Entrepreneur Spotlight | Shawn Lee on Learning from The Gems… and The Dirt

Entrepreneurs are a fascinating species. Firstly, they are rare. There are 582 million entrepreneurs in the world–which seems like a big number until you do the math and realise that it only equates to approximately 7.5% of the world’s population. Secondly, they come from a wide variety of backgrounds and industries. Startup lore may choose to focus on the founders of tech companies, but entrepreneurs exist in virtually every field. And lastly, not every entrepreneur is a college dropout. They come from a vast array of different backgrounds. There is simply no prototype. No ‘textbook’ entrepreneur.

Recently, I met Shawn Lee, the Business Lead at Monocoque Service Design. He’s in service design and I’m in books. Yet, as I heard the story of how he built his business, I saw the common threads that emerged in the entrepreneurial journey. It is this thread that ties founders together in a shared experience that so few seem to understand, let alone comprehend. In this conversation, we talk about the vision, the team and the lifelong journey of learning to distinguish the gems from… the dirt.

Dipa: Every entrepreneur begins with an idea and a vision. How did you know when you had the right idea?

Shawn: The original idea I had when I pulled everyone together was vastly different from the actual business idea we started with. Coming from advertising, I saw certain gaps which kept appearing especially when it came to corporate takeaways during trade events or pitch presentations. 

When the founding members of Monocoque came together, we realised there was a much bigger issue at hand and how we could solve it collectively. Singapore’s economy was changing (alongside the global economy and more specifically the developed economies) and so were consumers’ expectations when purchasing from specific brands. Today, when you buy anything, almost 99.9% of the time there is service involved and hence becomes a whole experience. Coming from different backgrounds, we all saw and believed in what design could achieve as an overarching discipline centred around empathy.

Markets are becoming more saturated and competitive. Consumers are becoming more demanding and expect more value for every dollar spent. Businesses must find a way to stay ahead of its competition. Hence this is where design comes in: understanding your customers, helping to custom tailor services for them and crafting experiences they will remember and talk about. As products become less and less differentiated, services and experiences are the way to go in staying ahead.

This is when we knew we had something to work on. Despite the little knowledge amongst Singaporean business in this realm of design, we embarked on this, working towards bringing design to our clients, far beyond the usual spectrum of visual design.

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Steve Jobs

Dipa: Your business is now seven years old. What was your mission at the outset and how has it evolved since then? 

Shawn: Starting out, the plan was to build a global brand. Beyond that we wanted to work closely with our clients to co-create their consumer journeys and to craft experiences for their consumers. As with many founders, we thought many prospects would come pretty easily and immediately see the importance of designing their services and experiences. How wrong were we! Our initial plans of making a global brand in just 5-10 years went right out of the window. We had to re-think our strategy and our plans moving forward.

The core vision and mission we had when we first started has not fundamentally changed. We still believe in design is built on empathy and not just purely visual. We will still work closely with our clients on their consumer journeys and customer experiences. What has changed would be the timelines, our approach and the diversity of the work we take on. The delicate balance between the ideals of the original idea and the reality of business.

Dipa: All entrepreneurs have experienced failures. What was the one failure that turned out to be your biggest opportunity for business growth?

Shawn: One of our biggest mistakes and failures was growing the team too rapidly. We were looking to expand and grew the team by almost twofold in the span of less than 3 months. In the rush to meet growth targets, we did not spend the necessary time and effort to evaluate each new team member to qualify if he/she would be a good fit for the business (across culture, character, stage of business, etc). We ignored some of the red flags we sensed during the interviews as we were too absorbed with growing the team. 

Every business is built on its talent, a well-bonded team working towards a common goal. This is even more significant in a smaller setup as every member takes up a much bigger percentage of the overall manpower. We came to realise, as a form of a painful lesson, that skillsets alone are not sufficient to sustain a business. Often, peoples’ characters, attitude and camaraderie are more important. This was a valuable lesson for us as the rapid expansion created a downward spiral of unhappiness, inefficiency and bleeding of funds and we eventually downsized the team to leaner numbers. 

We nearly had to shut the business as we were in the red every month and had burnt our 6-digit reserves to the ground. As we are looking towards expansion once again, this lesson has taught us to slow down the process and to take the time to evaluate potential team members. We need to pay attention to the signs and the red flags to have a better gauge of whether they will be a good fit for the team. It is important to bring on a new member that is mutually beneficial for the business, the current team, and the new member(s). 

We have also learnt to not compromise on our internal values and culture. There is a need to build the right culture, putting the right elements in place, before bringing on new members who are the right fit for the business. Mistakes will still be made along the way, but we have learnt to invest the time and effort in building the foundation right, so the business is ready for success.

Dipa: Entrepreneurs often receive conflicting advice, and perhaps even relentless criticism from the people around them. How do you deal with this? How do you distinguish the gems from the dirt?

Shawn: I would say it is not only for entrepreneurs/business owners–maybe we do get it more–but I’m sure everyone has had their fair share of conflicting advice over the years. Not everyone is going to understand what you are doing, especially if they have not heard of it before. While others may not understand why you made the choice to do what you do, giving up a “stable” job, or sleep to hopefully reach your goal.

Regardless of whether it is advice or criticism, it is good to just listen. I would say take it with a pinch (or fistful) of salt most times, decide on what makes sense, what may work for you or what can. It might help if you run it through a trusted sounding board before deciding to give some of it a try. In most cases, trying out something small wouldn’t end up causing much harm.

Conflicting advice usually happens when you speak to people who have been there and done that and people who have no understanding of what it is like to be in a particular situation. What has worked for me over the years, would be to listen to the different things been said, whether they are good or hard to listen to.

First, break it down to who the advice is coming from and their positions and motivations. The advice usually has no ill intent. Often it comes from a place of care and concern, but it might be too laden with emotion and hinders more than helps. It would be ideal if I am able to piece all of that together, using it to move forward. Even when this happens, it is good to have a couple of people close to you to run it through with, to ask them what they think. During the times you are unable to piece everything together, these few people can then help with making sense of the situation. 

The important thing is to surround yourself with people you can trust and who have your best interests at heart. 

As for relentless criticism, like advice, take it with a pinch (or fistful) of salt. Don’t react instantly but process the criticism and find out how it can help you. We usually learn and grow from adversity and not from comfort. I believe for most of us, including me, it is a continuous journey to learn how to calmly absorb criticism and use it as fuel and knowledge to move forward. 

Regardless of how bad it is, there are often lessons to learn from each situation or criticism; gem or dirt. Even if it was a situation when I really feel like I did not want to work with someone in the future, it will become a lesson. The lesson is often different dependent on the situation but these singular lessons have helped me and the business grow over the years.

Dipa: Every single organisation has its own story about the development of the business and about the evolution of the founder’s role in the enterprise. How have you evolved both personally and professionally through building your business?

Shawn: As the business changes and evolves, it is natural for the founder(s) to change the roles accordingly, often filling the gaps early on while transitioning to what they are best at as the business and team grows. As much as my role has not changed too drastically over the years (so far), I have taken on more roles or pseudo-roles.

You basically take up the CEO, CFO, accountant, debt collector, cleaner, IT help desk and whatever needs to be done to ensure the business runs. Thankful to have colleagues who pull their own weight and help so it is not as strenuous and crazy. Despite the crazy, it has definitely been a learning journey which I would not trade anything for. 

Professionally, I have had the opportunity to interact and work with many people from different industries and learn the inner workings of their specific industries from them. This is essential when it comes to the cross-pollination of ideas and how understanding different industries helps with a more holistic view and perspective.

On a personal front, the interactions with the myriad of people has given me a greater appreciation of the different types of people. The knowledge gained from speaking to these people has also helped me with communicating with people from different backgrounds and industries, speaking to them in their terms. 

Dipa: An entrepreneur’s personal and business goals are inextricably linked. How do you identify the right people to support you on your endeavours? How do you deal with individuals who put their own self-interests ahead of the goals of the business?

Shawn: For the people who support, there are two main groups. The first being the people who support you on the personal front, which is extremely important, as it provides a good solid foundation to work from. The second would be the people you work with. The core team has been together for a few years and it has taken some time to identify individuals who are able to support you and pull their weight. I would say I have had my fair share of luck and I am trying to refine it every step of the way so to get better at it.

One important factor to consider would be the fit, especially culturally. You may find people who truly want to support you but if they do not fit in with the culture you have painstakingly built, it will likely be detrimental to the team’s progress. 

For those who put their own self-interests ahead of the goals of the business, it is important to find out their motivations before taking any other course of action. Most of us protect our interests, but it is on us to better understand the motivations and whether they are aligned with or detrimental to the overall team dynamics.

From there, we then take the necessary actions to set the team up for success and growth.


About the Author

Dipa Sanatani is the Publisher at Mith Books and the author of The Little Light and The Merchant of Stories. In The Merchant of Stories, Dipa takes the reader on a personal journey–narrated through a series of candid journal entries–on what it takes for entrepreneurs and creatives to start their very first venture.

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