1. Tell us about yourself
Name and period of internship
o School & major (if any)
o Activities and interests
Hey! I’m Joshua Wong, currently studying in the University of Cambridge and doing my undergraduate in Engineering. I love physical activities, including parkour, badminton, breakdancing and just recently, wakeboarding (ShopBack-inspired). And definitely love food (hence the attraction to tech start-up freebies right?) and meeting friends as well.
I interned at ShopBack from Jan to May 2014 – almost a half-year stint, although we use to joke that it was more like a 10 month internship because of the hours we worked and experience we got from it.
What you were doing before/at the time you joined shop back?
I was serving my National Service as an Officer in my unit’s Manpower Branch. It provided a good comparison and huge contrast to the working environment at ShopBack. It’s no secret that the work in Army was relatively slow, riddled with red tapes and replete with people who weren’t voluntarily there. I think most people are actually alright with hard work and long hours, but the problem comes if the work is mundane and not very meaningful. And if the motivation to do our work is so that we can escape from it (ie fighting to get rewarded with leaves and offs), then it says a lot about the fulfillment you get from whichever organization we are working for.
Why did you choose to intern at shop back?
I knew that I was interested in business and I wanted to head into entrepreneurship.
I wasn’t very academic when I was younger, which drew me to less conventional goals at times, and this helped to block out the noise of what everyone said I should be doing with my time. While my friends were all shooting for law firms, banks and any big names they could get their hands on, I decided that the best way to learn about what I wanted was to work in a start-up itself.
ShopBack stood out for me with its job description about providing autonomy and being entrusted with real work. The final nail in the head came during my interview with Henry after seeing this block of start-ups and how interns here take on huge responsibilities with hard work and long hours. I was thirsting to strive for something meaningful and I don’t think he realized at that point how excited I was when he said that people here worked insane hours. I was attracted by the notion of being able to work in an extremely passionate team, where interns are treated in the same way as full-timers and everyone working crazy hours together in this “start-up culture”. So I decided to join this small (and at that time unheard of) team which had only been around for barely 3 months.
2. Share with us your experience here
What was your impression of ShopBack? Describe the environment when you were here.
I will always see ShopBack as a place that best encapsulates the start-up culture. Everyone had a crazy drive, was very resourceful and at the same time loved to have fun. It was a small team back then, perhaps just about 10 or so people, but every person packed a punch and we were surrounded by very smart people who knew how to scale a company.
Imagine a whole team of individuals who weren’t just functional – they didn’t just brainlessly do the tasks that were handed down, but were very scrappy and given a lot of autonomy to think and drive their roles. I didn’t even fully appreciate the extent of how resourceful the team was until I went on to work in other places and saw how inefficient these processes could have been.
Here’s a tiny example that just occurred to me about their relative efficiency: same situation which happened in 2 different companies I worked at. On the first day that I and a few other interns came in, we realized the wifi router couldn’t handle that many people at once. For the other company, this meant needing to share computers and surface the matter to the management team which required budgeting approvals and took over a month to solve the issue. In contrast, on the afternoon that we came in to ShopBack, Henry asked our CTO for the best router for this and immediately drove out to buy it. In the same afternoon, we were all working with good access. They’re the guys who will break down barriers to ensure things work for you and allow you to be at your best.
At the same time, the office was filled with soft toys, rubber balls and LOTS of snacks. We had McDonalds birthday parties for the founders and movie outings where we all wore our old school uniforms. I felt that not only did the company work harder than any other, but they also played harder than any other.
What tasks/problem(s) were you working on, and how you did you go about doing it?
I was lucky to get a role working directly with Henry. I think we really learn the most from great bosses. The company was still in its early stages so my tasks spanned across a few different roles including hiring / talent acquisition, data analytics and business development.
I came in with an open mind and found it to be absolutely crucial. By carefully dissecting the “standard” way of doing things, we could build processes and solve problems from first principles, allowing things to move much more quickly for us. Instead of jumping straight into writing code or excel in our analytics, we first thought out the logic of what we really needed and built from the ground up.
The mindset of trying things without being afraid to fail kind of rubs off you from the founders, and this helped tremendously. When we were brought to networking or hiring events, we were clueless about how to pitch or convince someone to join us. But Henry pushed us to go out and try anyway. Even if we fail, it isn’t the end of the world. Sure, we may lose one or two possible contacts, and we probably did mess up a little, but we got dozens of times better after each try, and the experience we got of learning how to speak and carry ourselves was something that we took with us for life. I have all these experiences to thank for any scholarships and roles I got after that.
I think the best way to go about our tasks was the way Henry asked us to: by never treating ourselves as if we were interns. It has made all the difference. We worked and thought as if we were full-timers, putting ourselves in their shoes and seeing how we could traverse each problem.
What your most memorable experience / lesson at shopback?
Most memorable experience: I think it’s still the night when the other interns (Jessie, Johnson), Henry and I were in the office till 4am. It started off with solving an analytics problem. Basically we had a number that was out of place in our analysis and wanted to fix it, so Jessie, Johnson and I were trying to solve it till about 2am (more out of fun than anything else). At that point, Henry just finished some appointment and, being the life blood of ShopBack, decided to return to the office to join us at like 230am (insanity has no cure). By then we had fixed the problem and were just going through some emails, when it magically occurred to us that miniclip was a great site to be on. The 4 of us ended up all getting on one of those multi-player games on the site, I think it was called Tiny Tanks or something, and fervently played it battling against each other till past 4am. Great night indeed.
Lesson: I think there were a thousand different lessons at ShopBack – from hard skills like excel and analytics to soft-skills like speaking and pitching – but I think the biggest takeaway has to be the mindset to not be afraid to try things, to keep trying and to never see yourself as anything less than the best people around you. In other words, keep hustling.
What did/will you go on to do after your internship?
I had a few months left before university and in my last few months in ShopBack, I was still very energized and knew I wanted to get to the center of all things tech and entrepreneurship and work in Silicon Valley. So I tried every means I could to get there. I tried getting some of the Stanford interviews in Singapore to link me up with the accelerators there for internships and also just tried cold emails and standard applications on my own. Reasonably, all of this failed and came back empty. Why would any start-up in Silicon Valley be willing to go through all the visa and travel trouble just to hire a kid from Singapore who hadn’t even gone to university yet?
But if I had learned anything from ShopBack, it was to find a way to get it any way.
At that point, this event called Innovfest (a huge event for start-ups and investors from all over the world) was coming up and Henry told me “go to this event, find someone who’s a decision-maker, someone who was a founder or high level enough in the company, and impress him enough in those 2 days that he was willing to hire me on the spot to bring me to work in Silicon Valley”.
Sounded crazy enough. But what did I have to lose? I signed up for it and there was a ton of crazy things I did in the 2 days of that event, including researching and coming up with a “hit list” of everyone I knew had relations to the US who was going for that event. To cut the long story short, I did exactly what Henry advised me to do. I helped someone enough in those two days that he was willing to hire me and pay for my expenses and travel for an internship. And so I spent my next 3 months interning for a venture capital in Silicon Valley. It has been the most eye-opening summer I’ve had yet.
How has your internship influenced your life/outlook?
My outlook on life has definitely changed in a ton of ways. It’s also surprising how much an internship has changed so many of the previous interns here. For one, I never feel like I have free time to waste anymore. It’s left us with this sense of drive to want to reach the fullest potential we can. When we take away the limits of our age and treat ourselves as equally capable of doing things people older than us can do, it opens up so many possibilities on things we could be doing. Every bit of time wasted now feels like a wasted opportunity that we could be working, building our own projects or learning to code.
It has also given me a comparison. I don’t think many of the old interns will still be satisfied if they are now placed in a mundane 9-5 or conventional investment banking / lawyer type role. Working in a great start-up just changes your view of how work, a career and life should be. Everywhere else just starts to seem slower, less energetic and just less fulfilling. We feel less settled and a greater itch to challenge the status quo. I guess that’s the reason why the energy in Silicon Valley builds on each other and constantly churns out amazing things.
What are your personal goals?
My personal goal is to head into entrepreneurship, begin my own tech start-up and make a meaningful impact from there. I side with Elon Musk’s goals of expanding the frontiers of technology.
I recently started a tech company earlier this year, and I’m still waiting to see how things pan out, although there are issues on personal timing. But whatever it is, even if it fails, learn fast and I will keep trying again.
4. Any other thoughts ☺
I think I’ve used us/we and I/me quite interchangeably throughout, because I don’t think these thoughts or lessons are exclusive to me. Most of the interns who come looking in with the right open mindset have learned and changed just as much if not more, and we often talk about these things in agreement every time we meet.
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