CEO of Singapore’s multi-million dollar start-up shares best advice for success

After spending 15 years abroad, Singaporean entrepreneur Gillian Tee returned home in 2016 to be closer to her family. It was what she called “the perfect storm.”

Three of her close family members had long-term illnesses, and Tee quickly learned the “pain points” of caring for people who needed special care. “Let’s say you fell and broke your hip; the medical part is quite clear. You have to find specialists; you can go to a public hospital or a private hospital,” Tee said.

“But what happens when you need to come home and transition back to your community and your home? What is the care plan? What is the right thing to even think about, in terms of proofing the home, mobility aids?” That’s when she decided to start Homage, a company that matches patients who need long-term home care with qualified caregivers.

Since 2017, when the company was founded, the startup has raised $45 million, she said, naming notable investors such as Golden Gate Ventures, Healthcare Group—a wholly owned subsidiary of Temasek—as well as early-stage venture firm 500 Startups.

According to Tee, homage is now valued at more than $100 million. But this is not the 40-year-old’s first foray into entrepreneurship. She was a management consultant for Accenture when she chanced upon a book that changed the course of her career. “I started as a software developer and was very drawn to it because I liked building things. But what hit me was this application concept,” she told CNBC Make It.

She talked about the book Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days, which was written by Jessica Livingston, who co-founded the firm Y Combinator, which invests in startups in their early stages.

“How do I use technology to build something people can use and that impacts their lives?” And so began Tee’s entrepreneurial journey, which included spending two years in Silicon Valley, where she co-founded Rocketrip in 2013. It’s a website that gives business travelers an incentive to save money for their employers on trip costs.

Before Mondee Holdings acquired the business in 2020, it raised $32 million, including $15 million from Google Ventures.This serial entrepreneur shares her top tips for running a successful startup.

1. Know your market.
Be it building an app for travel or health care, the business fundamentals always stay the same, said Tee. “You need to know your market well. Know your cost drivers, growth drivers, and demand drivers.”

Homage is currently in three markets: Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia, where there are “unique characteristics” that connect well to the problem that the company is trying to solve, Tee added. “We looked at caregiver shortages, the nature of the aging population, and chronic illnesses, which, interestingly, are not just caused by age but highly correlated with urbanization.”

While users of Homage extend beyond seniors, the opportunity in eldercare technology continues to grow as people live longer. In Asia alone, one in four people will be over 60 years old by 2050, according to the Asian Development Bank. However, Tee said she is “a big fan of going deep and not overspreading” the business.

“Focus is everything. We can clearly see the markets if we expand to more countries. But right now, the focus is on deepening our current markets,” she added.

2. Build a good team.
Business fundamentals are essential, but entrepreneurs should “anchor first on people,” said Tee. This has served Homage well in providing the best care for its clients and for Tee, who had no experience in the healthcare industry.

“It’s important to lean on specialists for clinical governance and compliance. That’s why we have our director of nursing, for example, who has 20 years of experience across different medical settings,” Tee shared.

“A big part of what we do is that we need to synthesize care quality with the product and technology. That’s the team you need to build. I try to do the best I can, but I bring on people who are much better than me.”

3. Focus on the “100 good things.”
Being an entrepreneur can be isolating, said Tee, especially when you are a woman. “You get snide comments, but less so now because there’s a reputation and respect that’s been built up.” But things were not always easy in the beginning. “For example, [a director] once told me, ‘You know, now I know why the newspapers feature you because your eyes are so beautiful.’”

“This is my mantra for everything I go through: I have to be twice as assertive, more data-driven, and super sharp. We [female entrepreneurs] have to do more to prove our point.” Tee has learned to take things in stride and lean on the people who matter.

“There are 100 problems, but there are also 100 good things. You’ve got to tune out the noise and be okay going through that intensity,” she added. “It’s exhilarating in some ways but tiring in many others. Lean on your team and be open, vulnerable, and transparent with them. I think that’s the most important thing.”

4. Innovation drives impact.
What does innovation mean to Tee? It’s about making an impact on users. “The mission of Homage is so near and dear to me. There’s nothing better than building something that people can get a solution out of,” she said.

Since 2017, Homage has provided over 1 million caregiving hours with a team of 15,000 care professionals across its three markets. Over the past two years, its business in Malaysia and Australia has also grown “700% year-on-year,” it added.

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