YONG HUI YOW: Were you already together with Der Shing when JobsCentral got started?
HUANG SHAO-NING: We met in university. After that, we had an idea for a jobs portal together with a bunch of friends. The few of us agreed that once the idea took shape, we would quit our jobs. At the time, I was working at IBM. The two of us came out first. This was in 1999; the company formally launched in 2000.
YONG HUI: When did you get married?
SHAO-NING: We got married in December 2001. We had our first child in 2002, the second one in 2003. We decided it was enough then, because after that, it was a crazy period. We were fortunate that my mother-in-law and mother loved kids, so they helped out a lot. The third one came in 2008. We wanted a girl, but turned out to be another boy. This fourth one was an accident – another boy! So I have four boys!
YONG HUI: Is there going to be a fifth?
SHAO-NING: [laughs] No.
YONG HUI: Even if it might be a girl?
SHAO-NING: [laughs] No. Being pregnant at 38 was very difficult…it was different from being pregnant in your late twenties and early thirties. In addition, with the scale of the company, it was very different from what it was.
As an owner, I know what can be done; I have the control to get it done. Now, it’s different, now you need approvals and consensus – a whole different ballgame.
YONG HUI: How was it different?
SHAO-NING: When you’re running it as the owner vs. running it as part of a larger corporation with 3,000 people, there is a big difference. As an owner, I know what can be done; I have the control to get it done. Now, it’s different, now you need approvals and consensus – a whole different ballgame.
YONG HUI: Did it remind you of IBM?
SHAO-NING: Yes…But at IBM, I was a fresh graduate, and was ready to take decisions made by others. But after running your own business, you know it’s a matter of resources and skills, and how you deploy them. CareerBuilder is a billion-dollar company. Asia is a much smaller market for them for now. The difficulties in switching my mindset made it tougher.
YONG HUI: Why did they acquire JobsCentral?
SHAO-NING: They wanted to enter the South East Asian market.
YONG HUI: Did they speak to other local jobs portals?
SHAO-NING: Yes, I heard, but we were the better culture fit.
YONG HUI: Back in 2001, what was the initial response to JobsCentral?
SHAO-NING: We wanted to do something with the internet. Jobs are something people can relate to. But the way we pushed jobs was very ambitious – we wanted to change the model totally. When we launched JobsFactory (what it initially was called), we wanted people to post by day, and we would charge by day. Only after implementation, we realised it’s not what HR departments are used to, so we had to change. Also, when we launched, there were easily 20 to 25 job sites in Singapore. JobsDB and JobStreet had a lot of financial backing; we didn’t, so we had to think out of the box. We knew we could not fight as a Jobs portal, so we decided to target fresh graduates. It was a lot of effort to get the universities to trust two young punks. From there, we got the polytechnics and ITEs.
YONG HUI: What were the HR people used to?
SHAO-NING: HR 15 to 20 years ago would post up an ad, and have a recruiter shortlist the candidates. Often, they would work with placement agencies to get the position filled. Our thinking at the time was that we are a cheaper, more efficient way to do that.
YONG HUI: So the online job fairs were the main break?
SHAO-NING: Yes, so we changed the system to become a jobs portal for schools. It became exclusively for graduates of a particular school. Our relationships with the schools grew, and we upped our campus recruitment activities. By 2002, we were profitable. After we started working with the universities, it was just around how fast we could expand.
YONG HUI: What kept you going?
SHAO-NING: It was stubbornness. We had a lot of models that didn’t work, so we just killed them off. We tried being a placement agency, a head-hunter; we tried many things. I take a lot of pride in saying that my team was very good in execution. Honestly, our ideas were not out of the world. It’s a jobs portal; it’s online advertising; it’s not rocket science.
YONG HUI: What were the distractions?
SHAO-NING: Many people told us we should go to China, stuff like that. We explored those, but at the end of the day, all these were distractions. To expand overseas, we had to be strong locally first. When you’re half-past-six-here, you’re going to end up not doing well on either side. We only launched in Malaysia in 2009. Also, some people even told us to go into maid recruitment.
YONG HUI: How hard was hiring at the start?
SHAO-NING: The digital media industry is less than 15 years in Singapore, so in a sense, we were like the pioneers. When we wanted to hire product people, there were none, so we ended up hiring fresh graduates, and trained them ourselves. The internet was a very different industry from the mainstream Singapore economy back then. It was different from hiring an accountant, where you had a ready pool of candidates.
YONG HUI: Did being acquired change you?
SHAO-NING: Not really. We were already doing well before the acquisition. Usually, if you made money in your twenties, you tend to be more frivolous, whereas if you made money in your thirties, you’d maybe buy a few nice things, and then go, ‘this does not help me in any way’. I’m a very functional person so no – it didn’t affect me.
YONG HUI: How do you spend your time now?
SHAO-NING: I stopped working at JobsCentral June last year, then the baby came mid-June. My mother-in-law also fell ill, so it was a difficult time for the family. My other son also just had his PSLE.
YONG HUI: It was not too long ago that you had your PSLE.
SHAO-NING: I’m 39 this year! But times are different. The system now places so much emphasis on that one exam, on a 12 year old.
YONG HUI: How did the staff feel when you left?
SHAO-NING: It was quite hard for them. Many of them I had been working together with for many years. Many had joined us as fresh graduates. It’s sad to leave, but if I don’t leave, the staff will always learn from the same leadership. Among the partners, I was the last to leave after our earn-out.
YONG HUI: What were your growing up days like?
SHAO-NING: I’m Taiwanese. I came to Singapore in 1987 when I was 12.
YONG HUI: The year after I was born.
SHAO-NING: Thanks for reminding me of my age. I didn’t finish my Primary 6 in Taiwan; I was one month away from graduation, so I spent six months at home just to learn English. Then I took an entrance to get into primary school. I was silent in school for another six months. After I got used to speaking English, it got better.
YONG HUI: Did you have any special interests when you were young?
SHAO-NING: Not really, I was a very guai student. The one thing I really enjoyed was reading comics. I read it together with my mum and brother.
We even have a chart at home with major crimes, middle crimes, and minor crimes, and the corresponding punishments. It was drawn up about 5 years ago. It was made because once, in front of the kid, both of us could not agree.
YONG HUI: How different is your parenting style from your husband?
SHAO-NING: Very different. His family does not believe in physical punishment, but I was caned since kindergarten. But because we have worked together for many years, we have come to an agreement on a certain style, even towards the kids. We even have a chart at home with major crimes, middle crimes, and minor crimes, and the corresponding punishments. It was drawn up about 5 years ago. It was made because once, in front of the kid, both of us could not agree. When parents cannot agree, the kid is such a ‘poor thing’ – don’t know what’s going happen.
YONG HUI: Are you the kiasu parent?
SHAO-NING: There are times I fuss over them not getting perfect scores but for the record, my kids don’t go for any supplementary lessons, except for Chinese tuition, even though, I’m Taiwanese. There are also times when I look at other kids and go… “they play the violin, learn Spanish”, and then I’d think, maybe we should send them for all these things too. Then my husband will ask, “Do you want to drive them every weekend?” [laughs] I have to manage myself. It is a struggle I have. I don’t want them to lose out to other kids, but at the same time, I also want them to be able to play.
YONG HUI: What are the key values you instil in your kids?
SHAO-NING: Honesty, and being useful to society, but they won’t get this yet.
YONG HUI: If they ask you what does it mean to be useful, what do you tell them?
SHAO-NING: You must be able to look after yourself and the people around you, being independent, being able to lead life in a fruitful way.
YONG HUI: What will you tell them about money?
SHAO-NING: A lot of kids nowadays they have smartphones. My son only got his when he was in secondary one. They have what they need, but they’re not going to get beyond that. I don’t deprive them; they have their Xbox and such, but money is something to buy what you need, not something you take for granted.
YONG HUI: Would you want your kids to follow in your footsteps?
SHAO-NING: Sure, but they have to find their own finances. I could be an investor, but I want to see the merits of it first. I’m not going to do it because you’re my son. It has to make sense. In fact, we told them to sell things on Carousell, to get a taste of what it’s like making money. So whatever they sell something, they get a 10 per cent commission.
YONG HUI: Are you an investor in Carousell?
YONG HUI: What is your mentoring style?
SHAO-NING: My style is you ask a question, I try to answer it. Mentoring and investing are different. With investing, you may try to steer the business; with mentoring, you cannot steer. For example, some people would come to me with an idea, and if I think it doesn’t make sense, I cannot say it won’t work, because they are in it, not me. I can only tell them what I think the reaction will be. It’s just a personal perspective, but I have learned to be more direct sometimes, and just say, “What you’re thinking about doesn’t make sense.”
YONG HUI: What’s the difference between a job and a career?
SHAO-NING: A job is something that you do for a pay check and be done with it. A career is something you’re interested in doing every day, because you know you will be doing that for the long-term.
They’re ‘okay’ with ignoring what makes them happy, for the sake of a higher pay check. It’s not wrong, because people have obligations, certain goals and commitments in life. It boils down to the individual.
YONG HUI: Do you find that people nowadays don’t know what they’re interested in?
SHAO-NING: The Singapore society has placed so much emphasis on being materially successful, so a lot of people are just chasing after the pay check, and a lot of them are… I won’t say sacrificing, but they’re ‘okay’ with ignoring what makes them happy, for the sake of a higher pay check. It’s not wrong, because people have obligations, certain goals and commitments in life. It boils down to the individual.
YONG HUI: Would you now have preferred to continue running JobsCentral?
SHAO-NING: I never asked myself that question. A decision is a decision. At that moment, that was the best decision.