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Calculated risk puts Glints in their eyes

SINGAPORE — The world is your oyster. Three young Singaporean adults took that saying to heart as they forsook their scholarships in top US universities and plunged into the real world to start up their own business.

Tech entrepreneurs: Glints founders (L-R) Qin En Looi, Oswald Yeo and Ying Cong Seah at their office, taken on 03 February 2016. Photo: KOH MUI FONG/TODAY

Tech entrepreneurs: Glints founders (L-R) Qin En Looi, Oswald Yeo and Ying Cong Seah at their office, taken on 03 February 2016. Photo: KOH MUI FONG/TODAY

SINGAPORE — The world is your oyster. Three young Singaporean adults took that saying to heart as they forsook their scholarships in top US universities and plunged into the real world to start up their own business.

Messrs Oswald Yeo, Seah Ying Cong and Looi Qin En, all aged 23 this year, together founded Glints, a job portal for interns, and have defied the naysayers who felt they had made a bad decision. The business turned cashflow positive last September and they moved from a shared facility into a new office early this year and even expanded overseas - all in a span of less than three whirlwind years.

It all started when the trio – who knew each other from Hwa Chong Institution - were doing National Service and decided to make some money in their spare time selling T-shirts and running several e-commerce businesses, but these ventures ultimately failed. By a stroke of serendipity, however, the three were approached by a customer who was looking for interns to fill up jobs in a company and asked if their friends were interested. That sparked an idea that blossomed into a job-matching service for companies and young adults. They incorporated Glints in August 2013.

“This was a good break from zero users and zero customers… The situation was all set up for us. People actually needed it and companies would actually reply to our email thanking us for the service,” said Mr Seah.

The trio were poised to get an education at top US universities after NS, with Mr Yeo heading to University of California, Berkeley, Mr Seah to Wharton Business School and Mr Looi to Stanford University. While waiting for the school semester to start, the company signed up for an accelerator programme with Singapore-based JFDI from March to July 2014, which helped them find a footing.

“It was pretty much the only thing we could do back then because other than that it was just trying to fumble around in our own office. We really felt very directionless. When there was such a programme that promises to guide you in a step-by-step learning journey, we just jumped at it,” said Mr Seah.

The JFDI programme provided them a co-working space for four months, after which the three Glints co-founders went to the US to start school, but they lasted only one semester. They had wanted to juggle their energies between the start-up and university but found that both areas suffered. They then made the hardest decision in their young lives – to give up their studies in the US and return to Singapore to build the business.

Back home, their decision was met with disbelief and pressure from many quarters.

“The social pressure, especially in Singapore, was there as everyone wants to go through junior college or poly and then to university,” said Mr Yeo.

“The hardest part was communicating it with my parents. We were all on scholarships at that point of time. While our universities were okay with us taking time off… the hardest part was giving up our scholarships and communicating it to our parents,” he added.

Mr Seah said: “It was harder for me. The business was not going anywhere at that point of time. So it was not as clear-cut. Plus my parents were not supportive and I had a scholarship. But deep down I knew that being an entrepreneur is what I always want to do, because I would rather stay up till 3am to work on the website than to finish my assignments.”

“School was fun, but I was learning whatever that was done before. It took me 3 to 4 months to decide, but it came to a point that it was for me to decide. Everyone’s side of their story came from their own experiences,” said Mr Looi.

“I remember one morning I skipped a class and went to the rooftop of my apartment and I just decided to not go to class anymore,” Mr Yeo said.

All three had kept in touch with each other constantly despite being in different schools across the US. The strong conviction from each co-founder cemented the decision for them to return to Singapore and work on the business. There were also penalties for giving up their scholarships, and each paid a compound interest higher than bank rates for the one semester.

Then everything started working out. The company moved to BASH (Build Amazing Startups Here), a start-up facility located at the heart of the Republic’s mini-Silicon Valley in one north. BASH is an initiative by Infocomm Investments (IIPL), the investment arm of the Infocomm Development Authority.

IIPL became an investor in Glints.

“They are one of our investors and were really helpful in our starting-up process. They offered mentorship, not just investment. One of the mentors gave us a lot of advice, on how to do sales and get investors,” said Mr Yeo.

The environment was a cohesive one and some start-ups located in BASH became customers of Glints.

“The BASH environment allows us to not worry about things. Things like wi-fi, water, recreation space were there… They always have other mentors and very often we have encounters with them. They allow us to focus on the business with a nice environment,” Mr Yeo said.

As operations grew, Glints began to take on more staff. Their first hire was an engineer, as none of the three entrepreneurs had professional tech knowledge. With cash flow turning positive last September, they decided to spread Glints’ wings beyond Singapore, with an expansion into the Indonesian market. Within a month of launch, the overseas business gained solid traction, catching the team by surprise as it grew exponentially.

Back home, the company announced a collaboration with a Ngee Ann Polytechnic early this year, its first formal partnership with a local school. The institution brings a pool of 16,000 students to the portal and more than 1,000 students have signed up since the collaboration in January.

Less than three years from inception, Glints now has more than 4,000 companies on board – from both Singapore and Indonesia – and about 100,000 users in the portal. The start-up grew too big and needed a bigger space, so it moved into their new office early this year, just a street away from BASH.

Looking back, the founders are grateful over how the business has taken off, but said that there is a lot more work to be done. Most of all, they are happy that they had taken the plunge against all odds.

“I am definitely right about my decision. I have learnt so much in the past year and feel confident about the business now. Moving forward, we plan to improve the product constantly and keep innovating. Another focus is to expand on our second market in Indonesia,” said Mr Yeo.

Mr Yeo does not plan to return to school. “I have decided to not spend three years in school. Even if I go back, it would be to attend a span of 6 to 12 months at this point of time,” he said.

The other two co-founders are keeping their focus on the business but added that they plan to complete their studies eventually. But these plans are not firm and they continue to deal with pressure from their parents.

“I am still managing their expectations till this day,” said Mr Looi, whose parents are in academia. His father is a professor and his mother is a teacher.

The three young entrepreneurs now stay in a room next to their office, as they often work past midnight, when the trains have stopped. They go home to visit their families during the weekends.

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