Meet the Tribe: Aaron Lee

Leadership

May 31, 2018 | BY Lee Williamson

The serial entrepreneur talks disruption, success, and why he owes it all to Star Wars

Meet the Tribe is a five-part series introducing some of the industry leaders who helped us select the Generation T List 2018—a panel of experts we call the Tatler Tribe.  

Aaron Lee is all about speed. He talks fast, works even faster and doesn’t mince his words. “I create tech companies that are built to disrupt traditional industries,” he tells Generation T matter-of-factly, the minute we sit down in the smart new offices of his latest venture, Dash Serviced Suites.

Lee describes himself as a serial entrepreneur, but perhaps “serial disrupter” would be more apt. “Whenever I go into an industry, I don’t know anything about it. What I’m good at is I’m able to question everything. I question the big guys in the market and everything they do, then do it better for the first few years,” he says.

 “I build things to a certain scale where it goes beyond my abilities and somebody else needs to run it. I’m only good at the first two rounds of the fight,” he says modestly. “Once the business starts getting big, you’ve got to apply some of the [industry leaders’] expertise. It then becomes more about their industry and you have to start applying [their methods]. So I either sell it to them or we have to merge. That’s when I move on to the next thing.”

This proclivity for speed goes someway to explaining why, at 31, Lee’s CV reads like that of a man twice his age. The fact that he started his entrepreneurial journey at 17 doesn’t hurt, either. By 22, he’d built e-commerce platform Ubuyibuy with fellow 2017 Generation T lister Danny Yeung and sold it to Groupon just six months after launching. Almost a decade—and half-a-dozen companies—later he’s reshaping the property industry with Dash Serviced Suites, a “non-traditional, asset-light, tech-enabled serviced apartment operator”, while also working on a new business, details of which are currently under wraps, which he promises will shake up the hospitality industry.

We sit down with Lee to talk about his career so far, the process of helping to select the Generation T List 2018, and why he’s a firm believer in the Star Wars school of management.

What are your proudest accomplishments to date?
For me, entrepreneurship is about solving world problems in a positive, scalable way. Of course, making money is important, but it’s never directly about that. That’s across all of the business that I’ve invested in, built or started. It applies to everything. Being able to build something that’s much bigger than myself and empowering those around me who have a similar mission—that’s what I’m most proud of.

Why did you decide to pursue a life as a serial entrepreneur?
It’s just my nature—the way I’m wired. I’ve always literally been the smaller guy. I grew up in the US, and I wasn’t exactly bullied but I’ve always been the smaller guy in every situation. I mean, the world is never fair, but I’ve always been put in a position where I’m at a disadvantage and I have to figure things out to move forward—to come up with a way to disrupt to make it. Be it the as smaller guy at the playground, or in business.

See also: Meet The Tribe: Esther Ma

What was your process when identifying names to nominate for the Generation T List?
They all needed to be true to the values that I define as what makes entrepreneur. I didn’t define any of them by how big their companies were or how much money their companies were making. It was more—are they shaping the future? Are they changing the way things are traditionally done? How disruptive are they? I put together a list of these people and the things they are doing and I was like—they’re the future.

"I am the least qualified person in this whole company"

Are there any resources you recommend to someone looking to gain perspective into becoming a better leader?
A mindfulness app called Headspace. As a leader, instead of trying to change everyone around you and trying to change the world, start with yourself. It’s a lot easier. There are a lot of problems in the world: lots of noise, naysayers, a lot of negativity. 

As a leader, if you spend a lot of energy every day on disagreeing with and trying to change everything, it’s impossible. It’s a lot more effective to do things you believe in and focus on changing yourself rather than trying to change others. Mindfulness changes the way you treat people, the way you see the world, the way you stay composed. When people start to see that change in you and perhaps try to replicate it, that’s leadership.

How do you foster creative and innovative thinking in your team? 
Unconditional support. Even if they fail. On day one, I say to all of my managers: “You know the company’s mission, and you joined us because you believe in it. So for every decision you make, as long as you can look yourself in the mirror and say the rationale behind that decision was to get us closer to achieving that mission, you get unconditional support from me, even if it results in failure.” People will always make wrong decisions, and It’s easy to identify them in hindsight. But in the moment, as long as you believe in your heart it’s the right thing to do, you have my support. That means they feel free to come up with their own ways to innovate and to move the company forward.

See also: Meet the Tribe: Vicky Cheng

What are the most important traits of a successful leader?
I would say I am the least qualified person in this whole company. But what’s important is that I find the most qualified people. So there’s no one better at housekeeping than the person doing housekeeping at Dash. But I need to find that person. That’s a very important aspect of a leader. My job is to find that person, empower them to believe in your mission and give them that sense of purpose.

In an address at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg talked about purpose. He shared a story about John F Kennedy. On a visit to Nasa he said to a guy sweeping the floor, “What are you doing?” The normal answer would be “I’m cleaning the floor.” But he didn’t say that. He said, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” That’s purpose. It doesn’t matter what function you’re doing—you’re part of something that’s bigger. It’s a leader’s role to communicate that across an organisation.

Which leader do you admire and why?
Oliver Samwer. He founded Rocket Internet, which is essentially a cloning factory. They copy concepts then scale very quickly. When we sold Ubuyibuy to Groupon I reported to Oliver for a while as he oversaw Asia for them at the time. Oliver doesn’t have a good reputation, just look him up, but he’s one of the most KPI-driven, most intense people people I’ve ever met.

He says it’s not about the idea, it’s how you execute it. The idea is only 20-30 percent of the success. They copy companies down to the most minute detail, but making sure that they do it better than the market leader, the original. I’m inspired by the way he moves things forward with such speed. Dash is a small start-up fighting the big guys. And you’re never going to be able to outmuscle a big guy. You can’t fight the same way, so it’s about speed. Even if you get it wrong for a while you just keep moving forward at pace. You’ve got to be able to jump around and slip and slide. Play your game, don’t play the market leader’s game. He’s one of the most forward-moving people I’ve ever met and I’m inspired by that.

"How did I get started? I just did it"

How did you get started, and achieve so much, at such a young age?
Instead of being taught to swim in a pool, in a controlled environment, I’ve always been thrown in the sea. It’s a very different mentality. How did I get started? I just did it. When you believe in something, it doesn’t matter how old you are or how prepared you are or what kind of resources you have. Back then I didn’t know better than to just do it. In a way, it’s much harder to start a business when you’re older, because you’re so much smarter and have more experience, so you think about everything twice. When you’re younger you don’t know any better.  

See also: Meet the Tribe: Joyce Tam

If you could give one piece of advice to the entrepreneurs on the Generation T List 2018, what would it be? I heard you use a lot of lines from Star Was at Dash?
Yeah. Instead of telling people “good luck” in the office we say “May the Force be with you.”

One I use a lot is from Yoda: “Do or do not, there is no try.” I like that because there is no “try” to meet a deadline. You either do or you do not. It’s a mentality: you make it or you don’t make it, you hit the KPI or you don’t hit the KPI. But “try” is assuming you won’t hit the KPI in the first place. So there is no try. You do or you do not.

The Hong Kong Generation T List 2018 is unveiled on June 8.

Credits
Outfit: Theory | Venue: Dash Serviced Suites | Photography: Moses Ng | Styling: Mira Uttam

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