By Lyn Chan
SINGAPORE — Benjamin Emmanuel Lee made a bold move two years ago, co-founding Sealed Network Pte. Ltd., an expert network company, when the industry was still in its infancy in South-east Asia.
The gamble has paid off — the business which acts as a matchmaker between investors and industry experts — has confirmed a new US$1 million cash injection from several tech executives, and is also on track to achieve US$1 million in revenue by 2022.
Before 2019, Lee was oblivious to the existence of the expert advisory service. The 29-year-old recalled that he “found it rather incredulous” when a friend told him at a Hong Kong tech conference that her former employer had spent millions on expert networks services. What the former Grab Holdings Inc. and Huobi Group employee did know was that he wanted to start something in the talent recruitment space which could leverage technology.
In a recent interview with Yahoo Finance Singapore, Benjamin explained why he started Sealed Network.
“I saw how the future of work is being transformed by recent advancements in disruptive technologies like AI," Lee said. "As a result, there is a growing interest in diversifying income streams, discussions about remote work, and even ‘job-sharing’ in the workplace.”
After some intense research, Lee and co-founder Wen Ge Leo, previously from Temasek-backed venture capital firm Wavemaker Partners, decided to start the company. Leo is now the head of operations at Sealed Network.
The company is growing fast, with a double-digit growth year-on-year, and also has over 20,000 experts on hand to answer investor queries. Clients pay Sealed Network a percentage of the engagement fee.
A typical engagement session lasts from 30 minutes to one hour. Experts at Sealed Network can earn up to US$1,300 an hour, sometimes more, according to Lee. They come primarily from Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam.
“This is a reflection of their relative importance in the growth of the regional economy,” said Lee, adding that an increasing number of customers ask for fintech, e-commerce or last-mile logistics expert advice in Indonesia and Vietnam.
American and European companies with headquarters or a regional office in Singapore are the heaviest users of the platform, followed by large local and regional companies based in SE Asia, and rounded off by companies based in Europe, China and the US.
For the near term, Sealed Network is focused on expanding coverage of Indonesia and Vietnam. The decision “tracks broader trends in the flows of capital into the region”, Lee said.
He said that Sealed Network is currently on a steady momentum, and hopes to continue its stride. Evolving its proprietary online platform launched earlier this year is on the cards.
“In the near term, we aim to train the platform’s recommendation engine to provide more relevant suggested experts when clients submit requests," Lee said. He estimates that hiring the right tech talent needed is likely "a six-figure investment over the next two years".
Lee, who is single and devotes a fair bit of his time to community work related to entrepreneurship and business, shares some of his entrepreneurial experience.
Why is what Sealed Network offering essential?
It is impossible for everyone to know everything, and researching an unfamiliar industry can take a long time. Investors or strategy consultants use expert networks to speak directly with subject matter experts who can very quickly get them up to speed about an industry of interest. Expert networks greatly accelerate the learning process.
Also, investors need to validate key assumptions in their investment theses. These key assumptions often involve granular-level insights into things like operational challenges, workflow processes or even personal opinions from key decision makers.
What were the challenges in getting started, and how did you overcome them?
Recruiting early team members was tough due to the lack of awareness among job seekers about the expert network industry in this part of the world. We managed to find the right hires from meeting with a lot of people and by getting a pool of credible and strategic investors and advisors to support us.
Similarly, many experts we were onboarding onto the platform were also initially unfamiliar with the expert network industry. By taking the time to patiently educate the market, more experts began to understand our business.
Who or what inspires you?
I look up to Grab in the South-east Asian start-up space. When I worked there, I found that they possessed a culture of excellence and respect. My time at Grab showed me the power of bringing together people driven to make a dent in the universe, all highly competent and respectful. With a culture and a team like that, there is little that cannot be achieved.
Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
I love this particular quote by Reid Hoffman, describing an entrepreneur as “someone who will jump off a cliff and assemble an airplane on the way down”. Don’t expect everything to be perfect from the start, because you will have to keep iterating along the journey and finding solutions as you go. Having this perspective in mind helps to keep you from feeling daunted by the moments of uncertainty that will punctuate your journey as a start-up founder.
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