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Robert Walters Leadership Podcast E7: Conversation with Kelvin Teo, RedDoorz

In episode seven of our Powering Potential with Robert Walters podcast in South East Asia, we speak with Kelvin Teo, Chief Operating Officer of RedDoorz, who shares his career journey in the technology and online business industries, and how he and his teams are building RedDoorz to be the largest new age hospitality tech company in South East Asia.

From tackling the global COVID-19 pandemic to keeping employees engaged during the lockdowns, and searching for desired talent profiles to help push the company to its next stage, Kelvin reveals his personal philosophy of possessing an infinite learner mindset to always keep growing. From Kelvin's perspective, we should also give ourselves longer timeframes to sufficiently grow and achieve our goals.

Our Robert Walters Leadership Podcast is part of our Powering Potential series, where we feature leaders from diverse industries and the sharing of their experience, advice, and insights in the world of work. Watch the videocast for this episode here.

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Eric Mary: 
Hi, I'm Eric Mary, Country Manager of Robert Walters Indonesia, and I'm your host for this episode of our Robert Walters Powering Potential. This episode is a part of our leadership interview series, where business leaders, recruitment experts, and career growth specialists share their insights on their careers, leadership lessons, and the latest talent trends.

Today, I'm excited to have joining us, Kelvin Teo, Chief Operating Officer of RedDoorz, which is South East Asia's largest and fastest growing hotel chain propelled by technology. Welcome Kelvin and thank you for making time for us today.

Kelvin Teo: Thank you Eric for having me here.

Eric: Alright, let's get started. For the benefit of our listeners and viewers who might not know you, tell us a little bit about yourself and your career journey so far.

Kelvin: Certainly. Hi everyone, I'm Kelvin. I'm currently the Chief Operating Officer of RedDoorz. RedDoorz is a new age online hospitality tech organisation, where we have more than two thousand small hotels in over a hundred and fifty cities. Our mission is to build the largest new age hospitality tech company in Southeast Asia by using an industry-leading combination of hospitality know-hows, technology, as well as inspiring brand concepts that are relevant to a wide-range of traveler segments. Personally, I've been in technology for twenty-one years, with my first ten years in the enterprise space, followed by my last eleven years in online B2C businesses.

Eric: Great, what got you started in the tech and online industries?

Kelvin: So, I was in technology right from the get-go. And then eleven years ago, I was invited to be a part of a founding team of what was known as a group buying startup. The startup had good traction, and it was eventually sold to Groupon, where I served in the Groupon entity as the MD of Asia, and we grew the business to cumulative more than a billion dollars in revenue under my care and brought it to profitability before moving on.

Eric: Excellent. How long did you stay in Groupon?

Kelvin: I was there for seven years.

Eric: A very long journey in this type of business, excellent. So, you're currently the Chief Operating Officer at RedDoorz. Why did you choose to take up this leadership role, and how has the experience been so far?

Kelvin: So for me, generally, there are two large contributing factors on how I choose a company. One would be the stage of the startup, and the second part is in which segment and what role does it play in that segment. So, for the first part, in my time in my first startup, I experienced working as a team of six. And even then, two of them were part-timers because we were a really small startup.

And this gig over a period of time, many years, grew over multiple thousands of times. And eventually saw myself growing into leading thousands of people here in Asia. In the startup stages, the challenge for us was really looking for a repeatable and scalable business model. And in the next stage where it goes into scale up or growth, where the company has gone through the initial product market fit, the challenge was really achieving and validation in millions of customers across the region. We have a goal of achieving and sustaining market leadership. So, I would say that these two stages are different, and both presents equal amount of challenges. But I found myself closer to the segment that was more on the scale up or growth stage. In that view, RedDoorz was a fit.

For the second part, I'm thinking about where and what it plays - what the startup is trying to solve, how large is the opportunity, and does it resonate with me. For RedDoorz, it plays in a market that was not only massive but still largely untapped on both the supply and demand fronts. Most hospitality companies in our segment still operate in a legacy/archaic business model, which is less digitised. So, the upside for RedDoorz is exponential. To be able to serve in an underserved market clearly resonated with me. And also, the team is made up of smart, ambitious people who believe in the future of hospitality in our region. So, that combined together, it all made me choose and I was chosen as well to take up the role of COO in RedDoorz.

Eric: Excellent. Well, great journey ahead for sure. You joined RedDoorz around the time when the COVID-19 pandemic was first reported globally. How did you cope and adjust to the sudden global health crisis, especially in a new role as a senior leader?

Kelvin: Yup, you’re right. I joined at a time where COVID was just beginning, and there was certainly no COVID in our markets that we are serving in. So, the situation started to get a little dark in a few weeks into my role for us. And obviously, being in the hospitality-technology industry, we were one of the highly impacted industries. The good thing, however, was that being new in the business and the industry as a whole, I have a fresh perspective and without having conditioning from a particular path. And certainly, I think that helped us to form a strategic direction with our leadership team to anticipate where the market was moving towards. I have a strong plan and look at the business from all angles. So, we move fast for sure. It was intense. We adapted to the evolution of the situation and we brought our hotel partners with us and reacting according to the latest news.

So, we came up with the right actions to ensure that we navigate through this rough waters. And I'm sure that this is the same for many of the companies that have been going through the pandemic.

Eric: And you realise that this is a fantastic opportunity to strengthen the partnership with your hotels in the same way that many companies can do with their current clients or the people they serve. Excellent. How has the global pandemic affected your business?

Kelvin:  In the initial stage of the lockdown, which is largely the first quarter of the pandemic and towards the second quarter, we saw a steep decline. And even though we were seeing the business tanking, we took necessary steps. But at the same time, we were forming up strategies for recovery and long-term growth. We thought a lot about innovation. And one of them was our hygiene pass initiative, an accommodation certification programme in collaboration with IAKMI, who is the Indonesian Public Health Association, as well as Dr. Hermawan, who is the leading authority in COVID, to create a safe environment for our customers and hotels. Our other innovations include focusing on working on new segments, working with regional governments, medical and other essential workers.

So, with those plans and execution in place, starting in Q3, we actually saw a gradual increase. And if you look into public information, we recovered ahead of the public markets throughout by fifteen to twenty per cent points. Based on that, we are confident of our recovery and there was pent-up demand in local travel, which is what we are known for. So, though we are still in the pandemic, I'm glad to share that the work our team has done has gotten us out of the woods. And as a company, you may also be aware through some publicly accessible reports, RedDoorz actually had a record revenue in 2020, and there's still a lot of work to do ahead of us.

Eric: Amazing, congratulations. As a seasoned leader, what do you think is key to leading and motivating employees, especially in recent uncertain times?

Kelvin:  Well, Eric, key principles don't really change in my view. Being strategic, anticipating where the market is going in times of uncertainty, and having our eyes on the big picture, trust, communication, focusing on common goals, shared responsibility for future success - these principles don't change. But what the pandemic does is that it puts it into a spotlight. In particular, on the mechanism to execute these principles and how you're going to bring them to life.

Eric: I see. With Indonesia still experiencing lockdown due to this global pandemic, how are you caring for your employees and their health?

Kelvin: So, we constantly do our best to reach out and do what we can to support our employees. We've gone as well to introduce a hotline for employees where any employees can call and reach out to a professional psychologist if they choose to. We continue to come up with activities to ensure that there's constant communication, as well as activities to ensure that employees are engaged and that they feel connected. As a result, we had low employee turnover during the pandemic, and we had high engagement scores throughout our last year.

Eric: Great on managing to make them feel safe, which is absolutely fundamental. In the online business space, what kind of talent are you and your company looking for? What skillsets should they possess?

Kelvin: So, we are a sizeable startup, meaning to say that we have about a thousand staff. So, you can imagine, you'd be pretty broad. But generally, we look for people who are passionate, have a good ambition to make a difference through the power of technology. We are home for problem-solvers and innovators. We celebrate diversity and fun, while ensuring that recognition goes along with increased ownership.

Eric: Good plan, and if we look especially for Indonesia, what sort of candidates are you looking for?

Kelvin: We are looking for people who want to work in a fast-growth, entrepreneurial, digital startup environment. So, with that, we have roles like EIRs, which is the Entrepreneur in Residence, who get to be owners of a specific business. They're P and L owners and they get control end-to-end of the business. We always have opportunities in the business development side to grow our footprint, including product and tech talents, marketing creatives, brand managers. We continue to expand our brand portfolio, as we have four brands in market, each of them with its own unique brand identity, customer profiles, which have a very different set of creatives and communications that is needed.

Eric: I see. If we look back, what has been the key to your own success leading you to where you are now?

Kelvin: Eric, I'd like to say, thank you for that comment. You know, I do feel that I have a lot to learn. I see myself in that of a mindset of an infinite learner. It's been one of the core principles of my professional and personal life. I'm always striving to immerse myself with growth opportunities. Although looking back, some of them looked really challenging, but through focus, determination, and being mindful, I always strive to make the most and learn.

Another core principle for me was thinking long-term, especially as I rise up into leading more and more people, and leading a team of leaders as well. I see many people around me always overestimating what they can do, what they can achieve in a short period of time. And these people or these people who overestimate what they can do in that period, massively underestimate what they can achieve and learn over a period of a longer time.

So, I combine the infinite learner mindset with a longer-term horizon to give myself enough goals, as well as enough development time to achieve them.

Eric: I find this perspective on the short-term versus long-term outlook on what you can achieve absolutely amazing. I can't agree more with your position on that.

Have you ever had moments where you felt like giving up during your career? And if you did, how did you choose to address and overcome those times?

Kelvin: Well, it didn't really happen to me because this kind of goes back to being an infinite learner and having a longer-term mindset. No matter how difficult a situation is, my experience so far is that there'll always be something that you can learn from it, or find a way around it through a longer-time horizon before giving up.

Eric: Are there any role models who have inspired and made an impact in both your personal and professional life?

Kelvin: I've been fortunate to have met a lot of amazing people, read about a lot of amazing people, and they stem from different backgrounds, different levels in society. And they inspired me in more ways that I could ever imagine. So, for me, I believe that inspiration comes from many different places and many different people that you meet in life.

Eric: And I think this is where you are having a fantastic opportunity with this regional role to even have a bigger opportunity to meet new people, different angle, different perspective, different culture, and keep your infinite learning curve going.

Kelvin: Absolutely.

Eric: What's next for yourself and RedDoorz? Can you share a bit about this?

Kelvin: Yeah, sure. We are excited about the industry - the massive opportunity for our renewed vision to build the largest tech-forward hospitality company in this part of the world. So, we have more products and more power to give. And we want our hotel partners to have them. This keeps me energised. I'm fortunate to work with an amazing group of talents to bring this vision to life. In this business climate, we will continue to innovate and strengthen our market position. We came up with new products, we launched new brands. And as the outcome of that, we look forward to driving record revenues again, and at the same time enjoying what we do. So, while we are still in the very early innings of what we do, I'm also at the same time, certain that we have started to embroider a part of history within the hospitality technology industry in the markets that we serve.

Eric: Sounds like a great plan and a lot to achieve, and a fantastic story to ride with the teams.

Kelvin:  Yep.

Eric: Excellent. Kelvin, thank you so much again for taking the time to do this with us today. It was a lovely session, and we've gained many insights and takeaways through your sharing. Thank you very much.

Kelvin: Thank you for having me, Eric.

Eric: Excellent. To our listeners and viewers, stay tuned for the next episode of our Robert Walters Powering Potential. See you soon everyone and take care. Bye-bye.

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