By Ryan Tan Jin Jie and Denzel Chen Jie
It’s been quite a while now since entrepreneurship gained steam and became one of the biggest buzzwords in industry. But for many of us, due to the nature of entrepreneurship, the road is unpaved and mysterious – we know very little about such a job, or even the community within which it exists.
Quite the epitome of entrepreneurship, REACTOR is a start-up that has morphed into a professional organization dedicated to advancing the entrepreneurship scene and start-up arena in Singapore. To find out more, we decided to meet up with Rusydi and Weiyuan (on the far left and far right respectively), 2 of the 8 full-time staff helming many responsibilities at REACTOR.
So, tell us more about Reactor and what do you guys do?
R: I would consider Reactor to be a hybrid organisation – ecosystem developers. We run entrepreneurship training courses for students, organise consultations to help corporates implement some of the intrapreneurship programmes, and we also have a pre-incubator programme where we meet up with our students regularly to help them with their ideas.
In doing so, we are trying to improve the start-up and entrepreneurship ecosystem in Singapore. The work that we do is quite complex – We do not just work with students, but also with schools, corporates, VCs and other start-ups. It is a whole bunch of different players who are working together to lift the levels of entrepreneurial development in Singapore.
Does Reactor have any programmes to bolster the entrepreneurial scene?
R: Yes. Actually we are doing that by getting students to be comfortable with the kind of thinking required within the entrepreneurial scene. School teachers use the type of thinking called causal reasoning which is 1+1 = 2. But when you work in a start-up, you deal with extreme levels of uncertainty. Thus, we use a different type of thinking called effectual reasoning: what + what = 1? A lot of students can’t comprehend this mindset shift because suddenly, there is no right answer and there are multiple ways to get there. lot of our programmes hence focus on getting students to be comfortable with these levels of uncertainty.
Beyond impacting students, we also work with the schools. We run programmes for the educators under the Reactor Educator Network (REN). Even after the programme we still meet up with our students via Reactor Ventures. We also piloted the Reactor Parent Network (RPN), which involves meetings with parents to learn about their areas of concern when it comes to the education space and their children’s journey to the economy of the future. So that is what we mean by ecosystem developers. If you want to lift this whole movement of having more students to have more interest in tech, start-ups and entrepreneurship, you have to work with all the different people who are part of this ecosystem.
Does Reactor work with any organisations?
WY&R: We work with the entire start-up community. Official partnerships aside, a lot of them can be our friends or families, or people within the start-up arena who are interested to give back to the community. Especially very recently, we have quite a lot of interested parties from various angles. One awesome thing about the start-up scene is that most of us are very willing to help because we all know how hard it is to be struggling. Hence, when we reach out to people in the entrepreneurial space, people usually try to help immediately – we just help each other as much as we can.
What is a typical workday like here in Reactor?
R: This is really a very hard question because in all honesty, no two workdays are the same. Sometimes I am out pitching to clients, sometimes I am running the actual training programmes, sometimes I am doing business development, partnership meetings… Every week is actually very different.
We see that REACTOR currently has lots of connections. How did you start out and initially go about getting your starting client base and getting connections?
R: We were set up nearly five years ago actually. I started it in my final year in university with a bunch of friends when I was a chemistry undergraduate – completely unrelated. After that I joined SPRING Singapore, a statutory board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry that oversees all the start-ups and SMEs. During the two years that I was in SPRING, my other co-founders were running Reactor. I left SPRING last year and have been running Reactor full time ever since.
We first reached out to our alma maters that had training courses. They trusted us and afterwhich we ran a few programmes for them. We used these as testimonials and we went on to other clients. A lot of what we do has been through word of mouth and referrals.
Have you encountered with any issue with regards to financial capital?
R: No. As a services-heavy company, there was not much capital needed when we first started out,. We only drew capital from the initial programmes that we have provided schools with, and also some initial injections to set up Reactor as a company. However, this would be very different for someone who wants to start up a product-based company or something that requires more costly infrastructure.
You really have a very diverse range of businesses. Do you guys require a very wide range of specific skills, since each market could have its own set of requirements?
R: Well, I think for schools, our trainers really need to be very good trainers. They need to be able to engage the students. For Reactor Labs, we need a consulting skillset. Consulting is quite broad and it includes understanding the requirements of the client, working with the client to identify the business problem and deploying the solution for the client. So I would say training is one broad skill set and consulting is one other broad skillset.
It seems as though you guys have had to pick up a lot of skills on the go very quickly, though you never had any prior preparation for this. So, how did you guys get to the position you guys are at?
WY: We definitely had to learn a lot of things on the fly. This is especially for start-ups, where you have to learn a wider range of topics. That is why we are very big on teaching students to be autodidactic – to be able to first figure out what they want to learn and why. From then on, they teach themselves the ability to go and get whatever resources or knowledge that they need. Then, the teacher is no longer the information vault, but the facilitator of learning. In this time and age when information is so easily accessible, we need to teach them how to learn. And being an entrepreneur is the core of being intellectually curious, being resourceful and having the grit to persevere through learning and failing.
Generally, what are the difficulties that you guys face?
WY: There is a constant need to have broad knowledge, especially for training. Having that breadth of knowledge when it comes to helping the students is not very easy to come by. Hence, keeping up with certain trends in the market is pretty important. Also, sourcing and finding people who are able to do that is not easy.
Facilitation is also not easy. I personally feel that training is easier than facilitation. Having a proper facilitation session with a group of students is tough, because being able to identify each of them and appeal to their learning styles, to give them the right advice, the right context and guidance is very difficult. So we are in the midst of building up our cores to prepare for that aspect of facilitation.
But generally, the list is endless. There are many challenges that start-ups will always face. It is just how well you can deal with it and how well you are going to operationalize and whether you can manage it. Hiring and bringing in the right people, for one, is always a challenge. Administrative work is another side-challenge that we generally have had to deal with all the time.
R: I think one of the biggest things when starting outside is that you do not know what you don’t know. So you really got to learn fast along the way. It is a lot of just in time training. For instance, I didn’t know how to do marketing, so I need to pick it up. I also didn’t know HR, and it was tough keeping up with the taxes I need to pay. You got to educate yourself on many different things as you go. It can be quite daunting because you will realise after a while that there is so much that I really don’t know. Putting together people who are complementary helps with that.
What are some highlights to your daily work life?
R: From a macro level, or a long term level, some of our highlights are our students writing back to us and telling us how they applied what they have learnt or some of the exciting projects that they are currently working on. No matter how long ago their achievement had been, it always remains as a highlight for us. Sometimes it is through representing Reactor and Singapore at events.
Recently we have been invited to speak at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), to show both students and educators some of the work that we have done. I believe being able to showcase our work in such platforms is also a highlight. There have also been times where together with NYC, we have represented Singapore at international forums and overseas conferences.
A highlight would also be finding partners who are excited to work with us, and whom we want to work with. It is very encouraging for us and it serves as a kind of validation. We can also leverage on each others’ strengths to build up one another.
It must be encouraging to see your students excel in the start-up scene. Could you share some examples of such successful companies?
R: I previously taught a bunch of students who started a video production company. We even commissioned them to run our videos. We have some ex-interns which have since left and are running social enterprises. One of them is in the midst of starting a fashion line for dancers. We have students who have exported the concept of CIP overseas back to their home country in Vietnam and India. Also, some students are working on the same projects that they first started out with us. Some of them have gone on to the front end developers because we introduced them to coding technology. We have a wide range of students and we are industry agnostic – that means, we will help you so long as you are interested in building something. It doesn’t matter whether it is a cafe, a tech start-up or a social enterprise.
Thanks for the insight. Tell us about yourselves then, how did you decide that you want to do this or maybe your background?
R: I took part in a competition called the Junior World Entrepreneurship Forum. There, we worked on the importance of lifting levels of entrepreneurial education. When my team emerged champions, the judges told us that they saw potential in us. SO we decided to work on that.
At that point in time, I was also invited back by the school to run a pilot programme to get students to be interested in start-ups and SMEs. After that I saw the value in scaling such a programme to other schools as well because we would reach the start-up world from the classroom. I happened to be studying Chemistry then, which led me to come up with the word ‘Reactor’. When the right elements are placed together in a right environment, a Reaction occurs and that is what i wanted to do. I wanted to facilitate reactions between young people who have energy and the drive to use technology as a force for good.
WY: I actually started entrepreneurship during the same period. I have been fortunate in the sense that I have never actually started start-ups myself but I have invited to join some. So my two peers, they were running a tuition agency. That was their third start-up. We were from Raffles, and the opportunity cost was very high if you want to go into a start-up space, you could easily go to a bank, lawyer or whatever and the safety net is there.
Inherently, I have always valued freedom a lot. One of the strongest reasons why I went to start-ups is because I knew what I did not want and that was in an organisation that just did things without knowing why they did it and in a very slow way. I met Rusydi at an event and I asked whether it was possible for me to intern at his company. I found purpose during my internship there, and subsequently converted to full-time and eventually a co-founder.
I also believe that entrepreneurship is the best medium to try and allow young people to explore what they care about – because in entrepreneurship, you can do anything. We want to shift this all the way down to secondary and even primary schools for students to get exposed to entrepreneurship and to try, as there is space for failure in schools.
Were there any setbacks or difficulties that cause you to sometimes regret taking this path?
WY: Yes, every day. Because you don’t know whether what you are doing is correct or not. You really don’t know. Or even if you know, you may forget. We humans are bad at keeping track of our successes and blunders.
R: Prioritising our lives is also a huge problem. Currently I’m really trying to figure out. What should we prioritize? And it’s a constant weekly struggle. Are we heading in the right direction?
WY: Moreover, aside from all the operations that you really want to do, you have to set aside the time to learn and grow, which is a strategy in itself. And then you have to manage your other commitments, like your family, friends, and health.
I think mental and emotional health is also something that’s not often talked about in many people’s journey. (Referring to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) We’re all at the existential crisis stage: I’m already 20-something years-old, so I have contemplated many times over on what I should be doing with my life. The pain that we suffer from is more mental and emotional than it is physical or physiological. If you compare the common yardsticks, we’re really far behind our peers, and it only grows, year on year. The pressure increases. Additionally, there are also promises I keep to my family as the eldest son.
With regards to the entrepreneurship industry, are there big gaps waiting for people to fill? What would they be?
R: Yes, definitely. What we need are more returning entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs who worked in industry, government, MNCs, and are deciding to start something. We also need more PHDs to enter the start-up scene, because they have deep technical experience. We need more private-public partnership – government working with start-ups to solve difficult problems rather than just doing it alone or thinking you have the best idea. I think the government is starting to realise that, which is good. And then of course, you need active citizenry right? You need citizens who are willing to start-up and say like, “You know what? I know the government cannot make a proper e-payment system therefore I am going to solve the problem myself. So you need that kind of – for lack of better word – I won’t say mindset, but desire from all parties to want to collaborate. It’s a whole culture thing, it’ll take time for us to develop.
Referring to the list of Harvard Competencies, what are the most important values to have in this start-up arena?
R: We have our own framework actually. It’s basically everything, there’s nothing you can say that you don’t want. Then it’s a matter of prioritizing already. We have something called the 5 elements of entrepreneurial attitude, and they are paradoxes. So we have fire, which is grit and resilience, and it translates to actions – you get things done. But the paradox to that is water, which is fluidity and adaptability to changes. You may be stubborn and be like “I’m just going to plough through”, but adaptability is that you change as you go along. And then you have air and earth. So for air, you’re idealistic, you’re a visionary and you’re curious. What else is there out there? But at the same time, you’re realistic and grounded (earth), you know what needs to be done, and you buckle down and get things done. And right in the centre here – this 5th element – is what we call auto-didacticism, which is the ability to learn what you need to learn without any need of a formal teacher. That’s our broad classification and any of these Competencies will probably be a subset.
WY: Also important to me is commitment to the purpose. I think one of the great values that we’ve lost sight of recently as a society is commitment. And commitment for me is sticking through it when it’s tough – especially when it’s tough – to something you believe in. Not just ‘Oh the grass is greener’; the grass is always greener. Stick to your guns for a good period of time, examine the reasons you’re really there. Unless those reasons fundamentally change, you should not just jump around.
Finally, if you could distill your advice into just 2 sentences, what would it be?
WY: Just do it, just give it a shot, seriously. If you don’t put yourself out of the comfort zone, you’ll never grow. I like this quote about life. “If you’re not changing your life, (or some part of yourself at any time) you are dying.” You don’t lose much, at this age (when you’re young). You have been given the opportunity in the age of affluence in Singapore. You’re so safe. Not many people have this chance.
R: For me it’s the opposite. I’d say don’t do it. Just don’t. Because the ones who are stubborn and still do it are the ones who will succeed. If the person, just because I told them not to do it, stops doing it, they’re probably not going to succeed. Yeah, it’s like reverse psychology, so by default I tell people don’t do it. Because if there are relentlessly resourceful enough, they will disregard what I say and they will still try anyway and they will succeed.