3 Tips for Carving Your Own Path — From a BCG Consultant Turned Globetrotting Startup Professional Living in Southeast Asia
Flashback to 2014: I was a Berkeley MBA student attending The Atlantic’s Navigate Tech Conference in San Francisco. They were hosting a fireside chat with Salman Khan, the visionary EdTech entrepreneur who started the online course site Khan Academy. For those who don’t know his story, Salman was a New York hedge fund analyst who would spend every night giving math tutoring sessions to his cousins in Bangladesh. It started as just simple homework help, but after learning so much from those lessons, his cousins soon invited their friends, and their friends invited more friends, and before Salman knew it he was moonlighting as a math teacher to classroom-sized throngs on the other side of the world.
At the Navigate Tech conference, when Salman was asked how he could feel so comfortable giving up his Wall Street salary to start a not-for-profit business, he responded: “We only get one life. We have one shot to make an impact, so swing for the fences”.
Six months ago I left my job as a management consultant with Boston Consulting Group (BCG), packed up my bags and moved from LA to Southeast Asia to join the product team at a Y Combinator-backed FinTech startup called Xendit. Like Salman, I was on a mission to make an impact; to move beyond spreadsheets and powerpoint slides and help build an innovative business from the ground up.
After landing for the first time in Jakarta, Indonesia, I remember taking stock of how different so many parts of life here were from what I was used to, from the language and social norms to the food and culture to the regulatory and economic landscape. I really was a world away (roughly 9000 miles, in fact) from my closest friends and family, and had to rely on the support of fellow expats, my new Indonesian friends, and Google Translate to try to acclimate.
Some things took a little longer than others to get used to: I now start my day by weaving through traffic in one of the world’s most heavily congested cities, clinging for dear life on the back of a motorbike taxi (or ‘o-jek’ in Indonesian) that costs less than the price of a cup of coffee in the US. Who needs Starbucks when you can have an adrenaline rush like that to start your morning commute?
Xendit was cited as one of CNBC’s top 100 startups to watch, and is in prime position to accomplish its ambitious mission to build the digital infrastructure for SEA. We’re first focused on addressing the massive challenge of digital payments, helping business owners adapt to new tools for collecting and disbursing money that are fundamentally transforming emerging markets. In Indonesia, despite having a population of over 260 million people, the credit card penetration rate is only 5–6% and over 60% of Indonesians are still unbanked. This creates points of friction for businesses that conduct transactions online, as they are often forced to rely on inefficient models of collecting payments, such as bank transfers and cash on delivery.
As a Product Manager, I hear how these challenges play out every time I interview customers. Small businesses and other startups spend valuable resources hobbling together different systems to collect cash, cards, and e-wallet payments, which in turn creates an inconsistent and painful user experience for the end customer. One coffee chain we spoke with had an entire technical team dedicated to managing its digital payments processing and handling the dozens of complaints they would receive during frequent system outages. For some merchants, building and selling their product are easier tasks than finding a way to literally collect payment for it.
Nevertheless, SEA in general is a very attractive place right now for startups as they are able to raise historic amounts of funding, and although the region doesn’t match Silicon Valley in its density of tech talent and innovation, its proximity to some of the largest markets in the world and its high tech adoption rates — making leapfrogging innovation and superapps possible — give it unique qualities that could position it as one of the world’s frontrunners in the near future.
As I reflect on how I was able to transition from consultant in the US to startup expert in Asia, I came to 3 insights I’ve gathered so far that might help those who want to eventually scratch their own entrepreneurial itch abroad:
1. Be intentional with your learning, but don’t try to over-optimize
There’s a famous saying of the rule of thirds: spend 1/3 of your life learning, 1/3 of your life earning, and 1/3 of your life returning (ideally in parallel, rather than serially). As you think about that learning phase, it helps to build depth and breadth. I’ve spent several years focused on tech and strategy through my MBA program at Berkeley and stint at BCG. I’ve also traveled a ton and immersed myself in local cultures, dabbled in C++, python and SQL, and avidly read books and listened to podcasts on the tech world and beyond. I don’t think any single course or reading got me to where I am today, but the amalgamation of different life experiences have definitely been beneficial to my growth and development. Your path, like most, will likely not be a linear one, so allow yourself to be a student of life. As Ben Franklin said, “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
2. Grow authentic relationships and share your ambitions
I’ve benefited so many times in life from chance conversations with others about my dreams and passions. After telling a friend about my desire to go to business school, I learned about the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, an invaluable network for US minority business professionals that was foundational to my MBA experience. By sharing with BCGers that I was interested in international work, I got staffed on a tech transformation project in Singapore for a leading financial services company — work that opened my eyes to the opportunity of financial services in SEA and became the jumping off point for my current adventure. Even my first project for my market entry and strategy consulting business New North Global came from a conversation I had in LA with a General Manager who shared my passions for health and wellness. By giving others insight into your goals and interests, you exponentially increase the probability of favorable outcomes.
3. Trust yourself once you’ve done the research
Despite hopping on a plane and moving around the world, my choice to go into management consulting before diving headfirst into startupland makes it clear that I’m not entirely risk seeking. And that’s ok. For the more risk-averse among us, winning in entrepreneurship means placing smart bets. Before leaving the US, I took account of my base, best, and worst case scenarios: with savings, academic credentials to fall back on, and a small network in the region, it seemed that my worst case scenario was fairly limited. I also tried to follow Jeff Bezos’ regret minimization framework, and came to the conclusion that the regret I’d feel for not embarking on this journey was far greater than the alternative.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen plenty of head scratching from friends and family who have been up-to-date on my professional journey, especially from those who found out I now work about the same number of hours as I did in my management consulting life for significantly less money and perks. Yet that doesn’t change the fact that it still feels like the right path for me — one that will continue to pay dividends throughout my career. By now I’ve learned that it’s ok to have a contrarian view, so long as you don’t bound recklessly into the unknown.
Despite having now spent several months living full time in Asia, in many ways I’m still at the start of this journey. I am continuously learning new skills in tech and how to be a better leader, while incubating the business idea for the startup of my own that I will eventually found. I’m excited by the challenge, and encouraged by the amazing network I have built in my short time here. So while in some ways I might be taking the road less traveled, I’m thrilled to carve a path that’s uniquely my own.