#HI2020: Taking Flight with Sean Tan

Hindsight is 2020 (#HI2020) is a ground up initiative founded and led by SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business Class of 2020 graduate Jessica Lee Yi Ling. In this series, she uncovers personal stories of resilience, courage and love amidst the crazy year that was 2020. Through the reflections and learnings shared in #HI2020, she hopes to empower internship and job seekers to improve their status quos and encourage aspiring entrepreneurs and volunteers to pursue their passions in 2021.

 


 

By Jessica Lee, Alumna, SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business

SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business alumnus, Sean Tan, is a history buff. A big fan of History Channel and National Geographic, he is also enthusiastic about entrepreneurship, our little red dot and Singapore’s emerging agri-food industry. Since graduation, Sean has founded Insect Feed Technologies—where insects are farmed through food wastes and then used as high quality animal feeds for the aquaculture sector and pet food markets. Let’s find out how his business is taking flight (quite literally) amidst the pandemic!

 

Here are three key takeaways from Sean:

  1. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate
  2. Know the difference between success and fame
  3. Dare to dream big dreams

 

I noticed that you have a keen interest in Strategy, given that you were also the teaching assistant for multiple related modules. What got you excited about this discipline?

I took marketing as one of my majors and I knew I needed something to complement it with—Strategy seemed like a good idea. The jobs that most business students seek are in banking and consultancy. Personally, I was clear that banking is not my cup of tea and hence I chose the business development route. I wanted to hone my critical thinking skills, and be able to develop frameworks and models that would form the base of my work. To me, it’s important that I get to test and apply the strategies I learn. In SMU, I took many modules that allowed me to get a glimpse of the working world and to take stabs at real problems faced by companies.

 

Upon your graduation, you joined Enterprise Singapore (ESG) as a Management Associate. Share with us more about your experience with the company.

 

“I was very certain that I wanted to take up a role where I would be able to do something meaningful and serve the country.”

 

I joined ESG upon graduation. Before that, I was quite lucky to have been offered roles in a few other places, including banks. However, I could not really see myself working in the finance industry for the long term. I was very certain that I wanted to take up a role where I would be able to do something meaningful and serve the country. ESG seemed to be the right fit for me. As a management associate, I looked into food services companies, joined the start-up development division and administered the Start-up SG Programmes. I was even posted to the Middle East to expand the footprints of Singaporean companies. I especially loved being able to engage with local and international partners who were keen to grow the Singapore start-up ecosystem. There is nothing quite like being able to help people who want to help themselves and are so appreciative of any form of assistance they can get, be it in the form of funding or a new connection.

 

It’s one thing to start your own business, but it’s quite another to leave a job in the middle of a pandemic to do that. Share with us what motivated you to take this daring step.

If we were to consider the opportunity cost, it definitely seemed to be extremely high. Letting go of a stable job that came with a high salary and multiple perks, to venture into something that may not guarantee returns—it may seem like a crazy decision in the eyes of many. However, I was very inspired by ESG’s mission, which is to help grow stronger enterprises, create good jobs and hire local talent. With that in mind, I decided to start something of my own.

Covid-19 may also seem like the worst time to be taking a risk to create something from scratch, but it is really a golden opportunity to give this dream a shot. Singapore has been especially supportive of enterprises during this downtime. With the many grants available to help existing companies sustain their businesses and new companies get a booster, there is no reason why I should take an avoidance or defensive approach. Personally, even in the worst-case scenario that it doesn’t go according to plan (touch wood) and the business fails, I have confidence in securing a new job with my hard and soft skills gained through my experiences.

 

What were your biggest fears and challenges in starting Insect Feed Technologies?

Money will always be part of the picture in any business and cashflow problems are challenging. Even with existing grants available, there’s always going to be that question of “When is the money going to come in?” and “How am I going to pay for the bills and my employees’ salary?”

Finding talent for my startup and business partners is one thing, finding the right talent and being able to retain them is another. I have experienced being caught in a position where many people expressed interest in getting involved with the business, and it became rather challenging trying to choose from the whole lot of options available.

 

What did your family and friends say when you shared with them your decision to make this huge career change?

 

“Instead of adopting a victim mindset…, I took such instances as opportunities to learn more and was thankful that others were able to identify what could have been blind spots for me.”

 

Naturally, family members who had slightly more traditional mindset of what a “good job” entailed were not too enthusiastic about this decision. That said, my decision never wavered.

Having been able to view startups through the lenses of an enabler like ESG, I had a more thorough understanding of what it would take for a business to succeed, what are important areas to double down my efforts on and what kind of research I needed to do to.

When questioned by others on the career switch as well as what the startup was all about, I would take them in my stride and explain my views. Of course, I’ve been posed questions that I wasn’t able to confidently answer too. Instead of adopting a victim mindset and view such questions as attacks, I took such instances as opportunities to learn more and was thankful that others were able to identify what could have been blind spots for me.

 

We hear about fin-tech startups very often but not so much of agri-tech start-ups. Tell us more about how the “Insect Feed Technology” dream was conceived.

It really started with observing the amount of food waste that Singapore was producing yearly. I wanted to explore ways to convert this waste into something more valuable. Sustainability is an area that many are looking into. My outlook in life is that if I’m going to do something, I’m going to make sure that it has a huge positive impact and back it up with a workable business model. The truth of the matter is, I graduated with a business degree, not an entomology degree. That said, I believe that one can learn anything and does not need to be bounded by past learnings. Besides, Google and YouTube are always there for us to learn from others and their experiences. Hence, I hopped on this golden opportunity and have since been working on the key pillars identified.

 

What would you say are the main differences between working for Enterprise Singapore and running Insect Feed Technologies?

Back in ESG, I would just need to focus on doing what I was hired to do. Basic things like ensuring that everyone had a working laptop and having a payslip template definitely weren’t things I needed to worry about when I was an employee of an established organisation. In leading Insect Feed Technologies, on top of making strategic business decisions to help the company grow, I am also responsible for my employees’ welfare and many additional administrative matters.

 

What traits must one have in order to launch and maintain their own start-up?

 

“Take the challenges in your stride, find out the root cause of the problem and learn from it.”

 

1. Tenacity—be prepared for all kind of surprises that could come your way. I still remember an incident that took place during the initial phases of setting up my farm when the larvae unexpectedly crawled out of our crates. We, even the ones who were squeamish with insects, had to pick them up by hand, one by one. So you’ve really just got to grit your teeth and deal with whatever problems that may come your way. Take the challenges in your stride, find out the root cause of the problem and learn from it.

2. Dare to make tough and decisive calls—as an owner of a startup, it is on you to do what is best for the team and the business. Not all decisions will be liked by everyone but you need to stand your ground. While it isn’t pleasant to make unpopular decisions, you need to keep your end goal in mind.

 

Tell us a few myths of entrepreneurship that need to be debunked.

The founder doesn’t need to be the one doing everything. What they really need to have is good delegation skills. I’m someone who strives for efficiency and considers opportunity cost when making decisions. In running a startup, there are many matters to think about and tasks to complete. It would certainly help the company if someone else can do something in a shorter amount of time and produce the same desired results, while I can use that time optimally to make strategic business decisions.

It’s important to make a distinction between recognition and actual progress. While we are very thankful to get featured on multiple platforms, I always remind myself and my staff not to get complacent, and that there is still plenty of work to be done to get to the commercialisation phases. Don’t let the feel-good factors get the better of you and lead you off course.

 

What lessons have you learned through starting your own business? How do you think you’ve grown over the past six months?

I would say that the last six months have passed very, very quickly. If anything, I’ve learnt to dream bigger. For example, I used to think that one tonne of product was a lot, but now I’m picturing having a few hundred tonnes. My aspirations have gotten bigger too and I’m working not just harder, but also smarter when it comes to getting funding. In the past, I might have worked on the basis of getting funding wherever I could, regardless of how big or small the amounts were. I guess I’m at the stage now where my business mindset is kicking in more than ever and I’m being more strategic about the kind of funding that I try to obtain for my business.

 

What’s next for you and your Insect Feed Technologies team?

We’ve got a few projects going on and are looking to scale up our business in 2021. Right now we have a happy problem of needing to increase our supply to meet the huge demand for our insect feed. It’s important that we ramp up on our processing capabilities and test our assumptions so that we can make a bigger impact in this industry.

 

What would you want to say to aspiring Gen Z entrepreneurs today?

 

“It’s important that you are intentional and thorough in your planning.”

 

Don’t jump into entrepreneurship for the hype and the glory. It’s important that you are intentional and thorough in your planning. Once you’ve gotten clarity on what you need to do to get to where you want to be, know who to ask for help and advice and don’t be afraid to do so. That said, please do not only meet people whom you think can give you immediate help—be open to second and third hand connections too.

 

Black Soldier Farm ToursLast but not least, if anyone would like to get friendly with black soldier flies, is there an option for them to head over for a farm tour?

Yes, Insect Food Technologies is in fact organising farm tours to educate the public on the need to reduce waste and work on increasing our food security. Feel free to sign up for a tour of our farm!

 

 

 

This article has been adapted from LinkedIn for republishing on The SMU Blog with permission. Learn more about Hindsight is 2020 here.

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