Case study: iTalent, Malaysia "I'm amazed we moved so fast"
Author: Carolyn Hong
How a successful tech entrepreneur went from sceptic to coaching evangelist after an immersive experience
By their nature, entrepreneurs are self-motivated and self-reliant. They like to do things themselves, and do them their own way. The idea of taking on a coach or mentor - although those are services they could see themselves offering once they've made it - often runs counter to their very reason for being.
Victor Phang, CEO of Malaysian digital HR services provider iTalent, is one such entrepreneur. His business philosophy was simple: to grow slowly and steadily.
At least that is how he used to be. But since working with boutique Malaysian coaching company Proficeo, Phang has become a convert. "The coach questioned us a lot and challenged our plans," he says, describing a journey that has seen iTalent move from a domestic player to regional markets via tie-ups with partners in Singapore and Thailand and talks with partners in Indonesia and Japan. "I'm surprised that we could move so far in just a year," Phang says.
Coaching can be particularly helpful for newer entrepreneurs who typically do not have a senior management team to act as a strategic thinking partner, says Renuka Sena, CEO of Proficeo.
Proficeo has been offering coaching services since 2008, and also runs a coaching programme for SMEs, with a grant from state-funded investor Cradle Fund.
Coaching and mentoring, however, are often confused, notes Sena. A mentor is usually a respected leader who advises the entrepreneur, and may also introduce new contacts. A coach, on the other hand, focuses on the how-to. Coaching is intensive and focused, with coaches assisting the entrepreneur in strategic planning and setting clear goals, measurable outcomes and implementation strategies.
Many small Malaysian companies, Sena says, tend to stumble because the founders have no strategic thinking partners, and are often too preoccupied with day-to-day worries. This was something Proficeo's partners discovered while in their previous careers as intellectual property consultants and management consultants. They sought to fill this gap, and in 2012 Proficeo was appointed by Cradle Fund to run the 'Coach and Grow' programme.
Phang's story began in 2009 when he launched iTalent as a traditional payroll outsourcing provider. In 2012, forced by increasing competition, the company took the leap into technology by creating proprietary software to cover the full gamut of HR management. The software went to market at the end of 2014, targeted at businesses with up to 10,000 employees. It was still a fledgling product when Phang came across the 'Coach and Grow' programme. "Having been an entrepreneur for many years, I find it important to have someone to talk to about the business, to be sure that the decisions are in line with market requirements," he says.
But it turned out to be a lot more than talking. He found it to be one of the most transformational experiences in his career. His ideas were challenged by the coach, forcing him to think through every step of the process.
The issue confronting Phang, as with all entrepreneurs, was growth. Working with Proficeo's coaching programme, he explored the options, before considering going regional - something he had dismissed as too risky.
For Phang, the key was tapping into the year-long programme for home-grown technology firms, designed to boost their growth and expansion. Since 2012, iTalent has worked with more than 300 companies that won a slot in the programme.
Each selected business is assigned two coaches, who are typically senior managers or seasoned entrepreneurs themselves. During the monthly coaching sessions, the entrepreneur comes up with strategies for expansion, to be implemented within 12 months. There must be measurable outcomes such as a doubling of revenue or expansion to at least one new country.
As a great deal of the challenge lies in changing the mindsets and working culture of companies, there are techniques adopted by the coaches to get past these hurdles.
"For many entrepreneurs, the idea of expansion is a large concept with no shape or size. Coaching helps break this down into doable steps," Sena says. "In that way, they can also see the risk factor reducing."
One effective method is simply to talk the entrepreneur through breaking down the big goal into small, actionable steps. An aim of doubling revenue may begin with creating a customer database, so the entrepreneur actually knows who is buying from them.
Sena says entrepreneurs are also encouraged to involve their teams in the year-long coaching, which helps create a willingness to adapt to new strategies. When people have a role in making the plans, they are more likely to implement them.
Having found that diligent entrepreneurs benefited the most, Proficeo is now planning to instil mental discipline in a more systematic way. It is looking to set up a computerised system where entrepreneurs will provide updates in bite-sized nuggets more frequently, instead of just monthly reports.
Ultimately, says Sena, business coaching is not about deciding what's right or wrong for the entrepreneur, but about ensuring the process has been thought through, and different options explored.
For Phang, that meant using his coaches as sounding boards during the implementation process. He recalls struggling with a particular issue with a senior staff member who he had hoped would step up for a bigger leadership role, but who resisted taking on greater responsibilities. It was during a coaching session that he realised it was the wrong approach. He reorganised the company structure to bring in another senior staffer, and progress has been smoother since then.
Phang's progress may be a little faster than many organisations achieve but, Sena says, the majority of the entrepreneurs in the programme succeed. About two-thirds surpass the target of a 20 per cent revenue increase, and fewer than 5 per cent fail to meet targets.
She attributes this to the time taken in that year to focus on strategic planning, something entrepreneurs, who are often too focused on running the business, cannot find time to do. "They need to work on their businesses as well as work in their businesses," Sena says. Phang is evidence that the principle can bear fruit spectacularly.