SEAF Spotlight – 7 questions with Zenos Schmickrath

Zenos Schmickrath was the former co-founder & CXO of Hmlet – a Singapore-based co-living startup that provides high-quality, affordable, custom-designed homes in Singapore, Hongkong, and Japan. After exiting Hmlet, he’s been working on multiple businesses and giving back to the community by helping to grow the network of tech founders in Southeast Asia.

1. If you had one thing to tell yourself about your business, what would it be?

I’m currently working on several businesses, and I actually wrote a small article about one of them here “10 lessons from building a niche, profitable Shopify app in 12 months.”

One thing I want to emphasize is that you don’t need to go big all the time. Find a niche and start small instead of always forcing it into something big. I can say there are a lot of founders who want to go for big money like VC funding. But sometimes, those companies just aren’t meant to be billion-dollar businesses. It’s more important to define what kind of company you want to build, how big it should be, the market size, etc., and work around that idea. You can build a 10 million dollar business instead. I’m currently excited to build companies in this range for now.

2. How to determine the size of a company you want to build?

First, build expertise in one vertical, then set some seriously audacious goals to achieve them. If you are an expert in an area, you can build and grow something remarkable in that space.

I think it’s very rare to find an entrepreneur who develops a great product and turns it into a billion-dollar business without industry-specific knowledge—that’s a one in a hundred million chance. But if you have a lot of expertise in a certain space, your odds are better; then you can get one in a million chance or even one in a hundred thousand chance. In this case, even if you don’t succeed in building a billion-dollar business, it’s likely that you will succeed as a sustainable company. 

Another thing is to start small. Building a small business without receiving big funding at first is incredibly helpful to understand the needs of your future customers before investing in growth.

3. What does “success” mean to you?

It means building great solutions for our customers. In my latest business of building a Shopify app, our goals are to level the playing field for smaller eyewear brands and enable them to compete with other leading optical companies. Seeing the impact we made on the micro brands has been the most delightful thing. So creating something that our customers love and helping them build an impactful business feel like a success to me. We’re currently working towards delivering personalized products on a case-by-case basis for our customers.

Success also means feeling happy with what you are doing. And to be happy, you don’t have to get big funding checks or have your company valued at a hundred million dollars. I know many people who do not make that much money, and arguably, they are way happier than most of the founders that I have met. Being a high-growth tech startup founder is a fanciful dream to many, but it is also very tough and painful. You don’t need to put yourself through that if it only makes you feel drained and exhausted. As long as you are happy and passionate about what you are doing, you are already successful.

4. What is the flip side of being an entrepreneur and how do you navigate it?

Work-life balance. I think for founders, especially high-growth tech founders who choose to raise VC money, there is no work-life balance. Don’t even think you can. Your entire life is consumed by your startup until you either succeed or fail as a company. I don’t know if other founders who are on the high growth trajectory would think otherwise, but those things like taking a long vacation, letting the company run itself, or having an easy nine-to-five schedule don’t fit in with an entrepreneur’s life.

Being an entrepreneur is a lonely journey, you have to deal with an amount of pressure, and you have to know the trade-off. You will answer emails until 2 am, then wake up at 6 am to go straight into your first meeting. That will be your life for five years or even more. Being an entrepreneur is both stressful and exciting. You can’t do it halfway, and it’s not an easy journey in many ways.

One thing that I have found incredibly useful being a founder is to join a group of like-minded founders, like SEA Founders. When I was building my biggest startup, I thought of joining a network like SEA Founders, but I felt so busy, and I kept putting it off. I wish I had joined SEA Founders earlier because it would have helped me gain a lot of insight in building connections, helping my company and even myself grow faster. So far from what I have experienced, SEA Founders is the best in Southeast Asia for helping founders scale.

5. What is the one lesson that you learned the hard way as a founder?

One of my biggest flaws is not delegating soon enough. I often see two types of founders, one being visionary and the other focusing on execution. I lean more towards the doing side because I always want to jump in and get my hands dirty instead of getting anyone else to do it. Because I often fret that no one else will be able to get it done up to my standards.

When I was running my last company, which grew into 180 employees, I had a hard time becoming a great manager. Learning how to run a large organization was something I wasn’t quite prepared for. When I started to get overwhelmed, I had to learn how to let go of things and let others take care of the tasks. I also hired a coach who understood my journey well and could give me recommendations to handle the pressure.

6. What is a company-building feat that you deem the hardest when you start building a company?

Getting people on board with your idea at the early stages is probably the most difficult thing. Typically when you have an idea that other people don’t share the conviction of. Or, even if they do, they might not get behind your idea very easily. It takes quite a force of will to convince your partner that you are doing the right thing in the right industry and that it is going to be successful. 

Another thing is conquering your own fear. Pitching your company to people can be incredibly scary. Many founders are not able to get over that fear to consult other people because some might give you their time, but some will say no. So learning to be rejected is one thing you must be prepared for. If you ask a hundred thousand people to give you a dollar, a lot of them will give you a dollar. Even if 90,000 people say no, you can still get 10,000 dollars. The lesson here is just doing it and trying to deal with rejection even though it’s incredibly hard.

Later on, when you start to scale, hiring the right people is another challenge. One wrong hire— the COO, for example—can destroy the company. Learning the skill of hiring the right people, convincing people of your vision are extremely difficult tasks. You can’t handle everything on your own, so you need great people to build a company with you.

7. What is a critical thing to keep in mind when facing a crisis?

I think it’s about seeing the silver lining in things and finding opportunities in every situation. If you can figure out where the world is going, what people need at that time, and if you can fill the gap, you could be hugely successful. A crisis is one of those rare times when you can significantly accelerate your growth. 

Think about the challenges imposed by Covid-19. You can try to picture what changes are going to happen with this worldwide phenomenon, how these global trends are affecting the industry, and where you could potentially succeed. Take Grab for an example. They first started as a taxi-hailing service provider, then pivoted heavily into food delivery and succeeded in serving their customers, especially during the pandemic. It was because they had the resources, and they were able to act quickly on that.

Every founder should go through a crisis in a macro environment. There are an incredible amount of opportunities in every crisis as long as you can see it through and act on it with the current resources.