During my first interview upon graduating from university, I showed up at the offices of an IT consulting business. The premises were then at the under-construction Biopolis area of Buona Vista in Singapore. Started by a pair of French founders, it was a fledging business that provided IT consulting services, primarily targeting large European companies that had a significant presence in Asia.
Like most of my peers, I was an eager young freshie looking not just for hands-on work experience but also an opportunity to gain more geographical exposure. I was told that the role required someone who was not only conversant on the technology front but also good at communicating with clients. Someone who could be like a Marissa Mayer of Google, traversing between the technical and the business aspects. This person had to be able to navigate conversations with potentially blue-chip clients of the world, yet possess the programming skills to write code for television.
The goal was to eventually create a simulation prototype to be showcased to the Chief Engineer and the CEO, so that they could launch the final product in the global market. They wanted the best of the best, and I did want to be the best of the best.
Midway into the conversation, I was also shown a huge wall-hung map of Asia Pacific as the founder himself stood in front of it, pointing to various cities while sharing his grand plans of expanding within the region.
I had liked what I heard and was convinced that this was the company I wanted to join: A regional role, growth prospects, ownership. Money aside, there was also the hybrid business-tech angle, the entrepreneurial experience, and being part of that rewarding journey. If I had pressed on about comps, they probably would have also talked about employee share options and long-term incentive plans. Everyone likes share options – an equity stake in the business, unlimited upside, bragging rights to call yourself a shareholder.
The founder’s pitch had worked. Never mind that I wasn’t a client. I had been sold into doing something bigger.
I am less impressionable these days (no discredit to that company that I interviewed with in 2005).
Much later, I also realized the effective-ness of talking to a prop of a world map when it came to showcasing the vision and geographical reach of any business.
Some firms give away equity as part of selling their story. You might be able to get away with paying out less cash to employees who are clueless on how to value a business. Many fail to realize that equity is only worth something if it can be converted into money. Besides, for privately held companies, the roadmap to a liquidity event is sometimes not that straightforward.
“Ownership is usually a bust unless your company is being fast-tracked to sell for big bucks.” - Karen E Klein, Bloomberg
Then there are also those who will take a lower pay for a great working environment.
For many startups and emerging businesses, founders and management have to find out what motivates their people to go above and beyond. Surprisingly, it’s usually not money. Adrenalin wears away quickly and no amount of money can compensate for working in a toxic environment.
Corporate culture at its very essence is what makes a business successful in the long run: How do we provide support and training for newly onboarded staff? Do we have an environment that allows individuals to develop themselves both professionally and personally? How do we stay in touch with those who leave the firm? What is the first thing that comes to mind when people hear about the firm's name? Do we have Friday happy hour drinks? Do we make it an effort to listen to what employees really want, or are we just forcing-feeding the narrative at every townhall meeting?
When you are pulling the hours and going the extra mile, it all comes down to manifestations of corporate culture.
Selling equity isn’t enough. Value needs to be communicated, and maybe that was what I saw in that world map.