Being the CEO of a Danish startup based in Indonesia
Tobias Schelle January 23, 2017

In 2012, when we started 24Slides in Malang, Indonesia, we joined the bandwagon of startups who saw a need in the market and capitalized on that. We wanted to grow for the sake of growing — we wanted to be the next best thing. That was four years ago, which also means that I’ve been CEO for four years — the CEO of a Danish startup based in Indonesia. And that does not come without its own challenges.

In four short years, I have grown as a CEO and a person; and 24Slides has evolved as a company. We are still a startup; but this Danish startup based in Indonesia has evolved from wanting to grow for the sake of growing, to paving the way for great career opportunities in Malang, Indonesia as our main priority.

Each year has its ups and downs and 2016 was no exception. Here the top three lessons I have learned last year:

1. Don’t settle for good employees, but great employees. (And learn to distinguish between the two)

In 24Slides, about 80% of our employees are graphic designers from Indonesia. And although our startup only hires the most promising talent, I have learned that there is a huge difference between good employees and great employees — especially in design.

You have good employees: they perform as expected and they bring value to the company. But then it becomes interesting, because the difference between good and great really comes into play here. And sometimes, a great employee brings five or ten times the value of just a good employee. It may seem like a stretch, but it is especially true for our case where the majority of employees are designers. For us, this will make the difference between delivering results that our customers expect and delivering results that surpass their expectations. For us, this will make the difference between customers that are satisfied with what we can deliver and customers that are blown away by what we can deliver that they can’t help but recommend us. That, as I have learned in my years in the startup world, makes the difference between good and great.

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So far, we have settled for no less than the best designers in Indonesia. But in 2016, I’ve learned how especially important this principle is when hiring for key positions in the company. In 2016, we hired an excellent Indonesian HR manager — a position that was previously a shared responsibility between inexperienced people including myself. We also hired an excellent Sales Director.

Good employees meet expectations but great employees surpass them. And since the path to success as a startup means going the extra mile, you need employees with the right mindset to take you there.

2. What you fear the most is probably what you need to do the most.

When you work at startup, striking the balance between acting and deliberating becomes especially important. From talking to employees about how to improve, to the exhausting experience of firing and hiring people — when the nerves kick in, then you are most probably onto something.

This manifested several times in 2016. Last year, it was clear that the office in Malang was fast becoming too small for the team. We had to make a choice between moving to a bigger one or constructing our own. At some point, I remember that I needed to look at some more office options, but deep down, I knew I had already made a decision. I just postponed it because it was such a huge financial commitment. Not only do you need to pay everything up front (In Indonesia, if you commit for 10 years, you pay 10 years), but it is also committing to an empty warehouse – which means that we were signing up to a construction project with a lot of uncertainty. But it was the best option for us – even financially. And as soon as the negotiations were settled, the decision just felt right.

In 2016, we also had to part ways with a key employee in Denmark. Letting go of employees is never easy, but it has to be done. I had huge expectations when that employee started, but after a few months, those expectations were not met. When all was said and done, we were both relieved by the decision. But I know now that I need to take action a lot sooner next time. This experience has also taught me that being more direct in communicating as a leader is really important, which is something that I am now consciously trying to become better at.

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3. Do it for reasons bigger than yourself. Have a “why” that makes sense.

When we started 24Slides back in 2012, we basically just discovered a need in the market and capitalized on it. Our “why” was just to build a business for no particular reason other than the excitement that comes with the process. But when I was living in Indonesia with the team, I got the chance to witness the positive changes that 24Slides brought, and the number of incredible talents in Malang.

It became more and more evident that 24Slides gave way to a great professional career while at the same time providing value to companies worldwide. We are a part of an important movement that aids emerging markets with skills and knowledge so they can bring value to the rest of the world. And as we grow in the business, it’s becoming more important to have this as our “why”.

Doing it for a reason that is bigger than yourself is something that I’ve only come to understand. It helps you recruit the right people who understand that reason. It helps the employees that you already have align themselves and their work to the same goal in every facet of the business.

But the biggest benefit is probably that the motivation it gives the team is much bigger than, for instance, a short term bonus. If you can make people feel they have an impact on the bigger purpose, it makes all the difference.

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