Conversations with Steven Liew

By Julian Rocero and Soong Hung Hao

As a law graduate of NUS, Steven Liew began his career at esteemed law firm Baker & McKenzie, acquiring extensive experience in intellectual property law. His highly regarded expertise in the field has seen him take up positions in established multinational corporations, ranging from Louis Vuitton to eBay. He subsequently made a shift from legal work towards consulting and public policy, where he is presently Director of Public Policy for the Asia Pacific region at Airbnb. Notably, he has founded various venture capital firms, largely investing in technology start-ups. In this interview, he shares valuable insights pertaining to the fields of law, consulting, and entrepreneurship, his forthright views on what young people need to succeed in today’s day and age, and candid advice on career aspirations.

I am a born and bred Singaporean, educated in Singapore. I got my law degree from NUS, and started off my career being a lawyer specialising in intellectual property law. This spanned a period of about 12 years. Earlier in my career, I was with a law firm in Hong Kong, then joined Nokia and Louis Vuitton (both in their intellectual property departments). I joined eBay in around 2004, which was when I started moving towards public policy and government relations. It was a pretty natural progression, because as lawyers we interpret the law for our clients, advising them on what the law is. Moving to public policy, we instead advise our clients on what the law should be. After 15 years of being in the legal field, I felt that it was more interesting for me to do policy-related work and therefore, the career transition felt easy. I was at eBay for about 8 years and was the Associate General Counsel for the Asia Pacific region (APAC) and Head of Government Relations before I left. That was the end of the first stage of my corporate career, and I decided to become more of an entrepreneur after my experience at eBay.

I then joined a consulting firm as an equity partner and was part of a global network that served large corporations looking to resolve their various public policy challenges. My area of specialisation was in technology companies that were trying to expand into new APAC markets. I did that for about three years, but felt that I needed more freedom. Thus, I founded my own consulting firm, Cosmic Café, which is also an investment firm. I was investing my money into early-stage start-ups, and have made a total of 11 investments since 2016, with most of them being technology companies.

Fast-forward to 2019, an opportunity presented itself to join Airbnb. I had a wonderful experience interviewing with some key executives of Airbnb. I strongly resonated with the people working at Airbnb, and joined the company in September 2021.

What I enjoy about consulting is the great diversity in work as one has opportunities to learn about many different companies. I tend to focus on technology, but the fields that clients approach me for may not always lie in my field of interest. For instance, I have worked with some real estate clients as a consultant because they were my friends and came to me for help. You never know what clients will walk through the door, and this presents you with the chance to learn about and manage many different industries and issues.

On the other hand, this variety could also hinder your ability to pursue depth within each sphere. To raise an example, as the Director of Public Policy at Airbnb, I get to go deep into the particular business that we run, and learn about the different challenges we face with different countries. Returning to a corporate role with Airbnb really taught me that it is essential to pick a career that appeals to your personal preferences, because only that will be sustainable in the long term. My personal preference is to go deeper into a specific field. Part of the reason why I pursued law and excelled at it, is that I love to figure out the fundamental questions behind a particular issue. Why do certain laws exist in Singapore? What was the origin of this law? Are the assumptions made when the law was ratified still true? Asking these questions in greater detail and knowing the “why”  appeals to me, which explains why I sometimes enjoy working in law or public policy over consulting.

When I was a rookie lawyer back in 1994, I was meeting all sorts of clients and did not have much choice to specialise in a certain field. While this allowed me to learn many different things, this can be limiting for you if you prefer to dive deeply into a particular area of interest. During that time, I knew that I wanted to be a specialist over a generalist, and was able to do that early in my legal career. But as I have become more senior in my career, I realised that rising up the ranks required me to possess knowledge beyond my specialisation. In general, the ability to be agile, adaptable, and willing to change with the times keeps you relevant and successful over a long period of time.

Clients do not pay you for your ‘getting-up’ period, which refers to the time required to gather information and develop understanding prior to meeting them. That is time incurred as your own investment, and my experience as a rookie lawyer trained me to perform this very well. I was drilled by great partners in developing the practice of knowing our client’s business better than they do themselves. This requires a lot of research, which was especially challenging before information became so widely accessible through the internet. As we are trying to win a contract during the pitch, we would already know a lot about the client, spare specific details they are expected to share. Being prepared is of great importance, because it shows potential clients the diligence and effort you have put in even before being engaged.

That was my foundational training as a professional, and I have continued to do this no matter my role or seniority. With the internet these days, you can easily do your research while travelling to meet your client; LinkedIn, Google, and social media make such information readily available. Not knowing something is no longer an acceptable reason, and I make a point to know everything I can about a particular business or person whom I will be interacting with.

Venture investors come in many shapes and forms, including angel investors, venture capitalists, and private equity investors, who may be managing their own portfolio or on behalf of others.  They invest in start-ups or private companies that are not publicly listed yet. Start-ups, particularly those in the early stages, may not even have a product yet and are simply sharing a business plan, prototype, or a small sample of beta users. When I enter a potential deal, the key for me to performing an efficient evaluation is the initial filtering. I maintain a highly focused investment mandate, whereby we only choose to invest in certain fields and reject all others. These said fields are heavily studied by us, and we know our segment very well. For instance, at Cosmic Café, we are focused on only marketplaces and payments; for both of these fields, I have eight years of training at eBay and PayPal. Even after that time, I continue to train myself, read up, attend demo days, and mentor start-ups in different countries, and these have continually deepened my focus greatly. I do not invest in other fields that I am not familiar with.

We are in an interesting time where, for intellectual property to become more valuable, some part of it has to be shared more widely. The purpose of intellectual property (i.e. trademarks, copyrights, and patents) is to create monopolies to incentivise creators. In our modern age with social media, we are seeing that democratisation instead makes intellectual property more valuable. For instance, a song goes viral when many people share it. Should this sharing not be considered a form of distribution? However, this could help the creator be noticed by a wider audience, possibly a music label, and allow him to be signed as an artist. Thus, intellectual property is in a unique phase where the value of one’s work can be maximised through sharing. This is in comparison to the past, where exclusivity and protection were more commonplace, to ensure that only the creator can distribute and reproduce it, earning through royalties. We are now in a watershed moment where the model has changed, and creators profit in a different way.

I currently guest lecture in a Japanese university, where I lead two modules. The first is regarding how to launch a start-up, and the second discusses the intellectual property issues that a start-up should consider. During this module, I also discuss these ideas with my students.

Generally, any place that welcomes talent and capital onto its shores would be a good place to be for business. Hong Kong and Singapore are good examples, in terms of ease of doing business. Despite this, both have their unique limitations too—they have small domestic markets, are very dependent on their hinterland, and rely on their borders being kept open. Of course, they do provide many opportunities for both young aspiring start-up founders and established companies to do business. Overall, we all certainly stand to gain if the ease of doing business can improve across all cities.

The world is truly our oyster. One of the things I dislike about the conversation in Singapore as of late is that we are afraid of competition from foreigners. I believe that Singaporeans are some of the smartest people in the world, equipped with some of the best universities in the world. If you are able to maintain an open mind and view the world as your oyster, you need not be concerned about foreigners in Singapore, because you will be equally able to travel to their country and compete there too! Asking our government to grant fewer employment passes and restrict the labour market is not the way; I believe the free market selects for talent and that deserves to be recognised. When I went to Hong Kong in 1994, my fellow rookie lawyers were from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Monash, Beijing University, Peking University, and the like. I did not feel second-class, but rather, was able to compete with them. My advice to Singapore’s youth is not to expect the government to protect your rice bowl. Instead, know that you do not need to be stuck in Singapore. Go overseas and try your luck!

Maintaining a good work-life balance requires you to be deliberate and disciplined about it. On reflection, in the past, I was not as disciplined, and tended to over-indulge in staying up late, partying, and working too hard. It is also important to realise that working hard to keep ourselves healthy is equally essential. One of the most important factors is getting an adequate amount of sleep. This varies between people, but you should be clocking in seven to eight hours a day. Any shorter than the ideal amount of sleep, your mind will not be functioning at 100% during the day. In the case that I get insufficient rest, I will try to sneak in a short power nap to help rejuvenate my mind. Occasionally, with time-sensitive projects, you may be overworked for a period of time, but you should allow yourself a day or two for ample rest before coming back to work recharged. Being disciplined to get your rest and exercise is important. Making a point to exercise, such as choosing to walk even half an hour a day, is great.

Continuous learning and self-enrichment are also crucial. I make it a point to borrow books frequently, particularly non-fiction books on topics not related to my work. This allows me to continue to learn new information. All these things are important to create a healthy balance, which can only be achieved by you. Your employer definitely will not create this space for you, so it is your responsibility to do so yourself.

Legal training, in addition to my own upbringing, contributed to my love for reading. My parents are both not highly educated, as they did not have many opportunities, being raised post-World War Two. However, they are both avid readers and learners, and much of that spirit has been passed on to my two siblings and me. We grew up with many books and the influence of parents who are constantly enrolling themselves in different courses. I recall that in primary school, I would tag along with my mother to various cooking classes because that was her passion. My father enjoys Chinese calligraphy too, and being exposed to an environment where pursuing our interests was encouraged definitely influenced me greatly. When I became a working adult, I continued having a similar lifestyle, where reading and continuous learning are essential. I remain curious and am constantly signing up to learn about new areas that pique my interest.

No, I actually do not really have any regrets. I started working when I was 26 and am 54 now. In hindsight, I had a lot of interesting twists and turns in my career, and they were instrumental in teaching me different lessons along the way. The common theme has been my interest, which lies where law and technology intersect. Within this intersection lies a lot of tension, where laws have not caught up with developments in technology, and there is disruption to the established order of business. It has been incredibly rewarding to work in this niche.

I never was the kind who began my career with a very long-term plan in mind. If you do not have a plan, you never have any regrets that something did not go according to plan!

Having worked in many different parts of the world, I definitely appreciate all the friends I have made along the way. In fact, one of the biggest challenges I had when turning 50 was deciding where to celebrate my birthday, because I had so many friends across the globe suggesting different places!

For example, Hong Kong in 1994 was truly amazing, and I made many good friends there. The smartest, most aggressive, and most ambitious people were there, coming from all over the world. Subsequently, we all dispersed to different countries, but it is very rewarding to have friends in almost every corner of the globe.

Be bold. I was one of the first people from my class of 1993 to pursue a job outside of Singapore. Back then, there were very few of us who took the leap to begin a legal career overseas, but for young folks who are undecided about their career and life, I would advise them to be bold, and openly embrace the adventure. When you are young, single, with no children, what is there to lose? Just go out there and have fun; what is the worst that can happen?

Take a gap year and find out what you want to do. In 2016, I was at a crossroads as to what to do in life; retire and enjoy the fruits of my labour, start a business, or even pursue a brand new career? My wife reminded me that we had always talked about living in Japan, and suggested we take a gap year there and enjoy life. The issue was that Japan only offers visas for students, employees, or business owners. My only option was the last, so I founded Cosmic Café for the visa to live in Japan. My time in Japan was great–for once in my life, I could have a very clear mind in the absence of deadlines, work pressures, and meetings. The time was completely mine to ponder what I wanted to do in the next stage of my life. We returned in 2019, and Covid gave me even more freedom to think. I realised I have a bit left in the tank and ended up joining Airbnb in a corporate role. When trying to figure out what you want to do, it may be about getting away from where you are to figure out where you want to go.