A man on a mission. Sim Jian Min is the Founder of SourceSage, President of the Kairos Society (ASEAN) and your average all-Singaporean boy next door. We talk about his journey from the ‘hood to the halls of Oxford and how he once convinced a certain Carlos Slim to give him €20,000 to build a startup.
We have arranged to meet at the Toastbox, an all-day breakfast coffeehouse that serves a Singapore-style all day breakfast along with strong cups of coffee or fragrant black tea.
I find myself slightly late and walking in, it takes me a few minutes before spotting the man I am to meet seated in a corner of the al fresco area, a glass of iced tea already condensing in the afternoon shade. He rises from his seat as I walk over, a big grin plastered on his face while shaking my hand warmly. We make our way to the counter and coffee is ordered, along with the obligatory toast that the franchise is named after but before I can stop him, Jian has paid the cashier.
We chit chat about life back in Singapore for a bit, trading stories about living overseas. I find out that he has been all over – Oxford for three years and then on to Princeton – with stints at the University of Chicago, Universität Stuttgart, Universität Frankfurt am main and finally Beijing’s Tsinghua University, his last stop before home, but a real cultural eye-opener;
“I’ve been around, but can safely say that the intensity that the mainland Chinese study at is really a whole new level, students elsewhere don’t even come close.”
For someone educated at both Oxbridge and the Ivies he is remarkably down-to-earth, no clipped accent or American twang, just regular Singlish – a trait that he attributes to the more normal portions of his life. Jian surprisingly, is not a product of the Lion city’s elite schools, having been up until before Oxford just one of the thousands of students in Singapore’s state-funded educational institutes.
What changed? According to him, it was a simple matter of applying himself to the task at hand while in Junior College. A gear switched and after two years of frenetic studying with no time for CCAs or anything else other than his books, he was at Oxford amassing the first of twelve academic awards in his three years at St Edmund’s Hall.
In a time when the disparity between the haves and the have nots has increased exponentially – he is a shining example of how the lack of an elite background does not preclude one from academic success. It comes down to another ingredient – how you handle adversity.
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Things were not always so smooth sailing for Jian. He relates that during his time as President of the Engineers Without Borders Oxford, he tried to use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test as the sole factor by which to organise his committee by personality – a data driven project that he realised was a scam but which taught him an important lesson on management;
“Managing people [is] hard. But what made things even trickier were juggling the various agenda’s that they each had”
Wiser now that he does not use models to manage people, he believes that challenges and setbacks are all part and parcel of the entrepreneurial journey, with the focus now on a problem that has been a thorn in his side for years – the lack of transparency in the global commodities markets.
For the vast majority of us, commodities are portion of the financial pages that covers the price of gold and silver. But the reality is that commodities affect every single aspect of our lives – from the nutty coffee that I’m sipping to the timber used to build the chairs that we are seated on. The world as we know it is priced by the people who trade it and the startup that aims to stir things up is SourceSage.
Inspired by his father who runs a mid-sized trading house that focuses on the chemicals trade – he comes possessed with an insiders knowledge of the industry having worked on deals for a number of years now. The biblical nature of this is not lost on me as I remark that he appears to be the prodigal son returning with his knowledge and experience to disrupt the industry.
He smiles wryly at this but declares that his primary motivation is not disruption, but to help make the industry and her practices more transparent. Leveraging on crowdsourced data and fed into a proprietary algorithm that churns out the price information – it empowers the small and mid-sized traders with credible guide to the prices that the market is paying and thus ameliorates the advantage that bigger players have – resulting in more competition and freer markets.
Jian explains why price information is such a critical factor by highlighting the example of the huge trading firms in the market –
They are so efficient because they control the entire supply chain, from the manufacture of the goods and all the way downstream – this allows their traders unique price information, because an incident or fluctuation upstream, can have ramifications downstream and they know it before anyone else.
With $200,000 in funding and in the midst of ramping up hiring of data scientists and developers, Jian is confident that his proposition is something that the market needs.
As we each pick up a piece to munch on. I ask if SourceSage was built with a utilitarian purpose in mind.
He looks pensive while contemplating the question. But insists that while what he had in mind was simply a platform that would help physical traders make better decisions but if the effect that it would have was to change the world – then it would not be the first time that he had tried it.
Back in 2011, while at Stuttgart on a research attachment, he chanced upon a competition posted on website, inviting applicants to submit innovative ideas to the Digital Innovators’ Competition organized by the International Telecoms Union (ITU). Unexpectedly, his idea came in amongst the top few from an online poll, and was awarded a fellowship to fly to Geneva, Switzerland to compete with other finalists across the world. At this stage though, it was still an idea in an email but a superhuman effort saw him bang out a full presentation and with just that and sheer force of personality, managed to convince the judges – including Carlos Slim – to part with €20,000 and the mandate to build a crowdsourcing platform called Gloobe.
I knew that they would be tired after seeing so many presentations, so I took a stack of papers and threw it on the ground to catch their attention before whipping out my prototype made of cardboard.
Many of us (including yours truly) have painstakingly worked on decks, on prototypes, on stump speeches and scripted jokes but yet still fail to evince more than a surly nod. Although Jian makes it look so easy, we of course know, that it hardly is like that at all.
Gloobe ultimately did not take off, according to Jian – the red tape that surrounds governments was something that no one could fathom, let alone disrupt.
Piercing the layers of bureaucracy was a bridge too far, one which no amount of paper throwing would work with (especially since they’re the masters of that anyway). Gloobe, Jian says, taught him the two most important lessons of an entrepreneur;
“Changing the status quo and breaking people out of their comfort zones will always be your biggest challenges”
But he takes failure in his stride because there just is no time to mope. Along with SourceSage and helping out at his father’s company he is also the founder and President of the ASEAN chapter of the Kairos Society. Started in Wharton by a group of young men and women who wanted to leverage the skills and drive of other similarly entrepreneurial spirits – they are now in over one hundred universities across the world.
His purpose of bringing the movement back here was twofold – to galvanise the local and regional entrepreneurs to leverage each others resources and second, to build a network of like minded and driven individuals who each were carving out their own niche.
I glance at my watch and realise that we have been talking for more than an hour. A cleaner appears at the table and the iced-tea and empty coffee cups are cleared away, one uneaten square of toast left behind. It is an Asian thing, where taking the last piece of anything was seen to be rude. A cultural idiosyncrasy that belies explanation.
What is the most important quality that has sustained him through this journey I ask;
“Resilience, resilience and perseverance, you just cannot have enough of either – there will be times when you face setbacks, dead ends or just outright failure and the only thing that will keep you going is that ability to bounce back.”
The heat has finally got to us and as we say our goodbyes, he strides off into the midday sun and is soon enveloped by the glare.
Written by Kyle Leslie Sim
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