Looi Qin En is unusual, to say the least. He doesn’t just think out-of-the-box, he refuses to acknowledge the existence of a box.
When in school, he worked with Singapore’s premier research organisation, A*STAR, to publish 13 papers on human-computer interaction. Shortly after, he was offered a place at Stanford with a full scholarship. He would begin in two years’ time, after completing his National Service (NS). But with Qin En, norms, rules and conventions often get thrown out of the window. By the end of two years, he had built a company called Glints, and was well on his way to raising half a million dollars in seed.
He still went to Stanford, only to return 6 months later. He would focus on running Glints full-time. Stanford could wait. It turned out to be a decision he wouldn’t regret. Glints went on to become a massively successful career discovery and recruitment platform that helped more than 250,000 youths across South East Asia find internships and graduate job opportunities from over 10,000 companies. This year, he also featured in Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia.
In October this year, he stepped down from his role as COO at Glints. He now plans to complete his degree at Stanford come January 2018. But classic Qin En, he couldn’t not do something in the meantime. So he joined a pre-seed startup accelerator in Singapore called Entrepreneur First (EF). This was around the same time that I joined EF too, and that’s how we met.
I don’t write about everyone I work with. But Qin En intrigued me. He’s extremely smart, hacky, and tremendously competitive. And yet, he’s also immensely supportive and insightful. Despite his gargantuan success, he’s unexpectedly modest. Heck, he even has a killer sense of humour.
So Qin En, as you leave EF, this interview is my parting tribute to you.
I’m curious to know how Glints was born. What was the motivation behind it?
I think it’s interesting because Glints was actually started out of boredom during my NS. Basically for your NS, you are either assigned to one of the two leadership paths, or you become a foot soldier. Naturally, I aspired to be an officer. But due to medical and a variety of other reasons, I became a foot soldier. It was super boring. We weren’t allowed camera phones, we could only bring in those feature phones.
I remember during the first year, I used to read newspapers cover-to-cover. Once I read the Straits Times for 4 hours straight, because I read every single article.
Then one day I got an email from a startup trying to sell services for college admissions consulting. I didn’t need it, but I wrote them an email saying that I’d got into Stanford and a bunch of other universities, so would they be keen to hire me. They said sure, come work with us on the weekends. I started off as their first employee and ended up working with them for a year.
Over time I got interested in and acquainted with a lot more startups and founders began asking me for help in hiring for internships. And that’s how Glints really started; me connecting my friends to other startups for internships.
But we were still just running this as an initiative. Then one day, we met this friend-of-friend, it was super random. I still remember, it was a Saturday in 2013. We told him what we do, and he asked us if we’d like to have some money to make this into a business. That’s when we realised that someone does want to give us money to build a company. And we thought, why not right?
It was quite epic because it was literally someone taking a chance at us even before we believed in ourselves.
What were some of the best moments?
I think what really drove me was the ability to work closely with my team and to nurture them and help them to grow. That was definitely the most satisfying part. A lot of times the people we hired were fresh graduates who had no clue about what they wanted to do when they came in. But when they left Glints, they felt like they had grown so much…
But there must have been an undeniable sense of gratification, especially when you were listed on Forbes 30 Under 30?
(Laughs). What’s funny is that as you grow and progress more, these things start to matter less. So truth be told I was quite narcissistic and used to be hung up on these so-called vanity metrics early on. I remember definitely wanting to be on Forbes 30 under 30. But then when I got it earlier this year, it just felt like work as per normal. I was like, Okay that’s great, maybe I’ll share it on my Facebook profile. But that was it.
Over time what became truly important was to nurture my team and help them discover their potential. To give you an example, just last year we were working with Singapore schools to send students overseas. We had a new team member joining us. I gave her the task of going to Vietnam and figuring shit out. I told her I didn’t care how you do it, just set up meetings with 10 companies over 3 days. And she managed to do it. She felt such a strong sense of achievement and purpose. She had finally found what she was good at.
Often times tech startups by extremely young founders come to be successful by fluke. But knowing how you strategise and think, it’s hard for me to believe that Glints made it by fluke. Thoughts?
I’d say fluke is a very important part. Rather, the harder you work the luckier you get. A lot of what we learnt was from through mentors. I’m very grateful to our mentors for training us over the past four years. At every stage we seemed to have people who were so vested in our success…more vested than they should have been, purely from an objective standpoint. But I think that helped me grow a lot. I learned how to do sales, how to think things out, how to work backwards to set goals so that you hit them. Our mentors sat us down and taught us that.
Who were these mentors and how did you find them?
Some of the best mentors were of course our investors. Goes on to show that raising investment is more than just the money itself. of course they have a vested interest for us to succeed. But I think the best investors were interested in us as individuals, even before investing. These are really the people that shaped who we are.
Do you think you got lucky discovering them?
Ok so I think there’s definitely a certain element of luck to it, but being young also helped. We knew that we didn’t know anything. We were open and willing to listen. So we actively went back and acted on their advice. We didn’t have very established or firm beliefs on our own and listened to them because they had clearly been there done that. So they too were willing to help.
All three of you (cofounders) got into the best universities: Stanford, Wharton and Berkeley. What made you randomly drop out from what could have been the ultimate career path?
It wasn’t random. In fact it was all very calculated. We had raised a seed round of almost half a million dollars. And we did try to run the business while at our respective schools, albeit unsuccessfully. It was a very hard decision that took me six months to arrive at.
My parents wanted me to continue, I was on a full scholarship and I had a bunch of great things lined up. But ultimately I asked myself, “Which is the path of zero regret?” If I gave up the chance to build a company I would always ask myself, “what if?” On the other hand, I could always go back to school if it didn’t work out. Which is kind of what I’m doing right now.
People like to focus on the part where we left school. But they need to know both sides of the story before making a decision. Getting a degree is a good idea, because for a lot of people getting a degree is the best choice they have. Not a lot of people have half a million dollars to run a company.
Then what made you leave this year? What happened?
The parting was a purely professional matter. See it’s important to know that the company is always bigger than the individual. After raising Series A, I realised that I shouldn’t be working at Glints just because I founded it.
But it was your baby, and you had spent 4 years of your life on it. It must have hit you emotionally?
Actually, I felt like I was able to recover pretty fast from it. The main reason for the split was very objective; we disagreed on where we wanted to take the company. There’s no right or wrong about it. I could stay on and fight to get my way going. But I didn’t want to. It would end up harming everyone, including the users, customers, investors and most importantly my team members.
A ship can’t move if the captain fights among his own crew. It was time for me to step down. But we are still friends, we recently attended a team member’s wedding together.
You joined Entrepreneur First (EF) immediately after. What attracted you about EF?
I joined EF because I genuinely feel that we need more people to build companies, especially locals. Singapore is putting in a lot of effort to be this startup-savvy ecosystem. But the biggest prob is mindset. People do not see entrepreneurship as a viable career path. I’m not saying that it’s for everybody, but right now it’s not even considered a potential career path. The brightest, smartest people work for the government or large organisations. EF helps these people build companies.
In other accelerators, you have already thought about starting a company when you apply. But at EF I get to share my personal journey, and potentially impact people who have never thought about starting a company to become aware of the option.
Who, or rather what kind of people do you think should build a company?
Anyone can run a company if they want it bad enough. If you want to start a company because you’re sick and tired of your job, then that’s a terrible reason. Or if you want to start a company to get more control over your life, that’s not the best reason either. As founder, you’re going to be slaved to your team, to your customers and to your investors. The right motivations are things like wanting to achieve your full potential, wanting to make an impact.
Speaking of impact, you keep mentioning how far you are from where you want to be. So where exactly do you want to be?
(Laughs) That’s a very good question. Essentially my goal is being able to lead an organisation that has at least a regional impact (South East Asia). This is why I’m seriously considering coming back after Stanford.
Why restrict yourself geographically, especially if you’re dreaming?
I think it’s important to have focus and to strike a balance between pragmatism and idealism. People want to conquer the world even before they’ve conquered their home. There are so many opportunities in South East Asia that people simply ignore. People would much rather prefer going on assignment to Europe rather than say, Vietnam. But these are the exact places where you should be. People in these places are underserved, there’s not enough talent. The kind of impact you can make is seriously big.
Your thought processes are extremely structured and matured. What influenced you to become this individual?
A lot of it goes back to what my parents taught me when I was young. My name is Qin En. En means gratitude in Chinese. I feel that it’s super important to be grateful for the people that helped you get where you are. It’s so normal to think about what we don’t have. I’ve been very fortunate to receive so much from other people. It’s only right for me to pay it forward.
But then you also have this highly-driven, overachieving side to you. Where did that come from?
Well, I’ve always thought that I could do more with life. Even today I’m very far from where I want to be. I’m constantly pushing myself to get there.
In school, I realised early on that I suck at Olympiads. So I tried to find something I’m good at, like my own niche. The way I saw it, I could work very hard to become an Olympic bronze medallist or I could excel at something I was actually good at. That’s how I started publishing papers. I liked research, where two people could be experts in their own fields and do great together. In olympiads, it’s either you win or I win.
That brings us to the end of the interview. To conclude, how would you summarise your key lessons as an entrepreneur?
First, move fast. It’s really about putting one step in front of the other. Get going.
Second, make sure to cover your downside as you move fast. To begin with, make sure you can afford the potential downside.
Third, seek out mentors who can guide you well and are willing to take a chance on you.
Fourth, don’t worry too much.
And last, always be grateful for the journey. It’s easy to end up successful but ungrateful, but then there’s no point to that. You always remain unhappy.