Reflecting on Hard Times
with Roger Yuen
Having more freedom to play by your own rules sounds like a fun job scope, but did we mention having sleepless nights, endless worry, bouts of doubt? Well, this is the life of an entrepreneur, but it is not all that bad. Ask Roger Yuen, a serial entrepreneur, businessman and tech mogul, who saw an opportunity and bravely went for the kill. As the Founder and CEO of online community marketplace and content site, Clozette, Roger has a thing or two to share when it comes to starting your own business and perseverance to reach a goal.
Having been in the industry for as long as you have, do you have any idea how your boss/co-workers and/or subordinates describe you?
“Committed. I believe that’s the word that they would likely use to describe me, whether coming from my bosses, colleagues or subordinates. When I set my mind on a task or goal, I will do my very best to achieve it, be it in my personal life or at work.”
Indeed. Commitment to a project means having the drive and the fortitude to see things from start to finish, no matter how tumultuous the journey may be. The road ahead could be rocky, but the desire to accomplish even the impossible could be a motivating factor for many self-made individuals. When it comes to running a business, there are multiple aspects to oversee and investments are a key part of keeping a business going.
When dealing with multiple investments, there is always some form of stress, how do you compartmentalise the many things you need to do throughout the day?
“I’ve developed a one-day-at-a-time mindset. Might sound easy, but it has taken me many years to be able to compartmentalise problems into those that I can solve today and those that I can’t; and those that I can’t, I’ve learnt to stop worrying, or at least worry less. When I was younger, I would have a tendency to dwell on all issues and problems at hand, impatient to resolve them immediately. Nowadays, I have resigned to the fact that difficult situations take time to be addressed, that scenarios can and often will change, and learned to park problems aside. I sleep much easier thinking, “tomorrow is another day”.”
There will always be something that needs to be fixed, but how do we prioritise what is important and how do we juggle multiple responsibilities without getting overwhelmed? In all honesty, we doubt that there will ever be a case where everything is exactly the way one expect things to be, and to strive for that level of perfection is unhealthy.
As the head and leader of the company, do you ever find it difficult to reach out for help? Or pressure to always be the problem solver?
“The phrase “It’s lonely at the top” is clichéd but true, although I’m fortunate that I have co-founders that I can talk to. But ultimately as the CEO and head of the company, the buck stops with you; and making the final call on critical decisions is extremely pressuring. I’m blessed that one of my best confidant and sounding board is my wife, who has a good grasp of my businesses, and can often give me objective and valuable perspectives into problems that I share with her.”
We should acknowledge that as humans, it is necessary to take things a step at a time and reach out for help when the stresses of work get too much for one person to bear, instead of trying to fix every problem independently. Additionally, there is a ton of stress for a business owner to bear. Having someone who understands the demands of the job can be beneficial in alleviating some pressure.
Sometimes we see working in teams as a hindrance because there might be much back and forth, however by tweaking one’s mindset and acknowledging that the burden is being shared, better teamwork and synergy can be fostered.
When the need to make big decisions arises, do you tend to consult others?
“It’s imperative to get the perspectives of all the major stakeholders involved if one is making big decisions. When such occasions arise, I’ll often brainstorm with my co-founders and management team to get their insights and opinions; but as I’d mentioned, ultimately as CEO, I have to make the final call after weighing all the pros and cons.”
Owing to how making decisions is an important aspect of every business, was there ever a time where you made a hasty decision that you ended up regretting?
“Fortunately not many. The most (un)memorable one was investing in a food venture in the early 90s at the recommendation of a friend. Being a foodie, I was enamoured by the idea of being a restaurant owner and failed to conduct a proper due diligence on the business and its existing investors. Soon, I encountered ethical issues with some of the partners and went through quite a nightmare to extricate myself out of the venture, but was lucky to have emerged relatively unscathed. This impulse decision taught me a very valuable lesson, albeit one that has served me well in making subsequent investments.”
When you start out and have a good idea, there will be plenty of great opportunities knocking at your door. However, it is important to note that not everyone you meet has good intentions. Sometimes it is necessary to take a step back and reevaluate the situation before jumping in on a deal that sounds too good to be true.
It must be exciting venturing out on your own and trying to make something out of nothing, when was the turning point in your career? Tell us more about it!
“Unequivocally it would be in the mid 90s when I landed the job as the regional head of SoftBank Forums, part of the SoftBank Group founded by visionary Masayoshi Son. The mantra of the company was “The Internet will change the way we live, work and play” – while the meaning of this sentence is quite apparent today, back in those days the Internet was literally the wild, wild west; opening up unknown frontiers that will change our lives. The days of the early Internet period were exciting times where we were encouraged to challenge business norms, push the envelope of technology, open our minds to the infinite possibilities that the Internet brings. It was also the time that I got bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, and that shaped who and what I am today.”
With your many years of working experience, can you recall a time where a specific work situation made you feel uncomfortable and how did you go about mitigating the situation?
“This situation happened in the very early days of my career. I was one of four pioneer product engineers of a Massachusetts-based MNC newly set up in Singapore. After a year into the job, I was the only one of the four to be promoted to the management team comprising of Caucasian expatriates. I agonised over how to deal with being a local managerial newcomer while fretting over the wariness of my once peers with my new-found status. After some deep reflection and many sleepless nights, I finally reconciled with myself that I have earned the promotion on my own merits, and started to focus on performing my work accordingly without thinking too much about what my past and present peers might think about me. This mindset worked, helping me to settle in my new role; and in the process, I gained new confidence that came in handy in my subsequent career development.”
There will always be people that are envious of your success. However, taking a leaf out of Roger’s book, we can conclude that those who celebrate your success are people who should be kept in one’s life. Of course in a corporate situation, it is not easy to simply disregard the noise, the best thing one can do is to work hard, do what is right and learn to discern between people who want to see you thrive and those who await your downfall.
Having faced tricky, political maneuvers yourself, given your current position, how would you determine whom to hire or promote when faced with two equally-qualified candidates?
“In such a situation I would ask each of them to come up with a proposal or presentation on a subject matter relevant to their position, such as listing their priorities for their first 100 days on the job if offered the position. Getting these candidates to meet with key stakeholders in the company for their feedback works well too. Often times, such engagements will reveal further clarity on the candidates’ understanding of our business and their chemistry with their prospective team members, which will help to gauge how the chosen candidate will likely succeed in his or her role.”
There has been much buzz about hiring terms and how promotions are given. In giving both candidates an equal opportunity to showcase what they can bring to the table through objective methods as those Roger have employed, it gives the candidates more ownership and manifests that their bosses trust in their abilities. This could promote a stronger, collaborative workplace culture as candidates feel empowered instead of overly competitive. On top of profit, we think it is imperative that businesses strive to create an environment that allows for personal growth over a toxic workplace that only cares about results.
Speaking of identifying strengths to see who best suits a certain role, what is one misconception people have about what you do?
“I’m the co-founder of three companies, and CEO of one – Clozette. Many would think I just spread my time on all three and live life as usual. They are wrong. It’s impossible to be CEO of a start-up and just work 100%. It demands more, much more than most can imagine unless you have done a start-up – I can't emphasise enough that it’s fatal if you take your eyes off a business you are running, even if for just a moment. What they don’t see behind the scenes are the required discipline of time management discipline, the pressure to prioritise and juggle tasks, and most importantly the me-time sacrifices: I seldom have boys-out nights and thrive on little sleep. Fortunately, I’m blessed that I enjoy what I do, so no grudges.”
Well, you know what they say, nothing worth it ever comes easy. At a glance, it may seem glamorous, but behind the scenes, people like Roger have made countless sacrifices to achieve what he has today.
With the right mindset, grit and lots of dedication, you have reaped the fruits of your labour over the years, do you think your wealth has changed you?
“My family’s background is an extremely humble one; I grew up in a “kampong” in then infamous gangster-infested Tai Seng area. I can't say I’m wealthy now, but certainly am leading a much more comfortable life compared to those lean early years. Having more money definitely has its perks, affording me and my family the peace of mind that financial security brings, and of course the niceties of life. However, I can't say my money-values have changed much – I rarely spend on expensive branded items, and remain an advocate of money-for-value purchases. A major change I concede is that nowadays I often indulge unreservedly in my passion – going on food and travel adventures with my family: be it sampling the street fares of Ho Chi Min City on the back of a bike, experiencing an exquisite 3-Michelin-starred Kaiseki dinner in Kyoto, Pintxos bar-hopping in San Sebastian, or savouring Moroccan Tajines in a tent in the Sahara Desert.”
To quote Patrick Süskind, “...talent means nothing, while experience, acquired in humility and with hard work, means everything.” Through constant reflection can one truly appreciate the life one has lived. Staying hungry drives us to do what we do, but staying humble propels us to improve upon what we can to bring about positive change.
UNDERCOVER is a social series brought to you by VF+c and STATE Creative. Through the series, we seek to impact the lives of our community through authentic stories of inspiring individuals. Each edition, we partner with a social enterprise to shed light on the issues that matter.
For the first edition of UNDERCOVER, we partnered with The Lion Mind, a non-profit organisation (NPO) whose mission is to promote mental wellness and positive psychology through education and partnership with the community. Due to the rise of mental health cases around the world, we endeavour to do our part to normalise conversations around mental health issues through the subjects featured in our campaign.