BEING A STUDENT FOUNDER: AN INTERVIEW WITH SKILIO’S HO ZHI HUI

University is a hectic time for most students – it’s easy to get bogged down by assignments and caught up in extracurricular activities. Yet, more and more students are putting the skills they’ve learnt in the classroom and beyond to good use by venturing out and starting businesses centered around their personal interests. With the ubiquity of online resources and a supportive local startup ecosystem, pursuing entrepreneurship is not just a more popular choice, but a prudent way to learn practical skills as well.

Today, I had the opportunity to catch up with Ho Zhi Hui, the co-founder of local start-up Skilio and NOC Israel alumni! I came across Skilio since they were based at The Hangar, an incubator by NUS Enterprise, and I often heard great things about the team. Skilio is a soft skills measurement and analytics platform that aims to help organisations keep track of their teams’ soft skill development, with emphasis on traits like leadership, teamwork, communication and (something that’s increasingly important now) adaptability. 

In light of several internship offers being rescinded during this COVID-19 pandemic, Skilio has also initiated the Skilio Industry Immersion Programme, which leverages local start-ups to provide internship opportunities for students keen to pick up practical and soft skills. Isn’t that great? 

Skilio empowers users to track their soft skill development using guided self-reflections and peer feedback features to generate personalised Skilio portfolios.

The following is a chat between Zhi Hui and I about her experiences as a student entrepreneur, as well as her personal outlook on starting something of your own. 

Amelia (A): Thanks for taking time to share today! Have you always been interested in entrepreneurship, or was this a natural course that your life took?

Zhi Hui (ZH): It took the natural course of things, since I met my co-founder Felix at Arts Camp. We were both interested in holistic education and back then, I was working at a training company. A training company basically provides skill courses and training. I realised that I liked working in that space and Felix was working for a training company too, and I found that we were quite like-minded. After all this, Felix spoke with me and invited me to join the team, since he started working on Skilio earlier and wanted me to work on the psychology part of things. 

I was always interested in exploring entrepreneurship because it was a means to get me closer to what I wanted to do in the skills-based industry, but it wasn’t something I set out to achieve from the start.

A: Since you’re a full-time student and founder, can you share some of the challenges you’ve faced as a co-founder and student?

ZH: I think I’ve always tried to leverage on being a student and an entrepreneur, which is something that you don’t get the opportunity to do as a working adult. Having Skilio gives me a lot of meaning in the things I learn. For example, psychology modules on industrial management can be applied back to the things we build at Skilio. Actually, this was one of the reasons I decided to take up NOC. Being both a student and founder gives me the chance to find value in the things I do, and this is better than just a one-way absorption of the things I learn. It’s a really big advantage to be able to use what I learn right away. 

I also learned a lot about time management, but things have been okay to manage so far and university gives you a lot of flexibility in terms of time. To me, it’s never too early to start – when you start later, it’s a bit harder. When you start younger, you have less experience but more opportunities to reach out to people. Especially being in NUS gives a lot of opportunities to student founders. Dody, our CTO, is also from SUTD and we’re hosted in the co-working space there as well. At the end of the day, this is like another commitment that takes up a lot of my time and has allowed me to narrow down the things she should prioritise.

A: Is Skilio your first business?

ZH: Yes! It’s quite easy to start something nowadays, and I was lucky to realise that the opportunities are there at quite a young age. All of Skilio’s founders are first time founders so we’re eligible for a lot of grants. 

As a first time founder, there is a lot of novelty but uncertainty. There’s nothing much to lose and we’re in a constant state of experimentation. We get to talk to people along the way and learn from them as well, let it be corporates or students or anyone we meet along the way. 

Personally, it hasn’t been very hard, as long as you’re willing to stick to what lies ahead. I think that everyone should try to build something, it doesn’t have to be a platform, just start an initiative! Through this, you will do something not just for yourself but for other people and will be able to understand the industry and what people need.

Being in a business makes you consider more macro factors and trends, such as about timing and impact. I’d say that you shouldn’t undermine the opportunities you have gotten when you’re young, because those are things you can apply later in life!

A: Have you faced any challenges so far? How have you managed to move on from these?

ZH: One obvious challenge is lacking the industry experience, which is very important. But mentorship has been very helpful and you have to be intentional with that. In terms of pitch competitions, we’ve gotten mentorship and that is one of their priorities. We try to choose competitions that have mentors from the industry we’re interested in, such as the corporate HR space and schools. We find the people in the value chain we’re working with and try to find people along the value chain.

Another thing is lack of time. I want to spend a lot of time on Skilio, but I have school. I guess it’s good that we have a lot of energy – on the weekend, our team does sprints. We actually work differently from a full time startup and find pockets of time to work on the idea 100%. 

A: Thanks for sharing! Let’s hear about the Skilio Industry Immersion Programme. What are your motivations for SIIP?

ZH: I myself was called back to Singapore from NOC and a lot of my friends lost their internships too, but didn’t get opportunities that they wanted back here. I was wondering what to do when I got called back, and I thought about why people want to do internships. Students intern to be future-ready and get a step closer to their future. And I realised that was really similar to what Skilio wants to do. Our platform allows people to record and document opportunities and I was wondering if we can provide the platform for them to practice soft skills as well. So, we started the SIIP!

EDGE was one of the partners for the hugely successful Industry Immersion Programme

Most of the opportunities that we brought onboard are from the Skilio network, so we were able to match the students to the opportunities and we’re really thankful to these companies as well. A lot of work is going into it, since it’s just me and another intern working on it, but it’s an initiative we wanted to start. Each attachment is 1 month because we wanted more people to get exposure and our philosophy is to give more people an opportunity. We wanted more industry exposure rather than a full internship, giving them a boost and value adding with Skilio platform.

We probably won’t continue when school starts but we’re glad for students to stay in the organisation if there is a mutual agreement. Now, we have around 230 students in the programme, but 500 plus sign-ups.  There are more than 80 projects and the demand for this opportunity is really high, so I’ve had to keep the demand and supply  in balance.

A: That’s really cool! So, what’s next for Skilio and beyond? 

ZH: We did a beta launch in January for the product and have been sprinting and having a lot of iterations of our product. By August, we want the product to be solid and be able to sell to organisations for the long term. Right now, it’s based on one-time use, but it will be good to have more enterprise partners. Ultimately, we need longitudinal data, since we track people from youth until they step into the workforce. We have a lot of training companies who want to implement us in their organisation too.

Our vision is to let everyone have a different personal narrative of success. Not everyone will buy into the idea, but if we’re able to make a change in a small (but preferably big) way, that would be great. I don’t know how receptive people will be, but we will be selling aggressively in August. Right now, we have an early access program, where we focus on how we can help these students get closer to where they want to be in the early stages of their life. 

A: Thanks for sharing so much! Before we end off, do you have any words of advice for fellow students aiming to start their own businesses? 

ZH: A lot of student entrepreneurs rush into starting something for the sake of something, but I think that you need to have a reason to start the business and have a vision that you want to stick to strongly. You’ll attract the right type of people as well, which affects your team. Really, you need to practice what you preach and that forms the core of your team moving forward!

When you speak to VCs, they’re looking for who the people are behind the business and it shines when you’re being yourself. Being yourself starts from awareness, which is something that a lot of people neglect, so I would encourage student founders to be authentic.

This interview was originally conducted by Amelia Yamato Leow, a Year 2 Business Analytics student at National University of Singapore (NUS). Passionate about venture capital and startups, her blog shares insights from her interviews with other founders in the community. Do check them out here!

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