All posts in 2024
  • So You Want To Be A Startup Founder

    I was asked to speak at a local university's Young Entrepreneur Network event. Sometimes, I say yes to these things.

    For anyone interested, here are the slides.

    I wanted to share, mostly, my personal journey — how I got here. I also wanted to share some strategies for thinking about creating a startup if you're starting from the absolute beginning, like I was.

    Click through to see the notes, which contain slightly more info than what's on the deck.

    Happy to receive any feedback or answer any questions. Email address on the last slide.

  • Signals and Noise

    I've been on the internet for a very long time, but my online self really only found its home when I got this domain in 2003. 14 years: enough to see blogs decline into the mushy wasteland that is Medium articles, video in every website we now load, and a million apps to help me connect with everything that we love. I've led a hectic online life outside of this blog, but at the end I keep wanting to come back to see what I can do with it.

    Lately, I've had circumstances that forced some introspection, such as the following:

    Everything worth doing, to me, are still the difficult ones. Sometimes it's hard to hear through the noise.

  • Munduk


    Two people, suspended between heartbreak and fury, met on Hong Kong Street after almost 2 years without each other.

    Their hearts, recently broken by others, found each other agreeable — even safe.

    They made a plan. The universe attempted to foil it. To no avail.

    Through long public holidays, expensive flights, an expiring passport and the logistics of homes, broken and renewed, no unfortunate event stood in the way.

    I stood behind the multitudes to wait for you: the many sweaty, smelly men waving flags awaiting their Chinese tourists. Me, in my shorts with holes, a top that's much too big and my hair that's floppy and flat after an hour on a motorbike to come to see you.

    Even on arrival, the universe was determined to place one last obstacle before us: the long amble, actually scramble, along the railing, past the sweaty tour guides, into some tourists, around the ATMs, and then you, there in the flesh.

    As with the start of new things, my pulse sped up mostly in not knowing how close I could be. It had just been a few days since I had been with you, and here I was furiously making plans to cancel all of my plans.

    There's a curse on this island for couples who come here together, they say.

    What they didn't say: come as a not-couple, leave as a couple, uncursed?

    I hoped.

    In the most improbable places, we found fireplaces and each other.

    Before long, you would say, coming to Munduk to see me was one of the biggest gambles you had ever taken. Next to Bosnia.

    In the first week we travelled many towns, lakes, forests and hills; sat in many cars and planes together, discovered how a plane aisle was much too jauh, so soon.

    The odds were long, but our odds are good. And I don't even like Bali, not one bit. I love us in it.

  • Do What You Don't Know

    Like so many people who grew up with the Internet, there have been many incarnations of my online self. To some, I will forever be the queer blogger who started writing about the lesbian experience as a teenager in Singapore in the early 2000s. Some find that courageous; I found it much more difficult to change pronouns than to pretend to be someone I was not. To others, I am a travel blogger who enjoys hiking across Asia on trains, bikes and boats. That is made possible by a blend of courage and stupidity, and it has served me well.

    Read the rest of this post here.

  • Shaken Not Stirred

    When you work at Wobe, you’re bound to have conversations like these at some point:

    “Can you check on this transaction for me in dumplings?”

    “Let’s make some changes to kaya.

    “This PR removes the confirmation code from diplomatico request”

    This is a feature, not a bug.

    We’re a company founded by foodies, but our engineering team is the foodiest of all.

    Deep within our repos you can find things like:

    Coconut makes the world, and our infra, go round. Coconut makes the world, and our infra, go round.Dark, golden and distilled beauty. Just like our microservices. Dark, golden and distilled beauty. Just like our microservices.

    Since we’re a multi-cultural team, with 2 engineers from Venezuela, we were also happy to christen one of our most important packages after Venezuela’s most famous product, Diplomatico.

    One of our internal web apps we call, lovingly, Dumplings. That’s because all of us love dumplings of all kinds. Chinese dumplings, momos, gyozas, manti, mantou, har gow, ravioli, tortellini, xiao long bao, samosa, wantons. If you don’t love dumplings, you can’t work for us. (JK!!)

    As our infrastructure and services expand, we’re going to need many more food and drink names for them.

    We crowdsourced some ideas within the team:

    • sushi
    • rendang
    • cokelat
    • pempek palembang
    • siomay
    • jeruk panas
    • gulai kambing
    • dendeng balado
    • martabak manis
    • dosa (the South Indian breakfast, I like this especially also because it means ‘sin’ in Indonesian, which it is.. with all the ghee)
    • cumi
    • negroni
    • ramos gin fizz
    • arepa
    • pav

    My personal vote, however, would go to Ramos gin fizz. With just a few simple ingredients, vigorous shaking either renders a masterpiece — or a flop. Like bad code, and bad engineering practices, a bad Ramos gin fizz doesn’t even resemble the real thing.

  • Randomization

    As the cofounder and CEO of a tech startup working to improve financial inclusion in one of the world’s largest countries that is also one of the largest cash economies, I have amassed a wealth of odd knowledge on how cash works. How it works, specifically, at the intersection of people and connectivity. It always excites me so that there is a world of difference in how different places have different assumptions about payments.

    My first world assumptions already went out of the window when I spent a year in Myanmar before SIM cards went down in price from $2000 to $1. There, bags of cash were king. Bags of cash under a desk, even better.

    Here in Indonesia, we faced the same challenges as most other companies: how do we accept payment from the average person? For our customers to start selling pulsa (airtime), internet packages and other products with Wobe app, we need them to first pay us for their prepaid account. (Here, you can also buy a cigarette by the stick when you want to smoke it, instead of buying an entire pack. The same is true of phones.)

    Happily, this is why we do what we do. Before you can improve on something, you first need to know it well.

    Not reinventing the wheel

    It helps to examine the prevalent norm.

    In Indonesia, you commonly see what can be described as “hacks for the cash economy”. These are necessary ‘hacks’ through a set of circumstances entirely unique to Indonesia; with more than 17 000 islands and a sparse population outside of Java, cash is still king here, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Distribution and reach (of ATMs, banks, etc) is only one part of it.

    Other than cash-on-delivery, it is quite common to pay for things online in any of the following ways:

    • Asking a friend with a bank account to transfer the payment for you
    • Standing in line at a bank, where you do not have an account, to make a manual transfer
    • Going to a convenience store to tell them you want to pay for say, a flight ticket; waiting 40 min for their payment system to boot up, then finally making a cash payment

    As you can see, large companies have armies of people just staring at internet banking screens to verify each and other transaction in real time.

    What has emerged as the de facto way of taking manual cash payments is so unique and elegant, and so characteristically Indonesian: randomized unique codes that almost function as convenience fees, cheaper than credit or debit card percentages.

    In many ways, Tokopedia has been at the forefront of Indonesian ecommerce. As one of the pioneers of the 3 digit unique code method, we were impressed at how simple yet effective it was — for both the consumer and the company.

    Assuming I want to buy a USB-powered electric fan, or kipas, which costs IDR 52 050 (USD 3.91).

    If I were to select the cash / manual bank transfer method, I would see this screen:

    My total, with the unique code (+032) added to the final bill. My total, with the unique code (+032) added to the final bill.

    All Tokopedia would have to do would be to verify that they had indeed received a transfer of IDR 52 082 on that day.

    It would not matter from whom, the payment came from, or whether it was successful or pending (manual payments can be seen as pending after a certain time in the afternoon, depending on the bank and only available the next business day—which makes Fridays and weekends particularly difficult). The existence of that exact amount would suffice.

    How that inspired us

    It would be easy to wish that every market was exactly the same as where you are familiar: but that mentality would not take you far. Anywhere, but specifically in Indonesia.

    As a company that has betted its entire future on the 4th most populous country, it has always been in our DNA to operate within the frame of what works here, and to never once claim to know it better.

    We believe that the future will be a mix of unique ‘hacks’ like these, along with a substantial push towards the digitization of payments (more on that in a bit).

    I’m proud to announce that the next feature we will have in the Wobe app, will be our very own version of the randomized unique code. We are currently testing it but it appears to be a huge improvement to our top-up mechanism. All of our product and business decisions are driven by the simple question: how does this improve the lives of the people we claim to work for? In this case, we will be able to easily take payments from individuals who may live as far as one to five hours away from a bank, an ATM or a convenience store.

    What is the way forward?

    How does one reconcile the two Indonesias, then: with one foot so violently in the future, with its obsessive love of mobile phones and social networks, and the other so virulently enamoured by the ease of cash?

    Short of pushing the country towards bank accounts and debit and credit cards, what looks likely is this: there will be a peaceful coexistence of cash and digital payments. In some ways, Indonesia will lead the way in Next Billion tech, ecommerce and payments. If India’s PayTM and China’s Alipay are any indicators of how a hinterland with a large population and a unique set of infrastructural and geographical challenges are anything to go by, I believe that in 3 years Indonesia will find its own beat. Which is why we do what we do at Wobe: we believe that if we build a product that helps the average person participate in the digital economy, we will be able to find innovative ways to make a difference.

    What we do best is to empower women to be the missing link between their communities and the world of online opportunity. Be it in small features, like randomized topups, or in the big ones—like creating financial independence sessions for the women we work with—we are driven by our mission to do well and to do good.

    Perhaps one day there will be a new school of thought on product design and enterprise: how to create and design with empathy, as if our lives depended on it.

    Our next build will feature the randomized topup feature.

  • The Last Mile

    How to create products for emerging markets

    Nearly everyone wants to cash in on emerging markets. Facebook wants to fly drones to deliver internet connectivity over rural areas. They may or may not collide, in scale, ambition and delivery, with Google’s balloons (link). Whoever you are, emerging markets are hard.

    Every time you see a Singaporean or Malaysian startup raising a fund, you see them want to expand to Indonesia, like it was a mere thought_._ How do you make apps, websites or any kind of media for a market so different from anywhere else in the world?

    In our case, coming to Indonesia to create a product aimed at the last mile in a country of 17, 508 islands has been some of the most challenging work we have ever done.

    As a cofounder and first product owner, here is what we did.

    1. Listen. It is not possible to parachute into a place so fundamentally different, so unique, with a suitcase full of tips and tricks that have worked elsewhere. We listened extensively. Who you listen to can be just as important as how you listen. We went right to the source: we literally had listening parties where our target customers, who are Indonesian housewives and students, had fried food and sweetened tea with us as we studiously thought about how our product could work for them. Before writing a single line of code.
    2. Iterate. Anyone who has put an app or a website together knows that constant iteration, improvement, is key. From our paper prototypes to our app version 3.7.5, our iterations have come a long way. There comes a point where iteration has to be backed up by metrics, though when you are just starting out, flexibility and rapid adaptability is more important.
    3. Speak their language. Literally and figuratively. We found, for example, that in some locations it is not wise to send out young men into conservative neighbourhoods. From the early days of visiting homes and communities as a merry band of random people with clip boards (and fried bananas), we now have community leaders who are respected and respectful. It is sometimes still funny to trot out my Singaporeanized Indonesian as a joke, but when work has to be done we always get so much more accomplished by reducing cultural, linguistic and other kinds of friction.
    4. Consider all assumptions. Thinking on the intersection of product and business is hard enough. Thinking about it without assumptions can be very difficult. Somehow, it seems even harder for some to do this without being condescending. If your starting point in building a product is, “Indonesians like X”, you are on the wrong track.
    5. Conduct ethnographic research. This may be extreme, but I consider it very important to live in the same environment as the people who are likely to use Wobe. Paying for my (prepaid) electricity just like everyone else in my kos-kosan, standing in line to pay for my online purchases including air tickets with cash, all of those things were essential for our product. Very soon we will be able to pay for all that with Wobe. Extreme ethnographic research helped us begin our journey from idea to product, from the same starting point as our customers: in cash, in line, in wait.
    6. Consider your stack and architecture. Where we are it is still PHP-land. Services are massive, not micro. Hosting is local, rarely in the cloud. Bandwidth can be narrow and coverage can be spotty. We knew we had to avoid building a traditionally synchronous app to have any chance of Wobe working well outside of the cities. More than ideology, our micro-services architecture is supplemented by the concurrency of Go, the ease of native mobile development with React Native, and a team-wide obsession with improving performance and cost savings for our customers (every byte counts..).

    There was scarce literature for us when we started out on this journey, so we hope in the months to come we can share what worked for us. If you’ve built something for an emerging market, what worked for you!

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