Conversations with Cliff Hartono

By Claudia Tan and Charmaine Chan

Mr. Hartono founded Set in Stone Gallery in 2013 and also established Jasri Partners in 2018. This year, he co-founded Metis Art, with a mission educating and supporting the next generation of art collectors in the region. In this article, Cliff shares about his entrepreneurship journey, including the setbacks he had faced, how he overcame them and the defining moments of his journey.

These are links to his profiles: 

There are few businesses which I currently run, the first is Set in Stone Gallery which was founded in 2013; it is a natural history dealership where I source and sell rare and aesthetic fossil and mineral specimens. The second is Jasri Partners, a consultancy firm, which I had started with the aid of my previous experience in finance (consultancy work for hedge fund managers, family offices and startups). The third is Metis Art, which I co-founded with my partner earlier this year, with a two-pronged approach of advisory and education. We conduct classes for anyone who wants to learn more about art or plans begin collecting, providing them a quick crash course about art history, the ecosystem, investing and current trends.

To start off the day, I usually recap the previous day in a journal. This is my morning routine. It helps me map out the things that have been accomplished for the day or note certain meetings that need preparation. My meetings are usually held in the afternoon as I prefer to complete most of my desk work in the morning.

Something that is a bit more unique is that I take a midweek break. Every Wednesday morning, I will go wake surfing, which is a nice outlet for me during the pandemic. During the afternoon, together with my partner and friends, we take turns to volunteer and do meal delivery for the elderly. This helps keep me humbled, grounded and appreciative.

I was in finance for about four years, which was a good learning experience. As the stakes were very high, you cannot afford many mistakes. This has helped me develop a good work ethic and an attention to detail. I also had the opportunity to live in different countries, such as Tokyo, Amsterdam and London, which exposed me to different cultures and opportunities.

It was my time in London that incepted the idea for Set in Stone Gallery. When I was living in London, I would often visit the Natural History Museum, where I would see many fossils. This made me think about how it would be great to have one of those specimens in my own living room, and that started the idea of Set in Stone Gallery.

Throughout my journey, the main motivation driving me was the desire for more agency over my own life and to chart my own path. In a corporate environment, there are often many layers and many decisions being made which does not involve you, or which you do not have control over.

I started Jasri Partners because many people continued asking for advice or to assist them in certain projects, even after I left the financial sector. It seemed a shame to let my unique skill sets and networks that I gained during my time in the finance sector to go to waste.

Metis Art came about due to my own curiosity about fine art. I felt that there weren’t many resources available locally to learn more about art. I think a lot of contemporary and modern art can be intimidating to the uninitiated, and hence the local art market has not really come close to its full potential. Together with my partner, we organised a couple of free workshops for our friends to test the waters. Once we had a clear picture of which direction we wanted to go, we launched our full courses earlier in the year. We had to put some courses on hold due to COVID-19, but have recently started conducting bespoke courses in smaller groups for private banks and family offices.

During my time in university, I had never thought of being an entrepreneur. Instead, I was determined to be a career banker. Back then I was quite single-minded, and I regret not having participated in my university’s entrepreneurship student group.
The businesses that I have set up are somewhat seasonal, thus the workflow is not constant. I enjoy being able to decide when to take a project on and also being able to work in periods which allows myself to focus on one area intensely and then take a break after. There are periods which are rather busy, such as when I am organising an exhibition for Set in Stone Gallery or when involved in an project at Jasri Partners. I always try to keep in mind a line by Tim Ferriss, which is to “focus on being productive instead of busy”, it is a good reminder to us that being busy does not always mean one is productive.

Challenges and mistakes are inevitable when running a business. Sometimes even though you did not make any mistakes, things can simply go against you. For example, there are probably plenty of businesses that were actually solid businesses that have been affected by Covid-19. There is a saying that entrepreneurship is similar to jumping off a cliff while assembling an aeroplane on the way down, and I think that is quite true. When setting up my businesses, there wasn’t a textbook on how to start a natural history gallery or how to find and sell fossils. Even though I had a business degree, there were many things that I had to learn along the way.

The businesses that I had started were quite simple in nature and had very clear levers for success and failure. For example, I was quite aware that Set in Stone did not have too many points of failure. However, if you run a complicated business, such as a restaurant, you have to be good at many different things. For example, you would have to be good at creating a menu, at cooking food, providing good service, and have strong supply chain knowledge. Therefore, I think it has helped that when I was setting up my businesses, I had an idea of how I would succeed and how I could potentially fail, so I could better manage along the way.

Nevertheless, one can still make mistakes and encounter failure, but you have to dust it off and move on. For many entrepreneurs, I think the biggest challenge is that you yourself are your own worst critic. I am still working to learn how to forgive myself for the mistakes that I have made and gain confidence to know that I can still make good decisions going forward. I think that it is a learning process, and I am still learning.

There are multiple paths to business but studying entrepreneurship does help to build the entrepreneurial mindset. This includes learning how to take initiative, be adaptable and look at the business from another point of view to help it grow and improve.
The biggest concern would be the fear of failure. As an entrepreneur, one cannot simply “go with the flow” as you are the flow. If you fail, there is no one who can take responsibility other than yourself. This can be daunting to many and it is therefore very important for one to be able to pick oneself up, regroup and move on.
I think that would be when I quit my job in 2012 and took a leap of faith to start a business despite being under financed, inexperienced and unaware of what I was getting myself into (especially when I chose to set up a fossil gallery which would have been unimaginable to many). However, I still managed to make the idea work, and this gave me the confidence to pursue other projects and ventures. Along the way, I gained more experience, learnt lessons, got resources, and formed many relationships. Hopefully these things have made me more of an entrepreneur as I continue to go forward.

There is a saying “there’s no such thing as a self-made man”, and indeed I had many role models in my life. My parents played a big part as they were also entrepreneurs who also faced and overcame many challenges. They stuck to their values and their moral compass, which is something I really look up to. I think there is never just one role model we look up to as everyone is different and has their own flaws. There are often different aspects that we hope to learn from different people or businesses leaders.

Books also helped me along the journey, as with each new book there was always something to gain. I believe in reading broadly and finding some wisdom in what is applicable to me.

If I could turn back time, I would choose to enjoy the journey more because there will always be another challenge every step of the way. Mistakes we make can turn out to be lessons or even be ‘happy little accidents’. For example, from mistakes we can make a new friend or realise who our true friends are. Instead of dwelling on some of these setbacks, I would have taken them as part of the journey and enjoyed the process of learning.

I would say that while there is no standard path for entrepreneurs, a good starting point is to ask yourself two questions: (1) is there a business opportunity? and (2) am I the right person to take advantage of that business opportunity? The second question is the tougher one as it requires you to honestly confront your ability and skills. I have previously identified other great business opportunities, when I realised that I was not the right person for them as I lacked certain skills. As such, if the answer for the second question is not a definite yes, then you will realise that the business is not for you, or you will need to partner with someone who could complement you with those skills. Only once the answer to both questions is a resounding ‘yes’, should one take the leap.

Some might worry about the risks involved such as having to quit your job, taking out your savings; but there is also the risk of being static or remaining unhappy in your current job. I would say that it is also a risk not to pursue some of these business opportunities –  you may miss out on a ride of a lifetime.

In the future, I hope to start a venture with a strong social or sustainability element to it. I also think it would be great to have younger partners to expand the business in ways that I may not have envisioned.