Engineering in SingaporeEntrepreneurial Stories

I started a business not to manage it, but to engineer it

The second commandment of their company’s creed says “We are engineering commandos. Small in number, strong in force”. Having the privilege to tour their facility twice, I call them the ‘James Bond Factory of Singapore’ and I can’t even fathom the depth of their engineering expertise at work.

Hope Technik, which was featured by TIA a year back, is a company that builds futuristic hardware products which challenges and pushes engineering boundaries up a notch. It is an awe-inspiring factory where every nook and cranny is filled with different ongoing hardware projects. Nuts, bolts, spanners, welders, batteries, hardware tools of every kind are sprawled everywhere as the engineering teams are busy and hard at work, not to be disturbed as their tensed faces show their 100 billion brain cells solving the challenges at hand (read the other article on their products and machines).

But despite all the activity, what is important is always the talent behind the creation and innovation. Some questions beget me, “How did the founders gather 80 such radical talents together in talent-scarce Singapore? What is the corporate culture that defies the ‘stick-by-the-book’ work cultural norms? What motivates and drives the team to deliver outstanding products?”

It starts at the top

CEO Peter Ho started off this interview with an iconic statement, “I started a business not to manage it, but to engineer it.” And that was what he told his shareholders and board of directors who were from the traditional corporate culture where shirts and ties were necessary to differentiate management and engineers. Peter wears his company black polo shirt with pride, a good reminder to himself that he is an engineer first, which makes the heart of the business that he does.

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All four founders are engineers by training and by application, where they have built a variety of engineering hardware projects since their younger days. They live and breathe engineering. Knowing Peter for the last 20 years, I can attest that all he talked were car modifications and how to continuously improve technology in all types of hardware. (He doesn’t know this, but I will pretend to focus on him babbling his tech nonsense while eyeing the hot babe behind us.)

Hiring – The significance of the slide

Hope Technik looks very specifically for a rare breed of engineers and technicians. Those who have long resumes of impressive engineering projects don’t really cut it by them. Peter believes there are engineers who do their regular jobs, but who are hands-on and have continuously done side projects on a personal basis and keep creating for the fun of it. Those, he says, are the right breed. But it doesn’t stop there. New hires have to prove themselves worthy in order to be welcomed into the team.

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When entering the Hope Technik factory, you are welcomed by a frightening steep long metal slide up from the second storey. “We are very rigid in our hiring process,” quips Peter as he sees my worried face. “We don’t believe what we see on paper. You have to prove it before embarking on any commercial projects for the company.” The slide was done previously by new hires who did the calculations and welded the slide together. And to prove that it works, the engineers were the first to try the slide. “Treat every project seriously. Don’t declare a product ready unless you are satisfied with it.” And he turns his stern look into a smile. “Want to try?” I have given the slide project a good thumbs up as I managed to walk away with no injury, just all well shaken up.

Getting creative and innovative

“Failure is an expected continuous result for innovation to work. Creation of innovative products starts from a lot of ‘Oops there we go again’, head-banging and accepting the poor initial results,” says Peter. He is against traditional KPIs where an engineering invention has to work the first time. “When that happens, you will find project managers being very conservative and the outcome will be less than satisfactory. There is no hard and fast rule on the number of failures. In order to attain excellence, there must be continuous repeated tries until the success is delivered.”

In fact, in the race for perfection and to deliver a superior engineering product, it is common for the self-motivated team to work 22 hours 7 days a week. “The last thing that we need our guys to think of is their concern of their basic needs of sleep and shelter. That is why we have hot water showers, a washing machine and hammocks ready as and when our engineers need it,” he explains. Another interesting culture is the need for beer. “For my team, beer is needed to fuel us up and get us going.” They do let down their hair once in a while, and what do they do? Drink more beer.

As they say, birds of the same feather flock together. That is true at the culture of Hope Technik, but more to it, the birds squabble to see who the top bird is. “Engineering is a religion here. Everyone is independent and professional with their own different points of view of engineering. At times, we get heated discussing technical issues, but it is always a positive spin as it is an iron sharpen iron. What comes out of it is only more innovation and creativity to improving a product solution.”

Ending thoughts

I asked for his advice to fellow entrepreneurs. He has this to say, “Don’t start a business if you said ‘I want to be my own boss’. Also, not just the founders have to be good in what they do, but so does every other person have to be bloody good in what they do. You should only do things that you are best in. Customers come to you because you have value to offer.”

As I ended this interview, I reflected on what Hope Technik was built upon. Having the advantage of knowing Peter for 20 years, he reflected the same character traits since the first day I knew him, which is consistently passionate at what he loves to do and having an infectious motivational vibe around him. Yet in all those laughter, he is very focused and perfectionist at heart, like a typical engineer. This is something maybe is what we need in founders today, not only to work but also to lead with charisma. Only then can a corporate culture flourish and a start-up wakes up to its calling.

Special thanks to Peter for his sharing. He is grateful for the relentless support that his shareholders and board have given him. He is also seeking out radical and nutcase engineers like himself to join him. Do connect with Hope Technik today!

This article is the second of the ‘Engineering Singapore’ Series, where I delve into the state of engineering and its community in Singapore.

This article first appeared on Tech in Asia.