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Building a Unicorn Requires Another Unicorn

Reading all the news about Brexit, I started to revisit the strategic decisions we made when establishing ReFUEL4, a technology startup I am proud to be a member of. One of the reasons it seems for the British people to choose to leave the EU is immigration, despite the economic importance of market access and the negotiating power that comes from a trade bloc.


One of the major decisions was where to site our company. A number of factors were key to influencing that decision, the most important of which was access to talent. All companies are built on talent, but this is most acute in startups – great people can make a big difference when a company is trying to get from 0 to 1 or scaling from 1-10 or 10-1000.


The quest for talent and the retention of great people consumes us. It is a challenge that must be met for ReFUEL to succeed. In order to do this, we chose to embrace reality – we did not think we can find everyone we needed in one place. But we still needed a centre of gravity for the company and so it had to have as open an access to the global talent marketplace as possible.


Using a hub and spoke strategy, we chose to site talent where we found it, rather than try to force fit them where we wanted them to be. ReFUEL4 is an equal opportunity employer and even though we are fewer than 30 people, we have more than 10 nationalities in 4 offices, within 2 years of incorporation! I often joke that ReFUEL4 is the world’s smallest MNC.


The Hub


People have asked me, as the co-founder of a Japanese technology company, why startup in Singapore? I am familiar with Tokyo, obviously, as well as San Francisco. In the world of startups, the Valley is the place to look to scale a global technology business – access to funding, a draw for global talent, the edge of a huge domestic market.


There is nothing wrong with either of the two cities and I wasn’t trying to be deliberately contrarian by choosing to establish ReFUEL4 in Singapore.


When I sought my parent company’s Board’s approval to set up in Singapore in 2014, the position I took was that it was strategically sound to set up in Asia. I believed then, as I believe now, that the pendulum is beginning to swing towards Asia.


Asia has grown quickly on the back of cost reduction strategies, but increasingly, the pockets of innovation are growing. I believe that headquartering in Singapore would be ideal launch pad for the company.


It has been well noted that Singapore has a great educational system and Singaporeans are adaptable, energetic, and rate highly in fluid intelligence. However, we are trying to build a company with global reach, and require a rich diversity of talent, perspective and backgrounds to understand customers and markets from Seattle to Sweden to Shanghai.


In our company, we need to get under the skin of the world’s largest markets as a start – the US, Greater China, EU and India. Our platform is geared towards global advertisers and we are building a customer experience that accounts for nuances in global usage. We cannot do that with Singaporeans alone.


Singapore is placed to address large markets as well as to attract the right talent with experience in those markets. We enjoy a very liveable city and it is easy to persuade people to move here.


In our Singapore HQ, the team here includes most of the key managers: Customer Success, Product, Marketing and Data Science. Corporate Services as well. It was relatively easy to obtain employment passes for the foreigners, which are 4 out of 5.


The Spokes


To try to force fit all requirements into Singapore would be artificial – Singapore’s domestic human resources are finite. Our strategy had to take into account this limitation, by leveraging strengths from elsewhere.


So we sited our development centre in Japan – Japanese developers rate as highly as Bay area ones, but salary costs are lower as living costs are lower. We then sited business development teams in the big addressable markets – the US and EU. China will follow.


These spokes draw resource from the centre, but have highly skilled operators that make fast, sustainable growth a reality.


Early Lessons


ReFUEL4’s journey has just started, but we have learnt some lessons.


  • Fish where the fish are: Japan is still a great place to hire high quality engineers. Singapore has a highly competent workforce that adapts well to the global stage.


  • You need a flower to attract hardworking bees: Having Singapore as a HQ has made it easy to hire global talent. It would have been a far more expensive exercise in the Bay area and other cities in Asia may not be so attractive.


  • Equal opportunity is a pillar: And it creates a fun working environment.


Kazuhiro Takiguchi

Having grown up in Tokyo and New Jersey, Kaz practices Yin/Yang management. He gets his Zen by fishing and eating his catch.

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