Everyone loves a big personality in leadership. On a superficial level, at least, they’re entertaining to follow on the news and their charisma makes for good biography fodder. It’s also easier to be inspired by someone whose actions and thoughts are broadcast regularly, and everywhere. But what of the leaders who are driving the company behind the scenes? The ones whose big ideas are executed quietly, but effectively? What do we know about Jeffrey Tiong, the 34-year-old CEO of Patsnap and EY Entrepreneur of the Year?
If the response is “not much” or “who?”, it’s because Tiong is a self-professed introvert. His area of expertise — analytics intelligence for patents and intellectual property — is not even a field that people without training or a keen understanding of legalese can wrap their heads around. But because his company addresses exactly this issue, it has become a vital cog in the global machine of research and innovation.
Founded in 2007, the software company essentially distils all the information typically consulted by R&D and IP teams, such as patents, scientific journals and litigation data, into easily accessible formats, insights and reports, and delivers them through its online portal. It’s the type of information that will help pharmaceutical companies make better drugs or auto companies make more efficient electric cars. With clients like Nasa, China Mobile and A*Star, and with offices in America, the United Kingdom, China and Canada, Patsnap has come a long way from being a local start-up.
Tiong likens Patsnap to the character Q in the James Bond universe, but, instead of providing a fictional spy with fancy tech and gadgets, he “wants to be Q for all the innovators in the world”. It’s a charming analogy for what he does, but not for who he is. Far from being the sardonic foil to 007, he is more like an average Joe, except Joe here manages a team of over 700 employees who take care of more than 8,000 clients in 40 countries and counting.
Being an introvert isn’t the same thing as being shy or nervous, because Tiong is neither. His confidence isn’t carried by charm, biting wit or overt body language. His relaxed manner and unhurried speech are indicators of a man who is comfortable in his own skin. “That’s my advice to any introvert who wants to lead,” he says. “Just be yourself.”
Of course, being himself has its challenges. “Just this morning, I had a one-on-one chat with my business partner and he pointed out some of my blind spots, such as needing to make firmer decisions. I think I appear too nice sometimes.”
“Since there’s so much going on, I need to be clearer with my objectives and goals.” In the 11 years since the start of Patsnap, Tiong has had plenty of opportunities to hone his communication skills. “Looking back at certain decisions and behaviour, I think I was quite childish and naive. While I prefer being straightforward and frank, I wasn’t always tactful about it,” he admits. “But I’m more polished as a leader now, more mature. I realise that with 700 to 800 people under me, what I say carries a lot of weight. Even a passing comment will be taken very seriously.”
“I realise that with 700 to 800 people under me, what I say carries a lot of weight. Even a passing comment will be taken very seriously.”
JEFFREY TIONG, CEO OF PATSNAP
His CEO persona is more in line with the likes of Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi and General Electric’s Lawrence Culp — unassuming, but sharp. Citing a recent article by The Wall Street Journal, Tiong believes that the age of larger-than-life leaders is over. “Leaders like Steve Jobs and Jack Ma are really good at rallying people, but there are also leaders that don’t appear in public as often whose companies are doing really well, like Tencent’s Ma Huateng. It’s still necessary for a leader to be able to influence people, but there are so many other factors involved in making a company work,” he says.
One of those factors is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of one’s team, which Tiong explains with another analogy: that everyone has a superpower and a kryptonite, and that they’re often one and the same. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he goes on to elaborate. “I have someone who’s really good at selling. You will buy whatever he pitches. But because he’s so good at it, it’s harder for him to receive feedback because he’s always in ‘convincing mode’.”
And what of Tiong’s superpower? “Adaptability,” he says promptly. “I’m always open to learning and new possibilities. Though, on the flip side, it means I can come off as indecisive because there are so many options.”
THE REAL DEAL
His readiness to admit his shortcomings might seem self-effacing to some, but it really just stems from self-awareness. “There are many different leadership styles and, over the years, I’ve learnt what works for me. I’m the type that will say what I think and show how I feel with no sugar coating. Being myself builds trust.”
Even when looking for new candidates, Tiong, who’s very active on Linkedin, pings them himself rather than send a recruiter after them. “Senior candidates really appreciate the gesture, so I almost always get a reply,” he adds.
Regardless of position, the qualities he keeps an eye out for are open-mindedness and a growth mindset. He claims a Harvard or MIT transcript will impress him less than one’s potential for growth. “They say a company’s culture is ultimately the boss’s culture, so I tend to look for characteristics that I have, like openness and authenticity.”
And he sure knows how to pick them. He recalls the days when he was living and working out of a tiny studio in China during Patsnap’s early years. “We didn’t turn the heater on during winter so we could save on our electricity bill. It got so cold once that one of our developers went out to buy a USB-charged hand warmer to warm her hands so she could continue to program. She is still with us to this day.”
Now that Patsnap enjoys cushy offices around the world, Tiong needs to refine his screening process, and he recently implemented a rather unusual practice: asking interviewees to create a slideshow of their entire lives that highlights key moments from their childhood all the way to the present. There’s no template to follow, so interviewees are free to put whatever they want, however they want, into the presentation.
This, he explains, can reveal a lot about a person and what their values are. To be fair, he’s made one of himself to show interviewees the kind of boss they might be working for, and it includes baby photos, a happiness index of his life, pictures of his first big cheque and more.
SPIRIT OF DISCOVERY
It was an entrepreneurship programme Tiong chanced upon during his time at the National University of Singapore that set him on this path, but it seems he was destined for it, regardless. He says that when he was a child, he wanted to be an astronaut, a scientist or an explorer. Well, now he serves astronauts and scientists and he explores the infinite world of ideas.
Entrepreneurship is all about navigating the unknown. And, while Patsnap is doing well today, especially after having pulled in a US$38 million (S$52 million) Series D funding round last June led by Sequoia Capital and Shunwei Capital with participation from Qualgro, there were times when things didn’t look so peachy.
The company’s first big break came from venture capital firm Accel-X and NUS Enterprise in 2010, when they invested $900,000 in Patsnap. Tiong had pitched to NUS Enterprise a year before that, but the start-up catalyst was only convinced after seeing Patsnap had a working prototype and a few customers. “And I guess Accel-X’s lead investor, Edmund Yong, saw something in me that I didn’t even know about myself,” he admits.
Unfortunately, the product broke down at one point and Tiong had to lay off half the company. “That was painful,” he recalls. “I really doubted myself then, wondering if I was right for this job. But somehow I persisted, kept working on it, and finally relaunched the product. Our vision to be the company for R&D software has been the same since Day One, and I never stopped believing in it.” Maybe what Edmund Yong saw was gumption.
These days, investors don’t need to be convinced so much as welcomed. “Since we have a more sizeable operation now, investors just have to look at our addressable market opportunity, financial metrics and the team.”
PRACTICES OF AN INTROVERTED CHIEF
Patsnap CEO Jeffrey Tiong says that his Myers-Briggs personality type is that of the “The Adventurer” and that if he had been born 300 years ago, he would be sailing the high seas and discovering new lands. So how does he cope as a corporate captain?
JUST DO IT
“For people like me, giving presentations or talking to people is not always my preferred mode of communication, but you just have to do it. And, after going through it a few times, you realise it’s not actually that hard.”
“Everything you do, big or small, every decision you make, the thoughts you have, the things you say – it all adds up. People can detect when someone really cares for them or not. It’s hard to fake it.”
SAVE THE DRAMA
Tiong doesn’t believe in being aggressive or yelling at people who screw up. His approach to mistakes is a firm conversation followed by a discussion on how to fix the issue and do better the next time.