Aileen Sim: Entrepreneurs need passion and belief

Growing up in a family where her mother was the sole breadwinner earning about $2,000 a month, Aileen Sim, 30, learned the value of money early.

While at the National University of Singapore, she heard about its overseas exchange programme and aimed for it.

"Each student would get $1,600 a month on this one-year programme, and that was a lot of money to me," said Ms Sim, a project manager with AirHelp, a United States-based start-up that helps travellers claim compensation for delayed, cancelled or overbooked flights.

The NUS Overseas programme, which sends students to universities and internships in key innovation hubs in Silicon Valley and cities in the US and elsewhere, opened her eyes to entrepreneurship. Initial thoughts of becoming a teacher, a policewoman or lawyer were replaced by ideas for a start-up.

So after graduating with a degree in applied mathematics, she founded First Meta in 2006. It created an online multi-world currency exchange called First Meta Exchange (FMX) for trading both real and virtual currencies. It made her a pioneer in the virtual currency business. Within five years, it was a stable company with a healthy cash flow.

She left the company after that. A start-up is not about the founder, she says. "It's about the mindset. You're the creator in your own environment, in which you can make an impact."

She then travelled the world for six months, visiting the US, Europe and South America.

She realised that her passion lay in product management and building things that make an impact, not managing a business. Product management calls for an understanding of what technology can do and then creating a product from it so that people can use it.

"It gives me a lot of satisfaction when a user gives feedback that he likes the product," says Ms Sim. A product manager must also be able to say "no".

"When the CEO and marketers want extra features which are not must-haves or whose development will bust the launch date, I must be able to say 'no' to their requests. When developers say they can't meet deadlines, I'll have to say 'no' you can't do that and then persuade them to work doubly fast."

Based in Singapore, she works with a 10-person team in Poland. Working remotely has its challenges. Time zone differences are an issue, but the biggest thing is trust.

"You've to trust that the team will do what everyone has agreed on," says Ms Sim, who is single.

Her advice to would-be entrepreneurs? "The only reason why your staff stick with you is that they care about you and the product. Otherwise, when they receive offers of higher salaries, they will leave."

Start-ups also have good days and bad. "If you're in it for the money, it will only get you so far. Entrepreneurs need passion and belief that they can do something different and better for society or communities. That is what makes them stay the course."

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