’s gave birth to the first flexible software development methods that were able to challenge the dominant “plan-driven” approach of the Waterfall method so revered by other industries as well.
A decade later, in 2001, 17 software developers gathered in the state of Utah (USA). As a result of their meeting, the Agile Manifesto was born. This was the very beginning of the new project management and software development era.
You can read more on the origins of agile, in this article: 12 principles of Agile Manifesto.
So why Agile?
As we’ve seen in the example of building a house vs a city, the challenge of the Waterfall method is that it contains 2 risky assumptions: requirements are clear upfront and implementation is accurate.
In a dynamic environment, this invites failure. Requirements evolve, customers and end-users have opinions (and change them!), and testing of the development process should occur continuously. Failing to incorporate this in your workflow can have devastating results: a product no one wants to use, budget overrun of 100%+, tech debt etc.
To better understand why most IT problems are dynamic and not static, let’s consider how IT architecture is evolving.
Monolithic applications vs microservices: why or why not?
Two decades ago traditional IT was based on monolithic applications, nowadays most new IT systems or applications are based on microservice architecture.
While a monolithic application is a single unified unit, a microservices architecture breaks it down into a collection of smaller independent units. These units carry out every application process as a separate service. So all the services have their own logic and the database as well as perform the specific functions.
The attractiveness of microservices is easily explained. Developers can work in parallel using the programming language, platforms, and data formats of their choice. They do not need to coordinate with other developers the deployment and scaling of application components built with microservices. And for clients, it enables rapid development, more future-proof tech and scale.
In many ways microservice architecture is made for agile development.
Agile at Slash: Our 5 lessons learned
While we at Slash are big fans of Agile as a philosophy and practical framework to organize our work processes, here are 5 challenges we have faced so far in implementing it.
Challenge 1: clients want to work agile but pay waterfall
We found out the hard way that clients want to work in Agile but prefer to pay for Waterfall. In other words: they want a contract with a defined scope and a fixed budget, but they love to have the flexibility to modify the scope and requirements afterwards.
In a client-vendor relationship, that is a killer and poses the 2 practical challenges:
- Clients need to be educated on the pros and cons of working with Agile.
- Contracts need to be adjusted to allow for a more flexible, agile framework.
We have adopted two strategies to deal with this:
- Strategy 1: clients pay for a retained team with a flexible scope. We define pre-agreed day-rates for the members of the team and a transparent planning and tracking mechanism to guide the daily work.
- Strategy 2: clients pay for a retained team with an ~80% pre-agreed scope and ~20% variable. We install a requirements engineering and approval process to allow for scope to evolve within the team capacity.
Challenge 2: protect the integrity of the agile process
To be effective in an agile process, you need to protect and maintain the integrity of the process at all costs. Agile is opinionated. If you don’t protect the process, you do more harm than good and develop anti-agile patterns.
Challenge 3: kill bad habits
The agile process doesn’t do well with lone rangers or lone geniuses. Agile requires good teamwork to be effective. You need to build an environment where everyone respects and supports the process, including elimination of bad habits, late-night work and weekend work.
Challenge 4: build trust relationships
Agile is based on a collaborative relationship of deep trust, dialog and transparency. If you work with external clients or startup partners like us, you need to transform your relationship into a trusted partner for Agile to work properly. Traditional client-vendor relationships may not have the team work, trust and leadership required.
Challenge 5: factor in overheads
Agile comes with “a lot” of project management overhead on top of the development time, depending on the project 30-60%. This has to be factored in terms of scope, budget, timeline and team. In Waterfall this overhead is more “hidden” in the planning phase, delays etc. In Agile, this overhead is made very explicit.
Agile Survey: soundbites from the Slash team
We surveyed our team to get hear about their experience with Agile.
The first experience with Agile:
- The majority had no or little experience with Agile prior to Slash. A few worked on agile projects in industries such as banking, credit card organizations, SaaS, etc.
- The majority found the switch from Waterfall to Agile quite difficult because initial misunderstanding and concept misinterpretation.
Changes in individual habits:
- The #1 change they had to adopt is “Flexibility” .
- The #2 is “Teamwork”. Slashers found it challenging to get used to it at first, especially those who came from enterprise backgrounds and were used to operating in waterfall models.
Changes in team behaviour:
Agile affects the team behaviour in many ways.
- “The habits change by focusing on sprint as a whole instead of focusing on each individual task,” - as noted one respondent, ”[...] and we will prioritize what benefits the client the most.”
- Another team member recalled clashes and misunderstandings between the team when switching to Agile, because many of the old habits were no longer needed.
Benefits of Agile:
- “Some of the biggest benefits to me come from the simple concept of being able to quickly and frequently put software into the consumer’s hands.”
- “Sometimes unpolished products cause problems.”.
- “Embrace a fail fast, fail often mindset”
Lessons learned from the team:
All our respondents stressed on the importance of adopting new teamwork techniques and developing the ability to constantly communicate with team members to get work done.
An agile mindset can help get things done better and faster, however everyone in a team needs to stay focused on the final outcome.
Agile is probably the most “native” operating model for teams of builders and innovators. It is not however a panacea and like all methodologies, it requires careful nurturing and development to get the benefits from it. We embarked on the Agile journey across all our tech and non-tech teams in 2017, and every day we’re still learning.
We figured out of all things RAP is what could help us spread the word 😃 (thanks Eminem!)
When we created our Slash engineering office in Phnom Penh in 2017, it came to a surprise for some. People don’t understand Cambodian tech.
Below is the result. Startup Rap Cambodia — a social project to invite the world to engage with the Cambodian tech scene.
Why Did We Choose Cambodia?
We ended up in Cambodia by coincidence. When Marc and I set out to build our first venture product with Slash mid 2016, a payment abstraction layer that we eventually sold to a global insurer — we subcontracted some of the work overseas. Singapore is an expensive place to build products.
The best results came from a small team of developers in Cambodia, running a dev shop called Flexitech. The quality was amazing. We’d have struggled finding this level in Singapore regardless of price.
The culture and values were right. Fast forward and we ended up joining hands and seeding our Slash engineering office in Phnom Penh with the Flexitech team, to great success.
Its only later that we started seriously looking at the macro picture of the Cambodian tech scene, and got even more excited.
The Cambodia Tech Community Today
When you think of the country of Cambodia, what comes to mind are factories and temples — but, generally not technology — until now.
Yet, this frontier market is home to a young and dynamic startup scene, bustling with activity, and a few hundred startups.
The last few years have seen a rapid growth in co-working spaces, makerspaces, hackathons and tech events to support the tech community. Business angels are starting to invest, local tech portals have emerged and the first corporate VC funds and incubators are setup.
What is needed are more platforms and tools, expertise, capital and opportunities to help Cambodia reach its potential.
The 4 Magic Bullet Points
Why partner or work with Cambodia?
Raw STEM Talent
The community is upskilling fast. The tech talent is hungry to try new ideas, has humility and no sense of entitlement. It is a refreshing feeling coming from more developed markets.
60 percent of the population is below 29 years. 94 percent of Cambodians own a phone. The urban population is “digital native,” with access to 4.5G networks. Also keep in mind that 43 percent of the population is on Facebook using their mobile phone.
Gateway to ASEAN
Cambodia is a cost-effective gateway to ASEAN. Most of the ASEAN region can be reached within two hour flight. The economy is dollar-ized and the companies can be 100 percent foreign owned.
As a frontier market that is unconstrained by many legacy infrastructure, there is less friction to adopt new solutions and services.
Startup Rap Cambodia
Some of the best rappers in Cambodia, 35 tech companies, a kickass film crew, nine months of work and hundred hours of filming.
What a passion and spirit of collaboration in the tech community in Phnom Penh.
We are proud to be a part of it with Slash!
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For more info on the initiative and participants: www.startuprap.org
Startup Rap is an initiative by Slash (http://www.slash.co), AI and Blockchain startup studio, with an engineering team in Phnom Penh and Bali, and an HQ in Singapore.
Our engineering team in Phnom Penh splits their time between building our own venture products and helping enterprise and funded startup clients develop their products (web, mobile, OCR, algorithmic, AI, Blockchain).
Part 3 on how we fundraised US$45M in South East Asia and China, lost it all, killed the round and became profitable in 50 days.
This was a wake-up call. We had to kill the round and face reality. We had to behave like a bootstrapped company. The rollercoaster of the endless pitches and manic emotions of hopes and depressions was over.
Despite the many challenges, we saw a large increase in demand and would be closing the year with 223% YoY and 267% YoY increase in bookings and enquiries respectively. We continued to have our shareholders support and trust. We saw a massive amount of condominiums in Singapore and elsewhere in the region building fancy facilities for their tenants to entertain home. We are convinced the market will continue to pick up further.
We calculated we could scrape by for another 50 days if we postponed payables and stretched every penny. We had some small bridge offers, but didn’t want to dilute further or risk a downward round. This was it. We had to become profitable within 50 days.
The turn-around was painful:
● Priority #1 was to continue delivering a quality experience to our customers. Clients should not and would not be affected.
● Cut our cost by ~75%. We already cut costs in the previous months, but it would take radical changes to deliver such savings. Our main cost was payroll, followed by marketing, office and infrastructure.
● Reduced our headcount. This was hard and felt like cutting off a limb. We had a great team. We kept our team updated every step on the way and had informed them 3 months in advance of the funding milestones we had to hit to keep them on. Several team members had opted to take unpaid leave, or to leave on their own accord. While it didn’t make the redundancies less difficult, at least it did not come as a surprise.
● Simplify our business process. We redesigned our business functions and found ways to offshore and subcontract parts of the process more cheaply. The challenge was that end-of-year was our peak season. The transition had to be managed without interrupting the operation. We secured key subcontractors, moved to a cheaper office and offshored some roles to a new office in Philippines. We focused a lot of our effort in implementing and reinforcing our new SOPs with the team and coaching our offshore hires. We wanted to minimize any transition gaps. Working with a distributed team also meant we had to put in place more controls.
● Finally, we had to significantly re-think our growth and product strategy. We had 5 engineers and a huge product backlog. We re-prioritized our product log and really doubled down on those priorities with a renewed sense of camaraderie.
The turn-around was painful.
We managed to become profitable within 50 days. Our emotional gas tank was empty. Those 9 months of fundraising and turnaround became the most humbling months of my professional life. It is never easy to admit defeat, especially when you come so close to a key milestone that could help you realize your vision as a founder.
Since then we’ve given up the scale-at-whatever cost approach favored by VCs, and focused on building sustainable revenue and profit. We learned to say no to anything that deviated from that focus. With an industry that is bracing itself for recession, we already have the business disciplines in place to weather a storm and are confident we can continue on our customer promise of quality.
The new approach has been paying off and we’ve been turning profit for the last 6 months.
The legendary VC Vinod Khosla, likes to use the following analogy: “So think you’re at one of these British roundabouts with six roads going up in six different directions. Once you take VC money, they’ll force you to take a road, a plan that you execute on. I like to say keep going in circles around this imaginary roundabout trying to scope out what is there in each of these paths, even do a small forex, trying things in that area, seeing what works.”
We are tolerant to exploration, as long as it meets our underlying profitability target. By circling the roundabout, we are already uncovering new opportunities. The outlook is bright.
Lessons learned: 50 days to profitability
- “Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the face” (Mike Tyson). Hindsight is 20/20. We could have done a lot of things differently, not in the least cut out more costs earlier and continued optimizing the business. But for some things, you need to be punched in the face before you act. In high-growth startups, there is a constant balancing act between optimizing the operation and hustling for more business. Only the founders know where to strike the balance.
- Put your customers first. We had a rare opportunity to redesign our company from the ground up in 2 months. In reviewing each process, we asked ourselves how this could be simpler and more customer-friendly. That mindset has helped us deliver a better experience with fewer overheads.
- Fire the right way. I don’t think there is an easy way to fire people. But there is a right way. Treat people with dignity, show compassion and take your responsibility as leader. A lot has been written about ‘hire slow, fire fast’. In our case, this was a structural workforce reduction and had less to do with individual performance. Nevertheless, we took the time in 1:1 discussions to inform each of them during the fundraising process of the potential risk for their job; and during the redundancies we had individual exit talks.
- Treat your investors like family. When the shit hits the fan, you need to have supportive investors to get through things. Choose investors that believe in you and be honest with them every step on the way. It sounds rather obvious but I am always surprised to see how many entrepreneurs accept money from investors that they don’t really have chemistry with. An investor is not like a landlord, you can’t change them at the end of the year!
- Know when to get rid of your funding addiction. In the tech startup world, funding is glorified. Funding is incredibly invasive as an activity and should only be a means to an end.
Part 2 on how we fundraised US$45M in South East Asia and China, lost it all, killed the round and became profitable in 50 days.
Skip down for lessons learned. See Part 1 on the Ordeal of Fundraising.
I then managed to cold call a big Chinese entrepreneur and investor, known for starting big companies, big rounds and big exits. In the next 24 months alone, he had 4 IPOs scheduled. He expressed an interest and the next morning we met.
Overnight, he somehow had his team put together a full breakdown of our Chinese competitors: their metrics, cash in bank, their strategy and expansion plans, and the status of their funding rounds. The level of insight was impressive and discomforting, a sign of just how cut-throat business is in China.
We clicked personally. The first meeting he listened to our vision and our plans. He got a measure of us as a team and what we were capable of. He then shared his thoughts on how we could conquer China, and how he could help us.
By coincidence, it was early October and the National Golden Week holiday in China. He was not due to travel to China for about 10 days. We agreed to aim for a signed a deal before his departure. We spoke almost daily and had as many meetings as his schedule allowed, starting at 9pm and sometimes finishing at 5am. The process was incredibly intense but invaluable. We developed a mutual respect for each other.
The plan looked something like this:
● One of his portfolio companies, was a premium kindergarten group with several hundred schools. The schools had hundreds of thousands of kids from affluent parents across China. Each school had its own kitchen to cater a wholesome diet. The business was going to IPO soon.
● Clubvivre could bring in international chefs to enrich the curriculum and kids diet with Western food. Parents would be delighted and it would help the schools justify their upcoming increase in tuition fees. And the Group could sell that in their IPO prospect.
● In return, we would inherit all the kitchen assets, sign a long-term vendor contract with the schools and get access to the parents to market our on-demand chef model. It would instantly make us profitable. We would own the entire O2O value chain and would be able to fully control the customer experience. We would localize the Clubvivre brand to target a Chinese market.
● The initial investment included US$5M cash, with substantial money of his own, and an estimated US$40–60M in assets. This would require an independent due diligence process and a lock-step plan to transfer the assets so we could absorb the new resources. We would retain control of the company and agreed on an international roadmap after China, with Singapore as flagship.
● The deal involved a great deal of secrecy. We didn’t want to alert the competition about our plans before we were ready. We had witnessed first-hand how quickly competitive insight could leak in China.
It was a bold plan.
It was a bold plan with aggressive timelines. After two marathon negotiations, we eventually signed a Series A term sheet for US$45M. We were ecstatic.
There was a ton of execution and people risk.
I had experience doing business in China. I set up a strategy consultancy office in Shanghai for my former employer and run the company for the first year. But this was an order of magnitude bigger. We would be 200 staff from Day 1 and expected to grow to 600 people within 9 months. Then there was the due diligence problem. We would parachute into an existing operation and had to build rapport with the Chinese investor syndicate. And we didn’t speak Mandarin.. whoops.
Everything was hot. We were opportunistic and had 3 months to launch, to capture Lunar New Year. Our first trip to China was planned 20 days later. Marc and his developer team of 4 had to deliver the impossible in 2 weeks, a beta version of the Chinese app. We had to figure out the operation, in Singapore and in China. And in the meantime, we were running out of money by end of the month. The downpayment was expected to take about 2–3 weeks depending on paperwork. To be safe, I had to restructure payments to suppliers and to the team. Not ideal while we were asking people to do overtimes!
We also had to get our existing shareholders onboard. We brought them pro-rata in the deal, but the sheer size was unexpected. In the words of one of our shareholders, the deal was ‘fanciful’ and incredulous. They had every reason to be skeptical. Unlike other investor negotiations, we did not actively consult them. This was a mistake and raised unnecessary concerns. With the fundraising dragging on, fatigue had set in with our investors and we choose to only update them when we had something tangible. Like an adolescent, waiting to introduce his new love interest until the relation gets serious.
But the most time consuming was recruiting. We needed feet on the ground, people we could trust. Over the last decade, Maria and I had developed a solid network, in our startup and corporate life. Our strongest network though came from AIESEC, an incredible organization with amazing alumni talent: bold leaders with integrity and passion. We managed to line up two dozen people interested to join us: trusted advisors, a Chinese lawyer, a CFO; and experienced China operators to get our marketing, engineering and industrial catering team started locally.
And then, our investor had a heart attack.
This happened about a week before the downpayment and our trip to China. Luckily, he made it. And yes, he had it.
All the risks of the deal came crashing down on us.
His doctor and his family required him to cut out all work for an indefinite time. Our Chinese syndicate froze their assets. Without his involvement in the critical first 6 months as lead investor, they were not ready to honor their commitments. We tweaked the plan overnight and tried persuading them we could phase it and still achieve the key milestones to meet their IPO targets.
It didn’t work. The Chinese syndicate shelved the deal. We knew that the deal was dead in its current form. The momentum was gone. And legal action on a term sheet would be a waste of time and resources.
We had to kill the round and face reality. Continue part 3: 50 days to profitability.
Lessons Learned: the Grand China Plan
● Entrepreneurship is about incremental steps.
With each step, you expand your comfort zone, upskill and learn to think bigger. This was such a step, an incredibly concentrated experience. It broadened our horizon and gave us a bigger appetite as entrepreneurs. Bring it on.
● Win or lose.
Breakthrough deals can hang by a thread. Life isn’t fair so you better build resilience. It reminds me of this story, of how Kenya had a nationwide blackout caused by a rogue monkey.
● Step up to the challenge.
As a management team, we delivered some of our most inspired work in that period. We worked as a team and were in a flow. We knew the odds were high that we would fail. But we weren’t discouraged, odds are just odds and you have to believe you can beat them.
● Until the money is in, the deal isn’t closed.
Protect yourself and don’t give away valuable IP. Regardless of our enthusiasm we always ensured we didn’t release any IP.
3-part story on how we fundraised US$45M in South East Asia and China, lost it all, killed the round and became profitable in 50 days.
For lessons learned, skip down to the bottom of each section. These lessons draw from our own biases. Draw your own conclusions.
The ordeal of fundraising: 768 investors, 471 prospects, 300 meetings
It was summer of 2015, and we were about three months away from running out of money for Clubvivre. The race was on.
Clubvivre was two years old. We raised around $350,000 from angels, for our online marketplace of private chefs. Our product had resonated well with customers and chefs, and everyone in the F&B industry was surprised we came out of nowhere. We had become the #1 chef platform in Singapore within 12 months.
We were still very early in our revenue buildup and product development. The original plan was to get profitable within 12 months, and then raise money on our own terms. The first year we did $100k. Instead of waiting, we took some funding to accelerate our growth. We hired our team, built out our platform and operations. The next year we grew 500%. Our returns per customer were high, 3–20X.
We were burning a lot of cash though, about $30k a month. To complicate matters, we sat on a time bomb that needed diffusing.
The next year we grew 500%.
One of our angels placed a follow-up investment but did not disburse all the funds. As an existing shareholder, we filed the shares in good faith. This would cost us dearly. For 7 months we tried to secure the much-needed funds, but the delays continued. It turned off several prospective investors and broke our trust. We had no choice but to oust that shareholder. We found buyers and after 3 months of painstakingly facilitating a private share transfer, we restored the integrity of our cap table. We had to make up for lost time and quickly.
I had been in the market trying to raise US$1–4 million pre-Series A for a few months. We were selected as one of the top 100 startups in Asia by e27 and exhibited at the Echelon conference, a helpful boost. But the fundraising wasn’t going as planned:
● I had shortlisted 768 investors, starting within my own network. I then filtered through all 800 users in AngelList Singapore, and added several LinkedIn and Facebook groups in the mix.
● I contacted 471 prospects, 135 expressed interest and we took first meetings with 101. We worked that list further down to 49 investors. We took 300 meetings in total, every day was packed. My co-founder Maria De Vos Kuvshinova, and our CTO Marc Gamet, were looking after the daily operation. Nonetheless my time out fundraising was starting to take its toll on the business.
● We had some moderate success finding investors willing to put in smaller tickets, and had around US$1.5M of follow-on money lined up waiting for a lead to set the terms. But we couldn’t find a good lead.
We were too big for angels and seed groups. Or we were not big enough for investors who wanted to put a lot more money to work. Traditional food and retail investors wanted to franchise us, once we were ready. We were even approached for an accelerated seed-to-IPO strategy on a small-cap stock exchange. We were turned off by the investor’s desire for an aggressive 18–24 month IPO timeline. It’s hard to get your fundamentals right in such a short span of time. We were just not ready to suffer through several years of post-IPO because an investor wanted to quickly flip a company.
When you fundraise, you compete for capital with whomever is seen to have a shinier model. In Food Tech, local meal delivery players were still all the rage, a model we felt was a race to the bottom. Risk capital is in short supply in SEA. Venture capital prefers to import or localize global models with clear benchmarks. They questioned the addressable market, and our ability to sustain quality and unit economics at scale despite our track record.
On-demand chef services are still novel with only a handful of players worldwide. The biggest ones raised ~$50M venture capital, but none had exited yet and a few had closed already.
And that’s when we stumbled on China. Continue to part 2: The Grand China Plan and how we fundraised US$45M.
Lessons Learned: the Ordeal of Fundraising
· Fundraising is sales.
You need to work every stage of your Funding Funnel: prospective investor, qualified investor, contact, interest, meeting. Be extra conservative with your funnel conversion and keep your funnel full. There is no such thing as contacting too many people, especially for your first serious round (post-angel). And it’s totally normal to receive more than a hundred ‘NO’s. Just power on.
· Be clear on your financial roadmap and funding strategy.
If you can, raise when you don’t need the money, so you can raise on your own terms. Be realistic about what you can raise and from whom. Run through your investor hitlist with someone who raised before in this region, to get a reality check. It will save you a lot of time and headache.
· Go beyond your network.
For too long I organically grew our list of investors through our own network. It’s time consuming and requires a lot of goodwill from friends. It was a cautious approach and had the benefit that I could control who I was pitching to. If you are in need for speed though, like we were, make bolder moves. Once I worked through AngelList, we supercharged our funnel!
· Don’t slow down your business while fundraising.
Investors invest in lines, not dots. If your business suffers, you risk jeopardizing your momentum and this could cost you good investors. Cover all the bases and assign operational responsibilities within your management team.
· Be stubborn on your vision, and flexible on the details (Jeff Bezos).
It helps to define several funding scenarios and areas you are not willing to be flexible on. Be confident in pitching all the scenarios. The smallest whiff of doubt can break a deal.
So exciting to see how Cambodia tech sector is booming, with big data, AI and digital tech breaking through; and people are starting to pay notice.
Dr Mahlet Zimeta published an excellent long-form article in the The Diplomat, Asia-Pacific’s premiere current affairs magazine, as their headline story last weekend. You can read it here: “Cambodia’s Coming AI Revolution”
A few highlights and excepts from the article - for quotations see full article. Selection my own!
- Perhaps the most obvious structural challenge Cambodia faces is the loss of its middle class in the Khmer Rouge era of the late 1970s. But the Fourth Industrial Revolution is allowing the country to overturn conventional thinking about its demographic profile.
- The loss of the traditional elite “means there is less dogma about how things should be done, and fewer entrenched interests. Many young people in Cambodia though have to figure out what they want to do now without role models.
- The demographic skew means there is an unusually high proportion of ‘digital natives.’ Cambodia’s youthful and increasingly well-educated population is passionate and energetic when it comes to tech adoption – it feels like every day a new start-up or hackathon or incubator program is put in motion.
- Data-enabled digital technologies such as AI are a huge opportunity for countries like Cambodia, where skilled labor is in short supply, to access expertise being developed elsewhere
- Another structural challenge Cambodia faces is its size and unique Khmer language. But these features may be assets when it comes to adapting to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. “Because it’s a small market with a very dynamic young population, you can test your ideas easily and get high impact quite quickly"
- The country’s distinctive Khmer language has also meant that Open Source coding and software, are well-integrated in the country’s technology ecosystem.
- This OS culture allows Cambodian start-ups and developers to immediately access the thriving international tech ecosystem and positions Cambodia’s tech ecosystem to adapt readily to AI.
- It was assumed that economic development required industrial infrastructure,” Zakariah said to me. “But the Fourth Industrial Revolution offers the possibility for any country to simply leapfrog infrastructure development.”
- The emerging infrastructure also means organizations from the private and not-for-profit sector can contribute in innovative ways. For example, Slash is developing AI talent through Cambodia.AI and Open Development Cambodia is playing a central role as Open Data provider, which typically would be done by governments.
- Limitations in data management also create opportunities for tech innovation. For example, Slash is developing a AI Natural Language Processing toolkit to “read” and analyse paper records written in Khmer, enabling wider commercial and social applications.
- In countries such as Cambodia where infrastructure is being established, the relevant legal frameworks for data governance might not yet be in place.
- The emphasis is on economic agency rather than political agency. The government here is economically progressive and conscious of the country’s standing in an increasingly-integrated ASEAN.
- Collectivist cultures might be better placed to develop frameworks and legislation suitable for the “big data” age. “There isn’t such an emphasis on privacy here, which means that when it comes to sharing data or trying out a new technology, there is less friction.”
- Governments and entrepreneurs in less wealthy countries might need to make a bit more effort, but they already know how to do a lot with less, which is an advantage for their future