Mid-last year, I made the heart-wrenchingly difficult decision to wrap up my own company, Austern International of 5 years. It wasn’t because the business wasn’t doing well. It was making more money, and we were getting more students joining our Career bootcamps than all our previous years combined. But I felt like personally, I was stagnant in my own growth. Because my company was built off of the university student market, my work felt like a constant grind of marketing, admin, talking to universities, training facilitators, and it was the same every. single. semester.
I also faced the dilemma of not knowing where to take the business and if I even wanted to. My ex-business partner Jamie had moved to Singapore for a full-time role at Carousell and this year, the 2 other part time staff, my pillars and rocks, Lucy & Josef who had been with us since 2016 were graduating and also looking for full time work.
I had myself to blame. Despite how much the business had grown, I always treated it not as a real company, but as a project I’d been working on for the last 5 years. We clocked in around 1,000 students, generated 7 figures, held 20+ programs in 6 cities, were accredited at major universities but for some reason, we never had more than 2 full time staff & 2 part timers. To make up for the growing business, we also had rotating casual employees where alumni who had been on the program were then trained to facilitate and lead other programs.
I felt like an imposter trying to be an entrepreneur. In my head, I was more of a projectpreneur. Clinging onto a problem I had faced and decided to help solve when I was 19.
It wasn’t until recently, in retrospect and seeing it from a different perspective, that I could look back at these experiences and just pat myself on the back and say, hey you know what? We did a darn good job.
2018 was also a major year for another reason. I had finally graduated from university after 6 years of slogging at a 3 year degree. I remember at one point I had optimistically enrolled in 4 full subjects for a semester and dropped all of it by the 3rd week, because I already knew I wouldn’t be able to reach the 80% compulsory attendance rate.
By my 3rd year, I sat my parents down and told them I was dropping out of university. And then I took those words back a few weeks later because I realised that to get a relocation or working visa anywhere outside of Australia, I would need a degree. I had taken numerous gap semesters. I think one year, I only did 1 subject. Safe to say, I took my time. I think most people were wondering what I was still doing at uni.
So with graduation looming in at November 2018, I was ready to step out of that college mindset. I was still passionate about the education space, not necessarily in the academic institution setting, but learning for the sake of learning. I wanted to find an opportunity to explore my other brewing interests I had previously put on hold but most of all, I wanted an opportunity to grow, to stretch myself and my capabilities and to learn from others.
Up to this point, I had never really worked for others aside from my shitty one year accounting stint at a global accounting firm, very short but fun 6 month internship at H2 Ventures and a number of odd part time jobs back when I was just starting Austern.
I knew what I liked and what I despised so I looked carefully. To be honest, I was tempted to just work for a cool, brand name, tech company that paid a lot of money. After all, with Austern, I had direct access to many recruiters & HR teams and could basically ask for a job.
But I wanted to find a company that would give me the autonomy I craved, freedom to take ownership of my time, a vision I could get behind and a team I could learn from. Most of all, I needed the company to align to my values. So, I joined NewCampus
August last year.
Even though I had always followed my intuition on what my values were, it wasn’t until I met Dexter in February this year that he helped me clarify what those top values were. He started off by giving me a list of 50 values where I would rate them from high to low. I would then vet the values that I wrote high next to, to top 10 and then finally top 5. You can try it out here
The values I narrowed down were: Adventure, Curiosity, Creativity, Freedom & Relationships. It was a liberating experience to have clarity in words and to continuously evaluate whether the decisions I made or actions I took matched those values.
I also started asking myself questions to gain better self-awareness around myself. These were some of the questions I asked myself:
What did I want to get out of this year?
What have I achieved in the last 6 months?
Have my actions & plans aligned with my values?
What am I currently working on improving and what are the next actionable steps?
1. What did I want to get out of the past year and how is it going?
I was initially hired as Head of Growth for QLC (rebranded to NewCampus). Even though with Austern I was the one doing all the acquisition and generating revenue, we never spent money on marketing. It was all social marketing, various growth hacks, partnerships and word of mouth. I had no experience at all in digital marketing like paid Facebook, Google ads and SEO which was what was needed at NewCampus. I quickly realised I sucked at it and I didn’t particularly like it either.
I felt so guilty. Here was Fei & Will hiring me for their startup, spending money on me and I was bad at it.
So around December whilst I was in Hawaii, I called Fei, sobbing into the video chat that they should just fire me. As a former founder, I felt terrible for wasting their money and genuinely believed that they should really just replace me with someone who was good at digital marketing. Fei told me that I couldn’t see myself what value I brought to the team, and I didn’t. I could only see what I lacked. It would take me another half year and constant feedback loops to really take ownership of what my strengths were.
A week later on New Years Day, Will & Fei called me and asked me if I wanted to relocate to Singapore and roll out NewCampus in Singapore as the Country Manager. I remember thinking to myself, did I just try to fire myself and get promoted instead?
I was really grateful for this offer. It made me feel like Will & Fei really valued me for me. I learned that I wasn’t just a replaceable skill where they would just hire and replace me the moment I was underperforming. They invested in me and allowed me to try roles and do work that would play to my strengths, whatever that was.
So in February, I relocated to Singapore. I was initially going to learn languages whilst travelling, but I decided to put that on hold. I was burning with curiosity on how these 6 months would play out.
2. So what have I achieved these last 6 months in Singapore?
In these 6 months, I would switch roles countless times, mostly really just doing whatever the company needed. I enjoyed the fluidity and I got to experiment a lot.
Since I joined the company last year, I’ve basically dabbled in all the parts of the business. I’ve done growth & digital marketing, strategy & operations, helped launch the Singapore campus, organised large scale events & community building with our FastFwd Festival & Power Ladies Breakfasts, built a valuable network, did b2b sales, and now doing host & speaker acquisition.
I found that my strengths lay in being resourceful, being adaptable and being able to execute quickly and I enjoyed people-facing, community building roles.
We rebranded from QLC to NewCampus in February so my first task in Singapore was to do a PR event launch within 2 weeks. This included trying to gather 170+ people to fill the huge WeWork space at Suntec City, sourcing high profile speakers whilst getting logistics in order. This had to be done with both my basically non-existent network in Singapore and completely new branding.
First NewCampus FastFwd Festival in February 2019. Eric Sim, former MD at UBS & Linkedin influencer with 2 million followers as one of the keynote speakers
Second NewCampus FastFwd Festival in June 2019. Yu-Chuang Kuek, MD of Netflix as our closing keynote on his learning journey. Most humble dude ever.
In March, I was told with a few hours notice that my colleague, Eddy and I were going to be flown to New York that night to pitch on behalf of NewCampus at the WeWork Labs x Mercer demo day the following day. I had never really pitched anything other than Austern before so I ended up having to hurriedly prepare my pitch on the flight there.
When I got back, we had our first NewCampus Power Ladies breakfast on March 8 where I first invited Agnes Liew, former Vice-Chairman of Citibank as our speaker for International Women’s Day. I thought she was super interesting because even though she was in finance for the last 35 years, when she retired at 65, she became a fitness entrepreneur and started her own boutique gym. She now lifts weights on a daily basis. Talk about being able to redefine yourself and abilities at any age.
We started holding these breakfasts every fortnight where I’d invite a range of interesting speakers. The aim for the breakfast was for like-minded power ladies to share insights, stories & a safe space to learn from each other. Through that, I grew a close network of women as my mentors and friends in Singapore. At one point, I was shook when a Director at Oracle, former COO of IBM and Head of Finance at Netflix came along to my small gathering of a breakfast. I’ve been super blessed that the people I’ve come across in Singapore have mostly been approachable, humble & always looking to improve themselves.
Some ladies who became my mentors this past year. Imane Jamal Eddine, Director at Oracle & Elaine Liew, former COO at IBM.
We also started running classes from 3 nights a week to 7 nights at WeWork & JustCo. It’s seriously the best job ever to be paid to learn.
3. Have my actions & plans aligned with my values?
Safe to say, I’ve gone out of my comfort zone a lot this year. From relocating to Singapore, learning Korean in Seoul, travelling and meeting friends every month in a different country including: Hanoi, Taiwan, Shanghai, Suzhou, Kyoto and Tokyo to now travelling long term for the next 6 months in Europe and South America, I’m definitely having my fill in adventure.
Curiosity & Creativity
I’ve never been a specialised type of person and have a lot of interests, love exploring new areas and learning random things. You can call me Jack of all trades. I’m working on writing more, drawing more and reading more and creating learning challenges for myself.
The ability to own my time is the most important asset to me. Conventional jobs often place face-time as one of the most important aspects. This is where it’s not about the value or effectiveness of your work, it’s about how much time you spend at your desk. This is super counter-intuitive to me because it means you drag out the time of your work to make yourself look busy rather than being incentivised by outcome.
That’s the reason I appreciate startup culture so much. It not only fulfils my desire to create and break things, I’ve consciously picked a company that gives me the freedom to work from home or work remotely, exercises open communication and to value output not face-time. On that end of gaining freedom, what I’ve also consciously sacrificed has been a fat corporate pay check and conventional stability.
My friendships have been one of my most important investments this year. Since I don’t have the convenience to knock on someone’s door and meet up in person, I’ve taken the time to invest in my relationships and I’ve been happy to say that my friendships have been stronger through constant communication even with these far distances.
They’ve been my rock in bad and good times and grateful for the friends who have also jumped on planes to come see me in Singapore, for the friends who call me every few days, for the ones who lend a consoling ear or word of advice and wisdom. I only hope that I can give back the amount of love and care to them that they’ve given me.
4. What am I current working on improving and what are the actionable steps?
I’ve always known that whilst my strength lay in execution, my downfall came in creating structure and process. I’ve been working with other colleagues to help me get better at this. I’m not a particularly process-driven person and so forcing myself to create process around my actions allows my work to be less tedious when I can also delegate aspects of it to others.
Often, I was so busy doing, I would lack the time to sit down and just think. I used to pride myself on the fact that I could execute efficiently, but I’ve come to admire the traits of people who can think articulately and communicate their thoughts in the clearest, most effective way. In that sense, sitting down, taking time and writing out my thoughts have helped me gain clarity and meaning behind my actions and experiences, drawing out lessons whilst reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses.
Also, since I’ve now started my 6 month travelling journey with Dexter in Europe and South America, time management has become a necessary skill and daunting challenge.
Not only am I working remotely for NewCampus (where I’ll also have to be diligent in my remote communication on Slack and over-communicate; another area I’m trying to improve), I’ll also be travelling, researching, reflecting, blog writing and I’m also attempting my creative element of making an art diary.
With that, that’s my reflection for the past year. Hope you enjoyed reading and giving you a pat on the back for reading it the entire way. Always looking forward to hearing your thoughts!