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Maya Arvini of Qlue on restructuring chaotic startup culture

As tech startups mature, they also experience growing pains.

!lue's CEO and COO Maya Arvini. Photo courtesy of Qlue.

Not all startups manage to bloom, let alone generate revenue even after years of operating. Most of these companies are led by young and passionate founders who sometimes have no idea about what it takes to run a company.

Their dreams might be big, but without the right execution, those dreams might turn into nightmares. A report by CB Insights found that 70% of tech startup companies fail even after raising remarkable sums of funding. Even names as big as WeWork, with strong support from SoftBank, tumbled down in disgrace.

Qlue, an Indonesian startup that provides a smart city ecosystem sets out to succeed. Maya Arvini is one of the people who are leading their team.

Arvini started her career in business development at IBM Indonesia in 2006. She won multiple sales awards before she left the company to join Microsoft in 2009. She quickly climbed the ladder and was appointed as business group head of Microsoft Indonesia’s marketing and operations department. During her tenure, she scaled up the business to 250% compared to competitors in the country. She left Microsoft in 2014 and then moved to conglomerate-owned Gunung Sewu Group as associate director for market development and head of their strategic business unit office.

Eventually, Arvini left the corporate world, taking her expertise to Qlue in January 2019. She was appointed as chief commercial officer and quickly implemented changes in the company. As someone who spent more than 14 years developing business for tech companies, she knew exactly how to push Qlue to the next level. Seven months later, she took on the role of chief operating officer as well. Being in charge of organizational restructuring, she trimmed unnecessary spending and enforced a rigid structure where every team member is accountable for something.

She also actively participates in mentorship programs for young people, such as Young on Top and Jakarta’s Abang-None beauty pageant. In her lectures, Arvini emphasizes the importance of personal development and soft skills such as effective communication and leadership.

KrASIA recently met up with with Arvini to discuss her roles at Qlue and the key to success for tech startups.

KrASIA (Kr): What convinced you to leave your previous job in a prestigious company and join Qlue? What did you see in the startup?

Maya Arvini (MA): Looking back, I used to work for a conglomerate, Husodo Angkosubroto. It was fun, everything was about real business. I totally exited the IT industry and took care of various industries such as cafes, co-working spaces, gyms, real estate, retail, and others.

However, my passion is in the tech industry, because I started my career by joining IBM. Working in the IT industry is very dynamic, I need to stay updated every day, which is a challenge in itself. After a long discussion, I decided to resign and return to the tech industry.

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Kr: What’s the biggest challenge you have faced so far when developing Qlue’s business? How did you overcome it?

MA: On my first day with Qlue, I was told that the company planned to conduct a very big event with more than 1,500 attendees. Rama [Qlue’s co-founder and CEO] told me on January 27. I was used to being in charge of large, multi-day events with thousands of attendees when I was still with Microsoft. So I asked him when the event will be, and he said it would be on February 13! In less than two weeks! I asked what preparations have been done, and he calmly replied, “Nothing.”

After two days of brainstorming, I told him to postpone the event, because we could not make it. I had my own standards and this was not a small event, the president and ministers would attend. He listened and pushed back the date to March 28. In the end, it was a very successful event. There were more than 3,000 people in attendance.

I think the event was a good learning curve for everyone. As we were still restructuring, we could cut people who were unable to comply with our objectives and vision. So I was working on the marketing division while hiring new candidates until the event ended. Starting April last year, we focused on fixing the business development until the end of August. Most importantly, we needed a strong sales team. I mostly hired my former team members at IBM and Microsoft, and other candidates with corporate backgrounds. At that time, Qlue was evolving from a startup company into a corporate one, so everything had to be systematized.

Not long after, Rama asked me to be in charge of the operation as well, so I took care of finance, accounting, general affairs and procurement, as well as the people team [human resources]. I took a lot of extreme steps, such as dismissing the finance-accounting, GA-procurement, and people teams. I quickly hired new people, though we are still looking for candidates now, as it is hard to find competent people. The team is much smaller now, from 100 people to only 75, including interns. The operational cost is also down by 40%. We are now becoming very lean and everybody is accountable.

As for business development, since I have always worked in B2B tech, the model is just the same. I have adequate experience from years of working in this field, so most of my friends are already in the director or even CEO level, so it’s easier to partner with their companies. Since I joined Qlue, we have activated more than 40 business partnerships. Working with business partners helps with our local and international expansion. I think what took a lot of work is reorganizing the company’s structure.

Kr: How are Qlue’s values different from those of the corporate companies you worked for before? And how did you make the adjustment?

MA: Compared to other startups at the Series A level, Qlue’s benchmarking is now already at the corporate level, because we have improved quite a lot.

When I first joined, the system was disordered. There was no fixed approval system for anything, including business and payment. They were also not used to working with reports, so when I attempted to trace back by asking for the written approval for a decision, it didn’t lead anywhere. All of this was done verbally. For me, all approval has to be done by e-mail or be written down, I do not count approval through WhatsApp.

The company’s structure was also not clear, they didn’t know who makes decisions, who is accountable, or who is in charge. I fixed that problem. Also, recruiting new employees with corporate backgrounds helped to improve the process. Acculturation was happening. The culture is now less chaotic and more structured.

Everyone is learning in this process. I am a rigid person, but I try to be more flexible. Not everyone from a corporate background can survive in the startup industry. Hard skills and competence are very important, so is the ability to adapt with the startup.

The report feature on Qlue’s app. Photo courtesy of Qlue.

Kr: Did you find it hard to adapt?

MA: Well, I am in the management level and the one who enforces the change, so not really. Maybe those in the working levels are the ones struggling to adapt.

This story might be a good lesson for another startup. I once declined a request to purchase an IDR 25 million (USD 1,560) door. Imagine that! There were so many unreasonable expenses because of the money burning phenomenon among unicorn startups. It seems like we don’t have any limitations on cash and spending. It is very disruptive, especially for employees who never worked in non-startup companies before. They might think Qlue is another money-burning startup, but we are not. We don’t believe in burning cash.

I restructured the company quite early on so we can work effectively and efficiently. We will cut those who can’t fit in.

Kr: What qualities or properties must startups possess to convince other entities to establish partnerships with them? In Qlue’s case, for example, how did the company gain the government’s trust?

MA: This applies to any founders who want to start their own company. First, you have to build a solution that really solves a problem. Qlue, for example, was founded to answer Jakarta’s [urbanization] problem and the founders have a strong social mission.

Second, you need to build a track record and credentials. When I meet potential clients or business partners, they will ask about Qlue’s track record. We already have Jakarta Smart City and various projects with the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management (BNPB). With this, we were able to gain the trust of city governments and they agreed to use our service.

Without these two, it will be hard for the company.

Kr: Indonesia is planning to move its capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan. The president wants it to be a green and smart city. What role will Qlue play? Have you been tapped for input or collaboration? Based on Qlue’s experience with Jakarta, what improvements will be made in the new capital?

MA: We have provided input, mostly through our telco partners, to prioritize building the 5G network. In order to build a smart city, we need good planning. Robust internet connectivity is mandatory. Second, we need a city leader that understands the smart city concept and utilizes the system to measure their team’s performance. They also need to implement good governance.

Next, follow up. After the leader informs the public that they have implemented the smart city system, they have to look into any reports from the citizens, be it floods, trash accumulation, or other matters. That is what motivates citizens to report actively, because they know the authorities will take action.

A worker from Jakarta’s Public Facility Management Agency took care of a problem reported via Qlue’s app. Photo courtesy of Qlue.

Kr: People nowadays are more concerned about privacy. Do you think installing CCTV cameras and other surveillance equipment violates their privacy?

MA: Compared to other countries, Indonesia is behind. For example, Jakarta only has 10,000 CCTV cameras, while China has three million. Speaking of privacy, whose authority is it under? We are not a service provider, and privacy has been regulated. If you are talking about e-traffic cameras or CCTV cameras in public places, I think they are fine. There are reasons why the cameras are installed there. Also, we don’t have access to CCTV data from public spaces, only from our private clients.

Kr: We are now facing the COVID-19 pandemic. How can implementing the smart city system and technology help to contain the virus and curb its spread?

MA: We can help by mapping and following up on reported cases in real-time. Qlue’s core is to assist in reporting and coordinating the workforce.

With QlueWork and QlueDashboard, for example, when people report problems with trash, the authorities will send teams such as the Orange Troops [Jakarta’s Public Facility Management Agency officers] or Blue Troops [water resources agency officers].

The QlueApp is already used everywhere. Officers from the Neighborhood and Community Association (RT/RW) could be the frontliners in reporting the situation, using photos, videos, and geotagging to ensure accuracy. Next, the reports will be entered into the dashboard and divided into different categories. For example, certain areas must be categorized as high priority, because there are a lot of residents under surveillance or observation. The authorities can allocate more manpower, medicine, or health supplies to those areas.

In any case, our assessment of the government’s current operation is that they are not integrated. Everyone works separately. Qlue can help to integrate all those different systems, so officials working at the command center can easily monitor and analyze case distributions across the country, including the latest report categories and statuses. This information will be shared with workers who are in the field, such as health officials, local governments, and the closest referral hospital if the case has to be dealt with immediately. Our concern is more about reducing or overcoming the possibility of viral spread effectively and efficiently.

We hope we can contribute to dealing with this pandemic. We will help as much as possible.

Kr: You are very active in mentoring programs, such as Young on Top. From your experience of meeting young people across the country, what do you think the startup scene will look like in the future?

MA: They are very clumsy. For example, at Qlue, many applicants sent in their resumes without e-mail subjects or bodies. Sometimes, they wrote “attached in this mail my resume,” but there were no attachments!

From those exchanges, I can determine the character of these people. I think the culture of respecting other people is in decline. They can’t maintain proper email etiquette, can’t even meet the basic standard. It would be risky to hire these people, as they will destroy the existing workplace culture and dynamic. It is useless to be smart if you can’t cooperate with other people.

Kr: What are the important soft skills that the future generation needs to possess so they can thrive in this industry?

MA: Maturity—it’s very impactful. I noticed that young people now do not work in a company for long, sometimes only for six months before hopping to another one. Maturity includes commitment, especially if you want to build a career.

Another thing is this: they share too much with the public. Recently, an ex-employee of a unicorn startup shared their complaint on social media and it became viral. These youngsters don’t realize that what they post on the internet will stay and be seen by potential employers. If they apply for a job at Qlue, I would not hire them. They might overshare problems with the public.

I believe it always takes two to tango. If there is a problem, did you do something to make it better? Don’t blame it solely on your company. Responsibility is a form of maturity.

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Kr: What are the challenges of being a woman in the tech industry?

MA: Most people think it’s a limitation, but not me. I think it’s an advantage, even outside the IT field. There are few women in the management or decision-maker level, so we mostly interact with men. A distraction usually happens here—whenever I meet with business owners, clients, or business partners, they will be distracted because I am a woman. What we need to do is show them what we have. We have to be able to explain things very well, show them our product knowledge. Presentation, negotiation, and communication skills play a very important part.

The other benefit is people will pay attention to a woman because she might be the only woman in the room. I once attended a meeting involving 30 people, and I was the only woman there. Maintaining a good appearance is also important.

Kr: What advice would you give to women who want to pursue careers in this industry?

MA: Learn more, listen more, demonstrate integrity and perfect execution in your job. You need to have mentors. There are many ways to learn—by reading, learning from other people, or experiencing failure. However, not all of us have the time to wait until we fail. We can learn from other’s failures as well, and that’s what I grasped from my successful mentors.

Kr: Who are your mentors?

MA: I have three, first is my ex-boss Husodo Angkosubroto. I learned a lot about entrepreneurship and integrity from him.

Next is Martin Hartono from GDP Ventures, he is one of my oldest mentors. He was the one who suggested that I explore many positions. He knew that my core expertise is business development when I was still working for Microsoft. He told me to transfer to marketing and the operations division. I disagreed with him at that time, because I already made a lot of money in sales. He said, “I can see you becoming a top CEO. Please try. It would benefit you in the future. You may not agree with me now, but someday you will be thankful.”

The third is Budi Sadikin. I learned about management and leadership skills from him—about how to manage a big team and build a system from scratch. He has an IT background, and used to be at IBM as well.