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BeMyGuest New CCO Graham Hills on How to work with Indonesian – get deals done in Asia

Graham Hill outside of work moment
Graham Hill - BeMyGuest
Graham Hills – BeMyGuest CCO

Having known Graham for several years, when he was still working in Indonesia for Wego. And I visited his office in Jakarta at that time. Graham has a friendly manner which makes the opposite person feel comfortable. He owns many great skills and deep knowledge while working in Asia, previously with Yahoo Southeast Asia. But one thing I remember the most that he even studied Bahasa in Australia years before he came to Indonesia. This time I met him again in Singapore. Coincidently Graham has just joined BeMyGuest as Chief Commercial Officer, nearly the same time with another non-executive Director of BeMyGuest – Kei Shibata san of Venture Republic, who I also just had a second interview few days ago: 101 happy trips with Samurai Kei Shibata starting from…Singapore!  Now let’s chat with Graham to get some of his expert thought on How to work with Indonesian – get deals done in Asia

You’re one of the foreign pioneers to work in Indonesia for four years. Before that you had even studied Bahasa in Australia in 1999 when Indonesia startup scene wasn’t hot in Asia stage. Why Bahasa & Indonesia at that time?

Actually, I started learning Bahasa Indonesia in 1992, my first year of high school in Australia. I’d like to say I had a vision as a 12 year old of the exciting future that lay ahead in Indonesia, but the reality was if I studied two languages I didn’t need to do music or art! So it was German and Bahasa Indonesia for me.

I was fortunate to go on a two week school trip to Indonesia in 1993 visiting Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, and Bali and I totally fell in love with the country, its people, the food and the scale of everything. I would later go on a high school exchange to Salatiga, Central Java, for five weeks and live with a local Indonesia family.

By the time I entered university my motivation to continue learning Bahasa Indonesia was far more informed as I could see the future economic significance of Indonesia, and more broadly, the Southeast Asian region, so I combined Bahasa Indonesia studies with my Bachelor of Commerce.

In 1999 I got the opportunity to study Bahasa Indonesia at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta for six months. I hadn’t really thought about startups back then, but I did realise I wanted to work in the travel industry and this rescued me from the path where I may have become an accountant!

Also read: Top 10  online shopping ecommerce sites in Indonesia

What do you miss the most about working in Indonesia? What did you learn from there?

There’s quite a few things actually. I really miss speaking Indonesian on a regular basis. I miss the energy and vibe of Indonesia which I feel in several emerging markets I’ve visited. Indonesian people are super friendly, creative, and fun to work with. I was able to build a great team at Wego and it was definitely a tough decision to move back to Singapore in mid 2015.

I learnt a lot in Indonesia. I learnt a lot about hiring people, what to look for, how to build a vibrant and strong team culture, how to really think about what impact a new person would have on an existing team dynamic. I learnt a lot about developing people and reflected a lot on being a basketball coach and referee during my school and university days. A great coach is someone that helps team members and teams realise their potential and it’s one the most rewarding experiences I’ve had and thankfully continue to have.

I learnt a lot about the importance of face time when building business relationships in Asia and that deals don’t happen overnight.

Relationships need to be nurtured, trust needs to be built, and partnerships have to have the right balance of give and take. I also learned that yes, doesn’t always mean yes, and no doesn’t always mean no!

Were you happy when you moved back from a developing country to work in a developed country again?

It took a while to get used to living in Singapore again. There’s a completely different work culture and the market is also different, smaller, more developed. A culture that’s a bit more about ‘me’ than ‘we’, but at the same time enjoyable. There’s a different energy level in Singapore compared to Indonesia and I think that’s because the younger Indonesian is striving for change, working to improve their own lives and those around them, working to improve society and the communities in which they live. Singapore being more developed just feels different, but with that comes comfort, efficiency, great infrastructure, and stability.

How to work with Indonesian people effectively?

At the end of the day we’re all people no matter our nationality or cultural beliefs. I think human relationships work well in all cultures when there’s trust for and respect of each other.

As a foreigner working in Indonesia it’s really important that your communication is properly understood. It’s very easy for things to get lost in translation so it’s important to ask questions and seek clarity to ensure everyone is on the same page.

What I’ve learned working in Asia is that more time needs to be spent developing a relationship before deals can get done, but in the end I feel this leads to longer, more meaningful, more fruitful partnerships. With everything I learn there’s an ever increasing realization that there’s still a lot more to learn!

Working in Indonesia is also somewhat unique because of the average age of employees. Many of the people I hired weren’t even born in the early 90s when I was starting high school and many were either in their first or second job so I learned to be patient and to really focus on building the skill and confidence levels of the people in my team.

Any advice for other startups wanting to expand to Indonesia? What should they do to prepare before entering the multi-island market?

I don’t want to sound cliched, but you just can’t think of Asia as one market and have the ‘Asia strategy’ so many businesses talk about. Indonesia is unique, China is unique, Singapore is unique. Each market is different and what works in one market might not work in another.

My advice to businesses or startups looking to expand in or enter Indonesia is to take your time. You need to feel the market before you get started. You need to experience first hand what a week feels like in Indonesia. It’s really important to read up about the cultures in Indonesia to understand the ideology of the country, to understand the history and it definitely doesn’t hurt to learn a bit of the language.

A few greetings in Indonesia, saying terima kasih (thank you) shows that you’re serious about and respect the market in which you’re trying to do business. If you’re launching a tech startup get in the market with a lower end phone and experience what the experience is like on mobile networks that are at maximum capacity!

Make friends with Indonesians. Show them you are interested in their culture. Ask them about how they feel about your products. Take on board their feedback!

How is it like a day of  “Chief Commercial Officer” of BeMyGuest?

At the time of answering these questions I’m 10 days into my new role at BeMyGuest and my main feeling so far is excitement. Attractions, tours, activities is a completely new segment of the travel industry for me and I also haven’t worked in a pure B2B environment before, so it’s all very new. It’s very invigorating though as every hour I am learning something new and asking a million questions. The team are all being very patient so it’s been a great start so far. I’ve also already spent quite a bit of time outside the office attending Web in Travel, ITB, and then speaking at TechXhibit Jakarta. I’m looking forward to a full week in the office and immersing myself completely in all the BeMyGuest Labs tools, platforms, and fascinating data!

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Moving from B2C Wego to B2B BeMyGuest, do you think that B2B business is a bit easier than the highly competitive B2C, especially in the online travel industry?

The change in thinking from B2C to B2B is really interesting. I wouldn’t say it’s easier, but it sure is different.

The travelling consumer is certainly demanding and expectations are getting higher day by day, but in the B2B space your partner businesses also have very high expectations and depend on you as a partner to maximise the revenue potential of their business and the partnerships we are developing.

From a business point of view B2C is very cash intensive and BeMyGuest’s new focus on B2B means our cash is invested in tech and people, and not writing big cheques each month to Google and Facebook.

How do you make more money for the B2B travel activity platform BeMyGuest? And your focus countries in SEA?

Making more money for BMG is all about scale. More products, more partners, faster platforms means more travellers booking. Scale leads to efficiencies and better buying power enabling us to unlock bigger margins improving the revenue for BeMyGuest and partners alike.

Enabling more suppliers to sell and distribute their products online is also a key part of the strategy.

Our focus is AsiaPac, not just SEA. We have strong partnerships across the region, but aim to increase the number of these as well as performance of each through investments in technology and strong account management. We’ll be offering more day tours and activities which have higher margins than attractions.

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What are BeMyGuest’s plans for 2018?

We have high expectations for 2018. Fresh from BeMyGuest’s Series A round, 2018 is all about scaling the business. We’ll be investing heavily in our tech as well as supply of experiences around the world, but with a continued focus on Asia. We want to deliver more unique products to our partners to cater for the ever growing needs of travellers across APAC. We’re a business home grown in Asia and the management team, and more broadly the entire team, have a wealth of experience doing business in Asia and understanding the needs of many diverse and unique markets.

We’re developing tools to help more suppliers unlock the potential of online bookings and are rolling out a booking engine and channel manager so that suppliers can take bookings on their own websites as well as distribute their products through BeMyGuest’s distribution network or via direct relationships our suppliers negotiate independently.

We’ll be growing the number of distribution partners we work with as well as listening carefully to the needs of our existing partners to ensure we match the right supply of experience content with the very diverse demand we see across the region and ultimately growing the production and revenue potential of each partnership.

What were your favorite personal hobbies while you’re in Indonesia? and now in Singapore?

When I moved to Indonesia I was a brand new dad so a lot of free time was spent around family activities.

Indonesia has a really vibrant food scene be it street food or higher end restaurants. I really enjoy local coffee shops, trying out new restaurants, trying new foods, and hanging out with people from the startup community.

In Singapore it’s a lot easier to spend time outdoors. I love to walk alongside the Kallang river and through Gardens by the Bay East both close to where I live.

What is your work & life motto?

Work smart, play hard. We before me.

I’m a big believer in work life balance. We should all strive to be efficient throughout the work day so that by the time the day ends there’s still time for family and friends. That doesn’t mean when there’s deadlines to meet we should be out the door early, but everyone needs time for themselves and for their family. I believe that ‘play hard’ is a must have in an office culture. Teams need to celebrate their successes, let their hair down and enjoy the milestones along the way. ‘We before me’ because it’s always about the team.

Companies don’t become successful on the back of one person alone; success comes from teamwork, from tapping into the unique strengths of the people on the team, it comes from diversity and collective ideas working towards a shared vision.

What are your favorite books? and favorite digital devices?

When it comes to books I read a lot of fiction and the main genre being action/adventure. My favourite authors are Vince Flynn, Robert Ludlum, David Baldacci. I also love to read about leadership and organisational culture, but a lot of the latter I read online. I also like to read about adtech and martech.

As far as devices go I love my Kindle, MacBook Pro, mobile (currently a Xiaomi Mi6), and my Bose noise cancelling headphones. When I’m at home I love my AppleTV and Chromecast.

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