“I think the biggest challenge isn’t starting up, it’s scaling up. ” – Vivy Yusof, CCO of FashionValet and Co-founder of The dUCk Group said. She had hit a pivotal topic during the first ever Endeavor Dialogue, titled EndeavHer Dialogue held in conjunction with International Women’s Day.
Together with Vivy were two other dynamic women leaders, Endeavor Malaysia mentors: Liew Swee Lin, Advisor at Bain & Company and Mac Chung Lynn, Group CEO of Nando’s Malaysia and Singapore who echoed her sentiments as the three conversed with Endeavor’s Marketing and Communication Lead, Nurshaffira Izzad over tea and scones.
On that rainy evening, the three women drew over 140 guests comprising of existing, aspiring women entrepreneurs and corporate figures up close and personal to their tales of triumph, failures and lessons learned.
Early years: How did that shape you today as an entrepreneur and leader?
Lessons from school days
Vivy, being the vivacious personality and face of expanding FashionValet revealed “I think being the youngest, and the more cheeky one built my determination. I’ll push through and won’t take no for an answer.” In school, she sold homemade storybooks, bracelets and later, scrapbooks and greeting cards. Her spontaneity in starting her businesses then without counting the costs had often cost her. It led her to think harder when she subsequently started FashionValet with her then boyfriend, now husband.
Feet in first, no fear
“When I said I would help my dad start Nando’s I really didn’t think about the repercussions,” Chung Lynn said. As a young qualified architect passionate about arts and maths, her work dealing with engineers, quantity surveyors and managing people across multiple disciplines eventually enabled her to wear many hats when she was thrust into unchartered franchise business territories at the age of 25. “I threw myself in feet first and learned about every single area and department. My team asked me: “You’re not an accountant, so how is it that you know every single line of the P&L?”
“Starting young, you’re a little naïve, and there’s no fear. That’s a key part of it. You just do it.” Chung Lynn said. “Failure’s not really an option and you didn’t care what people said about you.”
Thirst for many adventures
For Swee Lin, her thirst for adventure and lifelong learning saw her make several non-linear career moves ranging from her foothold in the fashion industry to international advertising agency Ogilvy One Worldwide and later, achieving her dream to be a banker. She ventured next into telecommunications and e-commerce when Astro, wanting to double up their growth, tapped into her banking expertise to take its local business towards an IPO.
“There were no models of growing revenues, nor driving penetration rates with very profitable written equities,” she said. “Yet, I never looked back.”
“It was a lot of (making) mistakes, a lot of bold decisions taken – but the common thread that ran across my 28 years of working has always been building consumer franchises, building brands, creating value for the shareholders and leveraging on technology to drive growth,” she said.
“It’s kind of scary that 85% of our revenue underpinned the 1.2 billion of revenue for the group so we needed to start diversifying.
“After a series of analyses, we found out we could build a new vertical – a new growth engine which is e-commerce. I was lucky to be given the opportunity to start with the investment pieces of the e-commerce business and to be part of the go-to-market team and launch Astro GoShop as you see it today. It is very, very fulfilling.”
On the corporate side, how do you scale a business?
Swee Lin: “One of the first things is to articulate the ambition, the raison d’etre of the company. Be it five, ten or twenty years into the business, reinforcing that to the staff is extremely important.”
“Second is to align your mission, strategy and your culture.
“Culture eats breakfast and if you don’t have the right kind of culture to curate your company, things can go wrong very quickly because people can forsake values just to hit short term targets. That’s not sustainable growth for scaling.”
The other thing is to build a cohesive team. “People hire people who look very much like them or people whom they’re comfortable with or who create less friction with the boss. That’s dangerous. I think you need a league of superheroes who get along and who appreciates the same values who can be a good cohort of staff to hang on.
“When scaling, there’s velocity and things happen at a very high speed. It’s so important to differentiate all the hot air and the busy activities from the value-adding creation activities.” You seriously don’t want to be chasing your competitor’s tail lights,” Swee Lin said.
On that note, what does scaling up in businesses look like for entrepreneurs? Here are some takeaways we got from Chung Lynn and Vivy:
#1. Be like water – adapt to stay relevant
For Chung Lynn, scaling up took over 23 years to grow into Nando’s 88 outlets in Malaysia. Amidst evolving consumer demands and food trends, with delivery taking over traditional dine-in businesses, Nando’s has had to refresh itself, working with smaller models of its restaurants. “In Singapore we went through a process of repositioning ourselves. We found out we’re just too expensive for the Singaporean consumers and people didn’t really get us there. So we converted to a counter service and added technology to it for self-order and our sales went up by 30%.”
“So we’ve managed to stay ahead of things despite many being hit in business (by the virus).”
#2. Sitting out the storm with a strong culture
Keeping the fun going as you experience growing pain helps. This is where strong internal cultures set a firm base for growth. For Chung Lynn, it’s about prioritizing her staff’s needs. “We really do take care of our people – living wages, better spaced hostels, food, medical and all their basics and extras. We spend a lot on internal marketing.” They also gather weekly for a fun company day as a part of internal brand DNA reinforcement and have master griller competitions yearly for their chicken grillers to compete in and to instil a sense of pride.
Nando’s has gone through several rounds of internal company DNA branding reinforcement and culture implementation exercises.
“As entrepreneurs, we build culture by going around and talking to people. But as we scale, we can’t be there to touch every single person. So we went through a process of codifying what our brand DNA stood for. It’s easy to codify but it’s very hard to implement.”
As you scale up, think about the sort of tweaks you have to make – where would revenue growth come from? Additionally, Vivy also confessed, “Constantly innovating is tiring and difficult and it’s impossible for me to touch everybody now.”
“We have had to change the startup mindset to now having policies and KPIs in place.” Now that benchmarks and appraisals are put in place to ensure performance and productivity, relationships tend to lose that “closeness” once felt in a smaller setting.
“Putting the policies in place is good. But making sure everybody is motivated and making them understand where the company is going is easier said than done,” Vivy emphasised.
#3. Making the hard cut
So what happens when you have to reshuffle teams to align with growth? Or let go of those who don’t flow anymore with the culture?
Chung Lynn said, “I’ve had to have meaningful conversations with various teams and you try to grow them and make them understand why you’ve to put someone different at the top. I’ve had to do that quite a few times and that’s been very hard.
Have you ever had to let anyone go?
“Many, many, many times,” answered Chung Lynn. “But the hardest part was letting myself go. It was tough letting go of key operations and not having the final say on every single project. However, once the business begins thriving on its own, you need to delegate those responsibilities to other employees so that you can focus on higher-level tasks.”
#4. Trusting others to do their best
Being in the business for 21 years, the last two years of stepping back in her role as CEO in the light of scaling up has been tough.
“But it’s a dream!” Vivy exclaimed when Chung Lynn said she’s only now required to attend two meetings a month.
“What’s really key is to surround yourself with people who are much better than you. I learn so much from my team because they’re really the best at what they do” Chung Lynn said, adding that this gives her ease of mind. “It took me a while to get used to it, but I’m loving it now. I’m really able to give good advice now. It’s no longer my way but the team’s way of doing this so it’s quite different.”
How is it like working with your spouse?
Vivy said, “Only do it if you see him not as a husband, but a partner who complements you.” Opposites do not only attract but form a cohesive team, in her books. “He’s a strategic thinker while I’m spontaneous. There’s so much where we complement each other and that’s what you should be looking for in a (business) partner,” Vivy quipped.
What about equality for women at work?
We asked: What do you think about when hiring women who make choices to have children?
#Look first at merit
Chung Lynn: “If we interview someone who’s pregnant, we look at the skillsets rather than the gender, and not whether she’d be out of work because of maternity”
Echoing her thoughts, Vivy said, “For me, it’s about whether the person can fit into the company. I’ve had my fair share of disappointments growing the company for ten years (of staff leaving after being pregnant) but then single women may also make excuses so it’s doesn’t really matter as it’s about the person.
#Biases be gone!
“In reality, we live in a big bad world. There’s a lot of biasness – it could also be age, experience or if you don’t have a pedigree education, or your colour, the way you speak or your accent. So, as a starting point, we can’t be indifferent to the inequality we have in society. Then, what we do as parents and at universities become extremely important (to teach them to address their own bias)
What’s the solution? “Get the best talent for the role. It doesn’t matter if the talent is LGBT or wears a skirt or not. What matters is the person is the best at what the person does and brings that to work,” Swee Lin said.
How can women truly break those stereotypes? [cue familiar voices: belongs in the kitchen, for childbearing, not as competent etc]
#Ignore the naysayers, girls!
Vivy’s answer was straight up: “Can I say that we shouldn’t care? I think sometimes women are too sensitive. I wouldn’t waste five minutes of my life proving to someone that my place isn’t in the kitchen. I have things to do. I have Instagram!” ☺
Making the workplace mommy-friendly
Vivy continued, “When I saw the trend of mothers not coming back to work after their maternity leave, I started to reflect – maybe it’s not them, maybe it’s us. So we started a room for mothers where there’s Netflix and slides so they’re comfortable bringing their kids to work and letting them play there.
“We’ve a mommy’s room for mothers to pump their breast milk and also a mommy’s day off once a month for mothers to use that time to take their kids to the doctor’s appointment and do whatever they want to do like clean their house. This is to give them peace of mind and especially for new moms to adjust to their new lives.”
Working remotely – way of the future for families?
Swee Lin said, “A lot of our work is now done through video calls and we can edit our documents at the same time while someone else is doing the minutes at the same time. So I think the collaborative work mode is the way to go.”
Not possible when it comes to certain job functions
“In my industry, you can’t really work from home,” Chung Lynn smiled. That said, Nando’s does not have gender-specific benefits but allows for flexible hours for its staff. “Most prefer face to face meetings. Not many people take that up except perhaps mothers who need to do pick-ups or dads who want to come in early and leave early for exercise. Younger people tend to want to come in, finish their work and go out with their friends,” she said.
For Vivy, those working in some departments like warehousing or operations may not be able to work from home. “Some people may also not want to work from home as they might think the boss could want to call them even after work hours,” she said.
Lastly, some parting wisdom from the EndeavHer dialogue:
If you could turn back time, what do you wish you could’ve done better?
Chung Lynn: I would tell myself to just ‘listen to your gut feeling’. There’s been many times I thought ‘something is so drastically wrong but I’m giving people a chance to try their ideas out first. But there are some decisions that are so big that you know it is not going work but you allowed it. So, I’ve learned over the years, if I really feel against something, I will voice it out.
Swee Lin: “I would tell myself three things. First, I would be pacing myself a lot better, otherwise you’d burn out and don’t have enough of yourself to share with your hubby, kids, and people deserving of your attention.
“Second, smell the roses – women, you have to look after yourself first. If you don’t, you’d lose your sanity or lose yourself in the process, or you feel short-changed. It’s about taking care of yourself better, not just physically but mentally and spiritually.
“Third, self-advocacy – learn how to speak up for yourself irrespective of your age and how intimidating people are to you. Because if you can’t speak up for yourself, you can’t speak up for your team.”
Vivy: “I think I don’t give myself time to celebrate the small wins. It was always the next thing and the next. So, I should gather with my staff and celebrate the wins to make work a little more fun.”
The content of this article is summarised from the EndeavHer Dialogue organised by Endeavor Malaysia. Endeavor Malaysia is part of a global entrepreneur support organisation that focuses on working with high-impact entrepreneurs in Malaysia to scale their businesses. Follow us on our social media pages to get the latest news on upcoming events and key learnings.