This article is from an interview with Tom, former Founder & CEO of Singapore-based car-sharing service Smove. Started in 2011, Tom grew his company from a very small team of 4 to 75 people, and expanded Smove from a fleet size of 15 cars to 450 vehicles in just two years. Here, Tom draws on his decades of experience starting and scaling Smove to share some of his key learnings regarding change management, family-like culture, running and shutting down a start-up during the pandemic, among many other things.
FOUNDER RESPONSIBILITIES: A ONE-MAN SHOW
When Smove just started out, I had no choice but to put on multiple hats as a founder, from managing the operations to business development, I had to do everything in the beginning. As the car sharing economy in Singapore was non-existent back then, we had to create our own business model without any playbooks or templates. We also had to work hard to find different ways to scale the business.
ESTABLISHING CULTURE: FAMILY-LIKE CULTURE, ADAPTING TO CHANGE, AND MAINTAINING A GROWTH MINDSET
Creating a family-like workplace culture. I believe that creating a familial atmosphere at work is very important, hence, we always supported a ‘family-first’ culture at Smove. We also place a huge focus on building strong team relationships, which we believe will lead better dynamics, to allow people to work together more effectively. I also believe that this is what leads to higher performing employees.
Change Management. As Smove was always changing and growing, it is essential to establish a strong change management culture to allow ourself to adapt to the new circumstances and challenges. Expanding the startup was challenging and incorporating change management as one of the core values helped Smove be a company that thrives despite any changes we face.
Growth Mindset. It is important to have the can-do mentality, be willing to fail and try new things. This mindset has allowed us to overcome many challenges along the way through improvisation, bootstrapping, and quickly test and learn from the iterative experiments. It allowed us to build our business ground up, from building our own hardware and software in-house (the first of its kind in Asia) to being the first large scale free-floating rental scheme in Singapore. The growth mindset also pushed us to constantly challenge ourselves and allowed us to expand to different countries.
ADVICE FOR FOUNDERS NAVIGATING THE PANDEMIC
It wasn’t easy for us to come to a decision to shut down Smove. We had just finished the investment cycle and had just started making profits again. When the pandemic hit, and everything shut down, we had no resources left. A quick decision had to be made, and so together with my executive team, we decided to shut down Smove.
I do not regret the decision at all. At that point in time, I only had two main concerns in mind. The first was for my employees to find work soon, and the second was to try to do that right thing as a founder, even if it meant shutting down the company.
Some lessons or advice I would give to other founders facing the same challenges:
1) Take two steps back. It is always good to take some time to look at things from a different perspective. From talking to other entrepreneurships, or just doing it by yourself, when faced with problems, try to create a different angle from the outside and see things from the bigger picture.
2) You are not your company. Realizing that as a founder, you are not the company. Even if the company or business fail, it does not mean that you are a failure. With the multitude of challenges you will face, or are currently facing as a startup founder, it is important to create a holistic awareness of this differentiation.
3) Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It is easy to see things as negative. A possible option would be using COVID as a time to re-position. Take this time to find some creative solutions that will also help you with your positioning once the crisis is over.
MOVING FORWARD: BEING A MOMENTUM CREATOR
Having spent the last 10 years in Smove, I will be using the time to look into the other things that have been bugging me for many years. I am also helping other founders. Good thing is, I have learnt that I do not have to jump into the next big time that is VC-funded. To me, entrepreneurship is not just that, it is about being involved in smaller projects, such as creating value in the community through helping other founders.
If I could give one piece of advice to myself, it would be to start a business early to learn the little things. Of course, ideally, find a business where there is a healthy future too, now that it is such a great time for funding.
It is important to be aware of what drives you. For me, my main motivation is not to make money, but rather, being a “momentum creator”. I love taking something that wasn’t there and pulling it together to create something meaningful.
PRIORITIES IN LIFE: HUSBAND/FATHER/ENTREPRENEUR
When Smove came to an end earlier in 2020, it gave me more time to reflect, and my priorities in life are much clearer now. I believe that putting my relationships with my wife and kids above the (yet to be started) next company will make me a better entrepreneur. It is not easy to find this balance between family and work, but I believe that through hiring the right people (who believe in the same values as you) and communicating these values across the company will help to keep the balance.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.