How expats use ‘the backdoor approach’ to land dream jobs at startups in Asia (and you can too)
I met with my group of startup-people for drinks. A guy, let’s call him Simon, had just landed his first job at a startup.
He was clearly excited, especially because he had gotten it by barely putting in any effort. As he put it: he was surprised it could be that easy. “They haven’t even seen my resume” he barked.
He had used some of the tactics we had talked about over drinks a couple of months before. As we started swapping stories, one from a finance-guy, stood out:
“I moved here only knowing a couple of people, I came across someone who wanted to sell a ticket to a festival. Before I could look around, the same guy had found me a perfect fit for a great startup with a good salary. And they -too- have never even seen my CV!”
Table of content
- The secret job market
- Your earning potential (salary examples)
- Finding your dream startup (even if you don’t know where you want to work yet)
- How to know if they are the right fit for you
- How to rise to the top and command a good salary (even if you don’t have a degree)
- Making work life easier when you are a foreigner
- How the startup will compare you with other candidates
- You probably have to be a manager (even if you don’t have any experience)
In this day and age, there are ‘pockets’ of great early career opportunities in emerging markets.
They allow you to trade your time for decent money and getting experience FAST. You will typically move to a manager level with a team MUCH faster than you would at home if you have a western background or education.
While the salary sometimes is low and the startup shitty, I’ve seen plenty of exceptions with great packages. Especially if you are comfortable accepting a slightly lower salary than at home for an also lower tax-rate and living cost, and ultimately a higher savings rate.
It can be a good fit if you are not interested in joining one of the big four accounting firms, Wallstreet and want to see the world.
There are many great websites out there that focus on doing finance or moving to Silicon Valley early career because you probably will be able to get the highest salary.
It is for some but not all of us. Particularly, if you consider that the living cost in the tier one cities typically is proportionally as high as the salaries – you’ll end up struggling even on a high salary.
Did you study five years just for that?
So, if you are interested in seeing another perspective, one that allows you to travel, see the world, and build your skills fast, let me show you.
Though to give you a fair warning, this will probably not be a good fit if you are dreaming of living as a digital nomad and working while traveling.
This is a deliberate career move that you can choose to make, and while it is a lot of fun, it requires hard work, balls and putting in the hours.
The secret job market
After having lived abroad for five years, I’ve noticed that the first challenge getting these jobs is that they typically are not easy to find while being back home. It’s like a secret job market that you don’t hear about.
Sure you can go to some of the job sites online and find some openings. Not only will there be many more available when you are here but all the great ones are usually not posted online.
Rather, they are found through your friends and acquaintances. Going to Asia with a degree from a western university, I bet you could get a job at a startup pretty easily by just showing up and meeting people.
However, to find the great ones you gotta know someone. I’m sure that many of you, like me, dislike the whole idea of ‘networking’, meeting everyone and shooting business cards left, right and center like it’s a machine gun.
There is an easier approach that I’ll walk you through, which doesn’t require you to do all of that, rather you simply focus on meeting the right people (which we will cover later in this guide).
Your earning potential (salary examples)
In many markets, companies distinguish heavily between foreigners and locals in terms of salary compensation. It is not up to me to judge whether that is fair or not.
In my experience, you’ll be able to get a good salary combined with low living cost which is a great recipe for building a savings account. If you are serious, you should have no problem saving half your salary at least.
Of course, your salary depends on a lot of things like
- Field of expertise
- Company, and many more
There are no exact numbers from this year so far, so let these serve as guidelines.
“The average salary of a C-Suite executive among the 13 respondents was $9,000 per month. Among VPs, this amount dipped to between $6,000 and $7,000 every month as a base salary. This figure doesn’t include other forms of compensation.”
“The highest-paid employee among this group was the VP of engineering. This person’s median salary was $9,000 per month.“
They also shared an interesting table that might help you decide what part of the startup journey is best for you.
Finding your dream startup (even if you don’t know where you want to work yet)
The way that most people look for jobs is by submitting their resume to online job portals or by sending their resume directly to the hiring manager or hiring agencies.
Instead of taking charge of this super important decision themselves, they allow other people to do it. People that are not invested beyond hitting some arbitrary metric. To many, their job is their main source of income so it makes no sense to put something so important in the hands of others.
It doesn’t work well to say the least. Before I knew any better I once sent my CV out to 100 (yes, 100!) advertising agencies and I only heard back from two.
Fortunately, I learned that there is a better way. Getting jobs via referrals work much better- in particular when you are in emerging markets where the processes aren’t as established as they are back home.
You can get jobs ‘through the backdoor’ by deliberately connecting with the right people. To be honest with you though, this doesn’t work if you are in a hurry. You’ll give away your desperation, it will backfire and prevent you from negotiating a good deal for yourself.
As the guy in the story earlier said “I met with them five times before mentioning that I was looking for new opportunities..”
Not only did he land a new job, he landed it while they asked him questions like, “what do you want to be paid? We have offices all over the world, where do you prefer to work? Do you prefer to work evenings, mornings or something third? It doesn’t matter to us“.
He didn’t lie or fabricated anything. In fact, he told them that he didn’t have any direct experience, they knew his background yet they still loved him (notice the trust he is building by being honest at upfront?).
The process he followed looks something like this:
- Research interesting startups online in the area (you want to live in)
- Find the right person in the company via LinkedIn, invite them out for coffee and ask to learn about the startup
- Learn what kind of challenges they face, if you are interested in solving them and see if you can casually help them upfront
- When you find some interesting businesses, continue to meet with them for a while and help them with small things here and there
- Ask for advice on how to get a job or a referral
- If you have done it correctly, you should have a few opportunities or maybe even direct offers coming in
- Negotiate fairly (after all, you want to keep a good relationship with them after declining potential other offers)
- Start your new job by going in guns blazing (and creating a great first impression to make your life easier down the road)
Let’s talk about each step in more detail..
First you go online, Google, LinkedIn or whatever you prefer, and search for startups in your area. List out some of the ones you find the most interesting. Put them in a spreadsheet and keep track of your process or you’ll forget how far you have come when you are in the midst of it (steal my template below).
The next step is to find the right people in the company to speak with. In most early-stage startups in emerging markets, there will only be a few foreigners and they will be in management.
Find the ones that seem to be the most related to your field and invite them out for coffee on the premise of wanting to learn more about their startup and their vision for it.
As you meet them, learn about the industry, their challenges, the market and show you come from a genuine place of learning. If you see an opportunity to help them a little, offer to do so without asking for anything in return.
Help them out of interest or send them articles whenever you stumble upon something they might find interesting. Make their life a little easier.
Continue this for a while before asking them for advice on good startups to join, letting them know that you are looking for new opportunities and projects to apply yourself to.
Freelancing for them before joining is also a fantastic way to find a good job. You get to work together on a small scale and feel each other out while building trust.
Since you now know their challenges you will legitimately know if you can help them, and rather than dangling a CV in their face you can now focus on discussing how you can solve the exact challenges they have mentioned.
This will be music to their ears because almost all other candidates will be showing them a CV and it is up to the manager to figure out if that person can solve their challenges (which is difficult to guess from looking at a CV or even having an interview).
And because you know their challenges, you will be able to assess how valuable they are and hence what you can earn by tying yourself to the most important challenges.
Imagine the have two challenges: they are struggling to build a particular in-app feature and bring more customers to the business.
All other things being equal, bringing more customers to the business will be more valuable for the founder than building some app-feature.
So now that you know those two problems you can decide which one you find the most important and start showing them how you can help them drive that one forward.
This is much more of an attitude rather than a particular set of skills (e.g. marketing). You can cause it to get done by enabling people with that skillset to do those tasks (since you might not speak the local language anyway) and you can learn most of the practical things you need from blogs like this one anyway.
If you have done this correctly, you’ll have a couple of referrals or direct offers you can move forward with.
If not, you probably need to talk with more businesses or evaluate what you might have missed in the process- you might not get everything right the first time. There is a lot of things to do and naturally, it takes a while to practice and get good at each step.
Assuming you have a couple of offers you can start to negotiate fairly. It will be tempting to play them out against each other to get a better deal but remember to play fair. You’ll probably run in them again and why ruin all the hard work you had already done building a relationship with them?
They might be your next employer or connecting you with someone amazing in the future. Instead of fabricating a situation (“I got another offer for much more money”), I’ve found the key to be to build these situations.
Build another offer for yourself, so you legitimately have somewhere else to if they call your bluff.
When you do that, you can leverage it in the negotiation to legitimately tell them that you are looking at this other opportunity and that you’ll earn X, so you’d like something similar in other for you to justify moving to the startup you are negotiating with.
This takes some time and can be done via another job or side-projects, etc. I did it through freelancing which worked well. Always having side projects will vastly increase your confidence and the number of new opportunities over time.
To give you an example, if you know that you are going to have a salary or job negotiation in say half a year from now, do something on the side to earn more. Then you’ll have another income stream for yourself that legitimately competes with the upcoming negotiation.
By doing that you put yourself in a situation where you can’t lose. Part of the negotiation is out of our control.
What you can control is how you spend your time so if you earn the same from two revenue streams it doesn’t matter which one you pick (all other things being equal), and you can let the forces that you can’t control pick for you.
When you’ve found a startup that you want to join, negotiated something you are happy with, it is time to start the job.
You only get one chance to build a first impression. You will already have done that with the person you met with in the past so now it is time to show them and the rest of the team that they made a great decision in trusting and working with you.
One of the things that no one does is prepare their todo list before their first day.
You will probably already have discussed with the person who hired you, what you should do, so now it is time to take that from broad strokes to specific, practical day to day tasks.
It doesn’t matter if you get the specific tasks right or wrong – they don’t expect you to do this in the first place, so you’ll impress them no matter what. Simply base it on the discussions you’ve had in the past and ask for their advice on adjusting the list to be whatever they prefer, and what has the biggest impact on the business!
Also, ask them for their recommendations on how you should prioritize each task since they know the business better than you do at this point.
Update them weekly on what you’ve been doing, the process of those projects and what you are going to do next.
Once a month (or whatever makes sense on your situation), ask them to sit down and clarify the broad business direction and ask them for help to make sure you are working in the right direction.
Also ask them for feedback on a regular basis (say, weekly) so that when you renegotiate later on there will be no surprises.
Keep this up with them and if you prefer, clarify a couple of targets you need to hit in the first three months. Keep this up, and soon you’ll have built yourself a reputation of something who has drive, is proactive, get shit done and is super reliable.
Every boss’ dream.
As you’ve built a strong foundation, this is much easier to maintain over time than it is to build up in the beginning – or even repair later on.
How to know if they are the right fit for you
As mentioned about the coffee meetings, it is important to focus not only on you being a fit for them but also them being a fit for you.
Your life will be much easier once you figure out what you like and dislike, your preferred work, work environment and so on.
If you know that you dislike people yelling at each other in the office, you can probably remove half of the startups you are looking at. It sounds like you’re making things more difficult but really you are making it easier.
Once you find a great fit you will have an easier time performing which leads you to be able to push for better compensation.
So, really, you are optimizing for a better situation that allows you to focus on earning more, learning more and pushing on your strengths rather than improving your weaknesses which just leads to you to be mediocre across the board.
And we know that money is disproportionately distributed. The top 10% earns much more than the remaining 90%, the 1% earns 100x what the top 10% earns and so on (not exact numbers but a trend meant to prove the point).
As you get a better idea about that, you’ll be able to evaluate the founder(s) of the startups you are looking at.
I believe that most people in their 20s should continue to focus on learning rather than earning. When you have learned the right things, gotten a solid track record of results -ideally with social proof from some projects- you can make a simple career move and catapult your earnings.
To give you an example, I look for emotional stability and vision in a founder. I can’t stand a bad work environment and I’m focused on what makes me able to perform on a daily basis.
That trickles down to how long-term they think, how they manage the business’ runway (money), how they approach investors (do they want quick cash or rather high quality investors that can help guide us to learn more) and what sacrifices they make themselves.
Founders are notorious for being all talk which is probably why we see so many stories in the news about crazy startups raising money from investors only to fold a year later. So, looking at what the founder does rather than says is important.
Many of them will also dangle potential equity in your face which is something to be cautious off.
Some founders give their employees equity only to cancel it later- and remember even if you actually get equity, many things have to go well, many years from now, for you to be able to get your payout.
So, ask yourself if it is likely that the founder will focus long term and make good decisions and stay stable long enough for sales day to arrive.
How to rise to the top and command a good salary (even if you don’t have a degree)
You’ll typically see two different types of startups in Asia.
One is targeting the local market (often by bringing a business type that is already established in another market to this emerging country) or is abroad because of geo-arbitrage such as cheap labor.
The latter is typically the case for startups that are heavy on tech as you can find skilled software engineers all over Asia for little money compared to the west.
If the startup you are looking at is not targeting the local market getting a job there is more situation-dependent.
It will often depend on one of three things
- If they do sales in a specific country e.g. your home country or one where you can add a significant advantage (perhaps because you speak the language)
- You happen to be really good at sales or client management, or want to learn it, as they might be generally targeting western clients with e.g. a software product so they prefer someone the clients can better relate to
- If you are natively from the country where the startup is based but grew up abroad. You could be a manager working between the team that executes things while having the foreigner-background that will make it easier for foreign management or investors to get along with you since there is typically a cultural aspect that they don’t get.
This is very situationally specific so it is difficult for me to give advice here without knowing your specific situation.
The other option is working for a startup that is targeting the local market. If you have a university degree you will probably want to follow the direction you studied, so if you studied finance, work in accounting, or if you studied marketing, work in online marketing and so on.
It is tempting to make emotional decisions and imagining traveling, doing cool work with only a few hours a day but it is unlikely to be the case.
For you to get the best result you need to be clear on why you are doing this – like the rest of us, you probably want to get rich and live a life full of fun using the world as your playground.
Some people might see it as a problem if you don’t have a university degree. I don’t. I’ve gotten my last five jobs following the method outlined in this guide.
My background is from a tiny no-name university, with a generic degree related to international marketing and trade- and frankly, I haven’t used anything I learned in my real life after.
Whenever I interview, I am always upfront with that and don’t try to pass it through as something legit. Rather, it’s about being self-aware, accept that fact and focus on what the business and boss needs, and showing how you can be the one to help.
All the things you and I will cover in this guide.
Instead, you need to show them the way you think. While education in Asia is slowly switching to a more western-focus type of education, it is still very much focused on ‘bruteforce’ learning.
Basically, practicing long hours, memorization and not asking too many questions.
Exactly the opposite of what many of us are used to from the west, where there is more focus on creativity and critical thinking.
So, as many of the startups here are built and backed by foreigners or locals who went abroad and came back, you’ll need to display the opposite traits to really give them a reason to add you to the team.
The following points are still important if you have a degree but even more so if you don’t. Ideally, you’ll display them through other relevant projects you’ve done. It could be a failed attempt at an online business (a surprisingly good selling point), freelancing or perhaps even serious hobby projects:
- Drive (and pro-activity)
- Solving problems
- Excellent interpersonal communication
- Extreme reliability
With these core traits, you can help a startup in most departments. The earlier stage the fewer departments there are. When people talk about hiring top performers and hiring ‘for culture’ this is what many of them refer to as a good place to start. It can rub off on the other team members which your future boss would love.
As you’ll learn throughout this guide, one of the key pillars is focusing on long-term trust building.
Build trust upfront and leveraging it when you need it. It will make you progress much faster, make your future salary negotiations much easier, get the company to pay for training and if there would ever be doubt about something you are involved in, you’ll get the benefit of the doubt.
Everyone else is focused on quick money, short-term salary raises and cool shit right now. So, if we focus on giving that to everyone else while doing the opposite and thinking long-term we will win a much bigger game down the line.
Do 2x the work right now and get 10x the results down the line. This is particularly the case with the top management at your target startups.
They will be calling the shots, so whenever people are being emotional and complaining you’ll be a breath of fresh air to them. Leverage it.
One way to do that is by taking credit for the impact you’ve had and the work you’ve done. When most people hear that, they think of someone swooping in, backstabbing the rest and taking all the credit.
That sucks.. Don’t be that guy- it doesn’t build trust.
Rather, you can legitimately take credit by actually focusing on doing the work day-to-day and low-key, casually, showing what you’ve done by updating the right people.
Instead of boasting “see what I’ve done!”, you share regular updates and clarify you don’t need them to respond but you are keeping them in the loop of what you are up to because you thought they might want to follow what’s going on.
You could do this on a weekly basis or whatever makes sense for your boss. That way you won’t be going in with the whole “look at me”-show but your boss will pick up the right things overtime as he sees that you are delivering projects consistently.
You can use the following flowchart as a rule of thumb to ensure you are always maximizing your value with the company. That is the only way you can properly take credit for work done.
The most important thing is to always work on the most important challenges for the business. That along with the other four points above allows you to be someone who will be invaluable because in your boss’ eyes he can apply you to any kind of challenge in the business and trust that you solve it.
From his perspective, that means when he has a headache he can count on you. In his job, most of his tasks are making decisions and solving headaches so having someone who can help with that feels amazing.
If you’ve had your own team and been fortunate enough to have someone like that you know exactly how amazing it is.
While you could probably be working in most departments except customer service and HR following the skills I mentioned above, these departments will typically be available for you (though there are always exceptions):
- Marketing/Business Intel/analytics
- Sales/B2B sales (if the companies are foreign and you can work with the clients)
Depending on which stage the startup is at, the value you can provide in each will be different. There are too many different situations for me to simply draw a flowchart that you can follow, so instead let’s look at a framework.
If the startup is less than a couple of years in the market they are typically looking at product-market fit or traction which means getting a bunch of customers and validating the business via sales.
As a rule of thumb, if they have yet to land series A funding they are probably looking for product-market fit and building traction. At this point, it is usually too early to get a good salary.
In my experience, for expats, it makes more sense to aim for a larger increase in salary as you go through the funding rounds rather than the typical yearly 5%-10% increase that you’ll get at a large established company – especially if you are able to provide value in the process of landing each funding round.
At this point, the departments above usually barely exist and if you join you’ll be doing a whole bunch of different things.
You’ll be looking at a business that you expect will grow heavily over the next few years so do your research well, so ideally, you are looking to stay for a couple of years at least.
If the startup has already landed Series A they probably have some traction and are looking for hyper-growth. At this stage, the departments will start to be defined more closely and the company will likely need the most help in the marketing/growth department.
Everyone in the startup world talks about the hockey stick effect, and this is typically where it really takes off and you are looking at expanding the business.
Around this point, you’ll start to see a much better salary and likely more and more foreigners join as head of departments. Especially if you find a company that has landed series B and beyond, they are expanding more and more and slowly turning into a more typical corporation with market expansion and more and more of a playbook to use.
Salary-wise it should be easier for you to command a good salary assuming you are able to show them value, as they will have more and more money.
At this stage, you also see a lot of companies acquiring talent with great packages so they can expand ultra-fast. You might notice that in many startups often that means: earn your compensation and perform or get out.
I don’t have experience with later-stage startups so I won’t comment on that and most startups at this point are within the range mentioned above anyways.
Making work life easier when you are a foreigner
Any company has office politics and the startups you are looking at has too. Many people feel strongly that they should let their work speak for itself and that people should recognize talent.
While that would be great, that is usually not the case because people simply are busy as hell. If you want to earn good money and rise up the ranks fast, playing office politics is definitely going to help.
At the early stage startups mentioned above, it will typically be the founder/CEO setting the tone and calling the shots. Personally, I’ve found the book “Mastery” (Robert Greene) to be a great guideline for how to navigate that even though it isn’t really about that.
The core pillars that you can steal and apply yourself are to ignore your ego, accept that this business is the founder’s baby and part of your job is to make him look good.
Presenting him with different options whenever you deliver work to him, being available for coffee meetings on the weekend and even proactively asking for them goes a long way.
Use the meetings to get their recommendation on X topic and do as they recommend.
When you ask them for their advice, come from a place of learning and show them you applied their advice and that it worked. You’ll get points in their book.
Try to feel out how much communication they like to do generally and follow that trend. Do they prefer to meet often and go over things in person? Then do the same.
Do they prefer to do it via Skype or in another way? Adopt their approach.
This should not be a game of calculated bets or a likeability contest. It is simply making them look good and adding a little extra spice to show that you are considered of your boss and they will like you for understanding – most people won’t know to do this, and even when they do, they let their emotions get in the way.
Accept that you usually have to do a bunch of work that won’t be used and explain that you are trying to make their life easier because you know they are busy.
Getting a short answer from a busy person such as “let’s go with option B” is a great reply to get.
The simplest way to make sure you are doing it right is to align your goals with theirs. Working hard, trying hard, being ambitious and wanting to learn might not be as sexy as being effortless but it works damn well.
Founders tend to be visionary and ambitious and prefer the all-in-approach, so be aware that they might find a lack of commitment almost insulting. The best way I’ve found is to align your goals with theirs rather than faking commitment. They will appreciate it.
For whatever reason, it seems that you get treated better in Asia when you wear ‘business’ clothes at work. My philosophy is to always dress for the situation, so no need to dress for a black-tie event at the office. At most startups you’ll see all the guys in tshirt and the girls in equally casual clothes.
If you are a guy, wearing a shirt, nice jeans and dress shoes has worked well in my experience. I wouldn’t know how to explain for girls what to wear but as a rule of thumb just go for something that shows you are a little more serious about your career than the average person working there.
The reason I started doing it in the first place was actually to train my brain to go into work-mode whenever I would wear that. It works really well so you get two birds with one stone.
How the startup will compare you with other candidates
When you find a startup that you are interested in, the next step is to figure out if you both are a good fit for each other.
It’s funny how much you learn when you switch from being a worker to hiring a team. You quickly discover that the whole ‘send out resumes and see what happens’ black hole of doom makes no sense from the one hiring’s perspective.
You really have no clue from a resume how much of the information is accurate and how they are going to be to work with.
As mentioned above, arranging casual coffee meetings typically work well. It will give you a great idea about exactly which challenges that are the most pressing.
Job descriptions are notorious for being badly written and inaccurate. You’ll know that they are the right challenges to solve because the management has told you.
Then, based on your expertise, you can come back to them with some casual ideas of how to solve them or you could show them how you will approach those exact challenges- and ideally how you have already solved similar challenges in the past.
When they are considering you, they will be looking for a few different things. Besides the four points above (drive, communication, reliability and problem solving) they might also be looking for how you can influence the rest of the team in a positive way as mentioned before. Not every founder or leader looks for this unfortunately but they should.
Making the total of the team better than the sum of its parts will give you great points as well. In the startup world, everything is about speed. Contrary to an old school business a startup typically has a limited runway and regularly has to raise more money from investors.. Until they are not at the startup stage anymore and can look towards profitability.
Up until that point, it is all about setting targets, raising money to reach those targets, reach them and repeat to scale fast and capture the market. Not all startups are in a winner takes all-situation but many are.
I’ve been hired on sheer drive a couple of times in the past, so, if you can show them that you have that you can argue that you’ll help influence the team and organization, and speed things up.
It won’t be the end all be all but it will be a strong plus.
If you have great social proof that they can add to the investor deck, that will be a great point as well. Depending on your field that could be:
- Your degree
- The school you went to
- Previous clients or companies you have worked for
Of course, either of those three has to be relevant to the startup or industry in question. Basically, you are asking yourself if it is something that would impress a person investing into a team that you are a part of. If the answer is yes, then those credentials will probably impress the founder as well. A couple of examples:
- Having a PHD in machine learning if you work in tech
- Having worked for Deloitte, KPMG, PWC or E&Y if you are in finance
- Having worked on related tasks for a major brand ideally in the same industry (but not necessarily) if you are in marketing
They will always be looking for leadership potential from foreigners as startups in Asia typically use local knowledge to do the execution and western management due to the school of thought we are educated with back home.
If you are stable, committed, not too emotional and used to getting shit done you are already ahead of the pack.
As you might have noticed, many of these things are really human traits that you would probably look for in friends as well. Again, all of it comes down to trust. Can they trust you with important things long term?
Dealing with potentially being one of the few foreigners in a local company and surrounded by locals (sometimes it is not the case though)
Many of the foreign-owned startups have a bunch of foreigners employed which will typically make your life easier. However, in some scenarios, you might be one of the few or the only foreigners which means that you don’t have that much work-fun in the office as you are used to from home.
You can offset that by finding a workout partner to do workouts with, in the morning or evening. You can also set up lunch meetings to build your network with other people that you’d like to meet – which will be a great thing to do when you want to move on to the next thing- build your network before you need it.
You probably have to be a manager (even if you don’t have any experience)
If you work for a startup in Asia, it is like you have to be a manager either from the get-go or over time.
Sometimes, especially with inexperienced managers, they will pair up a foreigner and a local together to be co-manager of a team. It is an excellent way to get your feet wet in the whole process between interviewing, hiring, managing and what not.
There are a lot of elements to it. People further ahead than, I have suggested that it takes five years to get good at hiring and managing people but it is one of the best skills to be good at.
For me personally, it took a while (still a work in progress!) to get comfortable having a team to delegate work to and shifting my mindset from working as a lone ranger to working slightly slower but building scale.
We can never be successful without learning how to manage people because even if we have a lot of money and a great business if you can never take leave because there is no one to help, what does it all matter?
It can be quite an interesting experience to be a manager as you are likely to have some team members that can’t speak English well which naturally causes confusion and it makes it so much more important to be ultra-clear in your communication.
I’ve found that many locals want to practice their business English skills, and working closely with foreigners they do improve fast. However, it will still take a while which is why it makes so much sense to start out with a local co-manager assuming they are exposed to western working styles and has a high level of English.
This particularly relates to being a mid-level manager where you work directly above the execution level. As you move up this becomes easier because many of the locals that made it to mid-manager level are much more familiar with working and communicating with foreigners.
It will feel natural to want to skip this mid-level manager-step, however, I believe you learn something important about the business, yourself and working in Asia as an expat that you’ll benefit from later. It’s just good practice.
One of my favorite tips as a manager comes from Mads Singers. He recommends having a simple 30 minute conversation with the people reporting directly to you every week.
The conversation can be about your life, their life, work or whatever they want to talk about- let them decide. It makes them feel heard, close to you and that “the boss-man still likes me”. Most employees that turn sour happens because of a lack of these conversations.
Make sure that it is only the people reporting directly to you or you’ll quickly have so many weekly conversations that you’ll have no time to actually do your work. You could encourage those to do the same with the people reporting to them.
On another note, I’ve found that paying a bit more to hire quality team-members works really well. Nothing beats having a new employee start on their first day with a ready-made list of to-do’s they can jumpstart themselves with.
I’ve noticed that in some markets in Asia, the difference between junior vs senior level is less than it is in the west. Broadly speaking, a senior would have more than four years of experience. Compare that to the six to eight years back in the west. Of course, that varies by specialty but it seems to be a fairly general assumption in Asia.
In some cultures having more people is valued as more prestigious which is interesting when you compare it to automation back home.
In Asia, the tech to create automation can be more expensive than hiring an army of workers but can help make less human errors which especially for accounting/finance/BI/reporting is important. Compare that to at home where the main driver of automation is to save cost.