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Sandbox for students: Time to take risks

04 Feb 2019

Vinod and son (800x601)

Just a few years ago, who would have thought that we can use our phones to hail a ride, rent a bike, get dinner served and groceries delivered to our homes. Today, these services are part of our daily lives.

Enabled by new technology, start-ups are taking on giant multinational companies and revolutionising the business landscape. This means that jobs are in flux, says Vinod Nair, founder and chief executive of online portal MoneySmart.sg.

“There’s the risk that jobs that exist today may not be around in the next five to ten years,” he shares. “Taking what has been known to be a stable and secure career path may not necessarily be the answer for young people today.”

For students who want to challenge themselves and be at the forefront of innovation, it is beneficial to explore venturing into entrepreneurship, he adds.

For Vinod, the start-up world was an experimental sandbox of sorts, where he was able to try new things. Even if he was unsuccessful, he picked himself up and tried again.

Nurture a spirit of trying

Vinod’s road to entrepreneurship was far from easy, but he was fortunate to have had support from his parents and peers.

While studying computing at the National University of Singapore (NUS), he took up a one-year entrepreneurship programme in the United States, where he cut his teeth in the start-up world at Silicon Valley.

The experience spurred him to set up a property search engine here with a few schoolmates in 2007. But the platform, HomeSpace.sg, soon became defunct, squeezed out by competition, while his co-founders left the company amid pressure from their parents to find “real jobs”.

“Most parents have doubts about their children starting their own business because it means making a trade-off for a secure job and stable income,” he observes.

His parents were supportive and encouraged him to pursue what he wanted to do. “They knew this was a risk I wanted to take on,” he shares.

A year later, Vinod started MoneySmart.sg with the last of his savings – all of $5,000.

MoneySmart.sg is now one of the largest financial portals in South-east Asia, with operations in Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines and Hong Kong. It turned in a profit for the first time in 2017.

When Vinod started out, it was not a walk in the park. There were many obstacles that made him felt like conceding defeat, especially when the firm was growing quickly but grappling with cash flow issues.

“There were times we couldn’t even make payroll. We have a team to answer to,” he shares.

What kept him going was support from a group of like-minded entrepreneurs. The NUS entrepreneurship programme allowed him to meet people he could discuss common interests or business-related issues with, and build rapport.

Here, failure was not a stigma, but part and parcel of doing business.

“When you’re trying to make it on your own, there are so many things that can bog you down. It can be very demoralising,” he says.

“Knowing there are other people who are taking similar risks, facing similar troubles, also doing unconventional things – it provided that support which made all the difference.”

Sandbox for students

Similar to the sandbox theory for entrepreneurs, students should also have their own sandboxes – where they are encouraged to experiment and take risks.

“Taking an unconventional route is something a lot of people are still sceptical about,” he shares. “But students should learn to not fear potential failure, and try. Then they can see for themselves what works for them, and what doesn’t.”

He experienced his first major “failure” at 16 years old, when his O-Level results were not good enough to help him pursue his dream of becoming a medical doctor.

“Everything I had planned for in my life fell apart,” he recalls. “I took it quite hard. My parents had to tell me it wasn’t the end of the world.”

Taking up his parents’ suggestion to go into Information Technology (IT), he pursued a Diploma in IT at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. He did well, enjoyed the course and entered computing at NUS.

Just like how his parents encouraged him, Vinod believes parents can play a huge role in nurturing an entrepreneurial dare in their children.

“What parents can do to nurture a spirit of trying is to encourage, rather than to discourage. Because for children who cannot decide if they should do something new, this might just push them into not trying at all,” he added.

As a new parent, Vinod, who is married with a two-year-old son, sees himself as a facilitator - to provide his child with as much exposure as possible. “It’s important that he is not confined to just one way of thinking,” he says.

Beyond academic results

His experience taught him that grades are not everything.

“All of us – parents, students, teachers, employers need to lighten up on grades. Grades will become even less important as you move on in life. Academic scores don’t determine your life path, but experiences and attitude does” he stresses.

At MoneySmart.sg, he has hired people without a degree, as long as they have the skills, experience, or the right attitude. A trained electrician, for example, can easily become a computer programmer, given the wide availability of training courses today, he says.

Project work in schools, for example, is a good way of teaching children critical problem-solving skills.

“It’s less about that one exam, but more about planning, working with people and coming up with creative ways to solve problems. This is what our children need in today’s ever-changing landscape. They need to pick up not just hard skills, but soft skills as well,” he adds.

What would Vinod do if his son, too, wants to be an entrepreneur?

“I would warn him about taking the same path, but like my parents, I will support and respect his decision if he wants to. I would tell him it is worth the risk” he says with a laugh. “Too many people have dreams about running their own businesses these days without realising how much hard work it takes, and how easy it is to fail, he adds.

“Because being an entrepreneur is about forging your own path. Just make sure you go in with your eyes wide open,” he says.

“Whatever he chooses to do, I will give him my support. If you don’t try, you’ll never know.”