What’s it like to start a business in the middle of an ongoing pandemic? Rachel Tan sits down with Mark Hudson, founder of The Lean Company, to find out about how the cheery Londoner wound up in Singapore, the inspiration for the company name, and his plans for the uncertain future.
Rachel (R): What does The Lean Company (TLC) do exactly?
Mark (M): To put it simply, we help companies from any sector or industry build sales pipelines and expand around the region. We're focused on Asia because we're based in Singapore, but we also have staff in the Philippines and London helping our clients expand into Southeast Asian markets and beyond. Our goal is to strip out all the unnecessary work our clients’ in-house salespeople have to do to generate leads so that they can… Be more lean. (grins)
R: How did you come up with the name?
M: The word ‘lean’ has been used to describe lean manufacturing, the Toyota production system, and of course, there’s The Lean Startup [by Eric Reis] as well. It’s also been used in business media about how companies were becoming more digital. I just thought it was a great word, and I liked the tiny bit of jokeyness to it. You know how Elon Musk has The Boring Company? (smiles) I also liked the structure of the name—I think it’s distinctive, and it shortens down to TLC, which is quite fun.
R: What differentiates TLC from other B2B marketing agencies out there?
M: I would say our unique selling point (USP) is the people leading your campaign. If we're doing a campaign for you, there will be four to five people working on it. The person leading will be someone with huge amounts of experience, preferably in your region or industry, and they’ll already have contacts. That's something I don't think many other agencies offer. You might be able to get specialised salespeople in the industry you're looking to target, but they won't come with a support team of marketing, PR, branding, analytics and research. Or you might get a big team to look over your project, but they might not have someone at the top who's got all the relevant network and contacts.
R: What happens when a client from an industry outside your company's area of expertise approaches you to help them?
M: The thing is: we're not a finished product yet. We're still in the midst of building a global network. However, if someone came to me and said, “I really want to sell in the maritime industry in Asia”, and I realised we don't have any experience in the field, I would go out and find someone who did have experience. My vision for TLC is that people can work on short-term contracts, so I would take someone on with the relevant experience and carry on with the project.
R: What pushed you to start TLC—in the middle of a pandemic, no less?
M: When COVID-19 hit, I was based in Singapore running an international events business and watching the industry collapse around our ears. As we tried to keep our heads above water, a lot of people from the industry were coming to me for work—people who, in normal times, I would have struggled to get them to come work with me.
Another thing is that to me, there’s always going to be demand for business development or sales agencies, particularly in Asia. Coming together with these factors was this emergence of remote work as the norm—a lot of people want more flexible working conditions now.
I wanted to put all those factors together by giving talented people forced out of their jobs work that can be done remotely, for a business development and sales agency that is—I don't want to say remote-first because we're not remote-first—but… Remote-capable. (smiles)
R: Okay, so where do you stand on the work from home versus work from office debate?
M: There's some who say people are sick of working from home and want to be back in the office. And there’s others who say that remote work has revolutionised people's lives; they're happier and never want to go back to the office. Those are the two views, and I sit very much in the middle.
I want to give people the chance to meet, to collaborate, and more importantly, to learn from each other. And that can only really happen to its fullest in an office. People, especially young, hungry, passionate graduates just starting out on their career, need to have that experience of being in the office with other people—sharing ideas, learning from one another, learning how the world works.
At the same time, I embrace remote work, because I believe that will be the best way to attract the best talent from all around the region moving forward. They might be people who'd like to work for us, but only on a part-time basis, because they might be out travelling, finding themselves, realigning their chakras… I’m kidding. But you get the drift.
So at TLC [government-mandated COVID guidelines permitting], we encourage everyone to work flexibly. Some people work from home, others work in the office, and some work only part of the week. We offer a hybrid model, in which there will be an office for you to go into, but if you want to work from home, you can.
R: Can you tell me more about your life before TLC?
M: Since 2004, I've been doing events across any industry you can think of: finance, insurance, energy, adtech. I ended up in Singapore when I joined an events company that focused on helping startups meet big brands, and my most recent experience was running a fintech series in Abu Dhabi. When COVID-19 hit, it was the largest fintech event in the country—we took that and made it 100% digital, with 20,000 people attending online.
This brings me to another of TLC’s services. We offer virtual or hybrid events for our clients to help them engage with their core audience, because we have the experience of putting large-scale events on. And while large-scale, live events will be off the menu for the foreseeable future, I see incredibly targeted, small-scale hybrid events taking its place instead—that’s also exactly where TLC can help.
R: How do you find Singapore?
M: I love the life in Singapore—the people, the culture, the food, the ease of everything. And I think it's a great place to do business. I'm here for the long haul, if the Ministry of Manpower will have me. (grins)
R: What do you like and dislike about being your own boss?
M: The big thing is that realisation that YOU are the end of the road. Coupled with how everyone below me is also depending on me to make the right decision, that can feel a little bit… Scary. But I think so far, we've done okay. (laughs)
But as the boss, I don't find motivation to be a problem. There's also the good feeling that comes out of doing things my own way—which is hopefully also the right way.
Oh! And an annoying thing about being my own boss is that people assume I can take a holiday whenever I want—that’s actually the opposite of the case, because I can't.
R: What does the ideal work culture look like to you?
M: This sounds really cheesy, but I just want people to be happy coming into work. Of course, there are many factors involved: the people you work with, the people you work for, the way the business is run, or where you think the business is going. Creating that from a cultural perspective and with remote teams can be tricky, but we’re trying!
R: Where do you see TLC in five years’ time?
M: What would be amazing in five years' time is to have a property somewhere in Asia, where we’ll host very small, intimate F2F meetings for our clients to travel and get together; do business-related activities but also fun, leisure activities, and it would all be run by some of our people on the ground. That’s one of my dreams for TLC.
R: What do you think most people would be surprised to find out about you?
M: That’s a tough one. (pauses) Well, I spent part of my childhood on a farm in rural England.
M: Yes, really. For a time in my life, I was living with sheep and chickens and cows.