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99.co CEO Darius Cheung’s Advice to Startups

Horse before the cart, says the Singaporean founder of the fastest-growing property search portal in Singapore.

Long before phone software manufacturers realised just how much end-users valued privacy, Singaporean Darius Cheung was working on solutions that allowed remote phone locking and wiping. His foresight eventually led to the acquisition of Tencube, his first firm, by McAfee for an eight-figure sum.

He’s now helming one of Singapore’s hottest property startups, 99.co, a leading search portal for property with a sterling reputation. We get him on the horn to dispense some tips for today’s aspiring entrepreneurs.

On Beginning the Startup Journey

Q: What are the most common pitfalls of young startups?

A: They may chase after big things and big ideas. They should focus on one customer at time. Second, they may focus on raising money instead of building a proper product.

Q: So, if you build a product right, the money will come?

A: Correct.

Q: What would you say to the aspiring startups and entrepreneurs of future generations?

A: Focus on solving problems that people have. It sounds obvious, but it’s actually the most common way for things to go wrong: you make something that nobody actually needs. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Q: I see. How does this reconcile with Steve Jobs’ famous philosophy of trying to create something that no one even knows they need yet?

A: Put it this way – you get a “Steve Jobs” type of company once every ten years. You have to ask the question: where was Jobs coming from? It’s not that he didn’t listen to customers. He clearly understood his customers’ needs very well. So if you relook into what Apple does, they do a lot of research into (customers’ wants). But they do take very big steps.

(RELATED: What do the winners have in common? We interviewed Chope’s Ariff Ziaudeen, Carousell’s Quek Siu Rui, Codapay’s Niel Davidson and Zopim’s Lim Qing Ru.)

On Hiring

Q: We’ve spoken to talent acquisition firms who’ve had trouble finding people with the right skillsets and experience. How crucial is hiring, and how does 99.co go about dealing with it?

A: Building a good culture and starting team is important. In fact, I would say it’s one of the early indicators of whether a startup will be successful. (To note): good people like to work with other good people. A lot of good people who are willing to go to startups, it’s all about the work experience for them.

Q: Does the wait for good people bite into the margins or affect business development?

A: Yes. But making the wrong hire will cost the company much, much more. It’s a very common mistake (of startups) as well.

Q: So you would hold out for the right person. 

A: Yes, that’s correct.

(Related: Here’s the secret to managing millenials… and 3 more tips for good measure.)

On Staying Ahead

Q: What does 99.co do to keep ahead of competition (which can be pretty cutthroat)?

A: We pay attention to the customers, and find out what are their pain points (problems), and we focus on solving those pain points.

Q: You’ve mentioned before that word-of-mouth is the most powerful recommendation tool. Is that true in 99.co’s case?

A: Well, we have a two-sided market space. On the agent side –  they’re essentially business owners – we do a lot of business devlopment and marketing.

On the demand side of things – the consumers, home renters and buyers – we rely a lot more on word-of-mouth. It’s more apparent on the consumer side.

Q: Is there any particular feature that implements word-of-mouth elements into the service?

A: *laughs* Not a whole lot, there’s definitely more we should be doing. There are some – for example, being able to share your shortlists and favourite listings with family members.

Darius Cheung was a key speaker at The Peak’s inaugural session of its networking series, Finding the Unicorns. Founder and CEO of gridComm, Mike Holt, also spoke. The assembled entrepreneurs were then treated to a wine pairing session, hosted by The French Cellar (who are, themselves, startups.) 

Keen on entering the circle? Follow us on our Facebook page for updates – round 2 is coming.