What Working At A Startup That Promotes Entrepreneurial Education Has Taught Me In 2020
Updated: Jan 5
/ˈstɑːtʌp/ a newly established business undertaken by an entrepreneur to seek, develop, and validate a scalable economic model.
Entrepreneurship Education, Explained
If anyone had told me at this time last year, that I would be interning at an local edu-tech startup focused on entrepreneurial education (instead of a planned overseas internship in an ASEAN city) — I would have shrugged my shoulders in utter disbelief ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
While I had anticipated life in a startup, I most certainly did not expect to be doing work of such impact and insight at Reactor School.
Another stock image of Reactor School. I think this illustrates their startup culture. Nuff said. Credit: Reactor Media Photo
Reactor School is an edu-tech startup founded by a group of fresh-faced entrepreneurs that champions entrepreneurial education for students and youths. I can’t think of anything more meta than this. Whenever I explained the day-to-day details of my internship to my friends and family, I was often met with raised eyebrows and quizzical looks.
Responding to their questions with a cookie-cutter response ‘a startup that runs entrepreneurship education workshops for students aged 13-24, turning their ideas into projects and projects into startups’ tends to confuse them rather than clarify.
But that is by no fault of theirs, as entrepreneurship or entrepreneurship education per se is still very much in its infancy stages in Singapore, or broadly, in Asia.
With tuition culture burgeoning (as a result of an educational arms race), the demand for such entrepreneurship education will also increase as there has been a noticeable rise in aspiring student entrepreneurs among polytechnic and university students, coupled with the increased institutional support of incubator spaces from schools and corporate partners.
Much like how tuition services provide students with academic support, Reactor’s entrepreneurship programmes are intended to inculcate in students a founder’s mindset, and hone their soft skills — an increasingly essential trait for the 21st Century workforce whether in starting up or adapting to a world that is increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, or VUCA for short.
Jack of All Trades, Master of Hustling
Living the life of a hustler in a startup Credit: Roisin O'Flaherty
Most startups operate lean, in terms of limited manpower and resources so it is no surprise that you will have to do more than what your job scope expects of. In my personal experiences, I had the opportunity to work across 3 different functions — Marketing, Sales & Business Development and now, Alumni Outreach & Incubation.
Whilst working across departments seems like a stretch, it has in fact made me more adaptable, versatile and nimble in carrying out my role.
Productivity in a startup. Credit: Freepik
Experiencing how each department plays out allows me to have a broader understanding of each role and function I carry out. In other words, adopting a cross-departmental approach towards work has nurtured in me a founder’s spirit, as more often than not founders themselves do everything from the A-Z, including front-end to back-end development, and PR to HR matters in their startups.
For example, bringing over what I learnt in marketing (design and copywriting) to alumni outreach & incubation has helped me to better communicate and present each startup’s profile in our outreach campaigns.
Similarly, my experience in sending (read: receiving cold rejections) outreach emails has taught me to be more resourceful in my role in the startup incubation function.
Researching various schools’ faculties and programmes has led me to redefine solutions to address the needs of our target market — what does the school, or the students hope to achieve through our guided bootcamps and programmes? Is it a long-term plan to support students who want to start up and raise funds eventually? Or is it merely a precursor programme to inculcate in students entrepreneurial traits and soft skills?
These pertinent questions highlight blindspots and pitfalls, which prove to be of much use in helping me to develop a better user experience for the student incubator-network programme.
Lived Experiences Through Startup Stories
For the most part of my work, I was involved in telling stories.
From interview features of youth entrepreneurs to op-eds on regional VC and/or startup trends, talking to different startups allowed me to understand their perspectives and bring their stories out to the broader mainstream audience.
Long working hours aside, founders face a great deal of anxieties when making day-to-day decisions, attracting the right people for the team, staying motivated and getting the necessary funding to support their ventures whilst juggling personal commitments. Beyond the stereotypical caricature of startup entrepreneurs, we don’t often talk about the more human aspect of their stories and that I feel, is something that needs to change. Reality is that while not all startups are going to be the next big tech players like FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google), the impact they strive to create is equally important nevertheless.
Through transcribing their personal anecdotes into words, I profiled the under-documented aspects of their startup life that are often shied away from the media spotlight. In some ways, I was given the opportunity to experience their startup life through their stories.
From left to right (Felix, Isaiah, Vu)
The genesis of each startup experience is uniquely different as each founder comes from diverse viewpoints. Vu’s entrepreneurial journey started way back when he picked up programming in his teenage years. Thereafter, his participation in the Business Leaders Programme in JC eventually led him to spend a year in the Bay Area as a software engineer under the NUS Overseas College programme.
An interesting concept I learnt from Vu from his experience volunteering in education startup Developh Vietnam (a non-profit coding school), was Knowledge Robinhood — a coined term of describing the act of taking knowledge from the wise and distributing it to the uninitiated.
For Felix (Reactor’s trainer and Founder of Skilio), it was his personal woes on the current educational system’s obsession with grades that spurred him to create an alternative measurement of a student's potential and capabilities, by capturing their soft skills development with AI.
In another interview piece which I did here with my marketing manager, Elaine’s founding experience stemmed from a place of personal experience — with her astute observation of the ‘shocking lack of prioritisation of employee safety during pre-circuit breaker, in a few companies where her friends & family were hired.’ This subsequently fuelled her mission to create a bespoke mental wellness service for youths.
In the same vein, the inception of Vessels’ TableTalk was born out of Isaiah’s determined mission to help youths like himself confront issues of identity, personal struggles alongside a theme of coming-of-age.
Only through my spoken interaction with these founders was I able to connect with the realities of impact-driven entrepreneurship.
For someone new to entrepreneurship, a good way to start is to obsess over an identified problem or pain point. As with most founders, they identify a present shortcoming that nudged them to creating a best-fit solution MVP (Minimum Viable Product).
As a matter of fact, most solutions don’t always need to be complex. They just need to address a pain point and solve the user’s problem.
Take the example of TableTalk, using card games to inspire heart-felt and honest conversations about struggles faced by youths. Or similarly, CaffeeBox’s curation and assembly of coffee kits for coffee aficionados.
Youth entrepreneurship has been on the rise, a good indication that there are more students who are putting themselves out there to drive change, inspire the community and advocate for sustainable-impact initiatives.
By starting small, Reactor’s youth startups have strived to serve their respective communities — from a common love for caffeine products or an eco-driven motivation to purchase sustainable apparel.
Reapra Build 80 Programme. Spot the CEO of Reactor in this photo (No prize for guessing)
Credit: Vulcan Post
With sustainability being one of the key pillars for many hackathons, venture building and incubator programmes, it is no surprise that Reactor’s lead investor, Reapra — also currently runs the Build 80 programme to support at least 80 aspiring entrepreneurs in their venture building journeys. Serious things aside, I heard the Reapra team are a fun-loving bunch, write in to the Build 80 team to find out more or meet for a coffee session if you’re up for the challenge.
As Felix once shared with me, ‘connecting with mentors and like-minded entrepreneurs is equally important as no man is an island’. The work of an entrepreneur stems from a place of collectivism and community building so it is important to reach out for help and support.
If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur in search for such a network, the folks at Reactor currently offer the Reactor Alumni Network (RAN), an alumni-network and incubation programme geared towards early-stage founders to make the right moves in elevating their startups to the next growth milestone.
Let me assure you that this programme is not for the faint of heart. You will undergo an accelerated startup preparation, intensive brainstorming with your team as well as consulting sessions with our incubation managers over the course of 6-12 months. But you can be sure to see you and your team develop both entrepreneurially and professionally.
Be Open to Sharing Your Ideas — The Good, Bad and Quirky Ones.
Given the small headcount of a startup, everyone in the team is hired for a differentiated skill set and every individual’s idea is valued.
The co-founders hire based on skills, personality, work ethics and perhaps even good taste in memes. So if you have an idea to improve an existing practice, there’s really no fault in speaking up. I was fortunate enough to be in a supportive environment that entertains the most kooky of ideas.
From creating the content brand guide to experimenting with Canva and Adobe Illustrator, I’ve created numerous (rejected) design vectors for podcasts, social media posts or content illustration.
While even pitching ‘wholesome’ marketing campaigns on TikTok to attract the Gen Z students to Reactor Alumni Network may seem cringeworthy, some of these initiatives have helped me develop a better grasp of the target market by conducting research surveys.
Being A Self-Directed Reader and Learner
Since joining Reactor, I’ve spent most of my free time browsing various entrepreneurship news platforms, namely Tech in Asia, KrASIA, e27 and Vulcan Entrepreneur Archives. Reading widely helps me to understand and keep abreast of the latest developments in the tech and VC scene, both locally and regionally in the ASEAN region.
In another occasion, I also binged Youtube tutorials on using Figma, a very powerful UX design tool for ideation-stage startups to create a visual prototype. Here are some additional resources that I find to be especially useful in my startup journey, click here, here and also here.
Take the Initiative To Test Out New Experiments
Procedures are very much new and the SOPs found in a well established company don't exist yet.
If you think of something that isn’t being done but could potentially improve the operations, I would say do it.
Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough. If it works, it works. Even if it doesn’t, think of it as an opportunity to learn and grow. There’s no greater place to elevate your career growth than in a startup.
The New Normal Of Uncertainty
The work in a startup is extremely fulfilling. That’s because every other week or day, you will be exploring or working on something different, exciting and uncertain.
Growing Alongside The Founders and Team
In a time when the economic impact was felt across all sectors, things couldn’t have felt more uncertain than ever. Yet, it also taught me to take a more innovative and creative approach in doing things.
Working with a tight marketing budget. Investing time in projects that bring about returns for lead generation. Working with teammates across the virtual platforms was understandably tough and exhausting with the persistent use of virtual Google meetings (result: WFH burnout and video-call fatigue). Hearing that some of my colleagues suffered from burnout episodes made me more mindful of setting clear expectations of work-life-play balance in a virtual environment, with myself as well as with them.
These are some of the constraints I’ve learnt to adapt accordingly insofar the first Reactor value of being relentlessly resourceful in looking for opportunities — has never been more apt and necessary.
With all things considered, learning to be comfortable with the abyss of uncertainty in the coming COVID-19-ridden years — could be the most valuable takeaway for me.
2021 will bring about new opportunities for booming self-discovery, as much as 2020 has brought time for quiet reflection.
Happy New Year and let’s cultivate the galaxy’s best young founders, now. Start off the new year right by signing up for Reactor’s EntreCamp 2021 here.
Sherman was a former Marketing Intern at Reactor School.