, Singapore

Why senior MNC execs are leaving 6-figure jobs for Singaporean startups

By Peter Yu

Working as a senior executive at a multi-national corporation means making a high salary, driving European sports cars, usage of a corporate card and other perks. Why would anyone give that up for to take a pay cut, mingle with programmers and give up the swanky corner office for a desk at a co-working space?

The answer is – to take a chance at changing the world.

To name a few examples, RedMart, a Singapore-based online grocer, managed to hire ex-eBay marketing director Todd Kurie last year, while DocDoc, a 500 Startups-funded doctor directory, is founded by senior healthcare and investment banking executives.

Just recently, BlackBerry’s Asia Pacific director for media and sponsorships, John Leung, joined local email website backup startup, Dropmysite, as their new VP of Sales for Asia. Prior to this, Dropmysite’s past hires include Yutaka Shinohara in Japan, formerly of Verisign and Trend Micro, as well as ex-Googlers Charif El Answari and Vinoaj Vijeyakumaar - all in the audacious goal of backing up the Internet.

Most executives relish in their cushy life, play a few rounds of golf and sit back for their annual bonuses. What would convince an executive to consider taking the unconventional route and take a plunge? After all, according to Statistic Brain, 25% of all startups fail in the 1st year and only about half make it to their 4th year.

From the mindset of an executive of a large corporation, there can be a variety of reasons. Some people might leave from having a larger ambition than climbing the corporate ladder; others feel adventurous in a fluctuating business climate. There will be those who feel the need for a career change or that they are just yearning for something more hands on. One common thread is that the corporate rate race can take its toll and some times the cheese is just not worth it or even just not enough.

For jaded and blasé executives, joining a startup promises less now for much more in the mid to long term. Startups aim to do either do something brand new or change the way things have always been done. Startups have revolutionized the way we search (Google), the way we socialize online (Facebook), the way we shop (Groupon) and much more. Joining a startup may allow these executives to actually build something instead of just pushing paper.

Without the usual bureaucracy and red tape, there is much freedom to experiment in the development of the business. Also the stock options that could far exceed anything offered in the corporate world. The other non-tangible perks include having an open culture that is more flexible could range from self-determined hours, working from home to dressing casual everyday. Employees feel an ownership of the firm and of the work that is done.

Startups are also actively court senior executives. VP or Director level executives have extensive experience in their fields that could add credibility to a fledging startup. Also, their rolodex of contacts will be available for deals, collaborations or perhaps more senior hires. Plus, in most cases, these executives have sufficient savings so a pay cut goes a long way for a cash-strapped startup.

Anyone joining a startup, instead of a more traditional or established company, all take the same risk – the only difference is that hiring senior staff takes longer. Different executives want different things. But usually it boils down to the startup’s potential. Will the business be able to become a big player one day?

Often the startup founder has to spend time to sell his or her vision. There needs to be some detailing on how the new hire can contribute and the extent of the reward for the additional risk. Senior executives want to be on the ground floor of the next Dropboxor Paypalfor the credit and the payout. So it is necessary to paint the big picture and have a detailed roadmap to success. 

There is a combination of money, equity, role and prestige that goes into the sales process. It all comes down to selling the vision and is very similar to raising money from an investor.

In Silicon Valley, rich Yahoo and Microsoft executives are often seen as common salarymen / women. Meanwhile, struggling startup founders/employees are envied for targeting to disrupt an industry. As more and more startups hit the billion-dollar valuation, expect to see more senior executives take a chance in Singapore.

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