Tan Le: a HR entrepreneur’s tale

Building a successful business in the competitive world of Silicon Valley is no easy feat. Craig Donaldson speaks with Tan Le about what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur and how to overcome the HR challenges along the way

When Tan Le set out to raise US$100,000 to fund production of the Emotiv Insight, a wireless headset that helps optimise brain fitness and performance, she received an overwhelmingly pleasant surprise. She hit her $100,000 goal within just a couple of hours via crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Over the next 24 hours she raised $250,000, and over the 45-day funding campaign this figure ballooned to more than $1.6 million.

Le, an Australian entrepreneur who came to Australia as a Vietnamese refugee at the age of four, now lives and works in Silicon Valley as the CEO and co-founder of Emotiv Lifesciences, a bioinformatics company which is pioneering research into the human brain and developing innovative products to assist with improving cognitive health, wellbeing and performance.

A former lawyer with top tier law firm Freehills (now Herbert Smith Freehills) and director of Plan International Australia, Le now heads up a core team of about 60 people across the globe with a head office in San Francisco and satellite offices in countries including Australia, Hong Kong and Vietnam.

“Hiring the right people into the business is the most fundamental aspect of ensuring sustainable growth”

Hiring the right people As a relatively small but disparate organisation, Le underscores the importance of hiring the right people into the business given the nature of its work. “It all boils down to our people,” she says. “From our investors, our board and executive team, all the way through to our frontline customer relations team, supply chain and vendors, the key is our people.

Le recounts the saying that “you’re only as good as the people around you” and believes it is important to surround herself with people who are motivated, dedicated and hold similar values and goals. “You spend a lot of time at work, so surround yourself with people who you are going to enjoy working with and building a company with,” she says.

Le emphasises the importance of fit in the areas of culture, skills and experience in hiring the right people into the business. “If we’re looking to bring people into our core team, we identify those roles very, very clearly as these are team members who we want on board with the business to help grow it over the long term,” says Le. Hiring the right people into the business is the most fundamental aspect of ensuring sustainable growth and “giving you the best chance of success in any sort of entrepreneurial venture”, says Le.

“I don’t see people as being recruited just for a job. When you are surrounded by people who you trust, who are going to look out for you and who care about you and the organisation and the culture that you’re going to create together, this is what makes every day enjoyable and exciting.”

Managing across borders
As a business with a geographically disparate workforce, Le says people are especially important in a small entrepreneurial organisation with a culture of innovation and high performance. She places particular emphasis on culture fit at the management level, as this is one of the best ways of ensuring the right people are recruited at a local level.

“We rely heavily on the local executive team to make the right calls on who to bring into the organisation. As a fast-growing company, this becomes even more pronounced when you have immediate needs around product deliverables, so you’re always trying to find support to fill in gaps,” she says. “But I would say that the people who are charged with this responsibility do have a good sense of the company and our culture. This does make it somewhat easier because there is an implicit understanding of what we’re trying to do and the kind of people we’d like to attract to the organisation.”

Le says she is pleasantly surprised when she is introduced to new team members in different offices around the world, as they are the kind of people she would have selected herself. “That’s really a testament to the kind of people that we’ve been able to entrust with hiring decisions,” she says.

“Because we are a distributed group of people across different countries, it’s important to create a common corporate culture as the organisation grows. We’re all working towards a common vision and goal, so this helps with self-motivation – we don’t want people who need micromanagement. Our people have a high level of work ethic individually already, and this is one of the things we look for.”

Expanding into Asia
Many companies have turned to Asia to help fuel growth and improve cost efficiencies. Courtesy of the generous number of funders on Kickstarter, Le says her company is now heavily focused on Asia and is busy scaling up operations in a range of functions, from assembly and fulfilment through to logistics, software and development. Le acknowledges that while a workforce in Asia is definitely more affordable than in the US or other parts of the Western world, this reduction in cost also comes with a reduction in capacity.

To address this, Le says a long-term view around investing in human capital is required. “The most fundamental challenge with our growth in Asia is capacity building – this is our core driver in Asia, so we’re going to invest in training and having longterm HR policies to support staff and help improve retention. Our strategy for Asia is a long-term one and we don’t see Asia as being a quick win,” she says. “We anticipate that we’re going to need quite a bit of training in processes to ensure quality in the devices that come out of our manufacturing facilities, so we’re going to be investing heavily in this over the next few years.”

Le is also engaging closely with local universities to help with building capacity around future talent, through establishing programs to develop skills and prime the pipeline into the business. “We want to identify the brightest kids as they’re coming out of university and secure their employment with us, so we can help train them and help them build their career,” says Le.

Professional effectiveness
Effective time management is critical to the success of any CEO. As the head of a fast-paced and innovative firm, Le is clear on how she prioritises her day and workload in order to maximise effectiveness in her role. At the centre of this is a four hour core day in which Le focuses on business-critical tasks, from important manufacturing, product development and logistic fulfilment issues through to more strategic matters in corporate and business development, IP management and urgent people issues.

“The most fundamental challenge with our growth in Asia is capacity building”

Another four hours is dedicated to day-to-day operational management issues, which can involve anything from meetings, discussing operational issues with the company’s executive team or working with teams and staff across the globe to solve problems. “And then I try to carve out about one to two hours every day for free-flow thinking. So this is dedicated to reading, listening to talks and allowing myself to just immerse in the amazing culture of innovation that is Silicon Valley.”

One thing that helps Le stay in touch with the business is Skype – which Le says is important given she racks up more than 150,000 kilometres every year travelling around the world. “We have a very transparent organisation in which everybody’s on Skype all day long. As long as I’m online I’m available on Skype, so it doesn’t matter where you are in the organisation, who you are or how new you are, anyone can send me a message and I’m happy to look at it. It’s an open door policy across the world,” she says.

A culture of innovation
Australia is often criticised for not providing a conducive environment for entrepreneurs. From regulation and taxes through to formal learning and culture, there are a number of reasons why some entrepreneurs go overseas to build their businesses. Le believes Australia provides an “incredible amount of opportunity” for those who are willing to take risks and work hard. “Having said that, there is something really magical about Silicon Valley that’s very difficult to replicate anywhere else in the world,” she says.

“I think there’s a very unique mix of elements that contribute to this, from universities which produce an incredible amount of very well trained, intelligent, entrepreneurial, innovative individuals, through to a strong and active venture capital community, a very favourable tax and business environment and a culture which actively supports the development of great, compelling ideas – and the acceptance of failure in this process.”

About Tan Le
Tan Le came from Vietnam by boat as a four year-old refugee with her mother and sister. She finished school at 16 and started studying at Monash the same year, graduating with honours in commerce and law four years later. She started her career with law firm Freehills in 1998, (when she was also recognised as Young Australian of the Year). At the age of 23, and after co-founding and selling a successful mobile commerce business in 2003, she went on to co-found Emotiv and Emotiv Lifesciences.