Interview With HR Tech Entrepreneur Loke Qian Li

SMS Recruiting Expert, Native Japanese Speaker, Whiskey Lover.

When we look at recruitment, we usually will associate with the PMEs.

That stands for Professional, Managerial and Executives. And according to NTUC, this group would form two third of our local working population by 2030.

What about the balance one-third which is the blue-collar workers? And given we are far from 2030, they represent a larger pool than the projected one-third.

Wikipedia: the blue-collar worker is a working class person who performs manual labour. Blue-collar work may involve skilled or unskilled manufacturing, mining, sanitation, custodial work, oil field work, construction, mechanical maintenance, warehousing, firefighting, technical installation and many other types of physical work.

In Singapore context, we would also include worker at F&B and retail.

What can be done to bring these employers and interested workers closer?

Qian Li from SMS24/7 had figured that out.

 

1. Please share a bit about what you do.

I am a Director at SMS24/7 Pte Ltd, and we provide SMS-based Hiring Solutions to help companies directly hire up 14 times more blue collar workers.

 

2. What were you doing before starting your business?

I used to be a Quality Engineer for a Japanese MNC, who was responsible for the factories in Asia and ASEAN.

 

3. What ignited the spark in you to start this business venture?

I’ve always been a problem solver from young, and being Singaporean, and I’ve heard these complaints from relatives and colleagues.

No Singaporean wants to take up these jobs.
No company wants to hire us; they only want to hire foreigners.

I thought to myself, “If people want to work, and businesses want to hire, there must be a different problem.”
So I probed deeper and realised that almost all of the job seekers I spoke to had an unpleasant experience when applying for a job.

Namely, they almost always tried to call in to make an enquiry before applying for the job, but when they do that, they are hardly ever able to speak to an HR staff.

They also prefer to do things via their mobile phone than email.

On the other hand, the HR staff shared that they spend most of the time asking the same questions (typically “Are you Singaporean?” to fulfil the quota requirements) or providing directions to the interview venue.

To make matters worse, most of the calls they received were by foreigners.

This signalled that there was a contact issue, and a natural solution would be to optimise the hiring process such that the HR staff could focus on critical processes such as conducting interviews while job seekers could apply for a job via their mobile phones anytime and anywhere.

Shortly after, I had a discussion with the principal investor and the eureka moment came as we realised this was a real problem that spanned all companies, and it is a unique solution that no one is offering in the market.

The rest they say is history (sorry for the cliché).

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4. What sacrifices have you had to make to be a successful entrepreneur?

I’ll readily admit I had to give up my stable pay and survive on my savings. Most people think that we give up a significant chunk of our time, but when you’re passionate about business, you live and breathe it so it’s not a sacrifice.

Thankfully, my friends have been hugely supportive so they accommodate my timetable, and we keep our friendship strong.

 

5. What creative strategies did you use to execute on minimal cash flow?

When you don’t have too much money to play with, you avoid unnecessary costs and invest in activities that get you revenue.

Our office isn’t fancy, and it’s on the top storey of a shophouse without an elevator. We had other options of course, but those involved paying a premium to have a smaller space in a posh setting.

Instead, we decided to be healthier and spend the amount we could save on hiring part-time staff who could work from home.

There are many online tools out there which enable this, and I tend to believe if you treat your employees reasonably, they will reciprocate it with discipline.

 

6. Could you describe your first sale?

There was a company looking to start their business in Singapore.

It was going to be their first outlet outside Japan, and they didn’t have a clue on what to do.

They had options, so we sat down for a few discussions as I explained the logic and how we were different from the rest (our services allow our clients to capture both the online and offline users).

They decided to give it a try after that.

It was not all smooth sailing at the start, but I made sure I was always responsive and always had a plan B to suggest.

Sometimes, that meant working on all weekends, and that’s the fastest way to fail fast and learn faster.

phone smiling

That customer also asked me to step outside my comfort zone and do some translation work for them, which was not part of the deal but I obliged.

They even told me to source online for certain equipment they needed. My lesson learnt here is to be genuinely concerned for our customers.

I spoke to them about and beyond work to connect as a human. This helped me to understand their personal priorities and when I contributed to addressing them, the benefits flowed naturally back to me.

In fact, my first deal was so successful it got both of us featured in a news article and provided a strong example for me to share with others.

 

7. What has been your most successful form of marketing?

Referrals by existing customers and strategic partners have worked best for us so far. Besides that, I also conduct seminars, usually with partners such as SPH to share hiring tips with various companies.

After all, my motivation in this business is to help people who want a job get a real chance of landing it, so I am very glad that our partners are keen to help us get the word out too.

Also, I post on Facebook and LinkedIn, usually on hiring tips, and it’s a pleasant surprise when someone tells me at events that they’ve read those posts and found it useful.

Perhaps I’ll be getting more active on those platforms.

Our company is thinking of becoming more active in SEM so watch out for that.

 

8. Describe/outline your typical day?

I wake up around 7+ in the morning and do a quick check to see if any urgent action is required. After that, I’ll do some stuff on my computer before I leave for my office. My lunch is standard – 1 meat, one vegetable, and one tofu/egg at the shop nearby (the granny recognises me now, and we exchange greetings when we meet), which usually lasts for 15-25 minutes.

After that, I’m back to work till around 6.30pm, and I’ll take a break.

Sometimes, I’ll be heading home for a quick gym session and dinner, before I take a short nap and continue working till around 12 am.

Of course, when there’s a tight deadline, I’ll be working past it, and extremely rarely, I’ll be sleeping over at my office.

The initial days were tougher when I worked roughly 15 hours a day.

Nowadays, I’ve learnt to optimise my processes and turned that down to 10 ~ 12 hours a day.

Since I’m preparing new content for our upcoming seminar, co-organized by three companies that specialise in Recruitment, Retention and Retraining, I’ll be working over the weekends for the next few weeks.

 

9. Who has been your greatest influence in your business and why?

That has probably got to be my brother.

He is one crazy monster that never seems tired of learning and solving problems. In many ways, I see myself in him and vice versa.

He is very much more experienced and very goal-focused, so that’s one main point I have to learn.

Like for example, when I went to his room the other time for a quick chat and I thought he was watching YouTube videos, but it turned out he was trying to map out the learning curves for different languages.

And he wasn’t doing it for fun. Apparently, he thought he would model them and share it with people to help others pick up words faster.

I would have probably done it because “this looks fun”.

Applying that to business, I try always to learn from customers, colleagues, users and competitors, and whatever I propose to them is always about delivering real results.

I’m glad to say this has translated into more hires, and we are breaking record after record for some applications and turn-ups for interviews.

It’s satisfying to be breaking the myth that no Singaporean wants to take up rank and file jobs.

 

10. What has been your proudest moment in the history of your business and why?

This is tough because we are so overwhelmed when we share in our clients’ joy as they open their outlets successfully and expand their businesses.

Morning Pitch 2

If I have to pick just one, it would be when SBS Transit gave us a chance and supported our proposal by putting up posters at their NEL and DTL stations.

People may be thinking it would be when the hiring results came in (which was another record in itself), but from another perspective, this is probably one of the most visible recognitions by a very established local company, even more so as it involved a different operating model.

I’m super glad we were able to repay the faith, but we can’t be satisfied, and we have to keep improving to keep on forging a long-term partnership.

So yes, being recognised by such a prestigious local company has opened doors, and we are more on track than ever to fulfil our vision of connecting people who want a job with businesses that want to hire.

 

11. What were some of the biggest lessons that have impacted the way that you work?

If you want to scale, build a system.

There’s so much truth in this.

We used to spend a few days just to do the set up for a new customer and apparently when the cycle time was so long; it affects the revenue stream.

So instead, we built up frameworks, tools and trained ourselves internally.

Now…we may just take a day or less even to come up with a prototype for our new clients.

I majored in Industrial and Systems Engineering, and I’m glad to have put this into proper use.

 

12. What is your biggest screw-up over your entrepreneurial journey?

We wasted too much time trying to be the perfect solution for everyone, instead of focusing our efforts on finding the customers that would benefit from our solution.

In theory, it is possible because our solutions are so customizable it’s just a matter of prioritisation of the various functions.

Looking back now, we could have avoided all those white-hair-inducing days and nights by focusing on the good-to-go customers first.

Behind the scenes, when a solution is too powerful, it can also cause the team members to deviate from the common goal, and I would strongly urge entrepreneurs always to remind and realign towards the common goal.

 

13. If you could go back in time to speak to your 20-year-old self, what would you tell him?

Don’t wait, plunge into the start-up world with lots of guts, humility and commitment.

Come to think about it; I spent too much time playing and having fun when I was younger, even though there were many opportunities around me.

If I had started younger, I probably would have been further ahead for my life goals.

 

14. What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

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To steal a line from Nike – Just Do It.

A good solution is one that solves a problem which people will pay for. It’s not about a perfect solution.

In fact, business is only possible because there doesn’t exist an ideal solution.

So instead of trying to get full marks like you would do in school, aim for a good enough grade and continue working towards full marks cos this subject doesn’t end in a semester. It’s a life-long test.

 

15. What’s your business focus for this year?

I’m looking to expand locally, and to build up a new cool function which would change the way people hire…in a good way.

Almost every company I’ve spoken to wants to or has gone totally online, which is a real disfavour to themselves and unfair to the job seekers.

This new function will connect both online and offline users even more seamlessly to help job seekers apply with a smile, and recruiters hire with a grin.

 

16. Where can people find you online?

Our website is www.sms247.com.sg (it is slated for an update soon).

Alternatively, we welcome any queries at [email protected]

Or…you can find us on Facebook.

Lastly, you can also send in an enquiry to +65 9297 8500 in the following format

Name, Company Name, and end with the word <Enquiry>

e.g. Tom Tan, ABC Pte Ltd, Enquiry

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.