Became a millionaire at 28, but it came with a price
She helped build a tech company that was sold for $37 million... when she was only 28! But Lim Qing Ru’s newfound wealth came at a price.
On the middle finger of her left hand, Lim Qing Ru sports a ring with “April 10 2014” engraved on it.
That was the day news broke that Zopim, the tech company she joined as a co-founder in 2008, had been acquired by an American software company for a reported US$29.8 million (roughly S$37 million).
The payout was split between herself and four other co-founders, making her a multimillionaire overnight. She was then two weeks shy of her 29th birthday.
“We went from being nameless entrepreneurs to instant role models for the tech industry,” says Qing Ru, who turns 30 this April. “All of a sudden, everyone was paying attention to us.”
Journalists spun a blithe tale about how a group of scrappy entrepreneurs finally made good after years of surviving on meagre salaries: They created a winning product – a chat widget that allows business owners to send instant messages to customers and provide real-time customer service – after which the company was wooed by US-based customer support firm Zendesk. The co-founders then signed an acquisition deal that gave each of them multimillion-dollar payouts. It was the perfect rags-to-riches tale. Or so it seemed.
Like giving up a child The truth was, it wasn’t quite the happily-ever-after that most people imagined it to be.
“[The acquisition] wasn’t an easy decision,” admits Qing Ru. “I spent seven years building the company with my blood, sweat and tears. Then, I had to let it go.” After signing the agreement, she sobbed uncontrollably. Till this day, she hasn’t spent a cent of her millions – she can’t bear to. All of it is sitting in a bank.
If going into a business is like getting married (“you stick with your partners through thick and thin”), then building a company is like giving birth to a child, she explains. “It’s heartbreaking to give up your baby.”
Even after the deal was closed, there were nail-biting moments. At the time of acquisition, Zendesk was a relatively young company and had not yet launched its initial public offering (IPO) – its IPO was launched only in May, the month following the acquisition. A portion of Qing Ru’s payout was in the form of Zendesk shares, which could very well have ended up worthless if the IPO had failed. “If things had turned out badly, I would never have forgiven myself,” says Qing Ru. “I would have signed away my baby for nothing.”
Fortunately, things went well. Zendesk shares started trading at $11.40 apiece – above the company’s off ering price of $9 – and their value doubled to around $23 apiece in December. Every day, she thanks her lucky stars that her instincts turned out right.
How it started Money was never Qing Ru’s motivation in life. Her supervisor father and housewife mother were frugal folk who often took her to playgrounds as a child as they didn’t want to splurge on toys. She says cheekily: “I became quite a bully. If I saw a boy on my favourite toy car at the playground, I’d tell him to get off! When you have to share, you learn to fight for what you want.”
She majored in philosophy at the National University of Singapore. While there, she was disappointed to learn that most of her seniors had ended up as public servants. Being a bureaucrat and following procedures wasn’t her idea of an exciting career.
After poking around, she stumbled upon the university’s underground start-up scene: Student entrepreneurs were working in converted bungalowoffi ces on the fringes of the campus. Engineers, programmers and designers ate, slept and worked side by side in these spaces, feverishly talking about their passion projects. “Just being in the same room as them, and soaking up their energy, excited me,” she says. “They were a very different breed.”
Through these circles, Qing Ru met Royston Tay, Wu Wenxiang, Kwok Yang Bin and Julian Low. The four friends had just started a new tech company: Zopim.
She and the boys were all straight talkers and shared the same sense of fun. When the guys travelled to Silicon Valley to pitch their company to investors, they asked Qing Ru to represent them in a Singapore start-up competition. Soon after, they invited her to join Zopim as a co-founder.
Surviving on $500 salaries Most entrepreneurs have the same woe: slogging for hours on pitiful pay, fuelled only by passion and coffee refills.
But Qing Ru is reluctant to dwell on those details. “If we had focused only on the sacrifices, we never would have accomplished anything,” she says. “Was it really important to have a big pay cheque? You don’t need a lot to survive. Was it really important to work only eight hours a day? But we enjoyed our work! These ‘sacrifices’ were conscious choices we made.”
They weren’t easy choices though. In her first year of work, Qing Ru and her co-founders paid themselves just $500 a month. After that, they went without salaries for half a year.
She recalls having food poisoning and not being able to afford the $15 doctor’s consultation fee. “I went home, cried and slept it off ,” she says baldly.
Stress and long working hours turned her skin sallow. She talks self-deprecatingly about how she stopped bothering with makeup and haircuts, and wore cheap, baggy pants (“the sort from the pasar malam!”) to work as she had no money to shop.
“I would think, ‘How can I care about clothes when I have sh*t to do!?’” she says with a laugh. Even her boyfriend started hinting about her sloppy dressing. “He met sharply dressed women in his investment banking job... and then he’d meet me,” she deadpans.
The two broke up several times, partly due to the strain of their jobs, but they always got back together; they’re still dating now. “Being apart made me appreciate him more,” she reflects. “He saw me through my struggles and we survived so many problems together. That’s more important than finding some fantasy guy with a checklist of impeccable qualities.”
A tough fighter One of Qing Ru’s most enduring memories of Zopim is that of the founders’ twice-yearly performancereview sessions. Th e five of them would coop themselves up in a room for 14 hours without breaks and give one another feedback – and they didn’t mince their words.
“If something had been handled badly, we would say ‘that sucked’ or ‘that project was f*cked up’,” she says. “I was in charge of marketing and my co-founders once said to my face that none of my work mattered if I couldn’t deliver a viral campaign.”
Such sessions were part of the company’s culture of absolute honesty. “When your team sets high standards for you, it means they trust you to deliver,” she says, adding that her colleagues’ candidness was vital in pushing her to improve. She adds with a grin: “It helps that I’m very thick-skinned.”
Where to go from here? Today, Qing Ru is the director of customer advocacy at Zendesk. While she’s happy in her role, one senses a certain restlessness when talking to her.
Now that Zopim is a success, she dreams of creating another start-up one day. “Starting a business is not about making money – I mean, how much do you need to survive?” she says. “It’s about the legacy you want to leave behind... the impact you want to have on the world.” -- HW