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Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Samantha John, Co-Founder of Hopscotch Technologies

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Here is our interview with Samantha John, Co-Founder of Hopscotch. Hopscotch is a programming tool for kids and the first programming language designed for a touch screen device. Samantha John studied Applied Mathematics, English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She fell in love with programming during her senior year. Since then, she’s been on a mission to introduce every kid to this amazing skill.

What makes you do what you do?
I think there are a few reasons. On a personal level, it’s a lot of fun to run your own company and to get to be your own boss. For me, it’s very empowering and fulfilling. On a broader level, I very much believe in our mission, to introduce to the younger generation the power of computing and try to change the way people interact with how they think about computers. So that they don’t just think of it as a machine that delivers them videos, it is also a tool that they can use to extend their own capabilities and extend the power of their minds. The fact that we are working towards the future through our own small way, feels very fulfilling to me. In terms of where I do want spending my time and my energy.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I started my professional life as a programmer. My very first job was in QA, I was testing software by going through website to figure out if there are any bugs in it. I’ve worked as a software developer, software engineer for a couple of years, and finally felt that I understood the software development process well enough.

My cofounder and I had worked out a few different ideas together, none of which had been super exciting tasks — at least nothing had been exciting enough to make us feel that we were ready to go all out and quit our jobs and do full-time. But when we started to build our Hopscotch, finally, that felt right. It felt exciting, this is something that we will be willing to dedicate multiple years of our lives into.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
In terms of how we actually started the company, Jocelyn and I, for the first year and a half did not raise any money or even have a product or revenue or anything so, we would do various consulting jobs on the side. We would work on Hopscotch four days a week and then on the fifth day we would devote ourselves to our other various money-making activities. That took a lot of pressure on us. We were not sitting here like watching our bank accounts dwindle as we desperately tried to get this off the ground. We thought it is going to take a while and then we’ll be on a steady state. We were not like doing great financially but we were paying our rent, we were not just like pleading money all the time and I think that lack of putting ourselves in a none stressful situation was really important in able for us to do good work.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
One of our mentors is Alan Kay. He’s one of the pioneers of programming and computer science. He invented the term object oriented programming, and he was very active in the kind of field. We met to teach children how to program and to bring programming as a tool for education. So, I talked to him a lot in terms of making sure that we’re doing the right thing for kids. I think with education there’s a temptation to think that you’re an educator so obviously you’re doing good for the world and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. You can do very bad things to the world through education because you’re influencing how the next generation of people will think. So, I’ve got to be very careful about what we were trying to teach the kids. And Alan has been a really great person to talk through ideas like that.

How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him?
We knew who he was because he’s a very famous computer scientist. Basically, we really wanted Allan Kay to be our mentor and Jocelyn, my co-founder, has the full credit for this. We worked our way, getting friends with various people in his circle and eventually were introduced to him. He met us and we had gotten along really well. It was very much, kind of, knowing that he was someone who we wanted to be in our team to help us out and to talk to. And strategically figuring out how to meet him and how to get him on board.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
One thing that interests us the most, that time with very talented team members, is that they have very high expectations of their leadership. We’ve had various people work for us over the years and the people who are the best tend to also complain the most. One of the most valuable things that these people bring to the table is when things aren’t running as wells as they feel they should see you and help you find your course correctly. So I do one on one meeting with the people who are important to me on our team every two weeks. And give them a chance to bring up what they think is going well and what they think is not going well. I listen to them, which I think is what a lot of people are looking for. Like for people who are very smart and effective, they want to feel they’re empowered to be effective in their role. That when they have ideas, they’re being listened to. So, it’s very important to me to actually listen to the people I’m working with.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
Consciously, Yes. One thing about diversity is that like, we, the two co-founders are women and we’ve historically hired a lot of women in our company. There are not as many women in the tech world but in terms of the actual number of people in our company, we hired a lot of women. And I think about this in terms of all these companies that have trouble hiring women and I think that there is something to it. As a female, it’s easier for me to connect with women. We have more women in the team and it’s just seems to happen naturally, that we hire a lot of women. They are people who we worked best with. I’m sure it’s also true for men who were running companies and end up hiring a lot of men. So I don’t know if we are pro-actively doing that much for diversity. But someone considers our team diverse. Three women and one non-Caucasian guy from Mexico.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I think what’s important but hard to do is that as a leader, you both need to be able to zoom out and think about the big picture. Think about, “Where’s my company going in a year? In 5 years? In 10 years?” Whether it aims like, “are we doing that?” and then you also need to zoom in on the details when necessary and write that update to your investors or make sure that the sales emails are going out. Whatever it is that you need to know both when to zoom in on the details, and be able to take a step back and work on the big picture and making that context which is kind of very unnatural thing and it’s hard to do and getting the right mix of that. I think those are really important in being a good leader.

Advice for others?
One piece of advice I have for people, maybe for those who want to be entrepreneurs, those people who are thinking about starting their own thing, is that it is a good idea. I’ll tell you a story. When we started Hopscotch, we did not quit our jobs to start Hopscotch. We did it on nights and weekends. And I think that’s really important, that before we even care for the idea of Hopscotch popping up, we’ve worked on other things at nights and weekends while we were still working, and I think it is important to have other alternatives at all times. So instead of working at Hopscotch I could have gone out with my friends or could’ve written a book or there are things that I could have done and there other ways to advance professionally and because of us having alternatives, there was a moment when it became very clear and that I wanted to do Hopscotch more. That I wanted to do any of those other things and that I knew I was ready to quit my job. I’ve seen many friends quit their jobs because they want to do a start-up. Maybe they were a bit fed up with their jobs at that moment and they became a little bit lost because the only thing they have to do was to search for their next big thing. And it is hard to evaluate whether the ideas that they’ve come up with are going to be better than the alternative. Because the alternative is just continuous searching, which is somewhat a hard place to be in. And I think people get a bit lost when they don’t have any constraints to focus their mind and their energy at.

If you’d like to get in touch with Samantha John, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/samanthajohn/

Entrepreneurship

Science is the Next Big Thing in Startups

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From pharmaceuticals to petrochemical processes: Newcomer companies and investors and investors alike are setting their sights on science. How the start-up scene moves beyond the mobile apps bubble…

For the last two years Silicon Valley analysts and venture capitalists are anticipating the burst of yet another bubble. This time, under the risk are the mobile start-ups which constitute the biggest share of the market. Out of 50 companies listed in Forbes’ “the hottest startup of 2015” (by valuation) only six companies are based on innovations in other-than-mobile area, one company provide cleaning services, while the rest are diverse mobile apps.

Meanwhile many products listed can be barely called innovative. A significant proportion of the listed start-ups are texting apps, apps for people search (starting from business partners to life partners) or delivery services. While those services can definitely facilitate one’s life, in general they differ from their predecessors by only a narrower audience.

Many venture investors expect stagnation if not decrease on the markets, which is why they start to transfer their capitals from start-ups offering customers software to start-ups offering specific solutions for existing businesses. Such companies are expected to demonstrate more stability in the near future.

The Market for Mobile Apps Might be Saturated

Back in 2012 a talented entrepreneur could walk into a venture capitalist’s office, say his startup was a mobile-first solution for pretty much any problem (payments! photos! blogging!), and walk out with a good-size seed investment. “That pitch was enough to get going,” says Roelof Botha, a partner with VC firm Sequoia Capital. “It’s not enough anymore.”

“I think investors are bored with investing in another messaging app. And our idea is crazy enough that it might just work. ”, has declared in 2014 Nadir Bagaveyev a founder of a start-up using 3-D printers to make rocket engines. By 2016 the company attracted investors funding sufficient to launch its first rocket.

Pharma and Biotech Start-Ups in High Demand

Currently the most successful science-based start-ups are the companies offering innovative solutions in the field of pharmaceuticals and biotechnologies. It’s noteworthy that despite the previous revelations and even judicial proceedings the list of the most expensive start-ups still includes Theranos, blood analyzing laboratory, whose story did not descend from the main pages of the global leading media from 2014.

It first amazed the audience with its fantastic take-off and then with its collapse. One of the crucial parts of the success story of this start-up is its fundamental difference from the majority of the services produced in the Silicon Valley. Unlike the others, it was not a story of yet another beautiful gadget for communication or mobile app, but the story of the scientific idea which intended to conquer the world.

The great success stories in other scientific areas are now happening on occasional basis. However certain facts allow to predict that the situation is to change soon. One of such factors is growing interest among the big corporations to attract innovative solutions from outside to develop their businesses.

Given the accelerating pace of scientific and technological development of the world, the activities of internal R & D departments are often turn to be insufficient to ensure stable development of innovative business. Outsourcing of the R&D may become the efficient mechanism to stimulate the growth of the company. And high-tech start-up can certainly benefit from it.

Start-Up Technology for the Petro-Business

In December, 2016 world leading companies in the field of gas processing, petrochemicals and chemicals announced their intentions to enforce their R&D capacities by attracting start-ups. 3M, AkzoNobel, BASF, The Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, Henkel, Honeywell UOP, LG Chem, Linde, Sibur, Solvay and Technip together created a global stage for startups and investors.

“The petrochemicals industry can and must rely on the potential of open innovations to facilitate further inventions and implementation of new solutions in all major application areas, from construction and medicine to packaging and 3D printing. Thanks to the participation of international partners, IQ-CHem is now the largest global project within the industry which attracts innovative solutions and provides for their implementation into practice,” said Vasily Nomokonov, Executive Director of Sibur, a company which coordinates the project.

Positive Experience in Chemicals and Beyond

Some of the listed companies have already gained positive experience in working with start-ups which may have driven them to elaborate a systemic approach to attract innovative companies.

At the beginning of 2016, SIBUR and RRT Global start-up reached an agreement to build a pilot plant for isomerization based on RRT Global technologies in Sibur’s Industrial Park SIBUR “Tolyattisintez”. According to Oleg Giyazov, co-founder and CEO of RRT Global cooperation with a large corporation bring significant advantages to his company.

“By cooperation with Sibur we get a huge industrial experience that enables us to develop technologies and solutions better fitted to the market demand. This advantage is often not given due attention, but we, on the contrary, see significant opportunities in it. Currently, RRT Global cooperates with several companies around the world” he said.

Another petrochemical leader BASF enjoys successful cooperation with Genomatica start-up. In 2013 BASF started the production of 1,4-butanediol based on renewable feedstock (renewable BDO) using Genomatica’s patented process and in 2015 the license was expanded to the Asian market.

Unlike traditional forms of cooperation between a start-up and a venture capitalist, a cooperation between start-up and a relevant corporation allows to minimize the risks associated with investing in a potentially promising idea where the key word is “potential” (but not “guaranteed”). While delivering services in the same field as the start-up the corporation gets an opportunity to more effectively and accurately estimate the market value of an innovative idea and to support its implementation.

Structural Changes Ahead: Outlines of A Coming Market

In the short term prospective, possibly in 2017, the global start-up market will face structural changes – both in terms of start-ups professional orientation and of funding mechanism. In the future science-based start-ups will dominate the market and will change our lives at a deeper level than the way of sending a text message or searching the restaurant for an evening meal. To be more concise this is already happening in the pharmaceutical industry, and the other scientific areas are to follow.

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About the Author

This article was written by Dominik Stephan of Process Worldwide. See more.

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Callum Connects

Norman Tien, Founder of Neuromath and Early Math Matters

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From a young age, Norman Tien, found his passion helping students as a math tutor and went on to translate that into a successful business.

What’s your story?
From the age of 14, I knew I would be in business for myself and started designing my company logo.

Growing up in a poor family, I worked part time while I was in school. That’s when I started tutoring and realised I had a gift to help students “see” mathematics. I delivered good results, and my students started to love math as well.

A turning point was when I was down with dengue fever and I realised I had to grow my business to the next level. I started a learning centre and that was the beginning of Neuromath. The initial years were tough as costs went up while my personal income took a dive. I almost gave up, but I pushed through.

Today, we have 3 specialty math enrichment centres managed and delivered by my dedicated team of teachers.

What excites you most about your industry?
“How to win” has always influenced how I position myself in the industry. I researched the psychology of learning, why some students are so naturally good at math, while others struggled. I managed to find the connection, and have always sought out niches to position myself so I can win.

In the beginning, I fused academic delivery with psychology to differentiate my services. Now I have a good team of teachers fully equipped with a psychological skillset.

In the next evolution of our business, we will incorporate technology into education in order to customise each student’s learning experience based on his or her needs.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and educated in Singapore. One key driver why I started a business was, as a youth, I witnessed how my dad struggled daily as a taxi driver trying to make ends meet.

That said, I am very blessed to be in Singapore and to be given the right education. I see this as a very important factor to my success today.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore – well, for one, most of my businesses are here. Singapore is convenient for business and is very well governed. There are rules and systems that make the entire entrepreneurial journey more secure here. One big plus is the location: Singapore is a hub that allows us to connect to the world.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
船到桥头自然直 –
There is a Chinese saying that when a boat goes near the pier, it will automatically align itself (with the current). It means we don’t have to worry too much, that things will take care of themselves.

A mentor once challenged me: “But who can guarantee you can even reach the pier?”

It is such a highly competitive world we are in, who can guarantee success? This is the ONE question that has been etched in my mind for decades. The Chinese saying always comes to mind when I am positioning, designing and strategizing for my business.

Who inspires you?
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew – The fact that he started ruling the country just like a startup. With limited resources, he was able to find a strong positioning to differentiate his country from the rest of the of Asia. With hardwork and proper planning, he transformed Singapore from a fishing village to a prominent financial hub in Asia.

Because Mr. Lee Kuan Yew positioned Singapore so well, government owned companies, such as Singapore Airlines, have emerged as the best in the world.

His story inspires me, spurs me to understand that success is not by chance but by design – every little step, all the strategies are all planned out. Not at all by chance.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
My business coach, Marshall Thurber, shared with me the power of the “Trim Tab” – a small part of the rudder system in a ship. This Trim Tab, despite its small size, is able to influence the entire ship’s direction by turning it.

This metaphor helped me see that a man can influence the entire world if the right effort is applied. We are now living in an entirely new world, the way we commute with an app on the phone – that’s the power of the Trim Tab at work.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would embark on the same journey but I would seek a mentor at a very early age.

I have been through many hard knocks along the way, and I definitely could have shortened the learning curve if I had a mentor to advise me on the many aspects of entrepreneurship.

How do you unwind?
Driving down long highways helps me unwind, that’s when I let my mind relax and wander.

I love long distance driving and riding. My wife gave me a Harley Davidson Tourer for my 50th birthday and we intend to embark on riding holidays together in Asia.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Hong Kong – I love the fast pace and the vibrance of the city. I love the cars there and it’s a very unique and exciting experience for me. And of course, I love the food there too!

Everyone in business should read this book:
One Minute Millionaire – this book highlights the mindset of an individual that is the key determinant for success in whatever we embark on. As long as we know we have a very strong reason why we need to do it, we can do it!

Shameless plug for your business:
I am the CEO and Founder of 2 Math enrichment brands:
Neuromath is a Specialist Math Learning Centre that helps students from Primary 1 to Junior College, empowering them with strategies, skills and a strong desire to learn and problem solve. We use technology to train students to avoid careless mistakes reclaiming 30 marks or more in Math exams and achieve their full potential in math.
www.neuromath.com.sg

Early Math Matters is a premier Mathematics and Cognitive Development enrichment centre for preschool children aged 3-6 years old. Through purposeful play and our renowned EMM approach, we help learners build a strong foundation for problem solving at an early age, and instil in them a passion & love for math that will stay with them for life.
www.earlymathmatters.com

We are actively seeking passionate teachers, entrepreneurs and investors who are keen to grow the education business with us.

How can people connect with you?
I speak regularly at workshops for schools, parents and platforms demonstrating the use of technology for peak performance in education.

Do contact me at
www.NormanTien.com

Alternatively, you can connect with me:
www.NormanTien.com/facebook
www.NormanTien.com/linkedin

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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