Entrepreneurs often have a defining moment that leaves an indelible mark on them.
For Steve Jobs of Apple, it was a trip to India in the 1970s, at the height of the hippie movement.
For Howard Schultz of Starbucks, it was a trip to Milan where he tried the local coffee.
For Steve Melhuish, co-founder and vice chairman of PropertyGuru, it was a six-month sojourn in Southeast Asia with his wife, Liz.
“We were living in London at the time, and I was running this telecom cable company,” says Melhuish. All his clients were in the telecoms, internet, and mobile content industries. “It was also the time of the post-dot-com bust. All my clients were going through downsizing, and I had to basically downsize my team every six months.”
Melhuish always preferred building things rather than dismantling them. “I took a six-month break and went traveling with my wife,” he recollects. The two went off the beaten track in Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, spending four to five weeks in each country.
“We saw extreme poverty, which was very humbling,” he adds, recalling his Laos visit. He also remembers that their guide “had 15 kids, but only two survived.” The others were lost to “malnourishment and unclean drinking water,” Melhuish says.
This experience left him with no doubt as to where he wanted to be next.
Inspiration, they say, comes from the most mundane of sources.
For Melhuish, his eureka moment was when he tacked a Post-it on his bathroom in London.
“Digital media, Asia, Startups.”
“It really did drive everything that I did and saw me push closer to Asia.” He still has that note.
The initial plan was to head out to China with Liz’s job. But a chance reorganization at her company changed their plans – and their destiny. Liz’s company brought her to Singapore instead, and the couple decided to start here. “It’s easier to go from Singapore to China rather than London to China,” they thought.
As the family settled in, Steve dove straight into work and explored the startup scene. “I was bitterly disappointed because there was hardly anything.
This was way back – almost thirteen and a half years ago. The digital space was defined by Yahoo and Microsoft competing with their messenger software.”
Steve started work with Singaporean startup ComiAsia, but he soon gave that up in 2007 when circumstances led him to launch PropertyGuru.
“My wife and I were renting a property in Emerald Hill. In 2007, the government opened its doors to immigration and the population exploded from 4.3 million to 5.5 million very quickly. So the doors opened, immigration happened, and it put an immense amount of pressure on housing and infrastructure. There was a definite crunch,” he recalls.
“The property was up for an en bloc sale. So we had to move out very fast. I went online to find a new place but there wasn’t anything,” he says.
This surprised Melhuish as he thought that Asians, in general, were obsessed with property. Many Asian families dream of owning their first property to live in or as an investment. But he couldn’t find an extensive online listing portal and had to rely on clunky classified ads.
An investor friend, however, made an auspicious introduction, connecting Melhuish with Jani Rautiainen, who was then “working in tech in India.” As Melhuish explains, “We said, ‘If we are to do this right, we’ll need to focus our energies full-time on this.’ We thought, ‘How do we give more power to the consumer?’ We then put all the listings in five markets online to give people some transparency.”
PropertyGuru was officially born.
As PropertyGuru took off, Melhuish and co- founder Rautiainen were learning some hard lessons.
1. Growing too fast
“First, we decided to expand from one market to four markets in four months. I wouldn’t do that now. We took this Singapore team and asked them to make four different websites in four different markets with 12 new apps. Our product team was churning out this stuff, which was fantastic. But it suddenly ground to a halt as the team was stretched to literally the breaking point trying to do everything.”
For two or three years, Melhuish and Rautiainen were doing a lot by themselves. “Both my partner and I are very competitive people so when we decide to do something, we expect everyone else to do it too. Which is naïve and unreasonable. So, it was very unfair to people.”
2. Don’t compromise in your values
The second lesson for Melhuish was to not compromise on values even if the business is in its early days. He cites an experience involving sales staff.
We were held to ransom by two sales guys
“We were in the middle of raising money, and these two guys – who between them controlled 80 percent of our revenue – said, ‘Either double our money or we’ll leave.’ I had sleepless nights around that, and I ended up compromising my values by saying, ‘We’ll do what you say, let one person stay and we’ll have to let one person go.’ We then spent six months trying to build a team around this person to dissolve the power that he held. And I really hated myself for doing that,” he shares.
The professional and the personal
As PropertyGuru expanded and raised funds through several rounds, Melhuish faced a personal struggle.
“Liz and I had our twins about five years after we started trying to have children. 2012 to 2014 was particularly challenging because I was living on a plane or somewhere else.”
There’s often a time in a person’s life when priorities that once seemed important will fade away. His children, Emily and Jake, were celebrating their second birthday when this dawned on him.
“I wanted to spend more time with the kids. I didn’t want to wake up when they turned 11 and they had no idea who I was.” He made a commitment to his wife that he would devote more attention to the kids by their fifth birthday.
And so began the search for a new executive leadership team and a CEO to replace him. “We’ve built PropertyGuru into Southeast Asia’s leading online property group, used by 22 million people monthly. We scaled to market leadership in five markets. We grew fast and became profitable, so I feel very proud of what the team has achieved.”
But once his executive leadership team was in place, Melhuish consciously decided to take a low-key role within the business. Despite this being his own decision, he says he discovered a lot about himself during that period.
“All the people I spoke with who had exited their businesses experienced a period of mourning, a period of loss – a crisis if you can call it that. I realized I went through it as well,” says Melhuish.
He got through that phase by surrounding himself with the right people. His children were his biggest motivators. “Whenever I went through the dark times, they were what kept me focused,” he relates. His wife suggested he could go back to running the company if that was what he wanted, but he chose to spend more time with his family. “That really saw me through the process,” he adds.
He has now carved out a different role for himself, which he says he enjoys. “I’m much more involved in strategy and business development and spend a lot of time on speaking engagements. I also really enjoy spending time with startups.”
But the work is far from over. For his latest adventure, he joined Wavemaker Partners part-time as a venture partner and says he’s looking forward to working with a team he admires.
“I’ve known [Wavemaker managing partner] Paul Santos for five years now and love what the team does. They’re very founder-friendly – more in a listening mode rather than telling mode. They’re one of the few VCs that have done five exits. And, they’re helping to build homegrown heroes in Southeast Asia, which historically has been in the shadows.”
Don’t get distracted by what the investors are saying.
He’s also devoting more time to social impact ventures, drawing from his experiences of traveling around Southeast Asia.
PropertyGuru has done “a lot of charity work with ‘Billion Bricks’, which is helping refugees and migrants. I want to do something in that space but haven’t quite figured it out.”
With all the ups and downs in Melhuish’s life, he has this advice for startup founders:
“Be yourself, be authentic and don’t try and please everyone. Focus on the reason why you started the business, which is solving a big pain point. Don’t get distracted by any shiny bright lights or what the investors are saying.”