I first met Sam Neo when I was shopping around for guests to participate in my new podcast about HR.
We actually had to do the recording twice as the first on-site version was corrupted due to my lousy microphone connection.
The next instance was conducted via Skype and it worked pretty well.
Here’s the episode if you are keen to check it out.
My podcast didn’t fly and but fly his career sure did as he transit from the HR at Changi Airport Group to his own business (two no less) and even got awarded APAC Top 10 HR & Employer Branding Consultant.
I get to speak with Sam again to learn more about his journey since.
For the readers who are not familiar, could you give an introduction?
In the simplest form, I’m an HR guy who does many things.
Beyond the regular HR work, I blog, vlog, create content on social media, do public speaking, mentor, coach, provide pro-bono advisory to individuals and companies, and more!
I guess that’s how I’m wired as a person. I enjoy exploring new possibilities and putting them together in a synergetic manner to create value.
I started my career in corporate HR for 6-7 years where I had the opportunity to experience different aspects of the function e.g. Talent Management, Employee Engagement, CSR, Employer Branding, Talent Acquisition, HRBP and more.
I was glad to have had the opportunities to be involved so many parts of HR which then set the stage for what I’m doing now.
What motivated you to start your businesses?
For People Mentality, it all begun because I felt that the HR profession was under-appreciated while having a whole lot more potential to be tapped on.
I wanted to showcase what we can do as HR professionals besides the usual administrative work that most will associate HR with.
I truly hoped that with my voice and work that I will be doing with the company, more can be inspired to do their part as well.
As for Stories of Asia, it was due to me feeling frustrated with the lack of “Asian voice” in the market.
I felt that people in the Asian community, while doing a lot of great work, often shy away from telling their stories.
All these stories are extremely valuable in providing insights and inspiration to others out there.
Hence, I wanted to create a community and movement to bring like-minded people across Asia together by telling their stories and helping organizations and individuals alike to get to where they want through storytelling.
So what do your companies do?
For People Mentality, we focus on consulting, training and coaching in the space of HR Transformation and Employer Branding.
As for Stories of Asia, we focus on helping organizations and individuals tell stories in different ways. Besides the regular articles and videos, we also help to host live chat series on FB and YouTube.
In addition, we organize frequent events (both physical and virtual) to build communities for organizations.
One last way of helping organizations tell their stories is through running internal campaigns to create fun challenges to engage employees while also boosting their branding online e.g. LinkedIn.
How did you get funded?
Everything has been self-funded to date.
When I first started both businesses, my focus was always to drive profitability and not drive investor interest.
I may be a little against the norm as compared to other startup companies but I do believe in the importance of having a business that makes money in a sustainable manner.
That said, for SOA, I do believe in the mid-term that we will definitely need to explore funding if we want to scale it up faster.
Who would you regard as your closest competition?
To be very honest, I don’t really consider anyone a real competitor.
Not that I’m trying to be arrogant, but how I view both my companies is that they are positioned in a unique way where they started out as a movement to inspire rather than a business.
For People Mentality Inc, the HR & Employer Branding consultancy firm, I guess the closest competitors would typically be digital marketing firms and HR consultancy firms in the market.
As for Stories of Asia, competitors could be other publishing and media companies that create content.
Instead of seeing them as competition, I’ve often learned a lot from what others are doing in the market and incorporating into the unique style that both PMI and SOA has.
I guess that’s one of the most exciting to do in a business where you see your organizations evolve from time to time.
And your biggest customer to-date?
For People Mentality Inc, one of my largest client to date has been an Indonesian company in the travel industry – MG Group.
As we operate in the region working primarily with MNCs, I am truly blessed to be seen as a trusted advisor by MG. In fact, we have been working closely together for almost 18 months now.
It all started when the current President-Director, Brett Henry, reached out for a chat to find ways to enhance the HR capabilities of his team.
I met Brett a year ago at an HR conference where I was an invited speaker and reconnected with him last Feb.
During the conference, I guess I left a lasting impression for him to think about me when he had plans to review and enhance the company’s HR capabilities.
Prior to that, they engaged some other HR consultant which put in place some frameworks but apparently, not one that was practical and applicable to their context.
I’m truly blessed to have had the trust of Brett back then and my relationship with him, his management and the HR team had flourished since then.
Can’t ask for more from a client and now, friend!
What has worked well for you in marketing your businesses?
For me, LinkedIn is definitely my go-to platform considering how both my businesses are focusing on MNCs and it being in the B2B space.
I’ll say my approach of not selling but rather, focusing on building up my personal brand value has helped my business thrive even in challenging times.
How I approach brand building on LinkedIn?
Simple. Give, give and give a whole lot more.
I produce content pretty much on a daily basis through various forms – short post, long articles/thought leadership pieces, videos and more.
By constantly delivering value in the market, not only will you create meaningful mindshare, but you will also be able to attract the attention of like-minded individuals and leaders who will likely become your customer or referee at some point in time.
What is your proudest moment in the history of your businesses?
I guess with 2 relatively new and young start-ups that I have on hand, I’m truly proud to be recognized as APAC’s top 10 Employer Branding Consultancy Firm in 2020.
Being able to achieve market recognition in just over 2 years since our inception was not something that I envisioned.
After all, I started both companies more as a movement to change perception rather than to win awards so that’s really sweet.
Also, in some parts of Asia, having such recognitions adds credibility to the entire business so, from a business point of view, I would say it did provide some additional leverage as well.
Has any failure, or apparent failure set you up for later success?
I would think of times where things didn’t go too well as lessons more than failures. Only when we don’t learn from our mistakes and repeat it time and time again do I consider that as a failure.
That said, in this context, I’ll say that I have “failed” countless times on this journey. One main area that has impacted me the most was how I started off purely thinking that business will thrive PURELY on my passion and drive. Well, I was wrong.
Passion and drive fuel your energy to ensure you can keep going.
But at the end of the day, for a business to succeed, you still need to have a solid business model that is profitable.
I used to think that “monetizing” is a dirty word.
But then I learned along the way that if I do not ensure that my business is making money, my passion will take me nowhere and I can’t do much without resources being built up over time as well.
I guess over months of having no income at the beginning because of the “wrong mindset” taught me a very valuable lesson about entrepreneurship.
Do you have anyone that is a major professional influence?
There are countless people who have impacted me at a professional level. Besides family, my mentors probably made the most difference in my career.
One of the key people that I truly appreciate and respect a whole lot is my mentor, Lawrence Young, founder of a ground-up HR community – Human Resources & Finance Community (HRFC).
This guy is a true giver. Since the time I met him, he has been constantly sharing his knowledge, supporting me in various ways and more importantly, instilling self-trust in me.
I recall how I was constantly doubting myself back then and he was the one who got me out of the situation. He told me:
“If you do not even trust yourself, how can you expect others to trust you?”
That truly enlightened me and since then, I never looked back.
Can’t say enough how grateful I am towards him and even till today, we are still very close and often bouncing off ideas.
Any book or books that have greatly influenced your life?
Adam Grant’s “Give and Take” was a good book that reinforced my giving mindset.
In addition, it also taught me about the importance of strategic giving where it’s not always about giving without any considerations. While the intention has to be good, giving needs to be sustainable as well.
Biographies of business leaders such as Jack Ma, Richard Branson as well as Phil Knight were also some that inspired me on this journey.
Learning how they started and overcame all the various challenges that were thrown their way got me thinking a lot deeper while reinventing my business constantly.
In the last 12 months, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?
I became a dad about 3 months ago and that was simply life-changing.
As a proud father of a baby boy, I told myself that I’ll have to be a role model for him both at work and in life.
I guess the parenthood journey thus far made me more resilient mentally while also helping me mature further as well.
While it is definitely tiring with the lack of sleep, it has been a real joy having this new addition to the family.
Any part of your work that you are putting in extra hours to improve on?
I think self-awareness is one very important aspect of entrepreneurship. Having the ability and awareness to constantly reflect is critical.
I usually spend quite a bit of time taking stock of my strengths and gaps so that I can leverage what I’m good at and work with people with complementary skills.
To be honest, I suck at many things e.g. excel, accounting and much more detailed stuff.
But I know that one of my key strengths is the ability to collaborate and earn the buy-in of others so that has helped me overcome most of my areas of weakness to date.
Back to the point, play to your strength and surround yourself with people who can complement you.
What’s one productivity hack you can’t live without?
Mind maps are a must for me.
I’m someone with a lot of ideas all the time and whenever that happens, I usually utilize a board or my iPad to draw out the linkages to help provide greater clarity.
Without using a mind map, the ideas can be trapped inside my mind without clearer thoughts on how to execute or what other ways can I link them up to ensure a greater chance of success.
Many of my business ideas such as SOA’s Community Chats, were developed while brainstorming using mind maps.
For People Mentality, they can check out my website at www.peoplementalityinc.com.
As for Stories of Asia, our website is www.storiesofasia.co.
For both organizations, they are also active on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram so check them out and get in touch if you like to have a chat on HR and branding-related topics.