Conversations with Stanley Chia

By Junhao Teow

Founder and edupreneur at Cialfo

Stanley sees himself as an ‘edupreneur’ – an entrepreneur in the business of education. He is the founder and director of Cialfo, which has become Singapore’s leading overseas education consultancy within just 3 years of its launch. Cialfo aims to realise its vision of helping a million students by 2020. Through automating processes and operations, Cialfo has managed to allow its student to mentor ratio to increase without compromising the quality of its service nor its organisational core values.

How would you describe your typical workday as an entrepreneur?

S: There is no typical workday in the sense that every day is different when you are your own boss; as I am a co-founder, my responsibilities are very broad and cover every aspect of the company – from hiring to thinking about marketing to thinking about strategy, to thinking about the products and everything. What I do in this chaos is that every week, at the start of the week, I will remind myself what my monthly objective is. I will create a one-week focus, and I do that with my team too. Everybody has three to five focal points, and that is our key objective for the week. All these objectives must come together from each person in my team to fulfil the department’s objectives.

Besides all my scheduled meetings, I will have a list of about five things that I would need to do each day, detailing which things I can push to the next day and which I need to do that day. At the start of the day, I will try to plan what I will be doing through the day; but if the day is fully packed with meetings, then I do not do that, and will instead just go through the flow. Sometimes, I need to do prior preparation to make sure that I have something to look out for. It is very dynamic; you have to take on a very micro perspective, while still maintaining a macro perspective, especially given that I am positioned as a leader as a co-founder, and have to set the direction for my team.

Have there been times when you felt that your workday was less than fulfilling?

S: Sometimes, it happens that you will not be able to fulfil your objectives for the day because most of the time you plan assuming some knowledge of how the work week will pan out. However, there will often be things that just pop up in your schedule, and you have to deal with them, eventually this means that you do not have sufficient time to realise your original plan. When this happens, you just have to prioritise whether you really have to do it by the week. If so, you will have to sacrifice your spare time. If you don’t have to, and you can communicate this well to the rest of the team, then you can push it till the next week. This happens more often than not.

When communicating with the rest of the team, there are a few ways to go about getting everyone to be on the same page. For certain less important objectives, I will set them myself. But if I feel that it is quite a challenging problem, then I will have to get my team involved, telling them about the problem and coming up with a solution as a team. Often, I already have an idea of how I want to get things done, and can facilitate the process. This whole process is to make sure everybody is brought in on the solution. Sometimes there are obvious solutions, while in other times we have to go about exploring the possibilities. At the end of the day, the leader is accountable for the results. There is an understanding that you will be the one making decisions, but that does not mean that you do not listen to input from your team members.

How long have you been in this line of work for? How did you first embark on this entrepreneurship journey?

S: I have done this for 5 years, but I started out much longer than 5 years ago. My very first, experience happened all the way back in secondary school. It started from a very simple thought. In secondary school, I was not the very best in academics, so I asked myself this question as everybody was very competitive and wanted to be better than the other: If I am not the best in my studies, how can I be better, how can I be the best?

Then I realised that because I was always involved in leadership clubs, I realised that the president is essentially the driver in a social group. I then asked myself, in life, how can I be the ‘president’? Politically, it is impossible, but how can I be my own ‘president’ in my own community? And I realised that you have to be the boss! Any boss, even if you are the boss of a very small shop, you are the top guy. So, it was for a very simple, realistic and practical reason why that when people ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I said that I wanted to be a boss. When I went to polytechnic, I was the president of my entrepreneurship club and the vice-president of this social entrepreneurship club. Interestingly, in polytechnic, I never started anything on my own. I was involved in projects, but not in a real start-up. So, I think that period of time at least gave me the opportunity to speak to a lot of entrepreneurs, and organise a lot of projects and there were a lot of lessons that I learnt through all these things.

What I learnt was, critically, what was entrepreneurship all about: Is it a career? Is it a lifestyle? What is it? What type of sacrifices must I make to ensure that I survive? I learnt a lot and told myself that when I am in university, I have to give myself a chance to do something on my own. After my first year in university, I joined this Minor in Entrepreneurship programme, and as part of one of the modules, I actually had to do a real start-up project. Rather than just doing it as a student project, I decided to make it real; I took a sabbatical leave of absence from school to run it for a period of eight months. I was outside of school. This was something that really changed my mind, and I made the decision that this is the thing for me. In my third year, I started Cialfo with my co-founder.

Right from the beginning, our collective vision at Cialfo was to help a million students by 2020. Within 3 years of conception, Cialfo became Singapore’s leading overseas education consultancy, and our student:mentor ratio started increasing. Our consultancy was growing rapidly and compromising on the quality of our service and our core values was not an option. So, we invested in building a stellar Tech team in-house who developed a slick platform for our mentors to be able to manage their growing number of students and parents. We received a lot of interest for our powerful automation platform, and soon realised that offering our platform to other consultancies like us would align perfectly with our vision of helping a million students by 2020. And that was the genesis of the Cialfo platform, as you know today.

What challenges did you face as you first started out as an entrepreneur?

S: Often, the problem with young start-ups or entrepreneurs is that we have no experience in anything at all: no experience building a product, no experience building a team, a company, marketing and everything else. Sure, you might learn some of it partially in school and through school projects, but most of it remains just theoretical to you; and what works theoretically may not always work in reality. So, whenever you meet with a problem, you have to try and solve it immediately.

Some of the biggest challenges would be things like hiring: how do you hire the best people and how do you make sure they stay on? Initially, we only had one round of hiring. Then we questioned why people just joined us for a year and then left. So, then we realised, maybe there was a problem with our talent acquisition strategy. The first round is technical, the second round is cultural, and the third round is about leadership. We actually refined the process of how we do this. There are a lot of things that you have to learn from scratch. Nobody taught us HR (Human Resource) management, so we had to learn it ourselves. Other than that, another way to learn is to acquire mentors, people who can give you advice in certain specific areas.

However, given the benefit of hindsight, I would say that entrepreneurship may not be such a risky choice because you have to do so much, and so you are also exposed to so much. It really expedites your professional development. Now, I am leading the growth of Cialfo to China. In a normal company, say a medium or big-sized company, it is an undertaking given only to a 40 or 50-year-old management professional to do; but I am not even in my 30s – I am 30 this year – yet I am given the opportunity to do so. Do I have the experience? No. Am I accountable? Yes. Do I want to succeed? Yes. Will I succeed? I don’t know. But I am going to hustle my way to make sure it happens. This is the nature of entrepreneurship. Even if I fail – though I sure hope not! – the experience of doing this itself is so much valuable both for myself and for any future projects or startups or companies that I plug my knowledge in. That is the difference between an entrepreneur and an employee. That is why on hindsight, I believe that it is not a risky choice to become an entrepreneur.

What do you think of the opportunities afforded an entrepreneur in Singapore’s entrepreneurial scene?

S: I think the biggest advantage is that it is easy to start. The law is very pro-business: there are a lot of tax breaks, administration is pretty easy as you can register your company purely online within two to three weeks. But in China, for example, if you register a business, it takes you at least two to three months. A lot of things are hardcopy paper forms. For you to even get your final approval, you have to physically go down to their office to get a stamp. No such thing is required in Singapore, where you can just receive everything online and then get your business started. The rules in Singapore make it easier to start up a business, and being a very small country, it is easier to have pilot tests.

Which professional competencies do you hold to be most important or relevant to your work?

S: At the end of the day, one of the most important skillsets to have as an entrepreneur is sales ability. From selling your own products at the start, to even selling the concept of your business to your employee, to selling the concept to your investors, it is all sales. Of course, not everybody would be convinced, but that is the whole point. If you actually find people who are convinced and believe in the vision you are selling to them, then spend more time with them. Otherwise, don’t waste time with them; even if you hire them, even if they want to leave, it’s fine, because – as it is – they just don’t fit well into your culture, or don’t believe in your vision, both of which you must learn to be perfectly fine with.

Then there is also strategic decision making. In different phases of your start-up, you need different kinds of people. You might have a guy who was from a big company, and he was the General Manager, the senior manager, or even the CEO; if he wants to join my company, I would actually be worried because I have no position for him to play. I don’t want him to come in and tell me about this or that strategy or other. I need someone who can sell. So, it is very important to have a match between employees and employees’ skills at each stage of your start-up’s growth. You may need people who are willing to get down to do the dirty work and the heavy lifting. Typically, senior managers don’t want to do that. Of course, if you were a CEO but are willing to go around to sell the product, I could still have you on board, but the next problem is whether I can afford you. There are a lot of things to consider before making a decision.

Another important skill is the communication, which will be something that becomes increasingly important as your company grows, because as you have more people, you need to learn how to bring your message across to the whole organisation effectively. Some more clichéd ones would be the ability to spot opportunities, be creative, be financial-savvy, be willing to take risks.

One last thing would be emotional maturity, and that comes from self-awareness. If you do not have good, stable emotional maturity, the biggest issue would be that, when faced with adversity, you will break down. You won’t know how to get people to help you and support you. You will face a lot of challenges, so how you deal with them and get people to help you along the way, is key.

Can the relevant skills for entrepreneurship be honed during one’s schooling days?

S: Yes, you start all the way from school. It might sound crazy, but I actually thought of that when I was in secondary school. I learnt that when everybody was focussing on their maths and sciences in school, while I was actually putting a lot of my time into CCAs, and I realised that, both in secondary school and polytechnic, I had multiple CCAs. In secondary school I had two, I was in Choir and I was in the Leadership Club. When I was in polytechnic, I was in Social Entrepreneurship Club. In university, I was first in Social Entrepreneurship Club and Investment Club, then I climbed up my Social Entrepreneurship Club to be president, all while I was running my start-up at the same time. So, I was always busy, but why I kept doing all these was because I wanted to maximise opportunities that allowed me to hone my soft skills. From the presidency, I learnt what is leadership all about, and got a lot of opportunities to try, and also to fail. All these lessons are best learnt while you are still in school; because when you are in the real world, you are playing with real life and real money, and so the stakes are much higher.

Other than this, at the same time while you are in school, it is also the best time to build your networks and relationships. Different people build different types of networks. Some people may think that their network is good as long as they have a lot of friends but this is not necessarily true. You might have a lot of friends, but you may not have a lot of friends who are truly helpful. In this aspect, I am very much a realist. Because when you’re in a start-up, you need to have people who can help you in many different ways. Most importantly, it is about having real business contacts and channels. In my own terms, I don’t call it a network, because a network sounds like it is about quantity, but I build quality relationships instead.

While you are a student, you get some leeway. You can go to a very senior person and ask him to be your mentor, and he would say probably say, ‘Sure, yeah, why not?’. But when you are no longer a student, people may not give you that kind of leeway. It is very important for you to benefit however you can while you are student, whether it is through internships or events. Different people might do it differently, but use the opportunities you have as a student to leverage on these resources. There are also a lot of resources in universities, like overseas trips or internships. All these are opportunities for you to experience what you can before you start something on your own.

What advice do you have for those looking to become entrepreneurs?

S: I actually have two main things that I always tell young people. The first is to just start – just start trying something, doing something for real. Only when you do it will you realise that there are so many things that you can learn, so many things in reality that stand to correct your assumptions. But you need to test your assumptions. If you really are just starting out or it is your first time, don’t be afraid to tell people about your ideas, to share them, and to get rejected, because you want to really learn as much as possible before you invest your effort and time into the endeavour. Anything that you go into will be something that costs you four to six years; it must be something that, upon investment, you will feel that you are moving up, you are growing both as an individual and a professional.

The second thing is you need to be very self-conscious about who you are as a person and what your brand as an entrepreneur is. Being an entrepreneur is a lifestyle choice, and not a career choice. Why I say that is because every experience in your life as an entrepreneur will become a tool, a resource, a part of you. And that is what it means to be an entrepreneur. Many a time whether a business succeeds or not typically has to do with the entrepreneur’s character, contacts, and resources. It is very important to know who you are as a person, as a brand, and be conscious about what skills you need, what network you need, and to build them up.

So, there are two things. One is to build your own brand and be conscious about what skillsets and networks you need. Two is to understand that entrepreneurship is not a career; it is a lifestyle choice. It is something that will affect everybody around you, including your friends and your loved ones. You may lose some friends, retain some friends, and gain some new friends along the way; but all these are because entrepreneurship is not a career choice. It is a life decision not to be taken lightly.