ProspectsASEAN spoke to Brian Tan, CEO and Co-Founder of FutureLab, to discuss his story and vision of building an online mentoring platform which will enable students and young working professionals to learn from a community of global mentors, join learning communities, and attend events and workshops to upskill themselves. Brian and his two co-founders established FutureLab with the passion to bridge the knowledge gap between education and careers to expand career horizons for young professionals across Southeast Asia.
In this interview, Brian also takes us through his journey from being a student at University of Bath and Imperial College London to being a management consultant before founding FutureLab. Finally, he concludes this interview by sharing useful advice for anyone who wants to transit from being an employee to an entrepreneur.
1. You started out in the field of biochemistry and even spent a year researching at Oxford University. What made you kickstart your career in management consulting instead and did you face any challenges during the career transition?
I studied biochemistry at the University of Bath and during my degree I spent a year researching at Oxford University. During that time, I would often hit the pub with my supervisors to unwind, and our conversations revolved around discussing different experiments, the results, hypothesis, experimental techniques, even down to the latest scientific equipment purchased by the university. It was obvious to me that these guys really loved what they did and it really struck me to see how passionate they were. I love science and I enjoyed researching but realised over time that I couldn’t see myself being a researcher for the next 20 – 30 years. The more I thought about it, the more I realised what I wanted was to work in a team and do something that would enable me to interact with people more.
So, I decided it was time to try something completely new. After I completed my degree, I had the opportunity to purse my PhD at Oxford University but I decided to do a Masters in Management at Imperial College Business School instead. I discovered I enjoyed business, so after completing my Masters I decided to explore a career in management consulting, since it would give me both the opportunity to work in teams and to solve real world business problems.
When I came back to Malaysia, my first application was to Boston Consulting Group (BCG). I had a strong CV so I thought I had a good chance at securing the job. So like many fresh graduates, I went to the interview completely unprepared and with no idea what to expect. However, as I soon found out, case studies are a significant part of management consulting interviews – something I wasn’t aware of as I had very little exposure to the industry back then. Needless to say, the interview did not go well! But what shocked me the most was that I wasn’t allowed to re-apply to BCG for another 2 years, and this was the standard for any failed interviews for the MBBs (Mckinsey, Bain & BCG).
It was a wakeup call for me. After that I spent hours and hours practicing case studies with my family and friends. I even had to turn to a local online forum to find other aspiring management consultants to practise with. This process made me realise how difficult it was to get the right information and preparation before you apply to jobs in this (or any) industry if you didn’t have the right resources or connections.
I applied for another management consulting role and by that time, I had completed over 100 case studies, spoke to as many people in the industry as I could to get more insights, and easily secured my spot as a management consultant at Accenture – where I worked on digital strategy and data analytics projects for telcos, banks, and internet service providers. Ultimately, the challenges I faced during my transition from being a biochemist to becoming a management consultant was the reason why I started FutureLab.
2. What is FutureLab and who is it for?
FutureLab is an online mentoring platform that connects students, young professionals and aspiring entrepreneurs to a community of mentors that aims to guide the next generation of leaders by providing informal career and life guidance. We also built digital tools for these mentors to use to enable better knowledge sharing among mentors and mentees, such as an event tool, create content (videos & articles), and even create online communities.
We currently have around 5,000 mentees from 60 countries speaking to our mentor community, where students utilize our mentors to guide them in their applications to their dream companies, and even sometimes help them decide what they want to do after university. Young professionals that utilize our platform are usually looking for a change in their careers, while some are looking for mentors to help them land a job in a different country and even how to launch a startup.
3. How did you come up with the idea of FutureLab?
The idea of FutureLab came about as I was applying for management consulting roles after graduating as a biochemist and the struggles I faced trying to enter the industry. As part of my efforts to secure a job in management consulting, I started looking for someone to practice case studies with. Eventually, I stumbled upon “Lowyat forum” and posted a question in a case study thread, which connected me to someone called “Bone Dragon” (online ID). He was a University College London (UCL) graduate. Coincidentally, we were in the same boat – we both wanted to get into management consulting and we both didn’t have someone to practice case studies with.
I thought about how much easier it would be if I could connect with a management consultant who had already gone through the interview process and secured a job. That’s where the initial idea came from and my entrepreneurial spirit turned the idea into action. Essentially, my co-founders and I built what we wish we had when we were seeking for jobs as young clueless graduates.
4. What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs? How can they best prepare for the transition from employee to entrepreneur?
The most important thing is not to rush into anything. It is always safer to work on your startup idea while you have a full-time job. This way, at least you’re still receiving a steady income and do not have the pressure that comes with full-time entrepreneurship. Many young people seem to think that they have to quit their job to work on their startup idea, but that is extremely risky because you don’t know if your idea will actually work.
Three quick tips for people who are preparing to venture into entrepreneurship from a corporate career:
- Make time to validate your ideas: While I was a management consultant, I had 2 to-do lists – one for my day job and another for FutureLab. I made sure I managed my work well enough to give 100% attention to both my job and FutureLab. While my days were spent working as a consultant, I spent my evenings as an aspiring entrepreneur. It required hard work, but with the right mindset and ability to prioritise and manage, a lot can be achieved. That is how I validated the FutureLab idea.
- Save money to fund your idea: In general, the more people earn, the more they spend too. This can be in the form of going on more holidays, indulging in more expensive food, or buying luxurious clothes. However, as an aspiring entrepreneur, it is important for us to learn delayed gratification and to not overly depend on luxury goods to define our lifestyle. Furthermore, by saving the extra cash, you can use the money to build your product and upskill yourself by joining a coding boot camp, design thinking classes or a growth hacking course.
- Create a business that solves a problem: Before you kickstart a business idea, ask yourself – are you solving a problem that people actually have? As a rule of thumb, the bigger the problem you manage to solve, the more revenue you will be able to generate.
5. What are the top 3 qualities that you see in great entrepreneurs?
- Adaptability: It is important to be able to constantly adapt and evolve, individually as an entrepreneur/leader and as a company. The market is constantly evolving. Innovation is taking place at a much faster speed now and you have to be able to keep up with this and the differing needs of the market at different times. In addition, while you are leading the direction of a company, your employees are also looking at you for guidance. So as your team matures, you would also need to adapt to your team’s different
- Good Storytellers: Many successful entrepreneurs/leaders are great storytellers. They attract people with the stories of how they started, what they stand for, and where they’re headed. More importantly, it’s how they share their passion and vision for the future. I’ve found that rather than showing Powerpoint slides, data charts or graphs, it’s sharing my story that makes it easier to connect with people – be it investors, clients or individuals.
- Resourcefulness and Creativity: When encountering a problem, it’s easy enough to turn to money to solve it. But that also means that when the money’s gone, you become handicapped. If you’re on the path of becoming self-sustainable, then be resourceful and creative to make every dollar count.
All in all, transitioning from a student to a working professional, launching your own startup or having a complete switch in your career is tough and it takes a lot of courage. Just remember that we at FutureLab work hard to make sure you have the networks and support you need from our mentors to create your own reality. Whether you are a fresh graduate, a young professional, or just want to seek advice from a community of mentors, FutureLab is here for you!
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