Swingvy’s Founder and CEO, Jin Choeh, recently joined Adrian Tan on ‘The Adrian Tan Show’ podcast to speak about common HR issues in startups and people management lessons from the past year.
They discuss the key HR issues Jin observed when building startup businesses, how digital transformation and a country's GDP are interrelated, and people management lessons he’s learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Listen to the podcast episode here, or read the transcript below.
Adrian Tan: Hi Jin, thank you for coming onto the show.
Jin Choeh: Hi Adrian, thank you for having me.
A: To start with, could you help the audience to understand a bit of your background, the chain of events that led you into Swingvy, and what is the problem you’re trying to solve.
J: This is Jin, co-founder and CEO of Swingvy. So Swingvy is a modern HR platform and software for small and medium sized companies and mid-sized businesses. Before we started Swingvy I was in charge of South-East Asia market and I was working with a lot of small and mid-sized companies and businesses and I found one of the common patterns of the problem or headache of running a business, especially for small and mid-sized companies, were they didn’t have the full big HR team. And also, there was no proper tool that they can run by themselves. So there was a gap and discrepancy for small companies how they’re going to maintain their HR or their compliance. They’re relying HR outsourcing companies. And when they grow bigger like mid-sized, one of the pain points they have is they start to have different teams and employee data is scattered and dispersed in many different teams. So there isn’t one consolidated team who has all the employee data. But we found there is no one right tool or right place or right team who has full control of this. This is the reason we saw this is a huge problem to solve, so we started this platform.
"...one of the pain points they have is they start to have different teams and employee data is scattered and dispersed in many different teams. So there isn’t one consolidated team who has all the employee data."
One other reason why I could empathise with this problem is Swingvy is actually my third start up. When I look back at my first and second start up I could feel it that this is like a very common problem of most of small and mid-sized companies, so that’s how we decided to do this business.
A: And what were you doing in your first two startups?
J: First one was a real estate matching platform. It majored in architectural engineering but we totally failed, I totally failed. We launched the real estate matching platform like a mobile app but I had no idea how to handle and work with real-estate agencies. Then the second one was tuition matching platform. It grew really well but the thing is when we got an offer of acquisition, we just decided to let it go. Firstly, tuition matching platform was not the very attractive idea that I wanted to do, so I need to admit that my heart wasn’t there.
A: A problem that you mentioned in your first two startups which is also something common amongst SME, why do you think there seems to be this common denominator where companies are just reluctant or unable to pull their socks up in this HR aspect.
J: When I ran first and second business and start-ups, one of the very annoying problems for me was all the labour laws and compliance. We know it’s mandatory and unavoidable but there was no right person to do that because when we have a small team then we always hire the core roles first, like R&D or sales, then all other roles. I had to do it by myself and I started to work with external experts. When I did it by myself it was really inefficient, and when I started to rely on external experts they were not our internal team members so there was a lot of back and forth processes. I realised a lot of small and mid-sized businesses in our region are having the same problem. I saw one of our early customers having those process; applying leave should be done by paper, and it didn’t make sense for me. Come on, this is the 21st century. When I saw this, the problem came bigger than any other problem for me.
A: So they were very much still using a very primitive way to manage HR processes, but digitisation of all these processes has been around for some time, but it’s something that companies are still very reluctant to get into. Do you see certain friction or is it more of a product issue or a mindset issue?
J: I like to say like this. To make a real transformation, digital transformation, the product should give the real clear value props, rather than hiring more people. I think the first reason why we couldn’t have the real shift in our market or in our areas is because the product that we’ve seen doesn’t give a really huge and attractive value probs than doing by myself or relying on external experts. From that perspective, I think the recent and modern tools are giving clear value props, like employers or HR managers can do it by themselves. Secondly it always comes to cost. When we have GDP per capita is low then we realise that hiring people is affordable, but when GDP per capita is growing and growing then the market is smart so that’s why the more we grow the more our economies grow then we realise that relying on software makes more sense.
A: So the current proficiency of software in the example of Swingvy definitely helps to encourage more companies to look at this sort of stuff. And I’ve seen a few cases where companies may be using digital platforms but they might be behind a firewall, they’re not exactly on your mobile phone which led to a lot of other issues and with the current situation where every company out there is doing remote work, has that somehow accelerated or forced them to look into digital solutions?
J: Oh yeah, definitely. Swingvy is a SaaS company. I like to say we are running mobile and cloud-based. And the benefits of using all these cloud or mobile based softwares rather than installation based old-fashioned way is when we need to work in different places. With the COVID situation, the COVID outbreak, a log of businesses had to implement different work environments or different work stations, especially like work from home. It can be hybrid or full remote working sometimes. I believe these new and modern tools are going to give more advantage and benefits to our potential customers.
"And the benefits of using all these cloud or mobile based softwares rather than installation based old-fashioned way is when we need to work in different places."
A: Your experience in your first and second start ups naturally make you a very good target audience sample size for who you’re trying to reach out to. How has that experience been for you and how has that led to the way you are managing differently?
J: When we look back at our time during the COVID outbreak it was chaotic and painful. We have presence in four different countries; Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Korea. So we don’t have a timezone issue like a distributed team in the US or Europe or other regions, but of course having four locations brought many unexpected chaos, especially during the COVID season. When the COVID outbreak comes out, the first thing that makes us really hard was that we had different times and dates of nationwide lockdowns. It didn’t happen at the same time. So when one country started the nation-wide lockdown, the rest looks fine. And when that nation’s one ended in Malaysia, suddenly other countries started to have another crisis. We felt like we were passing through the minefield. We don’t know when and how it will explode. It was a good lesson that we need to grow ourselves about operating this remote team better and gave us a new idea for a product for ourself.
A: What kind of product did it lead you guys to look into?
J: Before COVID our strategy is to go deeper, so we were very selective of the product we were going to offer to our customers, like payroll, leave or claim, but we didn’t provide time and attendance before COVID. We believed there were different players in the market that could provide time and attendance features to our potential customers. Through COVID, we tried to explore some of the time and attendance tools out there and we realised there was no perfect tool that met with our requirements or expectations. So we decided to develop time and attendance by ourselves to give mobile based clock in and out and geo-fencing like GPS based clock in and out settings. And also to give seamless integration with other tools like leave or payroll.
"Through COVID, we tried to explore some of the time and attendance tools out there and we realised there was no perfect tool that met with our requirements or expectations. So we decided to develop time and attendance by ourselves..."
A: So something positive actually came out of this COVID-19 for you guys. Earlier on you mentioned a lot of mistakes were being made and I imagine much of this would be process driven. Some of them may have even been people management driven. Are there some of them you can talk about and most importantly how did you go about resolving them?
J: Yeah, working remotely was not a new thing for us. But the thing was, before COVID we were having an office-based culture. We have offices in four different countries and those team members were working in the office with their local team members. When it comes to how we work in our daily lives, it’s quite similar to those other companies out there. But after COVID we had to move to a hybrid structure; work form home and also from office. We realise that we need to change all the processes, or policies and how we work, especially for culture too. So the first thing that we’ve done is, ok, we need to clearly give a guideline to the team on what is the policy going to apply during and after the COVID season? I’d like to highlight three things that were really crucial for us.
The first lesson was embrace a synchronised communication. A synchronised communication is not a new thing when we work though email it’s unavoidable. But when we apply work from home in the company then this synchronised communication is more than 50%. So when we send a message through company messenger like Slack, or when we use ore emails, then we need to embrace and understand people about all these time costs and how should we communicate in this era. So this was the first thing that we officially give full detailed guideline of the communication.
🔸 Second thing is set clear and actionable deadlines. Because when we started to apply work from home as a norm, I think it’s human nature that some people have a kind of concern or anxiety about whether we are working our best or whether we are working really well or not. And sometimes we just started to imagine, what if there is some problem or incident, how we can sense it. And the best way to solve or get over this concern or anxiety is to be setting clear and actionable deadlines. We’re not going to do micro-management, and it’s not possible anyway, so we’re going to maintain empowerment in our culture – even after COVID. So what we’re going to highlight is that we’re always going to show actionable deadlines and these deadlines are going to be public, so anyone in the company can see.
And the third one is we need to reward and honour peoples work more compared to those times when we worked in an office. Because when we work in an office there is a lot of small talk so we can get compliments or we can praise some people in the team. But when we work remote, it’s not easy to realise the achievement or the contribution. So leaders or management really need to review regularly, how can we praise or give a compliment or award peoples work.
In summary, embrace synchronised communication, set clear and actionable deadlines, and third award and honour peoples work, was the biggest lessons that we learned.
A: The last point that you mentioned, paying attention to what they are doing. Even in a physical setting I would imagine most people already have so many work on their hand, let alone paying attention on what other people is doing. In a remote setting it’s even worse, you don’t get to see them. So you have to bring that extra effort to pay attention to what is going on. Is that something that your people have to be reminded on a constant basis?
J: Part of the very first lesson, and I believe that’s the most important thing that we need to break down. So the first lesson that we learned is embrace synchronised communication, because a synchronised communication is going to be bigger than a normal face to face offline communication when we implement work from home or remote working. The guideline for this can be different by company, but not just giving the guideline but also we keep providing training to our managers and also our team members on how should we communicate. Because as you said, if we don’t train our people or if you’re not aligned on how you’re going to work during this remote working, then it’s going to give unnecessary misunderstanding amongst each other and make people emotional. If someone keeps turning off the video or keep joining the call in a noisy area then it can cause unnecessary emotion to other colleagues. We give very clear guidelines to the team and also we keep reminding to the team why we need to understand and follow this kind of guide together.
A: I understand that you guys are still hiring. How different has the hiring process been for you?
J: We always arranged face to face interviews, and now like most of companies we’re doing interviews through online. Implementing and using the right tools to supercharge our online recruiting process is a must. Then we can ask this question: why we need to hire local people only? And of course it drives us to the one answer. Now we can open the role in every part of the world. Of course we can be more strategic. If we open sales role or product manager role in every part of the world then we need to consider different types of recruiting channels, or recruiting platforms, so it can be annoying to manage all the different tools. So we can be strategic to choose different specific regions or we can limit to some timezones. A lot of companies if they decided to implement remote working as one of their default work environments, their recruiting policy or protocol should follow that trend too. So all talents around the world can be our potential talent pool. That’s the biggest change.
In our case, we’re on the way to grow. The first thing we’ve done is open the role outside and then we’ve worked with one remote worker, one remote team member and it was quite painful. He was based in the Netherlands. And actually this case was before COVID. Before COVID we were still exploring this remote team first and all these timezones was quite tough to work actually. We were not fully ready to work as a full remote team at this time. So now theses days we are doing this: if we want to open roles outside of our local offices then we’re going to limit two hours of timezone. In future we’re going to open anywhere without any timezone limitation but for now we just open to those countries which has just two hours gap.
A: What would significantly happen if it goes beyond the two hours. Would the synchronised communication not tale care of this aspect of time difference that you’re talking about.
J: The thing is it ’s all about the balance, When we are focused on synchronised communication the biggest cost that we need to consider is time. So time cost is something we’re going to spend when we work remotely. It’s all about how much we want to spend. If a synchronised communication takes ok we have a kind of culture that we do not expect to get my answer to my quick question on Slack or other messenger in minutes or one hour, but if that synchronised communication started to have that mindset that it’s going to take one day when I ask one question, then the cost is getting too high.
"...time cost is something we’re going to spend when we work remotely. It’s all about how much we want to spend."
From the experience that we had, right now we have this: since we cannot have offline meeting that often we communicate remotely, and then let’s try to keep time cost around 30 minutes to 1 hour to get an answer. That’s the cost that we feel comfortable with within our team at Swingvy.
A: I never considered about the time cost aspect but it really does make a lot of sense, especially the kind of turn around you can provide not just internally but potentially across to your customers. Lastly I just wanted to touch on something that you guys came up with, it’s a 34-page ebook which mentions about the state of employee benefits in Singapore, the most valued benefits and so on and so forth. Even though this report came out inn 2020 I just want to understand a bit more about it and if things have changed?
J: The results may be similar because the reason why we had this survey and made this ebook, the state of employee benefits, is to understand what is the change before and after COVID. And we wanted to give some insights to these small and mid-sized businesses and employers or management. We realise there is a big change in top benefit considerations. The first benefit they expect is flexible working hours or working from home. And it’s quite shocking from an employer perspective because that never came out on top. There was no work from home in the list before COVID, and now it’s number one consideration which is higher than incentive bonus or company shares. That is a most important lesson to our clients, employers and also management of the company that this is a kind of new trend that a lot of potential employees are expecting.
For more information about the Adrian Tan Show, visit his website.
Listen to the podcast episode here: