How it felt building a startup in Indonesia in 2013

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My parents thought I had gone crazy. Right after university, I got accepted into a grad program by Astra International - literally the biggest local company in Indonesia. It has won all sorts of awards: Best Managed Company, Best CEO, Best HR System, you name it. It’s the company that your future parents-in-law would love to hear when you got introduced to them for the first time. My parents - who always had the same job for 25 years - expected me to stay there forever. 

I had nobody but myself to blame when only after the first year, I was already bored. The first year was interesting - I was fresh, learning how to work and absorbing new knowledge. The second year was pretty much a repetition of the first year. I couldn’t move the needle much - its award-winning system certainly didn’t need a 23 year-old messing around with it. I wanted to quit, but I had no idea what to do instead. 

That’s when I met Taufan. He came to Astra office looking like a fresh grad on his yellow shirt. He was pitching his EO (event organizer) to help us with an event. His portfolio was underwhelming, but we picked him anyway. (Only after I drilled him with tough questions. I thought I was looking scary and impressive, and only later I was told that I had chocolate on my teeth.)

During the event, we got to talking. He saw my passion and energy and he invited me to join his startup company. Yes, at that time, the term startup wasn’t even there. If I censored a few episodes of tears (from my parents) and disappointment (from my parents) and a soul-searching holiday in Bali (just me), I went out on a whim, left a comfortable job to take a leap of faith.

It was 2013. Let me paint you a picture. If you need to buy something, you go to a mall, and buy it there. If you need a taxi, you pick up the phone, and order one. Gojek and Grab would only be founded, and expanded to Indonesia, a year later. Blibli, Bhinneka, and Tokopedia were already there, but they weren’t mainstream. Arguably it was Gojek and Grab who successfully shifted the behavior of millions of Indonesians to turn to their mobile phone when they need something. 

So yeah, in 2013, saying that you’re in a tech startup would be as meaningless as saying that you’re an intergalactic doctor. 

It was one hell of a journey that I was privileged to be a part of, but it started with...

It was nothing sexy...

The office was a 3x3-metre room (a tad bigger than my cubicle at Astra) in a small residential flat. We interviewed candidates in the lobby and we used a virtual address for our correspondence. We spent hours doing manual labor like sticking cards to their boards and cleaning the floor afterwards. 

But it was kinda fun

When I joined, the company’s main product was experience gifts (like Virgin Experience). We just started to shift to gift cards and B2B reward systems, so we spent lots of nights brainstorming on future product development. We worked for 12 hours a day but it really felt like playing. 

Your clients couldn't know that you were a startup

A cofounder or COO title sounds great now, but not back then. Admitting that your company was only four people, or one year old, wouldn’t make a great impression. I would pretend that I was a salesperson, or a designer, or a finance staff, depending on the situation. The key was that they couldn’t know that I had the power to make a decision. 

It’s damn hard to get any talent

A tiny office and an unknown name is a recipe for the least desirable dish on the dining table. I wrote this short article back then about the struggle of getting the best talents - they had bluechip companies like Astra, Unilever, and Chevron on their top of mind. Who would’ve considered joining this dodgy-looking company in a tiny flat? Either people who couldn’t get a job elsewhere, or smart (but slightly gullible) people with big dreams. I like to think of myself as the latter. 

It was easy to get funding

Taufan would probably kill me for saying this, as he’s the one who had to find and deal with investors. But back then, international investors just started to look into Indonesia, and there were only a handful of options. The series A investment we nailed was attributed more to being at the right place at the right time, rather than the actual quality and potential of the business. 

You realized that you’re damn lucky to get in early

It was a green field back then - you could grab any land. The field was empty enough that you’re miles away from your nearest neighbors. It was hard work as you had to be the one paving the road and building infrastructure to even get your farm supply in. But soon enough, the road would become busier and you’d be grateful you’ve ploughed your land and sowed your seeds years earlier. 


I’m writing this as I’m reflecting on my next endeavor. This farmer is getting older and isn’t sure that she has the energy to start a new farm. And she’s squeezing her brain trying to figure out where the green fields are in 2020 - where the path isn’t yet to be carved, and the hike is steep, but the water is clear and the sky is unpolluted. 


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debbie.widjaja@gmail.com
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