From sink to swim

It’s not the usual recipe, but for Hari V. Krishnan, CEO of the PropertyGuru Group, it is failure that truly breeds success. He explains the unique culture behind Southeast Asia’s market-leading online property portal.

Hari Krishnan, the head honcho of PropertyGuru Group, is not one to back down from a challenge. No matter the potential outcome, he relishes the act of getting his hands dirty and being in the thick of the action.

After all, this is an individual who has been “super grateful” for having experienced failures, and one who firmly believes in letting employees themselves experience “sinking” in the corporate world.

However, Krishnan is anything but a reckless leader. A deep-rooted sense of adventure and an indomitable spirit have been the catalysts behind his rise as one of Asia-Pacific’s most-respected business leaders.

Having obtained his Bachelor and Master’s in telecommunications engineering, Krishnan began his career in Silicon Valley in the late 90s. He soared the highs of the dot-com boom and also rode out the subsequent dot-com bust.

“I’m actually very grateful for having done that because it taught me how high and low things can go in this industry from fairly early on in my life,” says Krishnan.

After five years in Silicon Valley, he pursued his MBA through Insead business school in France, and also spent some time studying at its Singapore campus.

That was where he witnessed first-hand the abundant business opportunities that were springing up in Southeast Asia, India and China, and he itched to be part of it.

After completing the MBA, Krishnan moved back to his native India to join Yahoo in a senior business development role.

Following a stint as Vice President and Country Head of India for Fox Interactive Media, he became the first Asia-based employee of LinkedIn in 2009.

“I was technically the first person on the ground,” says Krishnan.

He was LinkedIn’s Country Manager for India for three years before moving to Singapore to run its Asia-Pacific regional business for another three-and-a-half years.

“Personally, what I really enjoy is building organisations and cultures,” he says. “That’s what I’ve been doing in all the companies that I’ve been a part of.”

In January 2016, Krishnan was appointed as President and Chief Business Officer of PropertyGuru Group, before subsequently assuming his current role as CEO.

Moving to PropertyGuru Group

You’ve spent your entire career in technology. What made you decide to move to PropertyGuru Group in January 2016?

When technology is used to help a genuine pain point, that’s when it’s the most fun. Over the last dozen years, I’ve been helping offline industries go digital, whether it’s been in music, travel, entertainment, recruitment and business-to-business marketing.

In each of these cases, it was an industry that was more comfortable operating offline and I became part of the journey helping them move online and go digital here in Asia.

When I looked at property, I saw that it was an industry that was largely offline. I would say that consumers were actually already sitting online. The industry was not moving as fast as it could and that attracted me; I like being part of the heavy-lifting phase because that’s when you learn the most, and I personally enjoy that learning.

Having done it for the last dozen years, I also backed my ability to do it well. The final factor was that PropertyGuru has a Southeast Asia focus, and I love that fact.

Describe the transition when you moved into the real estate market. What were some of the initial challenges?

There was nothing unexpected in terms of challenges. We have three customer groups: consumers, property agents, and property developers. Each one has a set of expectations when it comes to digital platforms and our role in the ecosystem.

When I looked at agents, developers and the supply-side of the equation, they clearly understood that they needed to be digital and they’re now trying to understand how to best exploit it.

As similar to the other industries I was operating in, the “how” is the mystery. They have beliefs that they need to be operating on search engines, social media and perhaps also participating with us. But even then, we’ve been having many discussions to understand what the right solutions for them will be.

We’ve been asking them, “What are your pain points?”

If you’re a developer or a design-led luxury developer, how you work with a platform like PropertyGuru should be different. It’s the same thing with a consumer; if you’re a first-time buyer, renter, empty nester, or an investor, we have different customer groups. Each of them has different expectations and should have different experiences on our platform.

Business talk

How do you align your company’s vision and mission to the different markets in Asia?

A good vision statement is aspirational; it’s like the “North Star” for the company. It’s meant to inspire, and not something you’ll be able to achieve anytime soon.

In our case, our vision statement is to be the trusted advisor to every person seeking property. This applies in any market, and not just in Southeast Asia. The mission is to help people make confident property decisions through relevant content, actionable insights, and world-class service.

But making a confident property decision is tough. What’s needed is trust. There’s a general sense of distrust because of the quantum of money involved, along with the emotion as well.

In these situations, the bar is very high when a person wants to extend that trust to you. So, our vision and mission statements are agnostic of culture. This is regardless of whether we’re dealing with our customers in Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, or Malaysia. It’s tough in all of these markets but the reason why it’s tough is because it’s different. So that’s where you apply the vision.

How is your organisation adapting to the cooling property market in Asia?

I think this is the perfect time for a digital company. That is why I love being here. We define ourselves as a high-growth consumer internet company.

In a market condition when there’s confusion or cooling measures, that’s when a digital platform becomes most useful.

If times are great and bullish; if there’s lots of money to be spent, and if lots of discounts are offered, people spend less time researching and they will typically operate in a different mode.

But in a market that is a little ambiguous, it gets a little bit scarier and tougher to make that confident decision. In that scenario, it’s the perfect time for us. I love these kinds of markets because it’s the perfect time for PropertyGuru to build.

Leadership

Describe your leadership style

A few years ago, someone asked me this question and until then I had not articulated it.

I start with talent and try to hire the very best people. I then coach and guide them in terms of what I believe are the expectations of the role and company, and I make sure they understand the vision and mission.

Then, I get out of the way.

I think this is a very important step. I benefitted from this when I was younger during my career; I had leaders who allowed me to sink or swim. If you’re developing talent, you have to let them experience “sinking”.

You cannot enjoy success unless you have failed, and you cannot really understand the dangers unless the environment allows you a slight chance to fail.

I don’t use the language “fail fast”. We focus a lot on “learning fast” instead. It’s quite hard sometimes to pause after a successful outcome to emphasise the learning aspect. You’re often so busy celebrating that you’re not actually focusing on the learning.

The culture we’re building in this company is to very much focus on that learning. Whether you’re successful or not in a particular project, we take the time to pause and learn. That is central to my leadership style.

How would your employees describe you?

I think they describe me as someone who is approachable and confident; someone who enjoys work and life, and hopefully someone who is decisive.

They know that I like making decisions quickly. There’s an emphasis on speed of delivery, which is definitely part of my set-up.

Talent, technology and digitalisation

What are some key workforce challenges of PropertyGuru Group?

It’s not unique to us but accessing good technical talent is always tough. We’re a mid-sized company, and not a startup. Even as a technology company and having been here a decade, accessing good technology talent is challenging.

We specifically hire technology talent in Singapore and in Bangkok; those are our two tech hubs for the company. Although there is good talent, it’s a very competitive space. Today’s technology talent is not just hired by technology companies. Everybody from financial services to construction businesses, to automotive manufacturers needs technology talent. The number one thing is making sure we build a good employer brand and value proposition for technologists to build their careers in PropertyGuru.

Historically, some of the markets in which we operate in have not been known for technology talent. So, a lot of talent is actually coming from other markets. Very often, we have to hire people from other countries to come into our markets. This is changing rapidly and maybe a decade from today, the supply situation will improve. It will still be challenging but it won’t be a supply issue.

Today, in markets such as Singapore, we have a fundamental supply problem.

What do you think is the biggest disruptor in the property market?

I think the biggest disruptor is consumer expectations. Our consumers, whether they are property sellers or seekers, are the same people using Netflix for entertainment, Amazon for shopping, and Grab to get a taxi. That’s how their expectations are being set.

They’re going to bring these expectations to the property space and the property sector needs to get ready for them.

We’ve been investing furiously in this. Data science is something we invested in about 15 months ago and we’re getting ready very soon for a major machine-learning based solution.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a developer, property agent or property portal; anyone in this space now needs to deal with consumer expectations.

You’ve mentioned before that you’re a “digital native”. How have you been driving digitalisation efforts within your organisation?

There are three specific things. The first is a focus on focus; doing fewer things and doing them well. Technology and digital organisations in general focus on the delivery of high-quality at high speed. The only way to do that is by doing fewer things.

But ruthless prioritisation is hard and that is something I’ve benefitted from learning and developing that skill in myself. I’m definitely trying to bring that to our company.

The second is a concentration on automation. Within the structures and processes of a company, how good are we at automating everything? If you talk about speed and the reliability of the delivering something, doing that every time should work the same way. You can only do that if you have automation.

The third is a focus on a learning culture. Any high-quality digital company, whether it’s Southeast Asian, American, European or Israeli, they all have this learning culture.

There must be a focus on creating an environment to absorb, collect, and process that learning and improving as a company as a result of past activities.

How does PropertyGuru Group stay ahead of its competitors?

We focus on our customers, and we have a customer-centric approach to our thinking.

All our three customer groups are important. We’re trying to make them successful and we’re focused on their pain points.

For instance, I also currently run our product organisation inside the company. The way we define our product-management-capability is that we’re in the business of fixing problems, not building products.

If a customer has a specific problem, we need to find a solution – that’s the job description. When we’re looking to solve problems, we will use innovative technology when possible.

Lessons learned

What’s your biggest regret?

I’m not the kind of person who regrets. When I have a negative experience, I let myself experience it fully. I let myself feel it, so that I can learn from it.

Now that I’m a father, I’ve been teaching my kids that since they’re going to be learning throughout their entire lives, they’re going to have to experience a little bit of failure before they know what success feels like.

If you have failed, two things will happen: you will learn and you will tell yourself you don’t want to feel that way ever again.

I’m super grateful for having actually experienced failures consistently throughout my life, because it has shaped me.

The person talking to you today is a result of his failures as much as his successes.

What’s your top tip for leaders?

No question – it is to focus on talent. Leaders sometimes focus on revenue, or customers, and more often than not, they focus on dollars and cents. You have got to focus on your people, your team, and employees.

I firmly believe that if you get the best people, you win. It’s as simple as that.

One on 1

I love: My family

I dislike: Dishonesty and disrespect

My inspiration is: People who smile all the time

My biggest weakness is: A bias toward positive thinking

In five years’ time, i’d like to be: Be happy and healthy

Favourite hobby: Sports: tennis, swimming, and now also golf

What advice would you give to your younger self? Always trust your gut!

What’s the best decision you ever made? To consistently put my family ahead of work

What’s one thing people do not know about you? I listened to the Eagles song “Hotel California” every morning at breakfast during my four years of university

Favourite quote: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” (Maya Angelou)

 

For more Asia-Pacific CEOs and business leaders discussing their HR challenges, head to HRM Asia's dedicated Leaders Talk HR forum.

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