Five years ago, my Co-founder Dorothy and I left our jobs as Regional Senior Management of a reputable global HR research and consulting firm to start EngageRocket. Like many startups, our reasoning was quite simple: there has to be a better way to do this. There must be a simpler, faster, more effective way to help HR professionals analyse and improve the culture of their workplaces. After all, people spend more than half of their waking hours at work. It only makes sense that if companies can quickly address the issues that affect the majority of their employees’ lives, those lives are improved and they have a more loyal and productive employee base.

From this premise, we quickly worked on iterating our idea and arrived at a clear purpose: helping organisations improve the experience at work with real-time data on what their employees are thinking and feeling. When we shared the prototype of the product with our network, we realised that we weren’t alone in our frustrations. We knew we were on to something; something that could potentially change the way companies view employee experience in the long run.

Fast forward to the present; EngageRocket is now celebrating 5 years since its inception and is one of the fastest-growing work tech startups in the region. To date, we have:

  • Secured SG D4.5million in funding
  • More than 10 million survey answers collected within our platform from 200,000+ users
  • Customers around the globe, both from public and private organisations across industries
  • Conducted nation-wide surveys in partnership with government institutions and private sectors in Singapore and Indonesia – to understand the state of employee experience in companies within these countries. 

We realised we have applied what is now commonly known as first principle thinking. As much as we can, we tried to incorporate this thinking during the initial stages – especially in designing the product and getting it out to the market. In its essence, first principle thinking is the art of breaking down complex problems into multiple components and finding a solution that addresses these problems from the ground up. 

Although there have been many theories on first principle thinking, we thought we’d share with you the way we implemented it in our case; a B2B SaaS startup based in SEA:

Study industry benchmarks and toss them aside

When starting the company, we knew what we’re up against – and we also knew that we didn’t want to be anything like them. We consumed every piece of research on the space, both within the SaaS community as well as in the ‘work tech’ space, to understand how to best position and grow the company. However, to build a solution in which there was no historical comparison, it was important to know what “good” meant. In the early days, we needed what Prof Daniel Kahneman calls the “Outside View” to guide us. We asked questions such as: 

  • What are the pain points we’re trying to solve for our audience?
  • In what way can we provide a solution to these pain points?
  • What does success look like for our product and company? 
  • What metrics should we be paying attention to? 
  • How should we position our product and our company?

Investing in coffee tuition

Often, we weren’t able to find the ‘right’ answer to the questions we asked ourselves or that we were unsure of the real truth underlying some of the problems. Hence, we spent time buying “coffee tuition” – having coffee with the brightest minds in the space to learn from their practical experience and advice. There were no wasted coffee chats. Even if it seemed like we did not learn something related to our product at that moment, the connection has proven useful at a later stage when other doors opened. This was, and continues to be, the highest ROI in learning we can find.

Hunt effectively, and quickly

Critical findings led us to choose to be “deer hunters” in the mid-market at the start. It also led us to release our MVP in 3 months, way before we were comfortable, in order to gain and iterate on market feedback quickly. This is where we found out and improved on the most crucial aspects of our product. Until today, we carefully monitor our Cost of Customer Acquisition (CAC) against our Customer Lifetime Value (LTV) and track Net Revenue Retention and Logo retention as helpful guide-rails to our expansion.

Continue to experiment

As we applied our learnings we gained a deeper appreciation of the logic behind them. This allowed us to adapt our strategy and experiment beyond the textbook metrics. For example, Jason Lemkin believes in the ratio of 1 Customer Success representative to $2M in ARR, but we have found the role of the CSM in our business to be slightly different, and therefore find a difference in the optimal ratio. It may well converge again in the future, but we are confident in our data and delivery model.

Build a culture of critical thinking from the get-go

We started the process of defining our culture when there were just 2 other employees (and 1 intern) in the company. Contrary to some beliefs, a culture of critical thinking isn’t fostered by enabling constant arguments and endless debates in a meeting. Instead, we focused on creating a culture that allows emotional safety for people to think independently and voice out their opinions without the risk of reprimand. We coalesced on five initial culture values: No bullshit, no assholes, put the customer first, believe in unicorns, and “Together, lah”. This year as we were preparing our large-scale expansion, we ran an exercise with the whole team to ensure everyone is aligned with our culture and arrived at a new set of values: UNICORN (Unafraid, Nurturing, Innovative, Customer First, Ownership, Resolve, No Bullshit)

This article was contributed by Chee Tung Leong, Co-Founder of EngageRocket

About the author

Cheetung Engagerocket

Chee Tung is committed to bringing the same level of analytics, sophistication, and scientific rigour to managing people as is currently applied to managing finance and customers. He is the CEO of EngageRocket, the APAC’s fastest-growing people analytics provider that analyses employee feedback in real-time to advise you on how to manage your team better.

Before becoming an entrepreneur, he was Regional Director of Gallup in Southeast Asia. He read Economics at the University of Cambridge, and has an MA in Political Science from Columbia University under the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship (SAFOS).