Features

How I got here….Oliver Tan, ViSenze CEO and co-founder

After an early fascination with start-ups and the entrepreneurial spirit, Oliver Tan spent 10 years in the corporate world. But the inspirational observations of the late Steve Jobs set him back on the path to his true calling. Here, the CEO and co-founder of artificial intelligence company ViSenze shares his journey

Education

Throughout my life, I’ve always been curious. I enjoy trying new things and learning from others. That stems from my childhood. I’ve always sought adventure and did not shy away from new opportunities or roles that would broaden my horizon.

Like many people in Singapore, I took education seriously but I was never a grade A student. I realised, however, that I did excel in certain areas – like figuring out abstract things and problem-solving. And I applied my curious, adventurous attitude at school in order to get the most out of it.

I found stamina in running and I was a photo enthusiast who enjoyed scenery. But I also developed a longer-term passion – that of building my own tech start-up one day.

I learned about startups, reading about tech investments they attracted and the startup entrepreneurs who started them. And so, I decided to base my education around what I already enjoyed doing.

Not long after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics, I went back to school in 1997 to do my MBA at Royal Holloway of the University of London and focused on international business, and, specifically, motivational drivers for successful new joint ventures, which was my thesis.

I learned a lot along the way, from both my peers and other entrepreneurs in my cohort, and absorbed valuable business lessons that seeded my entrepreneurial thinking.

Most importantly, I learned that being challenged was a positive thing and that if I wanted to seek the adventure that I wanted, I would need to challenge my own limits by going into the unknown and figuring things out quickly.

My start

Early in my career, I joined an early stage startup as the global head of business at e-Cop  – now called Quann – handling everything from new business development, partnerships, investor relations, consultative selling, bid management, and group operations.

I worked directly with the founding CEO, Eddie Chau, who is one of Singapore’s most prolific entrepreneurs today, and gained first-hand business experience on how to build a business.

I remembered distinctly how this role thrust me into the cold, harsh reality of the start-up life as the company had to work twice as hard to prove not just its pioneering solutions, but its new place and relevance to the world of 24/7 cyber-security management.

As a young start-up, we operated under a ‘do more with less’ mentality while venturing beyond our own trainings and comfort zones. One of our proudest achievements was leading an underdog win to set up and operate the Singapore Government’s first CyberWatchCentre (CWC) in 2016. Most people had dismissed our chances as a small five-year-old Singapore company.

After e-Cop, I went back to the corporate world – MediaCorp, MNC Media – and gained first-hand exposure on how traditional content businesses were rapidly disrupted by new digital channels and the innovative technologies powering them.

Tasked with leading digital initiatives in senior roles, I battled market challenges. These challenges were not just external, but internal. I observed how corporate leaders constantly struggled with the inherent dilemma of prioritising short term profitability and investments over longer term initiatives in order to transform themselves quickly.

Coming from the start-up world, these were lessons that I took away as a corporate leader and they were very real and stark. At the end of day, the only constant is change and all leaders – corporate or startup – who embrace change through innovation or organic transformation are better suited to survive than those who resist.

When I left the corporate world, I had my bag of tools – my experiential skills that I had accumulated over 10 corporate years – but I also had to force myself to unlearn many corporate practices that had crept into my thinking processes, such as risk mitigation as opposed to risk taking.

Approach

Late one night in 2011 I was re-inspired by a video of Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford University commencement speech in 2005. This speech forced me to assess the current state of my career and how the never-ending challenges of corporate jobs had consumed a large part of my life.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work,” Jobs said. “And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

With his words constantly in the back of my mind, it cultured my thinking, reignited the spark in me and set my path toward entrepreneurship. It was time to jump back into the startup world and do something that really made a difference. So at the height of my professional career, aged 42, I was ready to give it up and get into the trenches again.

But in the start-up world, it’s almost never about one man’s effort. You need a solid core team on a common journey to make it happen.

“Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people,” Jobs also opined. “Don’t try to go it alone, you are more likely to fail. Build a great team. We often forget that football is won by a team of 11, not just the goal scorer.”

I agree strongly with these words, as they promote the power of teamwork and the importance of enjoying the work you do every day. Many of the most successful companies in the world started with an idea that someone was passionate about, later realising there were others around them who shared that same passion.

Another thing that is very important to me is being a good leader, which I feel is best shown through empowerment and inspiration.

Most CEOs are just the conductors of the orchestra they assemble, so empowering employees to be independent and contribute to the success of the company is critical. Salaries and options are replaceable. It’s the motivation and inspiration that a leader gives his/her team that will prevent employees from leaving when times get tough.

I like to see my leadership style as one that leads by example as I would never ask my team to do things I am not prepared to do myself.

Chance and timing are strange bedfellows. Some call it fate. I got reacquainted with a co-founder from e-Cop, Roger Yuen, who upon knowing my intentions for a big switch, immediately persuaded me to take a look at an AI project that was being developed at the National University of Singapore by two scientists, Li Guangda and Prof Chua Tat-Seng, who later became my co-founders at ViSenze.

It took me only three weeks to say yes; that I can lead a company by finding a big, expensive market problem that could be solved with AI technology. The rest is history.

Highs

The best part of where I am today is that me and my team are working towards transforming an industry that so many people are a part of – shopping. Retail is no longer a destination, it’s a journey. It permeates our everyday activities and is interwoven into everything we do, from social media to social networking.

Merged with the creative content and innovative technologies that are available today, retail is taking new forms that we never imagined would be possible. I am a big advocate of ‘retail everywhere and anywhere, at any place or time you chose’. And, innovative technology is the key to making it happen.

Building ViSenze over the last five years has been an incredible journey of trials and tribulations, and there’s still so much the future holds. When my co-founders and I started ViSenze, we had one goal in mind: to improve the search inefficiencies that existed online, and ultimately, help people shop better. Now, we have over 60 employees, five global offices, and we work with some of the most well-known and biggest retailers in the world.

 

Lows

The life of an entrepreneur can be a rollercoaster and there will be uncertainties to face almost every day. There will always be situations where you feel the easiest thing to do is give up or go back to the drawing board, but it’s important to put failures in your rear view mirror, learn from them, and move forward.

These situations are the ultimate test to how strong you are and can teach you a lot about yourself and your team along the way. For instance, we learned a lot when real-world client data disproved a few of the solutions we thought would work well in the market.

In a world consumed by artificial intelligence, there is no fibbing to the smartest and most intelligent buyers out there. Data is your friend, data becomes your weapon, data makes you better. But data also exposes your weaknesses. You get smart very quickly when you embrace data.

Do’s and Don’ts

In taking risks – make choices, don’t take chances.

Taking chances is making a risky decision with your fingers crossed. Making a choice on a risky decision is the same except you are fully prepared that things may not work out and knowing that if they don’t, you will learn quickly from them on what not to do next.

In entrepreneurship, some paths can’t be discovered without getting lost. Stay lost, stay curious. You get better after each ‘lost’ path.

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