#Asia How a Singaporean civil servant rose from humble origins to run a rising Indonesian company


Tan Yong Han (left) with Shashank Dixit, founder and CEO of Deskera. Image credit: Tan Yong Han

Hard work gave Tan Yong Han his big break. The diligent student came from a humble family – his dad retired early due to an illness, forcing his mom to start working after being a homemaker.

Despite this challenge, luck gave him a little helpful push. Drenched in the rain with no mobile phone and no cash to hail a cab, Tan was running late for his government scholarship interview. Out of the blue, a trailer truck driver spotted him and gave him a ride.

Tan had average grades relative to the other candidates, but Philip Yeo, former chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB), gave him a chance. “I wasn’t the smartest guy, or the guy with the best grades or the most polished,” Tan tells Tech in Asia in his office overlooking the Singapore skyline.

Almost two decades on, Tan is the CEO of the Indonesian operations of Deskera, one of the most successful enterprise software companies from Singapore. Deskera’s customers in Indonesia include Pertamina, a state-owned oil and natural gas company making billions in revenue, and Medco, a publicly listed energy firm.

Hard landing

Tan began his career in government service. He stayed for six years, becoming the director of EDB’s Jakarta center in the latter half of his stint. Essentially, his role was to get Indonesian companies to set up in Singapore, and this allowed him to make important business connections. With the network he developed, Tan felt it was time to leap into the private sector.

In 2010, he joined a manufacturing firm in Indonesia as its marketing director but left after a couple of years. Armed with the knowledge of running a factory, he started a firm that distributed China-made forklifts in Indonesia.

“I remember tearing up because it felt so good to have a company,” he says, describing the moment when he opened the shipping container to receive his first batch of forklifts. It seemed like business was picking up as the firm made US$500,000 in the first year. But it soon became obvious that it was failing.

It turned out that several distributors in Indonesia were pushing the same products. Prices were depressed as customers picked the cheapest option. His rivals also had more experience in selling heavy equipment.

Wanting out, Tan found a way to minimize his loss by befriending his competitors. “One of them just texted me yesterday,” he shares. He was also involved in merger talks that did not pan out, but he was able to sell his inventory to two of his competitors and cut his loss to one-fifth of the original amount.

I like Excel sheets.

The failure humbled him. Up to that point, Tan’s career had been smooth, and he got his start in Singapore, which felt like a greenhouse where everything is regulated and controlled to perfection.

Jumping head-first into Indonesia’s chaotic business environment was risky, and that put Tan, who goes by “Johan” in the country, in an uncomfortable spot. “The reason I worked hard since young was to get a good and comfortable job and a decent pay,” he says.

The experience deepened Tan’s self-knowledge. For one, he admits he is not a product visionary, but more of a marketer as well as a systems and team builder.

“What would you do if you were not paid for it? I would sell something. I just like to sell things. I’ve no interest in making things, except Excel sheets,” he says. “I like Excel sheets.”

Deskera’s sales process

Tan’s desire to carve order out of chaos made him a good fit for Deskera. After all, Deskera sells enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, which is designed to manage a company’s resources.

It’s also fitting that Tan is laser-focused on selling. Product development can be left to his boss, Shashank Dixit, Deskera’s CEO and founder.

Yet peddling enterprise software is different from hawking forklifts. When Deskera Indonesia started three years ago, it saw zero revenue in its first nine months. “When you cook porridge, you don’t cook it in 10 minutes. You’ve got to put it on the boil,” he says.

Also, the sales cycle for ERP software is long – it takes three to five meetings before a deal is sealed. The typical process looks like this:

  • Get a sales lead
  • Qualify the lead and understand a potential customer’s needs
  • Do a live demo running from Deskera’s servers, then get feedback
  • Tweak the demo to account for their needs, then get feedback again
  • Sign the contract
  • Implement the product (takes one to six months)

Tan adds that Deskera is not a fully customizable solution, and he reminds customers about that. “I tell them that our philosophy is to build a highway with a toll that serves 100,000 cars a day. We’re not building a special road for you in your complex.”

SOP land

True to his love for systems building, Tan studiously implements standard operating procedures (SOPs) at his firm, which consists of over 10 full-time employees. He finds SOPs useful because 90 percent of problems that surface are recurring ones. Fixing these issues is a matter of following the steps.

He opens his MacBook to show a list of SOPs on Simplenote. There’s one for his personal assistant with a list of eight questions for qualifying sales leads. There’s one detailing how people should prepare for sales meetings.

I’m a pretty demanding supervisor.

Some of his SOPs cover the mundane. He lists restaurants near his office from various cuisines, which he recommends to visiting guests. He has templates for naming the company’s Whatsapp groups, which shows his fondness for this task.

Once Tan identifies a recurring problem, he will bring an SOP through several iterations before rolling it out. He then drills the procedures into his team by repeatedly communicating them via Whatsapp and face-to-face meetings. He explains the rationale for the procedures, and that involves reminding employees about the mission and vision of the company.

“I’m a pretty demanding supervisor. I make no apologies for that. I always tell them, ‘Look, I know I’m a fussy guy, but it’s very important for me to spend one hour telling you about what we’re doing instead of giving you an instruction for one minute,’” he says.

Despite Indonesia’s culture of “saving face,” Tan has created the practice of readily sharing mistakes within the team for the sake of learning. He talks about his own missteps and gets employees’ permission to share their slip-ups with the group. “It’s never personal, and when we talk about somebody’s mistakes, it’s not to put that guy down,” he says.

He may have imported this Singaporean discipline to Indonesia, but he has gained much from his adopted home as well. Tan is married to a local, and they have two kids. He also says Indonesia’s laid-back and accommodating culture has rubbed off on him.

“It’s important also to have an open mind and not just measure things by KPIs. You have to give and take. When you’re too meticulous, you miss the forest for the trees. I’ve learned to be more relaxed but still get the job done,” he shares.

This post How a Singaporean civil servant rose from humble origins to run a rising Indonesian company appeared first on Tech in Asia.

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