SINGAPORE – I met 28-year old Melissa Lim, co-founder of BiTS, an enterprise resource planning based in Singapore, for the first time during a startup conference and we had a chat over a coffee. Very soon I realized that there was a very special bond between the two of us: Melissa is also a passionate traveller, gave the very same reasons for leaving the corporate world for starting her own business and wants to encourage more women to do the same. The following interview was really special: I got to spend a day with Melissa. I followed her to the office, to meetings, lunch and to her favourite places of the city. It was not only an incredible interesting interview but also an insight into the every day life of a fellow entrepreneur.
Working as a female entrepreneur means that I have the freedom to create what I want. I can create the reality that I want for myself and a business that I love. A life that I want to live.
Melissa, can you give us an overview of your background and your life as an entrepreneur?
I was born in Singapore where I have been living for pretty much my whole life. Except when I turned 25: I quit my job and moved to Yangon, Myanmar. I lived there for a year and I started an online retail shop selling home decoration items to the expat market. After a year, I came back to Singapore and co-founded an IT business. We are in the enterprise software business, which is cloud based. Our all-in-one software includes CRM, HR, accounting, inventory management.
On the side, I also have my passion project “Ladyboss”, a community of women entrepreneurs. We want to encourage more women to chase after their dreams, because a lot of them, especially in Singapore, feel that it is quite risky to quit their corporate jobs and do something on their own. And they feel that there is not much support out there and it is quite lonely even if you have taken that leap of faith. There are not many people that you can go to and ask for peer support. I think this has worked out really well for us. We do not see it as a profit- making business. But it is our passion and it helps us as well. Me and the two other women entrepreneurs run our own businesses and now we have our own little community of women to go to whenever we have some problems. We have a Facebook group as well with about 4,000 members and whenever I have issues with the business, I will address the group.
Do you regularly use online groups to connect with fellow entrepreneurs?
I also follow Facebook groups from other countries. There are so many communities and even if I have never seen these women before – they are in the US, in Australia – but they are extremely supportive whenever it comes to business issues. Because they themselves have overcome those challenges before and give advice.
How did you discover your passion about entrepreneurship and Marketing?
The funny story is that in my teenage years, I wanted to be a scientist. I took Chemical Engineering not knowing that this is more of an engineering course and not really a chemistry kind of course. After my internship and my technical assessment in the plant, I discovered that I actually do not want to be an engineer. [laughs] First, I tried to look for a job in the industry, but I think it was quite obvious to the interviewers that I was not suitable for the jobs. Actually, one of the interviewers told me I was more suitable for a job in sales or Marketing. I changed my mind and went to study Marketing and Management. I realized that this is something that I am really good at.
How did your family react when you decided to start your own business?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs – my mum has a salon in Singapore and my dad has an eyewear business in China. Therefore, I did not really face many obstacles when I decided to start my own business or move abroad because my parents know it is worthy to take the risk and start something on your own rather than working for someone else for your entire life. I really liked the people of my first job but the environment was very restrictive and I could not really see myself spending another two to three years there. That is why I started my own business. So far, it has been very fruitful and fulfilling because I feel that I am building something for myself, something that helps others. And I can see the value I add to them very quickly. In a bigger corporation, it is quite hard to really the difference you are making.
What did you learn about yourself during your entrepreneurial journey so far?
I am quite comfortable being out there in a male dominated industry. Especially in Singapore, I think the environment is really good for women entrepreneurs. Working in Marketing, I actually see being a woman as an advantage. The men I work with are really good in technical areas but when it comes to make people understand the business and make them want to purchase their products they need my help. My co-founder has the technical background and I realized that we all have strengths to complement one another.
How do you assess the situation of female founders in Singapore?
In Singapore, we are very lucky because for a long time, men and women have been working side by side and a lot of women have been the bosses of men. In a lot of companies, you will see women CEOs. However, it is still not 50-50 yet. But I think the environment is there.
I was invited to a “women in leadership” summit as a speaker here in Singapore. It was a very eye-opening experience. There was one speaker who really stressed the point that women should not leave the workforce after they have children. We should be a role model for the younger employees to have somebody to look up to. Because men look up and see “oh, the head of a company is a guy, I can do it too.” If you are a woman and you do not have such a role model, you might feel it is a men’s job and doubt that you can become the next CEO.
I do think she made those points to also be a role model for her own kids. No matter if you have a daughter or a son, your kids will see that they can be as successful as their mum. For example, my mother is a role model to me because she was able to start from scratch, she took her savings and decided to open up a shop. She really enjoys it. It is so flexible and she is financially independent. She does not need to rely on my dad for money.
I think as a woman if you have your own income, you will never feel that you are less than a man. Always have your own source of income, so that if the relationship turns bad, you can leave. I think a lot of women who are not independent end up having to tolerate the men’s bad behavior. I do not think that women should ever have that happen to themselves.
Something I see in Singapore very often is that the men have good careers and they help their wives in setting up their own businesses and, of course, they take on the household responsibilities. I find it really encouraging to see men who support their wives to start their own businesses.
Do you also think that in addition to glass ceilings there are also sticky floors in the sense that we as women sometimes do not take the risk to speak up for ourselves?
Yes, definitely. I see that at Ladyboss, for example. When we ask women “What are your successes?” A lot of them would never ever say that they are successful. They think they have to avoid that word at all cost, they do not want to be associated with it. Even myself, I feel reluctant to admit that yes, I am successful or that I have milestones which I have achieved. I guess we do not want to be seen as arrogant, whereas men do not even think twice about it. A lot of women think: “There are so many people who are doing way better than I do, so I cannot say that I am successful.”
I feel that more women should be proud of the hard work they put in. You have managed to achieve this for yourself, why don’t you share it? That is why we started the Ladyboss website, because I feel that there are not enough women who like to share their successes. A lot of them have been behind the business for about 10 to 20 years but yet they never asked for publicity, never gave an interview to show “Hey, I have built this million dollar business and I am the only person behind it.” Now that we have the website, we started to get more enquiries from women who believe “I have something worth sharing and I want other people to join me.”
Do you think a reason for being humble as a woman could be that when we look at men, as they get older and more successful, they become more attractive. Whereas, for women it could mean that they become intimidating?
It really depends on the dynamics of the relationship. I do believe that a good portion of the men in Singapore is really proud when their other half is very successful at their career. Of course, there are the men who feel intimidated, but I think this whole thought about taking masculinity away is more your own internal struggle, because it is not true. You can always find someone who is not intimidated, someone who is proud of you and willing to be the man behind a successful woman. Our mindset has to change and I believe it is changing because you have more and more women entrepreneurs across the Asian region.
What keeps you going on a bad day?
I try to just take a break, take a holiday or do Yoga. I eat lots of ice cream [laughs]. When I first started, I thought that there were so many obstacles and I got so upset to the point that I would break down and think “I do not want to do this anymore”. But I if you always remind yourself of why you are doing this and that you are thinking long-term, not in the next two to three years, it makes it much easier. Everything seems much smaller when you think in ten years. You do not see the issues as obstacles, you will see them as things that you have to go through day after day and it becomes your life. I had to change my mindset and not really look at problems as problems anymore. It is just things I have to solve every day. It is hard if you take it too seriously. I used to take negative feedback from my customers very personal. But we as business people have to live with that because you will never only have happy clients.
You have to change yourself mentally and keep telling yourself: it is not that big of a problem, life goes on.
What are the things that inspire you?
I like to read biographies of entrepreneurs. They always give you the same advice as well. My favourite book would be the one of Elon Musk. He believed in himself so much and focused to work on something that is so unique and has never been done before.
There is nothing in business that will kill you and you will not go bankrupt overnight. It is all in your mind. If you have a strong mindset and people who you can talk to and who encourage you or even reading books, then your problems seem really small.
In the US, it is very common to start your business while at university. You became an entrepreneur after a job in a multinational company. What would you advise young people who dream of becoming founders?
In Singapore, we are not such big risk takers. We try to go by the route of doing corporate for a few years and then we found our own business. The majority of parents here work in the corporate world. Therefore, they are less likely to advise their children to start their own business fresh from school, unless, your parents are entrepreneurs. You kind of owe it to your parents because they paid for your education. And why not try a few years in the corporate world? I think a lot of people like it and actually prefer the cushy corporate job. But that was not for me. You could tell straight away that this was not going to be my career path. For me, it was very useful because then I discovered what I do not want to do.
Do you think a lot of people have a misperception or romantic view of the startup scenes?
Yes, I think so. We read a lot about how startups raised 50 Million dollars, or 100 Million dollars. I is a very rosy picture of the startup world. The fact is that the founders are facing a lot of problems and probably they had been working for a few years before they managed to get their very first investment.
I think a lot of people think entrepreneurship is glamorous, easy and flexible and gives you the freedom to travel whenever you want. They do not really see the part when founders are working until three, four in the morning or when they cannot sleep because they keep thinking about the business at night and how to make it better. When you have a job, you finish at seven, even when I finish at eight or nine, I do not have to go beyond a certain effort. Because at the end of the day, I get the same salary. But as a founder, if you do not put in the effort, you do not get returns. The people who only want it for vanity, they will never do it. They will be talking about it for 10, 20 years and then still be in their corporate job. They would probably crumble at a lot of things.
Even at our Ladyboss events we always ask the question: What is the misperception about entrepreneurship? And most of the panelists say that a lot of people think they will start a business and they will be rich within the next year [laughs]. But if you talk to people who have done it, a lot of them will tell you it takes a lot of time. Some of them were in the red for two years. And a lot of people cannot imagine the type of stress that you will have, mentally and looking at your money dwindling day by day. You have to really want it to be able to live with such stress.
It is not glamorous at all to start your own business. You have to do everything yourself. If you think being a manager is difficult, try being a business owner. It becomes three times of the stress compared to working for a big corporation. You can feel very safe because of the structures these corporations have put in place. But if you are not a good leader, if you cannot motivate your employees, everything falls upon you. It is your own responsibility.
What would you advise a woman who has an idea but she has not taken the step of founding her own business as yet?
I think she would need to look at her own financial situation first. Make sure you are financially stable enough to start a business. If you do not have the runway yourself in terms of your savings, you might risk losing a really good job and your savings. But if you have enough savings that will last you until the point that you are profitable, or you already know investors who would be keen to give you the funds for your business, you can take that risk. Most businesses will not be profitable until the second or third year. I have been working since I was 13 and I have always saved up for myself.
If you are confident – you do not have to be 100 per cent confident – but if it is something that keeps you from sleeping at night, if you have done your business plan and if you have enough savings.
Melissa Lim is 28 years old and co-founder of BiTS, an enterprise resource planning based in Singapore. She loves travelling when she is not hustling. An advocate for female entrepreneurs, she created LadyBoss – a community for female entrepreneurs and those aspiring to become one.