Collaboration in a Start-up: Insights from a Leader

Collaboration in a Start-up: Insights from a Leader

With more resources, schemes, and funding available for start-ups, it is not surprising to see an increase in the number of start-ups and an expansion of start-ups across the globe. An example of this is RedMart.

Below is a conversation with Stephanie Nash, Chief People Officer at RedMart, who shares her experience working in a start-up and the challenges that go with this role.

Stephanie, to give us a bit of context. Could you tell me a little bit about your company and your role?

RedMart is a start-up that has been in business for four years. We have about 620 employees. Two-thirds are in the fulfilment centre and the other one-third is split between the technology hub and our other office space function. We are a technology company operating in an e-commerce space. Our vision is to save people time and money for the more important things in life, and the way that we believe we can do this is by being the largest online everything store in Asia. We initially began our business in Singapore, in the online groceries and essentials business, and as we continue to grow, we have added new categories beyond groceries as well as additional services such as our marketplace concept as well as our relay concept. We're expanding internationally, which starts with an entrance into Hong Kong in 2016, and we anticipate entering another two cities in Southeast Asia within 12 months following that. We are currently under $100 million in revenue, but we are going to break that in the next 6-12 months.

As Chief People Officer, my responsibilities include ensuring that we are enabling all our employees to excel to their fullest potential in all aspects of HR, from recruitment and on-boarding, training and development, compensation and benefits, HR information systems and HR operations to talent and organisation development.

How is collaboration important for growth in your company?

Collaboration for us is absolutely crucial! There is no one doing what we are currently doing in the Singapore market, and therefore, we don't have other benchmarks necessarily or direct competitors. We do have competition without a doubt, but there aren't established players in the market. Therefore, we hire the best people from companies around the world who have experience in the online grocery and/or e-commerce space. Our need to collaborate and draw upon the different experiences of employees that we have in order to develop and deliver differentiated premium services for our customers is absolutely core to our ability to succeed and our ability to grow.

What is the biggest barrier to collaboration in a high-growth business? How different is collaboration today compared to the past?

Pace! Definitely pace! We are moving extremely fast, and the need to be fast is very real. We need to outpace our competitors, build products and launch services faster so one of the biggest barriers is that because people are moving very quickly sometimes involving others can be perceived as slowing down the pace of movement. Hence, I would say time and the pace that we need to work is a barrier.

One thing that is unique to me is that the way we collaborate today is very different from how we collaborated in the past. Our technology and tools are an enabler as well as a barrier for collaboration. There are times when people may feel that collaboration is satisfied by sending relevant individuals a link to a document, with an invitation to edit. However, you do not get the benefit that can come from actual conversations. You miss out on the insights, additional questions, and answers that come through conversations, whether in person or virtual. It can be more meaningful and relevant, and actually help get a better outcome versus simply engaging around a document. Having said that, the ability to collaborate via the sharing of documents can also be incredibly efficient and effective. I would say that one without the other doesn't necessarily work.

You have worked across different industries. How is growth different from a low- to high-growth company?

I have had the benefit of working in mining and petroleum at BHP Billiton, in information technology with Microsoft, in the pharmaceutical and medical devices industry with Allergan, and now a start-up, so I would say that most of my experiences are in high-growth companies. The only exception would probably have been when I was working in the mining industry, which was growing through acquisition. We would feel the impact of the commodities cycle on the growth of our business.

I think that we see more consolidation in industries that tend to have longer pipelines or business cycles, particularly the pharmaceutical and medical devices and the mining industries. We see that bigger companies, in order to grow, need to acquire, and those that are growing are being acquired. Whereas the life cycle in information technology and e-commerce is shorter and competition can be fiercer. You can feel the pace and impact of growth in a shorter term manner.

You have worked in Latin America, the United States, and Asia. How different is growth in different parts of the world?

There is a difference in the growth we experience in mature markets like the United States and Europe compared to emerging markets like Latin America and Southeast Asia. One difference I noticed in terms of the pace of growth between Latin America and Asia is that the speed and pace in the Asia market seems to be more of a way of everyday life for people. There is a sense of urgency in the government and political landscape, public sector and private sector, as well as for individuals and families. Now having said that, I've been out of Latin America for quite a long time, and so my frame of reference is dated. However, we see this when we look around the cities of Asia. The look and feel of cities have changed so significantly in such a short time compared to many markets around the world. There are always exceptions to that, but if we look at Singapore, Shanghai, and many other cities across Asia, you can see the growth and the change. It is visible, fast, and very real.

It is easier to provoke change in Asia I think, compared to some of the more mature markets that are rooted in their ways as there has been a track record of success. It could be harder to influence people to make change happen in an environment where there is a comfortable level of predictability, whereas in Asia, many things are new and the willingness to embrace change is more prevalent.

What are three things that leaders in your company have to do to encourage better collaboration?

Leaders can encourage better collaboration by declaring its importance, relevance, and positive impact. They need to foster an environment where collaboration is expected and valued, and they demonstrate their commitment by rewarding and recognising collaboration. It's important that we have people who collaborate well, and people generating ideas as a result of good collaboration. We need to reinforce the positive impacts and outcomes that good, smart collaboration will have on building a sustainable business and growing a business for the future.

As the Chief People Officer, what are some of your top priorities that relate to collaboration?

One of the top priorities that relates to collaboration is reminding our leaders that collaboration is important and then supporting them to create the necessary space. We need to ensure the organisation is set up in a way that is enabling our growth, fostering collaboration, and delivering results that are in turn moving us forward as a company and at a faster pace than our competition. It's both creating a physical plus an emotional space for collaboration. An example of physical space is thinking about the physical design of the new offices we are opening in Singapore and Hong Kong. Another component would be creating opportunities (time and space) for people to come together. These meetings, whether they are structured or unstructured, are established in a way to foster collaboration. It's also the head space. We help people understand, appreciate, and create forums to demonstrate that collaboration is valued, welcome, important, and expected.


Collaboration is absolutely crucial in a start-up. It would be very difficult, almost impossible, for a company to succeed and grow without it, and this is especially so in disruptive businesses and in high-growth markets. It is important to take note of your environment, and the people required to foster a collaborative culture.

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