This is what it’s like to be the first C-suite hire in a startup

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Candice Ong worked in investment banking for big banks Credit Suisse and Barclays Capital before joining Zalora. At that time, Zalora was only six months old. After five years in Zalora, Ong joined Shopback in 2017 as its chief commercial officer. That made her Shopback’s first C-suite hire.

As Shopback entered its next phase of growth, it required more experienced talents to navigate the growth of the company.
— Joel Leong, co-founder of Shopback

“As Shopback entered its next phase of growth,” Joel Leong, co-founder of Shopback said, “it required more experienced talents to navigate the growth of the company.”

Shopback interested Ong because “it had multiple verticals and was regional. It was attractive given that few startups in Singapore have achieved dominance across the region. Being exposed to different things via multiple verticals also appealed to me.”

For experienced leaders to make the transition to startups, Ong suggests that they have to be willing to install structure. “It could be processes, how decisions are made, or even establishing KPIs. In an established organization, all these things are already there. But in a growing organization, you need to be willing to set things up.”

To help bridge her teams from a startup’s informal methods to more formal processes, Ong feels it’s vital to communicate why things are being done. “If I’m doing something for my own purposes as opposed to enhancing efficiency, it’s impossible to get buy-in. I try to make sure people understand why certain things have to be in place.”

To make even a hundred people move in the right direction is challenging.
— Candice Ong, Chief Commercial Officer, ShopBack

Communication becomes even more important when startups scale. “To make even a hundred people move in the right direction is challenging,” Ong says. “How do you set up different processes to drive alignment? That’s when you need clarity of processes as well as communication. You can set up regular meeting updates or town halls. There needs to be some way to ensure alignment across the organization.”

It has been slightly more than a year since Ong joined Shopback. Since then, Joel Leong says the company has benefited from her presence. “She’s a big picture thinker who implements structures and adopts frameworks that guide teams to scale sustainably.”

Ong recommends leaders read The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz. “It’s very real about the challenges that startups have to go through. I’ve had to restructure teams and let people go. That is never pleasant. But those are decisions you have to make for the greater good of the organization.”